A Brief History of the Dog

Dogs were long believed to have descended from several species, including the wolf and jackal. Recent scientific analysis of dogs, however, has upheld the more current theory that the dog's primary ancestor is, indeed, the wolf (1) or canis lupus.
The Wolf

The earliest known domesticated dog was found at a German burial site dated 14,000 B.C. Dogs were thought to have worked cooperatively (2) with humans to locate and announce the position of prey wounded by hunters. A recent study in the journal Science, however, which looked at mitochondrial DNA from dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals—concluded that wolves and dogs may have genetically diverged much earlier—as long as 135,000 years ago.
The findings however, aren't conclusive (3) (4) (5). The current consensus among most experts seems to indicate that the split between wolves and dogs was around 30,000 to 35,000 years ago.
Over the centuries dogs have undergone drastic changes from both natural selection and selective breeding resulting in the vast array of hair color, size, and temperament seen in dogs today. There are about 200 to 400 breeds worldwide and this doesn't take into account the "mutts" of the world (6).
The American Kennel Club however only recognizes 140 breeds, defining a breed as a "relatively homogeneous group of animals within a species, developed and maintained by man."
The Dog

It is believed that wolves were the first species humans ever domesticated (7). No one really knows for certain how man and wolf came together to create domesticated dogs, but one of the more plausible theories is that wolves started following early hunters, gatherers, and migrants. The wolves discovered that they could easily help themselves to the food the early humans left behind. This was a win/win situation. Not only were the well-fed wolves no longer a threat to the humans, they alerted them to dangers, even helping fight off enemies and predators.
It is likely that humans ended up integrating wolf puppies into their band or group—possibly after their parents were killed while hunting or from defending the pack. Likely they kept the wolves that were friendly and social and killed those that showed aggression towards them—the first step towards domestication.
Early humans might have found wolves' instinct for the hunt, game retrieval, and defense of the tribe helpful. Likely they saw that the animals could be trained to perform other services.
Today, after a long journey together, dogs are so in tune with humans that they are the only species that understands human body language (8). If you get up out of a chair, your dog knows if you are going to the bathroom or getting ready for a walk.
A dog is also the only animal that understands the concept of pointing at something. If you point at anything with a stretched out arm, your dog knows to look in that direction; any other animal will just stare at your arm (9).
Dogs can be trained to fetch three-dimensional objects when shown a two-dimensional picture of that object; this is a level of abstract thinking human children only develop between the ages of one and two years. It is generally believed that dogs learn like two year old children and have similar learning abilities (10).
Our understanding of dogs and what they are truly capable of keeps evolving and surprising us. But one thing is clear, dogs are very smart animals.
References:
  • PBS Online Nova Science: The Wolf-Dog Connection (Nov, 2000)
  • National Geographic: And Man Created Dog (Nov, 2011)
  • PBS Online Nova Science: The Wolf-Dog Connection (Nov, 2000)
  • K. Kris Hirst: How were Dogs Domesticated? (About.com Archaeology)
  • Mark Derr: The Wolf Who Stayed (The Bark, Issue 38) and How the Dog Became the Dog
  • Sarah Hodgson: Breed Determines Traits (New York Times, 11/30/1997)
  • National Geographic: And Man Created Dog (Nov, 2011)
  • Clive D. L. Wynne Ph.D.: How well do wolves and dogs understand people? (Wolf Park Experiment 2009)
  • Jennifer Viegas: Dogs Really Do Understand Us (Discovery News, 02/08/2012)
  • Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C.: What Are the Limits of Canine Learning? (Psychology Today, 07/27/2011)
If Your Dog Could Talk
If Your Dog Could Talk is a "straight-forward" guide to understanding your dog.
If you ever wonder what your dog is thinking, this book is for you. Dive inside your dog's mind and read in plain English how your dog sees the world and you—its pack.
Learn what it means to be a dog and how dogs relate to other animals and the people around them.
Understand how dogs learn, how their minds function and the foundation of all dog training and behavior modification.
If Your Dog Could Talk helps you understand your dog like never before!
Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Puppy S.T.A.R., Canine Good Citizen, and Community Canine certifications.

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