Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 4)

Up until Victorian times dogs were typed according to the jobs they did, herding dogs, hunting dogs, baiting dogs, ratters and so on. They weren’t given any special status other than that they needed to be good at their job or they were simply ‘disposed of’. The dog owners were certainly not concerned about what their dogs looked like only that they did the job.

However the Victorian era saw a rise in what we could call the leisure classes, the industrial revolution suddenly produced an emerging middle class that had time and money on their hands. The Victorian era saw the landed gentry ‘make over’ their homes and gardens in ways to express their new wealth. Everything had to look just right. Once the houses and gardens were done eyes were turned to their livestock, horses, cows, pigs and sheep all were bred and re-bred until they consistently got an animal with the features they desired.

In 1860 a combination of British and French troops stormed the Forbidden City in Peking and during the ensuing confusion a “Lion Dog” was taken and later given to Queen Victoria as a gift. This Lion Dog is what we now know as the Pekinese. Other Pekinese dogs were smuggled out of China and brought to England. These dogs were bred for the Chinese royal family and were regarded as sacred, even seeing one of these dogs was seen as such a crime that the perpetrator would be put to death. After the Manchu dynasty was overthrown the Pekinese almost became extinct in China.

These small unusual looking dogs created a social whirlwind in court circles in England, Queen Victoria was immediately smitten and became an avid fan of these dogs. At the time of her death she had five of them.

In late Victorian England it became fashionable and a display of one’s status and wealth to have a dog as a pet – that is a dog that, unlike a working dog, did not need to do anything to earn its keep other than to look good. This started the ‘makeover’ of dogs.

If someone wanted a dog with a curly tail they simply mated two dogs with curly tails until they got a dog that consistently produced puppies with curly tails. Want a small dog, mate two small dogs together until you consistently get a small dog.

Once this fashion for different looking dogs had started, there needed to be some way of comparing dog to dog to determine which was the better animal. Dog shows (or Dog Fancies) had been run in pubs and village halls for many years and the results were published in ‘The Field’ magazine. The editor of the magazine, John Henry Walsh, wanted to develop a way that dog could be compared to dog to determine a factual basis for judges to decide the ‘best’ one. As a result he published the first breed standard, called at the time a ‘Model’, for a Springer Spaniel – this was based on a dog called Major that had just won a competition in Birmingham.

Baron Tweedmouth, Dudley Marjoribanks was a keen hunter and wanted to develop a unique retriever to recover shot birds from lakes and rivers. He commenced a breeding program in 1868 by crossing a number of different breeds until he accomplished his goal of what was originally called the Yellow Retriever. In 1910 an infamous Lord of the Realm commented that they were all the colour of a Golden Guinea, from that time on they became known as the Golden Retriever and all Golden Retrievers today can trace their ancestry back to the dogs of Baron Tweedmouth.

I hope you enjoyed this four part précis of the rise of the domestic dog. If there are any subjects you would like me to cover in future blogs please let me know.

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 3)

In part two we looked a two hypotheses on how wolves turned into domesticated wolf/dogs.

Of the two proposed it seems likely that as wolves started living closer and closer to human settlements natural selection ended up in producing a wolf that was less and less fearful of humans. An experiment in Russia that commenced in 1959 adds weight to this as a possible answer.

Wild Silver Foxes have always been farmed for their pelts in Russia due to them being exceptionally good in keeping people warm when used in outer clothing. The problem was that as wild foxes they are particularly aggressive and very difficult to handle.

In 1959 a Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev was tasked with the job of making the Wild Silver Foxes tamer and therefore easier to handle.

Belyaev considered that if tamer foxes were selected and only allowed to breed with other tamer foxes that after a number of generations one may end up with a tamer Silver Fox. The method of selection was relatively simple, a gloved hand was presented to the fox in the cage, if it showed any aggression (i.e. it attacked and bit at the gloved hand) it was immediately excluded from the breeding program.

This simple method of selection was continued for generation after generation of Silver Foxes with only the tamest foxes being allowed to breed. An amazing discovery ensued, after only eight generations tamer foxes were being bred. This experiment continues to this day.

In the last few years adaptations have been made to the breeding program to determine if the aggression is in fact being bred out of the foxes (nature) or if they are simply learning to be less aggressive by their parents (nurture). To try and answer this question the researches transplanted embryos from tame foxes into aggressive foxes and vice versa. The tame foxes with the aggressive embryos implanted produced pups that were aggressive and the aggressive foxes with the tame embryos implanted produced tame pups. The researchers were able to determine with a level of confidence that aggression and tameness are therefore as a result of ‘nature’ not ‘nurture’.

What has happened as the program continued came as more of a surprise. As the foxes became tamer so their physical appearance began to change, instead of being a single dark colour they began to develop white patches, their tails began to be held a little higher and some foxes developed floppy ears. They were able to determine, that the gene that held the code for the coat colour was along the same genetic thread that held the code for the adrenaline response – which in tamer foxes was significantly reduced.

It seems that when you select for tameness a whole lot of other stuff comes along for ‘free’ – changes to physical characteristics.

We know that many ancient cultures consider the dog to have mystical, almost magical abilities. Consider that if in just eight generations in captivity Wild Silver Foxes can be tamed, what must our human ancestors have believed a wolf to be capable of – in seeing a wild wolf change, almost in front of their eyes, (certainly within a single human generation), into a tamer animal that stayed around the camp and posed little or no threat, unlike its wild cousins that lived beyond the camp.

Part 4 looks at the rise of the domestic dog and how it developed into many breeds.

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 2)

In part 1 we ended with the two hypotheses in the evolution of dogs_-

  • Humans ‘adopted’ orphaned wolf cubs which were subsequently tamed
  • that wolves as scavengers were likely to live near human settlements stealing from campsites,

If we look at the adoption of orphaned cubs, this is a possible and likely explanation, there is evidence that even today in hunter gatherer society’s wild animal cubs are taken and brought up within the clan. Evidence suggests however that for a wolf cub to be tamed in this way it needs to be removed from its mother at between 13 and 21 days and fed and weaned by its human ‘owner’. We could ask if an early hunter gatherer society would have the time to bring up a wolf cub from such an early age.

The hypothesis that wolves as scavengers lived near human settlements tends to be a bit more persuasive. Professor Raymond Coppinger suggests that wild wolves have a ‘flight distance’ and that wolves that had a closer flight distance would have had access to more food from the created garbage of our hunter gatherers. These dogs would have then bred, creating dogs with an even closer ‘flight distance’. If we extrapolate that over a number of generations we just might have a wolf/dog that felt unthreatened by humans and began to live closer and closer to our settlements.

Humans began to live in villages around 15,000 years ago, this fits closely with the emergence of the ‘Protodog’ around 14,000 years ago. The protodog’s physical characteristics are a smaller brain, smaller teeth and a physique around two-thirds the size of a wolf. Coppinger hypothesises that these characteristics evolved due to the dogs being scavengers – they did not need the brain capacity of a wolf to make hunting decisions, they needed smaller teeth as they did not need to bring down large animals and by being two-thirds the size needed less food to survive.

Of the two hypotheses the later seems to be the more likely, that the wolf over a number of years slowly turned itself into the dog.

Part 3 looks at the Russian experiment that seems to add weight to this theory

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Where did dogs come from and how were they domesticated? (Part 1)

There has been much speculation about the ancestry of the domestic dog. Many theories suggest that due to the diversity of the domestic dog there must have been other canids such as Jackals and Coyotes in the ancestral line. However evidence based on the work done on mapping the DNA of the domestic dog is conclusive – it is clear that all domestic dogs have a common ancestor in the grey wolf (Villa et al 1997 Multiple and ancient origins of the domestic dog). However whilst we are able to determine that the DNA analysed is from primarily Eurasian grey wolves, none of the wolves that have been studied over the last 70 years or so can be considered to be the ancestors of the domestic dog. (Bradshaw 2012, In defence of Dogs) There is no doubt however that both current day wolves and domestic dogs had a common ancestor many thousands of years ago.

There is much supposition of how the wolf evolved into the domestic dog and whilst many of the hypotheses are credible they are currently just that – hypotheses. No one can be sure how the dog became domesticated.

However there is clear evidence that early humans had some interaction with wolves/dogs as far as 30,000 years ago. In the Goyet Cave in Belgium there is evidence of a canine skull carbon dated to around 31,000 years old. This canine skull is structurally different to a wolf skull, the brain cavity is smaller and the teeth are also smaller. In the Chauvet Cave in South France there is evidence of a child’s footprint alongside a dog footprint preserved in mud, the painting and torch marks on the cave walls have been dated to 26,000 years ago. This dog’s footprint is dissimilar to a wolf in that it has short middle toes – much like the current domestic dog.

The two main hypotheses in the evolution of the dog are:-

  • Humans ‘adopted’ orphaned wolf cubs which were subsequently tamed
  • that wolves as scavengers were likely to live near human settlements stealing from campsites,

Part 2 looks at these two theories on the evolution of the dog.

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