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The History of Dogs
From Wolf to Woof!

Today there are over 53 million dogs in the United States (600 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization). How did dogs become man's best friend?

Dogs evolved from wolves but they were a product of human selection and not natural selection. Wolves' bones have been found in association with humans as far back as 400,000 years ago, but scientists believe that man's relationship with wolves predates that by several hundred thousand years. 

A Wolf and a Dog

Early humans probably first used wolves as food. But wolves would also have been using humans, scavenging through their garbage dumps and over time moving closer and closer to the center of camp and the human's food source--the campfire. Eventually, the more docile wolves were accepted by the humans as part of the group. 

The wolf's social nature and the similarity between wolf packs and early human hunter-gatherer social organizations helped to make the relationship a success. Wolves and humans are both willing to follow a leader, cooperate, and work together to protect members of the group.

From Camp Follower to Hunting Partner

Wolves began to follow humans when they went hunting for game and the humans observed that the wolves gave off cues when game was nearby. Humans learned that wolves could detect prey with their superior sense of smell, they could track prey with their superior speed, and they could aid in the search for wounded animals. Man and wolf began to cooperate and eventually wolves became active participants and true partners with humans in the hunt for food.

As humans began to realize how helpful wolves could be, they began to select wolf puppies for characteristics that they found useful. Humans favored the most cooperative wolves and associated that characteristic with a puppy-like appearance in an adult wolf.

After thousands of years of this artificial selection process, dogs evolved into a separate species by about 14,000 years ago. As wolves evolved into dogs, they became even more important to humans because of their usefulness and their companionship. A grave in Israel bears evidence of the early relationship between humans and dogs. The grave, which has been dated to 12,000 years ago, contains a human skeleton whose hand rests upon the bones of a small puppy.

Dogs have smaller brains, heads and teeth than wolves, as a result of their domestication and changes in their diet. There was considerable diversity in size and body proportions, but it wasn't until about 3,000-4,000 years ago, when humans began tinkering with Mother Nature in earnest to create more specialized working and companion dogs, that true differences in breeds began to emerge.

It Wasn't a Dog's Life to Begin With

The Romans bred and trained hunting dogs, guard dogs, sheep dogs, and lap dogs. Over 2,500 years ago, war dogs were used as forward attacking elements by several Southern European armies. These huge dogs, called "Molossus," were capable of knocking a man off a horse. The use of dogs in war spread throughout Europe and then to the Americas. In the sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors used kill-trained greyhounds and large mastiff-style dogs against Native Americans, to assist in their conquest of the New World.

Ancient depiction of a Molossus
Ancient depiction of a Molossus

As breeding continued, dogs became more and more specialized. Herding dogs were bred to work with livestock. Sporting dogs were bred for bird hunting. Hounds were bred to hunt by scent or by sight. Working dogs were bred to perform many tasks, including herding, hauling, and guarding. Terriers were bred to hunt rodents and other vermin. Toy breeds were bred to be companions and some of those were bred simply to be lap warmers.

During the Civil War, dogs were used for sentry duty and to guard prisoners, and they accompanied troops as mascots. In World War I, dogs served multiple roles as a sentry, red cross dog, messenger dog, and ambulance dog. Dogs were trained to detect enemy forces, to carry messages, to search the battlefields for wounded soldiers and evacuate the wounded by pulling small ambulance carts. Dogs also cheered up soldiers at the front and the wounded in hospitals.

During World War II America really got serious about using dogs to protect its military and military related property.

Scout dogs were also used to good advantage in Vietnam and served double duty as security dogs. Mine detector dogs and tunnel dogs were both trained during this conflict. Vietnam saw the development of the tracker dog. Tracker dogs were used to hunt down and reestablish contact with the enemy, so that the enemy could be destroyed.

War Dogs
War Dogs

The modern canine soldier is trained to save lives, not take them. American war dogs help our troops avoid potentially deadly encounters. They work as sentries on sensitive military installations, or lead their handlers to hidden caches of weapons, explosives, and drugs.

The organized use of dogs in law enforcement for the apprehension of criminals was established in the early 1900s. The idea of using dogs for police work was largely brought about by the development and organization of purebred dog clubs. The earliest examples of police dog programs were those of Germany, Belgium, and England.

A Friend as Well as a Partner

Dogs and humans have a relationship that is based on mutual support. Dogs have been successful as a species because they have adapted well to the needs and desires of humans for loyalty, companionship, and assistance. Dogs and people communicate effectively through voice, body language, and facial expressions, though in many ways dogs are much better at understanding humans than humans are at understanding dogs.

Dogs improve the quality of life, help people make a living, and save lives. Dogs can also reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

Dogs have great difficulty surviving on their own. Humans are necessary for their survival, and that is why they are so cooperative. Dogs respond to their owners' mood. They are sensitive to human emotions and negative emotions can make them sick.

Dogs are especially prized for their loyalty. A dog will never turn on you as long as you treat it right. Too bad that the same thing can't be said about people.



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