Facts about the animal kingdom

Domestication of Dogs - Origin and History

Josie F. Turner
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. August 31, 2022
Domestication of Dogs - Origin and History

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While we share knowledge on all kinds of companion animals, there is a reason the dog features in so many of our AnimalWised articles. The dog is not considered ‘man's best friend’ simply because they are adorable, loving and incredibly beneficial animals with which we can share our lives. It also has a lot to do with the history between man and dog. Current estimates suggest this relationship began in vain around 16,000 years ago. This makes the dog the first animal to be domesticated by humans.

Learn more about the domestication of dogs. We find out about the origin of the story between humans and canines, chart the history of its evolution and understand the reasons for the dog's esteemed place in our hearts.

You may also be interested in: Origin and Evolution of Horses
  1. Origin of dog domestication
  2. Dog domestication theories
  3. Dog domestication process
  4. Why were dogs domesticated?

Origin of dog domestication

While there is much we do not know, we can say with authority that the dog was the first animal domesticated by the human being. The process was slow and gradual, so it cannot be established exactly when the domestication of the dog began. The most recent discoveries suggest its origin took place in the Upper Paleolithic stage of the Stone Age, around 16,000 years ago.

Most studies support the theory that all dogs are descended from the gray wolf (Canis lupus). Since there is such diversity of domestic dog breeds in terms of physicality and behavior, it can be easy to forget all pet dogs are part of the same species (Canis familiaris).

Although the consensus is that dogs are descended from an extinct species of grey wolf, researchers studying the genetic ancestry of dogs have some conflicting theories. Some claim that domestic dogs and wolves share a common ancestor, rather than the former descending from the latter. We do know that the DNA sequences of wolves and dogs show are very similar, with the current belief being that dogs and wolves are subspecies of the same species.

It is still unknown when exactly the domestication of dogs began. Some people believed it to be one single domestication event, while others claim two domestication events beginning 20,000 to 40,000 years ago occurred in separate locations. Where these locations are exactly is not currently known.

What is known for sure is the decisive factor of the first encounters between wild wolves and people. Specifically, it was the end of the Ice Age. The harsh living conditions that devastated the planet during this era condemned human beings to practice nomadism, i.e. living in constant movement to find new shelters to protect themselves and survive. It was during the last glaciation that humanity experienced (Würm glaciation) when the domestication of the dog began.

Now we know something about their shared history, you can learn about the differences between dogs and wolves with our related article.

Dog domestication theories

Throughout the history of mankind, multiple theories have arisen to explain the true origin of the domestic dog. The reason we only have theories is that the exact correlation between dogs and people is still unknown. The most likely theories up to this point are the following:

  • Mutual benefit: one of the theories on the origin of domestication states that the beginning of the relationship between the dog and the human being occurred for mutual benefit. In some way an alliance was produced between both species since they both derived a benefit from the relationship. This theory claims that wolves took advantage of food waste left by people in hunting areas or near settlements. Humans benefited from the protection from other predators that wolves offered them by prowling around their settlements.

  • Accidental domestication: this theory points out that meat could have played a fundamental role in the domestication of dogs. It maintains that wolves began to approach nomadic human settlements to consume the meat waste they left behind. In this theory, some hunters may have adopted orphaned cubs to feed them, finding signs of affection and submission in them. After this initial interaction, they integrated them into the family group, but without the clear objective of domesticating the species. This could be the beginning of an accidental (unintended) domestication.

  • Self-domestication: this theory suggests that it was the wolves themselves who began their own domestication process. They may have done so by approaching human settlements in search of warmth and food. These wolves put aside hunting and thus became scavengers. With the passage of consecutive generations, they modified their genetic characteristics, giving rise to a different population capable of living in close contact with human beings.

As we have already mentioned, the true origin of the relationship between dogs and humans remains an open question. Let us know in the comments which seems most likely to you.

Dog domestication process

The history of dog domestication can be understood as a process divided into two stages:

  • First stage: wild wolves were domesticated to give rise to primitive domestic dogs.
  • Second stage: certain characters and traits which interested humans were selected for breeding purposes. It is this stage which gave rise to the more than 300 existing dog breeds we know today.

Regardless of whether wolves approached humans or vice versa, the first contact between these two disparate species began the process of domestication. Since it began such a long time ago, thousands of years of evolution have resulted in various physical and behavioral changes, although many traits remain. This resulted in genetic differences emerging between wolves and the animals which lived near human settlements.

From these primitive dogs, humans were selecting certain characters of behavior, appearance or ability. Originally, these traits were ones which were of particular use to them. This meant working abilities and behaviors which would provide benefit to the often very harsh conditions of the human settlements. It was likely only later that dogs began to be breed for attractiveness or to be used solely as companion animals, although this is difficult to determine.

Through selection by directed crossbreeding, groups of dogs began to differentiate in which certain characteristics were consolidated. This led to the establishment of the first dog breeds (such as the Basenji). In addition to the selection of the first breeds, human training and care also greatly influenced the domestication process.

Domestication of Dogs - Origin and History - Dog domestication process

Why were dogs domesticated?

Now we know the history and process of the domestication of dogs, we should know a little more about why this happened in the first place. All animal domestication processes represented a benefit for both parties involved, at least initially. There were:

  • Human beings: humans obtained important advantages by domesticating animals. This included obtaining food, building infrastructure, travel and support in various tasks.
  • Animals: in return, the animals received protection from predators and the elements, as well as a steady food source.

The dog was domesticated out of a need to have an ally for hunting, herding, resource protection and companionship. As the relationship between primitive dogs and humans became closer, these animals began to be incorporated into the daily life of the settlements. This included simple companionship.

Over time, humans selected those characteristics that were most useful to them, such as speed, the ease of moving through the water, hunting skills or the ability to withstand extreme temperatures. Throughout this process, the bond between human and dog became so strong that affection was exchanged between the two. It is thanks to this that we have the loving relationships we come to associate with dogs today.

If you want to read similar articles to Domestication of Dogs - Origin and History, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Lafuente, J., & Vela, Y. (2011). The domestication of animals. In: Veterinary medicine through the ages. Servetus.
  • Linares, G. (2019). The domestication of the dog and its origins. Society for Historiological and Ethnographic Studies, nº13.
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Domestication of Dogs - Origin and History