You’ve Selected For a Friend in Me: The Story of Dogs

Hey everybody!! I hope you’re enjoying your week and experiencing some spring or summer weather like I am! Today I’m gonna back it up a little bit and talk about something that happened a long, long, long time ago. Dogs! Well at least using dogs as pets and how the heck we went from this

to this

The evolution of dogs as pets is weird not only biologically but also psychologically. But let me really start at the beginning - some 15 to 40 thousand years ago...

It might (or might not) surprise you to learn that all dogs are the same species: Canis familiaris. Sure there’s over a hundred different breeds who look and behave dramatically differently - but they aren’t distinct enough genetically to be separate species! Because they are all the same species, they all share a common origin species - the Gray Wolf. Before genetic testing was available, famous evolutionary biologists, including Charles Darwin himself, opposed the idea that all dogs came from a single parent species. Darwin argued that breeds were so different that domestic dogs must have resulted from combining and breeding many types of wild dogs. He was mistaken, however, as it’s now been discovered that dogs came only from the gray wolf. Like I mentioned earlier, domestication of the gray wolf began tens of thousands of years ago, meaning that we wanted “pets” to some extent even before we had electricity, indoor plumbing, or specific currency! This all begs the question: why?? The question is further strengthened when you realize that wolves and humans were actually COMPETING with one another at the time of domestication.

So... what’s the deal?

There’s a number of hypotheses that seek to explain why we chose wolves as our domesticated buddies - but few of them hold water when you push a little harder. For example, it was long believed that we originally domesticated wolves to use as hunting partners, but that’s likely not true. When humans began hunting and thus competing with other carnivores for meat, we also began absolutely decimating populations of those carnivores. The short nosed bear and saber tooth tigers being great examples of this. So what set wolves aside? Nothing! We nearly hunted wolves to extinction too. Also, there’s no evidence to suggest that wolves in their natural form would have made for effective hunting partners, shutting down this hypothesis almost entirely. At the end of the day, we don’t really know the answer, but researchers currently speculate that it was actually wolves who came to US! “Survival of the friendliest,” says National Geographic, and I actually think this makes the most sense too. It adds up that if we were approached by some playful, nonaggressive wolves that we may have been able to see the benefit of having them around and so we decided to keep them and breed them. And soon, through several generations, we had this “wolf” that not only didn’t look like a wolf, but didn’t act like a wolf either.

The modern day dog is the product of selective breeding - essentially, we witnessed things we like and we said “ok I love you so much I want you to have puppies so I can have more like you” or on the other hand “you’re a bad boy and you’re mean so no puppies for you.” Obviously, that’s the very short very simple way of laying this out, but I think you catch my drift. But now I’ve unintentionally brought up a new question... What is it about a dog that makes us like them?

For one, dogs are excellent at understanding and reacting to human body language and gesturing. National Geographic actually says that dogs understand our gestures more thoroughly than our closest relatives, chimpanzees, do! Dogs are able to communicate with us, and us with them, to an incredible extent, given how different we are. Dogs also offer us protection and access to enhanced senses that we do not have on our own - which made them functionally important for ancient peoples. The reputation of dog’s as being loyal is not new and far preceded the conception of the lap dog. This loyalty makes the bond between humans and dogs very real and very serious. Both species benefit from the relationship because we are both highly gregarious, or social. Additionally, dogs do a number of things that humans do too that attract us to them; the major one is making eye contact. This is a huge cue for both species that we have some kind of understanding of each other, or that we’re listening. But of course, different dogs behave differently, and that’s due in part to their individual personality, but is also largely dictated by their genetics. Though, as I already mentioned, all dogs are the same species, there are so many breeds out there, and they all have their own quirks. We bred what we wanted to see in dogs. We bred to select for smallness, largeness, friendliness, loyalty, intelligence, guard behavior, hunting skills, looks, and more. Whatever qualities we wanted to see, we selected for, which basically means that we paired dogs into mates if they shared the traits we wanted and just kept that chain going. Unfortunately, in some cases we may have gone too far. As a result of highly selective and competitive breeding, we’ve actually resulted to inbreeding in some dogs. Inbreeding is when members of the same “family” or who have closely related genetic makeups breed and have babies, or puppies in this case. In the wild, inbreeding is naturally controlled against in a number of ways. In humans, inbreeding is seen as extremely taboo and is illegal in many places. But in some dog breeds - especially highly sought after purebreds - it’s actually encouraged. Pugs are the keynote example of this. A BBC study found that all 10,000 pugs in the UK they had the genetic makeup of only 50 distinct individuals. That’s nuts. But it’s not just weird - it’s also unhealthy. Inbreeding can cause a number of health issues, in pugs, for example, it’s led to major respiratory issues and increased risk for hip dysplasia. This issue is not confined to the UK. Pure breeding is an issue everywhere, and it’s about more than just health conditions, it’s also about population. I’m sure we’ve all heard “adopt don’t shop” or similar catchy slogans that encourage people to adopt a dog instead of purchasing one from a breeder. But the sentiment is actually very important. We have way too many dogs, only because we don’t have enough people to take care of them *wink*, but the point stands. If we stop giving business to breeders and start adopting from shelters where we can find dogs who are just as lovely, maybe we can start to erase this persistent issue that’s now plaguing this incredible story of domestication and friendship. So what does the future of domestication look like? Well, that’s for us all to decide!

That’s all for this time on Enter the Unusual with CM Loves Science (and of course featuring Oogie the Pup). See you next week!

Sources, as always, in their own post!