Did you know that all modern dogs originated from a single, mostly homogenous pack of wolves 10,000 years ago? Scientists have evidence that the incredible diversity in the dog breeds of today had their genesis in a wolf pack that, in the evolutionary scheme of things, is not all that old. This poses a fascinating questions: how did a single pack of wolves evolve into the diversity of canines of today?
Wolves are some of nature’s greatest predators, with a mix of speed, endurance and teamwork. But somehow these predators were domesticated relatively quickly. How did this happen? Many say that humans trained wolves as babies. Some say that ancient humans may have found baby wolves as irresistible as we find puppies. After this occurred thousands of times, some wolves evolved to be more agreeable about living with humans.
Some experts disagree with the adoption hypothesis. They believe Stone Age people would not have had the time or resources to undertake the long and intensive process of domesticating wolves. Instead, these experts argue that wolves domesticated themselves. In this theory, once hunters and gatherers started to settle down in villages, wolves did the same. The reason? Because they had a better chance of finding food and survival since human living produces waste. In this view the wolves that were slightly tamer and could stand to be around humans had an evolutionary advantage.
Traits like curly tails and patchy coats aren’t seen in wolves, however, so researchers have been stumped about how dogs acquired them. Early humans would seemingly have no need to breed wolf-dogs for tail and coat variation. The answer seems to have come from the world of fox breeding, where scientists discovered that when they bred foxes for tameness, the tameness was correlated with melanin. Over time this produced a shocking degree of variation in coat and color. They now believe that dogs evolved in a similar manner.
Early humans also did not need to breed for physical characteristics. They were simply rewarding traits. For example, the most ancient breed might be the Saluki, which originated in the middle east. These dogs can outrun any mammal in a three-mile race. Consequently, the long, majestic and fast Saluki was the perfect companion in a desert hunt, where rabbits could easily outrun humans. Once Salukis tagged along with humans, they realized how valuable the dogs were to hunt animals. Consequently, they favored the dogs that possessed these traits.
The same process played out throughout the dog world. Most dogs originated as workers, doing things that wolves already did to survive: following a scent, hunting, pointing, retrieving and guarding. Now there are over 400 dog breeds, with more than 400 dogs on the planet. Researchers say that makes dogs the biggest winners in evolution.
By the time of Victorian England, having dogs who were not workers became a badge of wealth, and the middle class then began adopting dogs to keep up with the Joneses. That’s how dogs became status symbols.