Where do dogs come from, and how did we manage to befriend them?

Dogs were our first companions from a different species. Before pigs and cows, before cats or even agriculture, dogs were humanity’s best friend and the first-ever domesticated lifeform

But when did that happen? 

Some scientists believe domestication occurred 15,000 years ago when some hungry wolves joined our ancestors’ hunting parties.

Others think it might have started 25,000 years earlier, around the time humans realized how good wolves are at catching food. And we might have taken a few of their puppies to raise

It’s still challenging to imagine the transformation — from the wild, fierce, and bloodthirsty wolves to the fluffy, tail-wagging, and toy-loving pooches we know today. When were dogs domesticated, and how did they become our best friends? 

Let’s find out everything we can about:

The History of Dogs

Rainy, my Golden Retriever, usually behaves more like a two-year-old child than a majestic, predatory wolf.

Why is that?

Well, thousands of years have passed since the domestication of the wolf. During this time, the predators lost their fearfulness and gained cute floppy ears instead. We should thank evolution for our friendly besties.

By the way, even wolves didn’t look quite like wolves in the beginning. 

Meet the Miacis — Wolves’ First Known Ancestor

The evolution of the wolf started 60 million years ago during the Palaeocene era. That’s when the first canine-looking animal lived — the Miacis. It’s a stretch even to call it a dog, not to mention a wolf. The wolves’ ancestor walked on the soles of its feet, and it was tiny — only about 7–11 inches long.

So where do dogs come from?

Next time you catch yourself wondering about that, recall the tiny ferret-like, tree-climbing creature. That’s the future mighty wolf your doggy came from. 

The Miocene Era and the Mesocyon

The Mesocyon came around roughly 15 million years ago, looking a lot more like a wolf than the Miacis. It was around the size of a modern-day coyote and lived on a primarily meat-based diet.

This species had a larger brain, which made it more intelligent. Also, pack mentality started to arise, as the pooches gained the ability to remember the furry faces of relatives.

Ice Age and The Rise of the Wolves

When were dogs domesticated? That might still be unknown, but five to seven million years ago, the first wolves appeared.

The Earth was covered in snow, and our early ancestors were starting to walk on two legs

Meanwhile, the wolves had already developed many of their instincts known to us today. They walked on their toes, which helped them run faster after prey, and had strongly developed pack instincts

The Cenozoic Era and the Beginning of the Modern Wolf

Ancient wolves and jackals inhabited Eurasia one million years ago. They were larger than their predecessors, and one of the last species before the domestication of the wolves began.

Do All Dogs Come From Wolves?

It’s funny to think that both the Chihuahua and the Great Dane have evolved from wolves, right? Strange as it might be, they did.

A common belief among dog lovers is that some breeds, like the Husky, are closer to wolves than others. But genetic analysis showed that all dog breeds differ from their ancient wolf ancestors in the same way.

So, your Mini Pinscher, my incredibly cuddly Golden Retriever, foxes, coyotes, jackals, and dholes all share the same ancestor — a big bad ancient wolf.

How Did Wolves Become Dogs?

It’s not entirely clear. Still, scientists have been harvesting bits and pieces of information that get us closer to the answer.

One interesting finding is that modern dogs can process complex carbohydrates. It might not sound revolutionary, but it gives us an insight into how it all happened.

Since the ancient wolves’ diet was predominantly meat-based, they didn’t need to metabolize carbohydrates, like rice or millet. In contrast, at the rise of agriculture, early dogs would have been fed similarly to humans, so an enzyme that would help them process such meals was essential.

A white Siberian Husky lying on the ground in a forest.

What Did the First Dogs Look Like?

They didn’t look like most modern ones do. At best, we can say they had the appearance of those stray village dogs that are a mix of all others in the village.

Their fur was dull-colored, and they resembled a Siberian Husky. But those dogs were larger and more robust. Their paws, teeth, and skulls were also bigger compared to our doggos.

Ancient dogs’ diet consisted of large animals like reindeer, muskox, and horse. After they got closer to humans, they also started enjoying some cooked food. 

Where Did the First Dog Come From?

Thousands of years ago, they started to appear in Eurasia

Some scientists believe that the first-ever dog population initially showed up in the eastern parts of the continent. It was then split into two, and one part went on to conquer the west.

Other researchers say we have all the reasons to believe that dogs originated in the high Arctic, or eastern Asia, or Europe.

It’s still very unclear where the first dogs appeared. Perhaps they showed up in several different parts of the world simultaneously. Hopefully, one day we’ll know more.

The Domestication of Dogs

There are several hypotheses as to how the fearful wolves became our best buddies. 

One theory holds that some wolves were less afraid of humans and got close to the settlements. As leftovers were readily available, the wolves didn’t have to work so hard for food anymore. As a result, they gained an advantage over the others and quickly started growing in numbers. Every other generation was increasingly friendlier and tamer.

Another theory of how dogs evolved from wolves suggests that humans recognized the wolves’ potential as great hunters. So, our ancestors took and raised some wolf puppies. They started taking them on hunting trips and might have even learned one or two strategies from them. 

Last but not least, there’s the possibility that wolves simply got used to people being around all the time. Some started following hunting parties and scavenging the carcasses left behind. Eventually, people stopped being afraid, too, and friendship slowly started to form.

None of these hypotheses has been proven so far. Maybe there’s some truth to all of them, but we might never know for sure.   

When Were Dogs Domesticated?

Sadly, like many other questions on the evolution of dogs, that’s still not clear.

The genetic divergence between wolves and dogs started 20,000–40,000 years ago. But this doesn’t mean dogs were domesticated at that time.

Genetic divergence was how ancient wolves started to divide into two different species — modern wolves and dogs. But that’s not the same as domestication. 

The first domesticated dog probably appeared much later — around 15,000 years ago. We know that because of a fascinating discovery that took place in Germany.

In 1914, workers uncovered an ancient burial site near Bonn, Germany. Inside they found the remains of two people and, surprisingly, two dogs. Their bones were dated to be around 14,000 years old.

Early humans decided to bury their dead friends together with the dogs, which shows that they valued their furry pals highly at the time. 

Two dogs standing next to each other in a field. One is a large and the other one is a mini dog breed.

History of Dog Breeds

We know dogs are loyal creatures, so it’s not surprising that when our ancestors started migrating from one part of the world to another, the dogs followed.

Over time, people started breeding dogs for hunting, herding, or protecting the home. That’s how different breeds came into existence. 

The evolution of dog breeds started mainly around the 1920s in Britain. With the boom of dog shows and competitions, people became obsessed with the appearance and uniqueness of their furry friends. Some dogs got smaller and smaller (the Scottish Terrier), while others became incredibly large (the Irish Wolfhound).

That’s how crossbreeds like the German Shepherd mix with Pitbull and the Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle mix) started to appear more often. This also contributed to the constantly growing number of new breeds. 

What Was the First Dog Breed?

The Basenji is believed to be the oldest dog breed worldwide. It was bred for a hunting dog, and it’s thought to be depicted on the ancient 6,000 years old cave paintings in Libya.

Different Dog Breeds — Specificities and Health Issues

Dogs bring immense joy and happiness into our lives, but do we do the same for them?

Over 400 dog breeds exist today — big and small, long- and short-haired, light and dark-colored. Unfortunately, not all of these millions of mutations brought nice features. Some became more and more life-threatening over the years. 

Where do dogs come from, and where are they now evolutionary? 

After thousands of years of artificial breeding, some of our precious puppies have become so deformed that simple functions like breathing and running cause pain and difficulty.

Our favorite Pug is a terrifying example of how artificial breeding can go wrong. Humans made its snout so short that Pugs have breathing problems. Additional issues come with its many skin folds, which provide the perfect environment for harmful bacteria. What’s more, a Pug’s bones and joints are also prone to problems. If you have one of these adorable puppies, starting early with some dog supplements for healthy joints might be a good idea.

Years of breeding also took us from the first domesticated dog breed to the majestic German Shepherd. Sadly, these dogs also have a predisposition to severe health conditions. Back in the day, they were considered a medium-sized breed, weighing around 55lbs. 

Todays’ doggies are almost twice the size, and their backs have turned from straight to sloping. German Shepherds are also prone to degenerative myelopathy and hip dysplasia.

Lack of proper exercise in bigger dog breeds can also lead to joint problems. So if you have a big doggie, but it’s rainy outside, or you’re getting late for work — a dog treadmill might be the answer to your problem. 

Interesting Facts From the History of Dogs

  • Dogs didn’t evolve from modern wolves. Still, the wolves we know today are their closest living relatives. Just like humans didn’t evolve from modern chimps, dogs and wolves merely share a common ancestor.
  • Early dogs didn’t bark. They howled and whined. Dogs were selectively bred for barking to make efficient guards.
  • Our puppies bond with us through their eyes. Miho Nagasawa and colleagues were the scientists who discovered that the dogs gazing into our eyes stimulate oxytocin production in our brains. It’s a hormone linked to maternal bonding and trust. So cute!
  • Dogs make us laugh. Studies showed that dog owners laugh more than cat owners. Interestingly, cat owners laugh even less than people without pets. And that’s just one of the reasons why dogs are better than cats.

Conclusion

A long time ago in Eurasia, the ancient wolf population split into two, which led to all the unique doggies of today. We still can’t tell whether the divergence started in Asia, Europe, or the icy Arctic, but we assume it happened around 20–40,000 years ago.

14,000 years ago, our ancestors already valued their furry companions highly and even buried them with people and burial gifts.

Where do dogs come from? And why did they decide to join us in our adventure to conquer the world? I hope it wasn’t only because of free food and belly rubs.

One day we might find out the whole story but until then, let’s enjoy the unique relationship we have with our oldest best friends.

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Miglena loves spending time with friends and talking about science over a glass of wine. Born and raised in a small town, she’s always been surrounded by animals. Cats, dogs, chickens, cows, and goats have all been her companions from an early age. Her passion for the animal kingdom became even stronger after she went to study microbiology in Scotland. Miglena’s love for writing, combined with her curiosity, makes her a valuable member of the pawsome advice team.