When did dog become man’s best friend?
Scientists believe dog domestication began between 18,000 and 33,000 years ago. But they’re divided on whether domestication started earlier—with friendly dogs following hunter gatherer humans on the trail of game—or later on, when humans first gathered into small agricultural villages, staying in one place and creating heaps of attractive garbage (yum).
We explored copious studies and scholarship for a truly geeky (and revealing!) read—all part of an effort to answer that age-old question, “Where did dogs come from?”
The domestication of dogs, revealed
When and where domestication began
So far, the oldest domesticated dog fossils found are 14,000 years old. The good news is that these are deliberate burials not only clearly performed by humans but sometimes with humans (much to the chagrin of domestic cats, whose earliest burial dates back only 9,500 years).
Where in the world domestication first started is a topic of debate. A recent study traced mitochondrial DNA of 38 prehistoric canids and comparing it to 49 wolves, 77 modern dogs, three Chinese indigenous dogs, and four coyotes. Results suggest a European epicenter for domestication.
The origins of dog/human companionship
The move toward domesticating dogs was probably not a conscious decision—at least at first. Bold dogs who didn’t run at the sight of humans gained easy access to free food. The offspring of those dogs could either continue the proto-domestic lifestyle if so inclined or return to the wilder one, generation after generation, until the fearless dogs had become something a bit different: an animal that coexisted with humans in partnership. In exchange for cooperative hunting skills, territorial protection from other predators, and security alarm capabilities, dogs gained a plentiful year round food supply and safety for puppies.
From accidental companion to selective breeding
As humans moved from hunter-gatherer nomadic societies towards the agrarian village model, humans began to consciously undertake selective breeding to accentuate wanted behaviors like hunting and retrieving and take on new tasks such as herding or carrying goods.
There really is no way to know how many “acts of domestication” happened among individual human settlements and dogs over this period of time. This leads us to wonder if the great variety of dog types we see today is in part a result of multiple spontaneous domestication relationships happening in East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that domestic dogs can interbreed with their closest wolfen relatives: jackals, dingoes, and coyotes.
Golden Jackals can be interbred with domesticated dogs and have been used to create a hybrid sniffer dog in Russia.
Dingoes are descended from seafaring Asian domesticated dogs who visited Australia and made themselves at home over 3,500 years ago.
Dingoes have freely interbred with domestic dogs since European colonists brought them over in the 18th century. Australian cattle dogs and kelpies both count dingoes in their lineage.
Coyotes, though solitary in habit and possessing a slightly different heat cycle can and do interbreed with domesticated dogs and wolves. The red wolves get their unique color from coyote genes, just as black wolves get theirs from domestic dogs.
We may never know exactly how dogs became our closest and first companion animal, but there’s no doubt that our lives would never have been the same without them.