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Exploring the history of dogs

wolf in the woods

Many people cannot imagine life without a dog companion nearby. According to the history of dogs, before people kept livestock or chickens for food, they had domesticated dogs for protection, companionship, and help in hunting. Over the years, dogs have been an integral part of our family life and have long been known as ‘man’s best friend.’ 

Today, about a third of people worldwide have dogs as pets, making them the most common animal companions. We take them on hikes, on vacation, snuggle with them on the couch while watching TV, and give them love and affection at every turn. In return, our dogs offer us their loyalty, companionship, and a good excuse to get outside for a walk every day. 

So, when were dogs domesticated?  

Experts agree that dogs are descended from ancient wild wolves, but there are numerous theories regarding where, when, and why this occurred. The prevailing research shows that anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, humans interacted with wild wolves. Either through humans’ direct effort to domesticate the wolf or the wolf choosing to domesticate itself by lingering near the humans for food or protection, the wild animals slowly became tame companions. 

There have been DNA studies of ancient dogs showing that dogs were domesticated twice, once in eastern Eurasia and once in western Eurasia. They were then brought together through the migration of people. The constant mixing of dog and wolf DNA over thousands of years has made it very difficult to be more precise about the dog’s origins and evolution. 

How long have dogs been domesticated? 

While we might think our close relationship with our dogs is relatively new in our modern times, there are many examples of ancient cultures showing their love for their canine companions. The bond between human and animal is clear in the many discoveries of early humans having been buried alongside their dogs. 

A 14,000-year-old grave in what is now Germany gives evidence that humans nursed a sick puppy while it was ill. 3,000 years ago, nomadic people in Spain were routinely buried alongside their dogs. Archeologists discovered a 30,000-year-old skeleton of a dog who had been buried with a mammoth bone in its mouth as a treat. 

In addition to being companions and protectors, many cultures also saw dogs as spiritual ambassadors to guide people to the afterlife. The earliest tales from the Middle and Far East offer depictions of dogs accompanying gods and goddesses or faithfully attending their people. People often carried charms carved in the likeness of dogs for protection, and ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian artists frequently included dogs in their artwork.  

Domesticated dogs 

Over many generations, the history of dogs has seen wild wolves evolve to have features more in line with their new roles as domesticated animals. Their physical features changed as their skulls, teeth, and paws shrunk. They became more docile and learned to trust their human companions. Predator/prey instincts receded, and they became helpmates to their people. 

The mutual benefit seen between people and dogs is evident in studies showing that when humans and dogs look into each other’s eyes, the same changes to brain chemistry occur as oxytocin (sometimes known as the ‘love hormone’) is released in both species.  

History of dog breeding 

Beginning about 10,000 years ago, people started to breed dogs intentionally for certain features and traits, and many of these breeds remain today. For example, dogs moving across northern latitudes needed to be well-suited for cold weather with a long double-coat of fur and small, close-to-the-head ears to resist frostbite. The Japanese Akita-Inu is one of the oldest breeds, and it is easy to see with its thick fur and muscular stature that these dogs were prized for hunting in the mountains of Japan. 

The Greenland sled dog, similar to a Husky or Alaskan Malamute, is another thousands-year-old breed of dog who accompanied early cold-weather humans. The sure-footed Tibetan terrier was well-suited for life among the world’s tallest mountains. They were believed to be good luck charms, and it is said that the only way to get one was to receive it as a gift. 

As people changed from a nomadic hunter-gatherer life to a more agrarian one, dogs were bred to help manage livestock by herding or guarding farm animals from predators. Giant breeds such as the Tibetan Mastiff were used as guards both for people and animals. The Chow Chow was also used in China as a guard dog, but the fact that its name means ‘edible’ might point to a different reason they were favored by the Chinese 3,000 years ago.  

Hunting dogs traditionally needed to be fast and have a strong prey drive to chase their targets over long distances. The Saluki is thought to be the oldest continuing breed of dog, and the ancient Egyptians bred them for speed and loved their elegant looks and demeanors. Images of Salukis have been found on gold jewelry, and there have also been discoveries of mummified Salukis laid to rest in tombs with the dead. 

Although many hunting dogs, such as Greyhounds, are prized for their short coats that limit snags and burrs, one of the oldest breeds of hunting dogs is the Afghan Hound. The Afghan’s speed allowed them to be successful even when hunting antelopes. Their long, flowing coats were suited to the environment in Afghanistan and Egypt where they originated. 

One of the most interesting breeds thought to have originated 5,000 years ago is the Basenji. Used as hunters in the tall grass of the African savannah, Basenjis developed an ability to jump straight up in the air to spot prey. 

Dog breeding today 

Today, working dogs are still bred for specific traits, as various industries depend on dogs’ greatly superior sense of smell and ability to be trained for completing a wide range of jobs. 

Dogs currently serve as members of police forces, they sniff out landmines as members of the military, and they assist first responders in search and rescue and avalanche recovery missions. Dogs guide deaf and blind individuals, serve as emotional support animals, alert people to oncoming seizures, and they can even detect some diseases like diabetes and cancer. 

Companion dogs are now bred to be gentle family members with varied levels of exercise needs and tolerance for the busy-ness of modern life. From tiny toy breeds like a Chiweenie that weigh less than five pounds to giants like the Great Pyrenees who stand nearly three feet tall and can weigh upwards of 150 pounds, there is certainly a dog suited for every person. 

Tracing back to early ancestors 

It seems that a variety of our companion dogs’ current behaviors are linked to those from their early development as a species. 

Some dogs love to endlessly chase balls and sticks (and maybe even squirrels!) in a nod to their early prey drive. Dogs might yip or howl when faced with exciting or challenging situations, similar to the way their ancient ancestors needed to communicate with the rest of their pack about their environment. Many dogs circle a bed before fluffing it up to prepare a comfortable ‘nest’ as they settle down to sleep, and it is easy to see that territorial marking behaviors continue as dogs stop to sniff every fire hydrant to see who else has been there. 

Bottom line on the history of dogs 

For thousands of years, our relationships with dogs have continued to grow. We now often see our pet companions as family members and include them in the activities of our day-to-day lives. They have special beds (or share ours) and as many toys as young children. We take them for drives or fly them on vacations where hotels might offer special room service for them. They have birthday parties and open holiday gifts, participate in weddings, and their people face endless choices over which delectable treats and varieties of food should be offered. 

The relationship is not one-sided, however. In addition to the companionship and love they give us, dogs have been shown to have positive health impacts on the people who love them. It has been determined that pet ownership leads to a decrease in blood pressure, less stress and depression, a more active lifestyle, and even a longer lifespan.