The contemporary domestic dog is a direct descendant and close relative of the wolf, and the history of the dog is inextricably linked to the wolf. Most pet parents have heard their pets suddenly break into a howling song, like their wild ancestors, inspired by an ambulance siren or some other sound that awakens in the dogs some primitive vestige of their wild past.
Prehistory: The oldest ancestor of today’s dog is the Creodont, a meat-eating mammal who was the dominant carnivore of the tertiary period, and had a skeletal system that in many ways resembled that of today’s dog. The dog’s next ancient ancestor, from about 38 to 26 million years ago, was Miacids, which were among the earliest small carnivorous mammals. Although Miacids didn’t bear much of a visible similarity to today’s dog, they provided the link between the Creodonts and Hespercyon. Hespercyon, who lived between 38 and 26 million years ago, is the first ‘true’ dog, considered as a member of the Canidae family. The next link in the history of the canine is Leptocyon, a small predator who lived about 12 million years ago, and is the ancestor of both dog and fox.
The wolf: To understand the wolf is to truly understand the dog. The wolf avoids any interaction with man, or relationship with him, at all costs. Wolves are also known for their endurance, and have been known to stalk their prey for over 100 miles. In terms of communication, experts have recorded over ten different barks or howls emitted by the wolf to indicate varying situations, from calling the pack to hunt, to howling at a full moon. Wolves also have an acute memory for minute details.
Early man’s first encounter: It is interesting to note one more aspect of man’s relationship with the wolf. In the mythologies of many countries and cultures, such as that of ancient Rome, is the tale of human infants being raised by a female wolf. The founders of Rome, the twins Romulus and Remus, were supposedly thus raised. In the early part of the 20th century, a pair of very young sisters in India were supposedly kidnapped by a female wolf and raised as her own. Whatever the truth of such stories, it seems clear that the wolf has always fascinated man, and that man and the wolf may have had a relationship since the beginning of both species.
Introduction to man’s selective breeding: Man fashioned his dogs to suit his needs. Early man unknowingly began following a process called selective breeding, choosing animals with certain characteristics and breeding them to ensure those characteristics in the offspring, thereby bringing about variations through his own selection. But, of course, over the generations, there have been many variations and characteristics which have been developed without the aid of man’s selective breeding.
Evolution through natural selection: Any physical trait that a puppy inherits from his mother and father – coat type, coat colour, eye colour, body shape, long tails, dewclaws, etc – are inherited traits. In man’s selective breeding, he worked hard to create breeds of dog to fulfill specific types of work, but sometimes the ideal physical specimen could not be achieved through inherited traits alone. Because of this, man might, for example, choose to dock the long tail of a herding dog, to keep that dog safer from bites on his tail from sheep or cows, and to keep that long tail from catching in brambles the dog had to traverse–this docking of the tail is an acquired trait, wrought on the dog by man, and not inheritable.
In summary, each species has many common characteristics and the individual members of the species do vary from one to another. Those possessing variations favourable to survival are able to reproduce and pass on those traits. Over generations, a new species can evolve from the old.
Selective breeding: Let’s first look at a classic example of selective breeding; the development of the bulldog. It all began with a belief many years ago in England that the meat of bulls which ‘had been tortured’ or ‘baited’ became more tender. The job of baiting was performed by large, fierce Mastiffs, who were kept by local butchers. These large dogs, although fierce, were slow and clumsy, which led the local promoters to set out to develop a more agile dog to avoid the bull’s horns, but retain the courage and ferocity of the larger dogs. Bull baiting was outlawed in England by Parliament about 200 years ago. Today’s Bulldogs have been further developed by breeders to retain their strength and courage, but the breed has lost its viciousness.
Let’s take a look at breeds who are even older and haven’t changed much during that time. The Eastern Sight Hounds, such as Saluki and Basenji are breeds who go back as far as 3,000 to 5,000 years in their existence and are very pure in their character and temperament. The significance of this is that, clearly, all the needs that man had of these breeds were met early on: these breeds were bred for speed, visual acuity and hunting ability, as well as intelligence. Once these needs were achieved, there was no necessity of further refining the breed, so it remains, today, as it was.
Breed diversity: How has man been able to create such a great variety of breeds out of the wolf, which is the ancestor of all dogs? The wolf and the dog have 78 chromosomes, allowing for the hundreds of breeds to be created, varying from the tiny Chihuahua to the giant Irish Wolfhound. Before the 1800s, most of the selective breeding was done based upon working capabilities. Breeding for beauty began in the 1800s, when men started comparing their dogs during agriculture shows.
Finally… ‘Man’s Best Friend’: Since the evolution of the dog, there has been a working relationship between man and dog. Although most dogs are not used as much for their original purpose, man has found other, equally important jobs for them, such as helping dogs for disabled people, guide dogs for the blind, search and rescue dogs and last, but certainly not least, as a companion, Man’s Best Friend!
(Vivian Nash, a professional pet stylist since 1973 and CEO of Nash Academy, Kentucky. She is internationally recognised for her grooming skills and an international grooming judge for two decades.)