Spoiler alert: We humans were there the whole time
The concept of evolution and dogs has been around since the word “go.” Darwin’s curiosity in nature was sparked by his family’s terriers and his college hunting pointer, Dash. Even the ship that carried Darwin on his seminal trip to the Galápagos Islands was called — wait for it — The Beagle.
There are at least 900 million dogs on Earth. And each one is more genetically similar to its ancient wolf ancestor than to any modern wolf. Yes, every Chihuahua and chow chow, Shih Tzu and Sheepadoodle has the same origin story. Let’s start there.
The story of wolves becoming house wolves
30,179 Years Ago — Before Dogs
We humans have hunted and gathered our way out of Africa to everywhere but the Americas. The last Neanderthal in Europe dies of old age at 29. Wolves live on the periphery, sometimes scavenging human kills, sometimes posing as our grandmothers to eat us. We live in fear.
26,000 Years Ago — What Did Not Happen
A gray wolf pup is found by a young boy — not the “boy who cried wolf” — in Central Asia. To the horror of his family, he brings it home and names it Buddy. They watch him devour a boar’s leg and hope he never turns on them. Buddy grows up to be the first dog. That’s exactly how it did not go down.
26,000 Years Ago — What Likely Happened
Wolves choose us. A pack follows a tribe of humans for many generations, and offspring become increasingly comfortable around humans. One of these ancient dogs is buried in present-day Czech Republic. A woolly mammoth bone is put in her mouth, mostly likely to be enjoyed in the afterlife. Yum.
15,000 Years Ago — Give or Take
Dogs have been breeding apart from wolves for a while. They have shorter snouts, wider heads and a shorter stature. Their sense of smell and low-light vision, combined with our upright stature and strong daylight vision, make for the ultimate hunting team. We need to be; we’re in the last glacial period.
14,200 Years Ago — Hello, Americas
We cross the Bering Strait and encounter new threats like saber-toothed cats. It takes a team of men and dogs to bring down a giant ground sloth. (Yeah, that was a thing, and it tasted kind of gamey.) A dog buried with his owner in Bonn, Germany, will be known as the first undisputed domesticated dog.
11,700 Years Ago — on a Tuesday
The ice age is over. Together, we survive a mass extinction. We invent farming and domesticate other animals. As a result, our dogs’ jobs start to expand — setting the stage for an increase in the variety of dog body types, known as morphology. Lucky for us, dogs lose the wolf trait of regurgitating food for their pups to eat.
5,000 Years Ago — The Birth of Breeds
Dog populations isolated from one another start to develop physical traits that suit their environment, resulting in the first breeds. The oldest to break off the common dog lineage are the most wolflike. First comes the barkless basenji in Africa. Next are the Saluki, malamute, husky, Akita and Afghan hound.
1625 — Dogs Go Prime Time
Since Roman times, dogs have been bred for guarding, hunting or herding. As the Mayflower sets sail, add rat control, search and rescue, and rigorous lap sitting. Companion dogs are an upper-class luxury. Shakespeare’s plays mention dogs more than 200 times, mostly as insulting metaphors. Not fair.
1835 — From Evolution to Selection
Breeding physical traits for sport is well established. For example, basset hounds have short legs so that hunters on foot can easily keep up with them. Even though bull-baiting was outlawed this year (yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds), bulldogs will continue to exist in a world where the breeding itself becomes the sport.
2013 — Or Last Year in Dog Years
It all started with the wolf choosing us. And the dog evolved out of a mutually rewarding relationship and need for survival. Now we do all the choosing, fueled by demand for miniaturization and designer mixes. And yet the dog is still a subspecies of wolf, Canis lupus familiaris — which means “house wolf.”
While scientists continue to debate the timeline and the number of domestication events, genetics and DNA testing have proven without a doubt that coyotes, dingos and jackals were never the ancestors of dogs. And there is no dispute about the profound effects we’ve had on each other’s evolution.
You might be wondering how breeding can create such a menagerie of different dogs. The answer is fewer variables. Humans have 100 genes that determine a person’s height. In dogs, size is determined by seven genes, and only three genes determine coat type. So it’s much easier to manipulate the physical characteristics of dogs through selective breeding.
Geneticists have proven that selecting for behavior like friendliness can coincide with physical outcomes such as floppy ears and a tail that curls up. That’s natural, not to mention adorable. But the way breeding is used to maintain or advance physical aesthetics is, strictly speaking, not evolution.
A study at Imperial College in London found that 20,000 boxers in the U.K. contain the genetic diversity of about 70 distinct dogs. Limited gene pools in some breeds have led to more than 600 genetic disorders in dogs. In contrast, wolves in the wild suffer from only six.
The evolution of our relationship with dogs is the real story
In some ancient cultures, when people died their bodies were fed to the dogs. It was thought that dogs were the gateway to an afterlife, that the deceased’s soul would then pass through the dog (which they also did quite literally). We don’t do that anymore. That’s because our relationship with dogs is always changing. And that’s the story of how dogs evolve.
Dogs have gone from evolving with us to being designed by us. We owe it to them to understand the consequences of our actions and protect them. It’s a small price to pay for the loyalty and protection they’ve given us.
You can better understand your dog’s ancestral heritage by having their DNA tested and compared to the largest database of genomic information in the world. Uncover potential health issues and the mystery of what breeds went into your dog. Visit our sister company, Wisdom Panel. It’s one reason we understand so much about the nature of dogs and how to make food that satisfies them.