Dogs are undeniably man's best friend, and dog history goes back centuries. While each individual breed has a unique history that explains the specific origins of its characteristics (size, temperament, coat, etc.), all breeds share some common dog history based on their ancient ancestors, the wolves.
From Wolves to Dogs
Dogs and wolves share 99% of their genetic structure, and archeological evidence supports the fact that wolves were man's original companions more than one hundred thousand years ago. Wolves are naturally pack animals, and it has been theorized that lone wolves - particularly abandoned puppies - would be drawn to human tribes for care and companionship. Human compassion led ancient people to care for the animals, and in doing so, they discovered a canine's enormous capacity for bonding and loyalty, which could then be exploited for service: guard dogs, hunting, and so forth.
There are many legends that allege the relationship also went the other way and that wolves often raised lost or abandoned children as they would their own pups. The Roman myth of twin brothers Romulus and Remus is such a tale: the abandoned infants were supposedly nursed by a mother wolf. Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book is another heartfelt story of a young child being raised by wolves.
Over the centuries, ancient peoples may have continued finding lost wolves, but more than likely recognized the benefits of the man-wolf relationship and captured pups to raise, perhaps by killing the guarding parents first. Eventually, the domesticated wolf population was large enough to promote breeding, and gradually new traits appeared as the existing animals were interbred. In fact, many of the most fantastical dog breeds today (chihuahuas, for example), are severely inbred and have several inherent health disorders because of this practice. This specialized breeding, involving different species of wolves over centuries, has led to every dog breed in existence today.
Modern dogs still retain wolf-like characteristics, no matter what the size or breed. Though the degree of these traits varies with different breeds and even different individuals, it is clear that some characteristics are more visible in specific breeds. Wolf-like dog characteristics include:
- Pack Behavior: Dogs naturally look up to a leader, most often their owner, and are usually more comfortable in hierarchical groups.
- Dominant and Submissive Relationships: Body language, posture, and behavior dictates dominant and submissive relationships - a dog drooping its head and tail when scolded, for example, indicates submission to its leader, its owner.
- Aggressiveness and Territoriality: Dogs naturally seek to protect what they have claimed as their own, just as wolves mark a specific hunting or home territory. This aggression and territoriality extends to strangers - new visitors or chasing mailmen, for example - as well as guarding food.
- Socialization: Wolves play and socialize to cement their relationships as well as perfect critical hunting skills. Even games such as frisbee, fetch, or tag are critical to a dog's socialization.
- Chasing: When prey is spooked and flees, wolves' instincts encourage a chase that may result in another meal. Dogs display this instinct as well, often chasing cars, bikes, or anything that flees before them, though without the same predatory consequences.
- Fleeing: When frightened, wolves naturally flee to protect themselves. Dogs do this as well, particularly around loud, unknown noises (fireworks, vacuum cleaners, thunder, etc.) that could prove to be hazards.
- Vocalization: Listening to a wolf's song is a popular therapeutic technique in new age circles, and many people recognize the distinct range of howls, growls, and other sounds that make up a wolf's vocabulary. Dogs vocalize as well through howling, barking, and whining to attract their owner's attention, alert them to danger, or express emotions such as joy, anger, and fear.
Each of these characteristics supports the theory of dog history intertwined with that of wolves. As individual groups of dogs are examined, it is clear that centuries of careful, deliberate breeding has accentuated specific traits suitable to particular purposes.
Group Dog History
Because wolves were interbred to create new breeds with certain characteristics, every breed group has a slightly different dog history. As any modern breeder will choose the best dog and bitch to produce puppies encompassing the better traits of both, ancient breeders used similar techniques to foster a wide variety of dogs.
Sporting Dog Group
These dogs (spaniels, setters, etc.) are bred for hunting, running, and agility. Dogs with longer limbs, high energy levels, quiet voices (so as not to scare off prey), and retrieving abilities are desired, and those characteristics can be found in many wolves. Many such breeds originated in western Europe during the centuries when hunting was both a gentleman's sport and a necessary provisionary pastime.
Hounds are also bred for hunting, with a history of champion trackers and game dogs. Most hound dogs - greyhounds, beagles, and bloodhounds among them - are particularly vocal, displaying that wolf characteristic with enthusiasm and frequency. Today, hound breeds enjoy a dog history filled with noble work in law enforcement and protection.
Working Dog Group
These dog breeds, including Dobermans, boxers, and rottweilers, are bred to be powerful, strong specimens capable of tasks of strength and endurance. While many wolves are sinuous and agile, strength traits are easy to find in wild wolves. The history of the working group includes the St. Bernard mountain rescue dogs and many breeds used to pull sleds in northern climates.
Herding Dog Group
Herding dogs most likely originated in areas with open plains and other geographic characteristics suitable to maintaining large animal herds such as sheep and cattle. Herding breeds include sheepdogs and collies, breeds with the agility, speed, and intelligence necessary to control large numbers of other animals. Wolves have been known to herd their prey, forcing them into a trap or toward an area where an attack was more likely to succeed.
Terriers were originally bred to enter burrows and dens to flush out game or destroy pests and field rodents. In order to do this, the dogs needed to have keen eyesight for dark areas, low slung bodies that could fit into small spaces, and powerful jaws to dispatch their quarry. Cairn terriers and wheaten terriers are prime examples of these feisty breeds.
Toy Dog Group
Toy dogs are anything but playthings, but they are the group most differentiated from their ancestral wolves. Toy breeds - chihuahuas, maltese, and papillons, for example - are bred for small size but still retain the wolf-like qualities of their larger cousins, proof that even the most unusual dog breeds have a history closely intertwined with wild wolves.
Non-Sporting Dog Group
The non-sporting group is a mixed bag of breeds that do not fit will within other classifications. From dalmations to bulldogs, these breeds lack distinctive breeding traits but are nevertheless further examples of dog diversity derived from wolves.
Dog History in the Making
Dog history is ongoing today as breeders combine known dog breeds to experiment with different traits and characteristics to create more desirable pets. One example is the desire for more hypo-allergenic breeds: while no dog is truly non-allergenic, a hypo-allergenic breed (such as the maltese) sheds less and generally is more appealing to individuals with strong allergies. Mixed-breed bloodlines are being strengthened to create new breeds such as the maltipoo (maltese-poodle) and cockapoo (cocker spaniel-poodle) that exhibit the best characteristics of both original breeds.
Dog history is as rich and varied as the dog breeds themselves. All dogs originated from ancestral wolves, but careful breeding has created dozens of distinct breeds that highlight desired characteristics. Modern breeders are continuing this fine history by creating new breed combinations that are slowly being accepted by professional organizations even while they become popular new pets.