The Origin of Dogs

03.3.2016

Have you ever heard of a person being described as either “a dog person” or a “cat person”? According to this personality predictive model, the human condition is polarized into two very different character types. The cat people are aloof and obsessed with fashion and personal hygiene. The dog folks are overly friendly and prone to disgusting habits like scratching their irritated body parts and licking the last bits of melted ice cream out of a bowl. A dog person readily opens the fridge and drinks the milk directly out of the carton. A cat person pours himself or herself a glass of milk only after checking to make sure the glass is clean.

Cat people really do wish the dog people would dress better. Untucked shirts and facial stubble make the cat people cringe. The average cat devotes three to four hours of every day to grooming. Plus, many cats willingly groom other cats. Some cat people try to emulate this.

But, the world has not always been divided into dog and cat camps. Scientists have determined that dogs were domesticated many thousands of years before cats. Evidence from canine skeletons unearthed from caves in Europe suggests that dogs may have been living with people 30 000 years in the past. There are well documented cases of people having been buried with canine companions approximately 15 000 years ago.

Cats became domesticated much later. Archaeological digs in Cyprus have given us a time for the first human-feline cohabitation – 7 000 years ago.

I suppose all of this does make perfect sense. Dogs were quite happy to coexist with humans in cold and wet caves during the last ace age while cats waited a few millennia until humankind had created more acceptably sophisticated living arrangements. By seven thousand years ago, Cyprus had buildings that were dry and warm that housed sofas with pillows. Litterboxes were round, made from pottery, and filled with fine grained sand from the local beaches.

Believe it or not, the study of the origins of animal domestication is a serious academic pursuit and science has proven that the domestication of dogs precedes the domestication of all other species by a vast stretch of eons. This is substantiated by DNA analysis and also archaeology.

It has been proven that dogs were domesticated from wolves, but where this occurred is still a matter of debate. DNA evidence suggests that all domestic dogs trace their ancestry to southeast Asia. This may come as a surprise, but it is a current theory supported by genetic studies. The Shiba Inu and Shar-Pei are among the most ancient breeds. Other Asian breeds such as the Afghan and Siberian Husky are also very old.

Scientifically, the genetic evidence is difficult to refute. In prehistoric times, wolves may have been domesticated in several locations. However, it was a small group of wolves in southeast Asia that became the stock from which all of our current dog breeds emerged.
When the first North Americans migrated across the Bering land bridge approximately 15 000 years ago, they did so with their dogs. At that point in human history, no other mammals had been domesticated. When Europeans first arrived in the new world, they found civilizations where there were no horses, cattle, sheep or goats. The only domesticated mammals were the dog and new world camelids such as llamas and alpacas. By the time of Columbus’s arrival, dogs were found throughout the Americas, but the domesticated camelids were only present in South America. Their native range is the Andes and the Incas domesticated them 5000 years ago.

The horses we associate with the culture of the plains people like the Sioux did not arrive in North America until the 1500’s. The Spanish conquistadores brought horses to Mexico. Some of these wandered off and over the course of decades, multiplied and travelled north. Native North Americans were quick to see the usefulness of these creatures and they were soon part of their culture.

From 15 000 years ago until the arrival of Europeans 500 years ago, North American peoples had only one domesticated species – the dog. This a seldom contemplated fact and the lives of these dogs have mostly been forgotten or lost to history.

We do know that, dogs on the Great Plains were used for transporting loads by means of the travois. A harnessed dog would drag two cottonwood or aspen poles and cross bars would make a small surface onto which loads of firewood or food could be placed. The Inuit harnessed their dogs to sleds and this ancient mode of transportation remains very popular even today. Events like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest are testaments to the rich canine history in North America.

European explorers also described and illustrated many distinct breeds of dog in Canada. The Sahtu people of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories had a breed called the Hare Indian Dog. It was a small creature and was used as a sight hound for hunting. It is depicted as a shaggy coyote-like dog dressed in a thick white coat with grey patches. Unfortunately, its usefulness was supplanted by firearms and societal upheavals and these dogs disappeared as a distinct breed more than one hundred years ago.

Despite the aforementioned resurgence of dog sledding, the Canadian Inuit Dog was almost lost too and in the early 1970’s, the breed numbered only 200 individuals. A culling program to eliminate the threat of canine Rabies had perilously reduced the population and the advent of snow mobiles had made the breed obsolete. The Canadian government, the Canadian Kennel Club and several aficionados set up a breeding program in the nick of time and rescued The Canadian Inuit Dog from the brink of extinction. Today its survival is no longer at risk.

Here in British Columbia, the history of the province’s original dog breeds is no less poignant. The Tahltan Bear Dog was a a tough little pooch that only measured one foot tall, but was used to hunt bears and also cougars. When on a hunt, Northern BC natives would carry them in a sack until a bear track was found. When not hunting, they were companions and slept alongside their owners. Genetic studies have revealed the Tahltan Bear Dog to be an ancient breed that migrated to North America thousands of years ago. The last of the these dogs died in the 1960s.

Closer to home, existed the Salish Wool Dog. Coveted by the coastal tribes, they were kept separate from all other dogs and fed almost exclusively salmon. Their thick white fur was coveted and once yearly, the dogs were were shorn for their fleece that was woven into Salish blankets. The last wool dog died in 1940. The arrival of domesticated sheep had sadly resulted in their abandonment and eventual extinction.

In recent times, designer dogs have replaced the bear dogs and the wool dogs that once lived in this part of the world. I wish a few of those native dogs had survived, but I suppose it is inevitable that civilizations and dog breeds come and go. At least the human-dog bond has endured 15 000 years and is unlikely to end anytime soon.