In case you have ever doubted, the history of dogs proves that canines really are man’s best friends.

If my 3 year old daughter Tansy could play one game for the rest of her life, at this point it would be “playing dog.” Oftentimes when I come home from school, she is crawling around the floor and giving her best bark to greet me. Although it gets under my wife’s skin, it doesn’t bother me. Like most kids her age, she loves animals. Especially dogs. She and our dog Huck constantly romp around the yard in boisterous play. Their bond is typical of the friendship so vibrant between young children and their dogs. The two seem so natural together. Watching them got me wanting to explore the history of dogs and the domestication process.

As with many things in the far distant past, the true origins of dogs may never be known. People speculate dogs were first domesticated from 35,000 years ago, to as far back as 100,000 years ago. Many archeologist believe dogs descended from wolves that hung around our Stone Age camps. This seems plausible, as wolves used to have a wide territory in the northern hemisphere, and dogs share wolf DNA. People would have also made a good food source for wolves.

New theories however, throw a wrench into this old belief.  Some now believe that dogs and wolves descended from a common canine ancestor that was something different altogether. This article by the Daily Mail discusses this interesting hypothesis.

Whatever the case may be, we do know that at some point humans domesticated dogs. We find their bones in caves and find their figures cast alongside humans in several cave paintings. Whenever, why ever, and however, people domesticated dogs, the fact is dogs were a tremendous asset to people who hunted for survival.

As humans, arguably our top assets as predators are our ability to solve complex problems, organize, our stamina, and our hand-eye coordination. These are a few of the important attributes that allowed us to succeed while forging a living from the land. Dogs on the other hand, provided us a great complementary set of senses for an ancient (and modern) hunter.

For one, dogs are obviously faster then humans. Canine speed is everywhere we look. We can see for ourselves that wolves having the ability to run down elk and deer. Also, if you’ve ever witnessed a coyote grabbing gears, you can attest to pure speed as well. The speed of a dog would have harmonized nicely with our stamina. People are known to have the ability to run down prey over very long distances in a hunt called persistence hunting.  Our stamina, combined with a dog’s speed, equaled a formidable team.

Secondly, dog’s sense of smell is something people still put to use everyday. Not only do we use dogs for hunting, but everyone is aware dogs are used to sniff out drugs, bombs, and nearly anything else. Some are even touted with the ability to sniff out human diseases like cancer (the link is incredible by the way).

While watching our pup Huck sniff around when he’s out and about, I often find myself wondering how he sees the world. I realize he knows many things about the landscape that I do not. If you’ve been around a good hunting dog for even a short time, you likely realize the incredible advantage their sense of smell provides. They can “see” the unseen, and would have adequately supplemented our keen sense of sight. Dog’s sense of smell is still today a major reason why people keep dogs.

The third attribute that make dogs such a great human companion is their desire for a social group. Dog expert Cesar Milan has made this point well-known and encourages his followers to be their pack leader. He rightly notes that dogs are hardwired to be in groups. They recognize leadership, and will fall in step if leadership is strong. Their strong desire to belong to a group made dogs fit nicely into Stone Age hunting camps. Like dogs, people have always benefited from groups. If a dog was going to be useful for the community, it had to get along well.

Tansy and Huck

Tansy and Huck exploring the world.

Finally, canine intelligence is something many dog owners see every day. Coyote trappers out there can also attest to the challenges of nabbing cagey canines. When you go to trap a coyote, you are matching wits with a tough customer for sure. In fact, the coyote earned the reputation as the trickster in many Native cultures for its slyness.

Wolves also have earned a reputation for being incredibly smart. In an array of studies they have demonstrated the ability to problem solve at a much higher level than even dogs can. This actually makes sense, as humans have been giving guidance to dogs for the past 30,000 years. They have actually grown dependent on us to make decisions.

Even if we have bred out natural problem solving abilities, most dogs today are still highly intelligent. Up until the last century or so, having a dog that couldn’t understand commands and tasks just wasn’t an option. Historically dogs have been our closest working companions, and dogs that couldn’t understand were not likely to be kept around. The ability to learn and understand made them an ideal addition to the Stone Age hunters.

This brings us back to the truth of the cliche that dogs are man’s best friends. Our lengthy history together stretches back further than any other domesticated species. Dogs senses and athleticism helped Stone Age hunters bring more meat to the fire. Likewise, Stone Age hunters ability to throw and shoot projectiles helped dogs eat as well. We were good for each other, and both parties knew it.

Over time, dogs have become more and more specialized. Some have been bred to continue hunting, others protect us, still others are bred for their unique coats or a million other reasons. Whatever the reason for breeding, the fact remains their breeding is for a human purpose. It’s no wonder we have fused such strong bonds of affection over time.

When Tansy and Huck romp in the backyard, they are living out a scene tens of thousands of years old. The fact is, dogs have been molded to feel perfectly at home in that exact situation. They are our companions, protectors, and longest confidant.

As I watched the two play, I started to wonder if humans have also changed as a result of living closely with dogs. Do we have some instinctive urge to like dogs? I can’t speculate on the issue, but as a dog lover I just have to wonder if there is something to that…

If you are interested in learning more about the history of dogs, you may find this video worth your time.

Also, if you are interested in learning more about Stone Age animals, this article on a Paleolithic beaver the size of Shaq might be worth a quick read. Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this article!

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Man’s Best Friend: A Brief History of Dogs

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