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Most dog lovers are aware that the loyal family pets which we keep in our homes alongside of our families today are actually descended from the wild wolf packs of the past. But how did this actually come about, and how similar are today's companion dogs to their wild lupine ancestors? Read on to find out!
Mankind's history of domesticating the animals which we now recognise as companion dogs began with the grey wolf (canis lupus) tens of thousands of years ago. Archaeological and DNA evidence shows that today's domestic dogs (canis lupus familiaris) descend from a specific lineage of grey wolves, and began around 15,000 years ago. But how did mankind come to domesticate wolves- and more importantly, why? The foundation of the domestication of wolves evolved from the symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship that early man had with these animals. Wolves and their descendants provided people with protection and security, help with hunting for animals to provide fur and meat, guarding livestock, and pulling carts. Wolves are scavenging animals, and would have been attracted to the villages and campsite of early human societies because of the rubbish and animal remains which were generated by the community. Once they established that the supply of food was consistent, they would stay around in order to benefit from it, coming to view the village or area as part of their territory and chasing off predators and other wolf packs accordingly. In time, man and wolf became used to each other's presence and unconcerned with each other's existence within the same area, leading to a mutually beneficial relationship which evolved over many years. The wolves (and later dogs) side of the deal included getting a regular source of food, warmth and safety. Mankind's deep mutual affection for dogs evolved out of this relationship and is as strong today as it ever was.
Prior to the discovery of DNA evidence and genetic tracing, experts were roughly equally divided into two schools of thought. One opinion was that domesticated dogs evolved solely from tamed wolves and later interbreeding between the two species, while the other conjectured that while the wolf was the chief ancestor of the dog, other species such as the coyote and jackal also played a part. Definitive DNA sampling in recent years has now positively confirmed that only the wolf, and no other species of animal, is directly related to the domesticated dog that we know and love today.
The simple answer to this question is yes. All of the breeds of domestic dog which we know today have descended from wolf ancestry. Some breeds and types of dogs are much more closely related to wolves than others- the German Shepherd being one of the breeds most closely related, and the Siberian Husky and other Husky type breeds being another, with a documented relatively recent history (in terms of hundreds of years) of out crossing with wolves. Today, an animal known as a wolf-dog also exists, comprising (as the name indicates!) of a first generation cross breeding of a domestic dog with a full bred wolf. It's estimated that around 300,000 wolf-dogs exist in the United States alone, and first generation crossed hybrids of this type are often in demand as exotic pets.
While a small Chihuahua or soppy spaniel may seem at first glance to be about as far removed from their wolf heritage as possible, there are still a marked number of similarities between wolves and dogs today. Both dogs and wolves are pack animals- in the wild, wolves form their own social hierarchies involving an alpha wolf or pack leader, and a distinctive pecking order which is ever evolving and goes from the alpha all the way down to young wolf pups and sick, elderly wolves. Dogs too are social animals which still have strong pack instincts, and will work out their own hierarchy and pecking order in the presence of other dogs. Your dog will also come to regard you and the rest of his human family as part of his pack- and an important part of training is to establish yourself as the alpha of it! Wolves are naturally both hunters and scavengers, working together as a pack and sharing their kill. The same is essentially true of domestic dogs, which is why they are popular throughout history with hunters and for gun sport. Wolves and dogs are both very vocal, using their voices in greeting, warning, to alert others in the pack and to indicate their moods. Barking and growling is common to both wolves and dogs- as is howling. While wolves are perhaps better renowned (thanks in large part to werewolf movies and horror films!) for their eerie howling which carries over significant distances, the domestic dog too will howl on occasion, to indicate pain, melancholy, attract attention, and even join in with the family's general conversation or singing! Dogs and wolves share heightened senses of both hearing and smell, and also regulate their body temperature by panting. Neither species sweats, apart from via the pads of their paws.
Dogs are nothing if not adaptable, and continue to evolve in terms of species and behaviour all the time. In thousands of years, the dogs which we now know to be descended from wolves may in their turn become the ancestors of a whole new species- although none of us will be around to see it!
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