A Short History on Dog Evolution

We all love our dogs. We treat them like family members, but do we really know them well enough? Do we always understand what they’re saying to us and what they want? Do we ever get frustrated by some of the actions of our dogs and why we don’t understand why they’re doing it?

How great would it be if we could speak dog; if we could understand every bit of what they’re trying to say and we could speak back to them?

Dog psychology is the branch of Science that tries to understand the behaviour of a dog from its perspective, not from the owner’s.

The idea goes that the wolf turned itself into a dog. 130,000 years ago, the Grey Wolves began to adapt to humans long before we settled down and gave up our nomadic lifestyle. About 15,000 years ago, humans began to live in permanent settlements for the first time.

What drew wolves to these settlements? Our garbage.

With the creation of garbage, wild animals were drawn to feed on it. Essentially a new ecological niche was created. Who would dominate this niche? Well, the wolves with the smallest flight distance would. Flight distance is an animal’s inclination to run, and how far they run.

Imagine you’re in an ancient village, and you’re walking down to dump some rubbish in the local dump. A wolf 800 metres away sees you and bolts. Another wolf might not have run. Another wolf might have been comfortable at 400 metres. Another wolf again might be happy to walk down after you leave and eat the leftovers. These wolves that have a tendency to stay closer have a shorter flight distance, and these wolves are the ones that would become dogs.

14,000 years ago, a new breed came about - a ‘proto dog’. The wolf changed dramatically. The brain and skull shrank, probably because it didn’t need the same mental capacity to organise a hunt. It’s snouth became shorter as it didn’t need as many teeth for hunting. The body became two thirds of the size of wolf, as it didn’t need to take down big game animals. The result was something that looks very similar to the dog of today.

Being a proto-dog or early wolf held great advantages - an ensured food supply, shelter and protection from other animals. Humans also realised wolves could add value to their way of life. A semi-tamed wolf had strong preying instincts and senses which aided humans in hunting and guarding things. Highly socialised wolves and humans formed alliances and eventually started walking together, playing together, hunting together, and finally living together.

These wolves finally became ‘dogs’ by altering some of their natural behaviour to adapt to humans. The oldest physical evidence of domestication of dogs is about 11,000-12,000 year old fossil remains of a puppy and a human buried together. This burial was discovered at Eon Malaya in Northern Israel.

Selective breeding came next.

Once dogs were domesticated enough and could be handled easily, human started selective breeding to create dogs with certain traits. Loud barking dogs were especially popular early on, giving humans good personal and community security. Dogs were bred for hunting, herding, flocking and other purposes too.

This selective breeding led to the diversification of dog species: a good example of this is the variety of skull shapes that were formed, which affected the dog’s ability to smell, see and bite. Check out this picture taken from Psychology World's Dog Psychology Course: it beautifully describes the three different skull shapes.

In the last 150 years or so, most modern breeds of dogs were created. They can be grouped into 7 categories based on the traits they were bred for:

The Sporting Group

Retrievers, Pointers and Setters. Sporting dogs, or gun dogs, are bred to assist hunters. They are high energy, active and alert and require regular, energising exercises and lots of attention.

The Hound Group

Greyhound, Whippet and Bloodhound. The hound group seeks and follows prey and are used for hunting. They have high speed, incredible eyesight, and stamina.

The Working Group

Boxer, Rottweiler, Doberman. Working dogs are bred for a wide range of tasks - herding, driving, pulling, hauling, hunting, rescuing and guarding. Usually, they are large, strong, and are known for their athleticism, strength, courage and loyalty.

The Herding Group

German Shepherd, English Sheep Dog. These dogs are bred for herding purposes - they use aggressive barking and steely eye contact as their main methods, and they have the ability to influence much larger animals.

The Terrier Group

Pit Bull Terriers, Border Terriers. The terrier group are bred to kill rats and other vermin. They are generally known for their high energy and their independent and cheerful attitude.

The Toy Group

Chihuahuas, Poodles, Pugs. Companions and watch dogs, they are easy-care pets.  Loyal, intelligent, and good at learning tricks.

The Utility Group

Miscellaneous breeds of dogs, basically of non-sporting origin, bred to perform specific functions. Ranging from Dalmatian to Bulldog. Their features cannot be generalised.

These seven groups cover the majority of what we know as dogs today. As you can probably guess, dogs of today live incredibly different lives compared to dogs of the past!

If you're interested in learning some more about the modern dog and how best to train and bond with one, check out the link below!