In today’s Internet-engrossed society, dogs have managed to rise from their already premier status among the animal kingdom in the eyes of humans. It takes only one quick scan through Buzzfeed or Upworthy or Barstool to realize that dogs are the primary power of Internet culture. (I’m disregarding porn, as this is family blog.)
It’s a natural next step for Man’s Best Friend, who has also become the ultimate symbol of family and the less intelligent half of what has been called “most widespread form of interspecies bonding.”
Today many of us can name a majority of the 150 dog breeds on this earth just by looking at them. We, the dog lovers’ collective, can recite each breed’s size, the array of colors in which they can be found, their temperament, the sicknesses they are most prone to getting, how they get along with other dogs, and whether they tend to vote democrat, republican or independent. (I’m looking at you, Bergamasco Shepherd.)
But how many of us have actually delved deeper into this most special of species to determine what, exactly, they are? Yes, we know they descended from wolves. And we know that they are better behaved around humans than a kangaroo. But why are dogs so particularly receptive to being domesticated, and not, say, some descendant of bears? How is it possible that you can find them in a plethora of different shapes and sizes when their genetic fathers, the
wolves, basically come in either large grey or large, slightly more brownish grey?
And how long, truly, have humans had dogs by their side while they slept, and does this have anything to do with why they the word “dog” sounds so cavemen-ish? (The answers are: longer than is possible to rationally comprehend, and very much maybe. Read more below.)
These questions led me on an (Internet) journey that spread vast expanses of both time and land, from Siberia to Africa, from Julius Caesar to Caesar Milan. The answers I found made me appreciate more the exceptional circumstances of our relationship with dogs and their role in our own species’ development.
So, without further adieu, I give you:
Before you read on, I must warn you that this post is quite long. I will not blame you if you choose to close the window. However, if you stick with me, you will be rewarded with:
A) Engaging content that will forever change the way you look at another species; and
B) Pics of cute puppies, like this:
I suppose most of you will stay for B.
The first section will explain the historical relationship humans have developed with dogs and where dogs stand among our culture today. The second section looks at the genetic makeup of dogs and what makes them so unique among the animal kingdom.
The sections are introduced via large, black font, such as…
Man’s Best Friend: A Woof Sketch of the History of Dogs
The origin of the domesticated dog is fascinating because it appears to have happened multiple times, independently, in different regions of the world. Dog-like (i.e. more closely related to the modern dog than to wolves) animals have been found in Siberia dating back about 33,000 years ago. If you pile up the time that has passed between now and the Roman Empire 16 times over, that’s how long people have had dogs.
They were also found in Belgium about 31,700 years ago, and in the Czech Republic about 26,000 years ago. (The latter with a big-ass mammoth bone in his mouth; not a bad present to send Fido off with to the afterlife.)
Then something strange happens. Dog fossils become few and far between for about 15,000 years before they were found again in Southeast Asia around 14,000 BC. DNA studies now point to this Asian genetic pool as probably being the source from which all modern dogs originated.
(I should note that this is not conclusive. Others have said it happened somewhere in the middle east, not Southeast Asia. I chose Asia because there’s a Nintendo joke below.
Regardless, dogs appear to have come from one central gene pool beginning around 14,000 B.C. To clear up any further confusion, I give you another gif.)
So domesticated dogs popped up in Europe/Russia for a little bit way back in 30,000 BC, essentially disappeared from all existence, and then showed up in SE Asia 15,000 years later, this time for good?
How is that possible? To the best of my knowledge animals don’t evolve, become extinct, and then reanimate themselves from a new gene pool thousands of years later in a completely new environment.
I’m all like…
Actually, that may be exactly what happened.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: “You’re going to say that the smart Asian’s figured it out. I know Asian people are like wicked smaht and everything, but there’s no way even they would be able to do some crazy shit like capturing frozen extinct DNA and performing selective breeding 14,000 years ago in order to bring back dead dogs from Russia. Likely story, dumbass.”
OK, chill out. While Asian people are really smart (you will forever have my heart for Nintendo (told you)), the answer actually lies in the nature of domestication itself.
And how human influence can change this:
In order to get the full story, let’s go back to the time of your great-great-great (I pretend write great about 75 more times, and we all go home happy) grandfather. He was dumb. Dumber than your current grandfather. He also smelled, probably like a combination of wet dirt and poop. But he did enjoy a good steak (or mammoth or deer or rat if in season). When gnawing on his dinner around a campfire wondering what the hell he was going to do with his 25 years on this planet, this guy on the left would occasionally pop up:
The thing is, this wolf wasn’t the mean, strong, alpha wolf. Those wolves were probably too busy eating their own prey and crushing those bitches (also the name of a female wolf). This was Wolfie. And instead of the picture above, Wolfie probably looked more like this:
Not too bad, right? Wolfie was a little more social, a little more willing to take commands, a little smaller, and and a little less able to fend for himself. In other words, Wolfie started hanging around humans because he was “wolfpuppyish”: immature and struggling to develop into adulthood.
But Wolfie’s life around your grandfather X75 was pretty damned good. He didn’t need to waste time attempting to catch his own food in futility while the bigger, alpha wolves reaped the benefits. He could just hang around your grandafather X75, show him that he wasn’t going to be as much of a dick as Alpha Wolves, and in return Wolfie would get free scraps of meat.
In scientific terms, Wolfie exhibited close “flight distance,” or how close an animal will get to a human before it says “wait, what the hell am I doing?” and heads for the hills. All animals that eventually become domesticated show close flight distance.
Anywho, Wolfie’s lifestyle caught on among other wolves with wolfpuppyish characteristics, and they became the Toys R’ Us Kidz: they didn’t want to grow up, mostly because they didn’t need to. As Lost Puppies they could live long lives just as full of reproduction as their Alpha Wolf counterparts.
And over the course of generations, the physical wolfpuppyish characteristics–smaller bodies, floppy ears, spotted coats, curly tails, barking vocalizations, a.k.a things that you see in puppy wolves– just ended up sticking around as they grew into adults.
Yup, the dog essentially evolved into a wolf puppy. Because human.
The crazy thing about this is that scientists now know that flight distance isn’t just a behavioral trait, it’s a genetic one, meaning it was embedded into the genes of some wolves. (We’ve only recently figured this out. More on that to come!) Therefore, wherever wolves with close flight distance were fed and nurtured by humans, there was a good possibility they would become dogs. This would explain how dogs genetically evolved from wolves in more than one area of the world separated by tens of thousands of years.
In fact, we have definite evidence of this exact process happening within the past 50 years or so in another species of canid.
More on that later.
Wait, I can hear you asking, why did the 30,000 year old ancient dogs die off? While some evidence might suggest they didn’t, this Asian theory hypothesizes that, again, because human. If the human tribes hosting dogs were for whaetever reason wiped out because of climate change, lack of food, or one too many wacks to the head with a brown mallet, then the dependent dogs wouldn’t live either. It’s just that those southeast Asians were the first tribe of people to host dogs while also being smart enough to continue living.
Again, smart Asians.
While these are just theories growing slowly into accepted facts, what we do know for sure is that, for the next 16,000 years or so, dogs largely served one of two purposes: work animals, or pets of the One Percent –whether that be Pharaohs, Emperors, Kings, or this:
(By the way, if you think taking a pic your dog doing funny stuff is an Internet phenomenon then you, my friend, are sorely mistaken. Take a look a this:
These must have been a hoot after a little opium and a few snuffs of cocaine. By the way, all those dogs died of lung cancer. Thanks, 19th century.)
(As (another) side note- have you ever wondered where the word “dog” comes from? Etymologists think that the shared ending among word such as “dog,” “pig,” “stag,” and even the old words for beetle (“wicga”) can all be traced back to the same common meaning: animals humans have under control, and these words may represent some of the earliest foundations of all Indo-European vocabulary.)
It actually wasn’t until after World War II, with the advent of suburban sprawl that dogs became a symbol of the middle class American dream. And even then, it was only within the last three decades or so that they were seen as more than an animal you kept outside to entertain the kids.
In fact, dog training as we know it today didn’t really exist until 1980, when Barbara Woodhouse, English dog breeder/everybody’s
second grade teacher released her famous “No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way” training guide television series, which was so revolutionary in showing that bad dogs were simply the result of bad owners that she became an international celebrity. She had appearances on 60 Minutes; her show was syndicated on PBS and became a huge ratings boon; and, in the ultimate sign that you’ve made it as a celebrity, she was parodied in the James Bond film “Octopussy.” (Seriously.)
Since then, the proliferation of the internet and cable television have further pushed dogs into a focal position within our lives. Breeds such pit bulls and rottweilers have been given an agressive PR push to turn around how they’re viewed by society; sites such as Petfinder and Adoptadog have been able to use social media to further raise awareness and education around adopted dogs; and Cesar Milan’s dog was once owned by Redman (not that important; I just found it funny).
In short, it’s never been better to be a dog. But what is a dog, exactly? And what is in them that makes them so, for lack of a better word, weird among species.
For that, bring you:
3 Crazy Things About Dog Biology
1) The diseases dogs and humans share are probably our fault.
When we adopted dogs, they adopted our lifestyle, and all the shitty parts that come with it.
Dogs are now susceptible to two dieases in particular because they stupidly decided to start acting like us. Those two diseases are cancer and diabetes.
Dogs have the same genetic foundation upon which cancer thrives as humans. The reason for this is that most human of acts: inbreeding. Dogs, like humans, have the unfortunate ability to develop cancer spontaneously. Also like humans (not so much anymore, at least in most parts), dogs tend to inbreed and continue to dip into the same, flawed genetic pool.
While this doesn’t bode well for Fido, because of this recently discovered shared bond scientists are now looking at dogs for potential cancer cures.
Both dogs and cats are also prone to diabetes. The weird thing about dogs is that the number of reported cases of diabetes has increased more than three-fold over the past 30 years. While much of that can be attributed to people actually having the common sense to say “hey, I think my dog’s not healthy,” it is also theorized that lifestyle and environmental factors are playing into the increase as well. So I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the number of humans diagnosed with diabetes has increased over that time too.
And like cancer, dogs can sniff out diabetes, as well.
At least most of us don’t share this disease in common with our furry friends.
2) If Darwin had his way, your bulldog wouldn’t exist.
Not saying that Darwin would go all Mchael Vick on it, but based on natural selection, there’s no way this little guy should be shuffling around your kitchen room floor right now.
It makes no sense that a species would evolve from a lean, mean, howling machine into a little fat goomba who runs out of breath after a brisk ten yard walk and had little rolls of fat perfect for predators to pick up.
The reason why dogs have so many traits that buck up against natural selection is the same reason humans do: being part of a tribe of humans allowed them to develop individual characteristics that work against their ability to survive. Mutated, stumpy-legged wolf-dogs were able to live and reproduce because of the intelligence of humans, and eventually the wolves became this:
3) Foxes are just as easy to domesticate as wolves, and when they are, they just become dogs again.
Quiz time: Which of these four areas of the world did citizens recently start raising foxes as if they were dogs?
B) The Vatican
E) None of the above
Now, A is obviously out of the question because, come on, we’re better than that.
If you answered B or E you receive negative points, because I don’t think there are foxes in The Vatican and the answer is never “None of the above.”
I give you partial credit if you answered C because it just seems like something someone from Alabama would do.
However it should not come to a surprise that it was these guys:
Specifically, this guy:
Meet Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev, who for brevity’s sake will be known from here on out as Doug. Beginning in 1959, Doug made it his life’s goal to domesticate foxes. And not just, like, some foxes. We’re talking a shitload of foxes.
You see, Doug had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. In 1948, Doug was fired as the head of the Department of Fur Animal Breeding at the Central Research Laboratory of Fur Breeding in Moscow (or DoFABatCRLoFBiM for short) in 1948 for ascribing to Darwinism, because Commies believe in nothing! This was a big blow to Doug; as a geneticist in Russia it didn’t get much better as being the head of the DoFAMatCRLoFBiM.
For losing his position as top dog at the DoFAMatCRLoFBiM, Doug wanted to prove to the Soviets that no, Karl Marx is not the omnipotent God that controls all of existence (I’m operating under an extremely limited knowledge of Soviet-era Communism), and that nature does have a role to play in the development of animals. What better way to stick it to The Man than to move out to Siberia and spend the rest of your life with foxes? Which is exactly what Doug did.
Not even the most devout communists were crazy enough to visit Doug out in Bumfuck SIberia, so he was able to perform his experiments in relative peace. All he needed was 100 female foxes and 30 male foxes, specifically chosen by his assistant
from fur farms around Russia based on one trait: tameness. Doug had this crazy idea that tameness, or flight distance (remembers the wolfpuppyish-ness from the section above?) was a genetic trait, not behavioral, and that breeding a bunch of tame animals would not only result in more domesticated offspring; it would also result in a new animal.
(A not really) Spoiler alert: He was right. After only five years of being a literal fox pimp, Doug’s fox puppies began to exhibit very dog-like traits, such as wagging their tails, jumping on humans to lick their faces and walking beside them. By 1980, after only 8 to 10 generations, the foxes’ coats began to develop spots and stripes (interestintgy, this is also seen in domesticated horses, pigs, and cows), as well as floppy ears and rolled-up tails (wild foxes’ tails fall on the ground).After 40 generations they had different shaped skulls and higher levels of serotonin than normal foxes.
Today, we have these little guys:
So over the course of about 50 years, Doug had created an entire new subspecies of foxes which have grown to love humans, with spots and stripes and tail wagging and an obsession with having their bellies rubbed. In short, he recreated the dog, and in doing so proved that tameness is just as genetic as eye color.
If you envision a future in which you own a dog as a pet, have you ever wondered why you do? When we sit back and consider what makes us want to put up with the hundreds of things that could potentially go wrong with keeping an animal in close quarters with our homes and families, the answers that come to us are usually one of the following:
- I had one as a kid and now want one as an adult.
- My (insert friend/relative/colleague/favorite blogger here) has one, so I should have one too.
- They’re cute and furry.
- I can a fuckload more likes on Instagram.
While these are understandable answers to the “why” of owning a dog (except for the last one, you narcissistic nutball), I don’t think they get to the core reason. I think that there is something inherently human in taking in an animal, in learning their traits and characteristics, in observing what we share in common with them and what we have evolved from. And while other domesticated animals–horses, pigs, cows–ultimately serve as a mean to an end, the dog was domesticated to become our companion.
Just like how a retriever has the instinct to fetch born within him, and the sheepdog to herd, ever since that moment some 34,000 years ago when the first Wolfie was brave enough to come out of the woods in order to cross the gulf of traditional animal relations, close the flight distance and become friendly towards another species, we as humans have had imprinted on our genetics a tendency to want to return the favor.
It is a story of two animals learning to care for and support one another. It is tameness shining through.