Approximately 30% of the people living in the UK have a wolf in their living room. The dog is nothing more than a domesticated subspecies of the grey wolf, and although most breeds of dog look vastly different, they are all almost genetically identical to their wild ancestor.
The story of the dog begins at least 15,000 years ago, and probably even earlier. We do not know whether the domestication of wild wolves was a single event that eventually spread, or if it occurred independently in different places across the planet. It also remains unknown as to how dogs were domesticated in the first place. One popular theory is that their wolf ancestors invited themselves along by scavenging leftovers from human campsites, gradually becoming less and less scared of humans, whereas others think that humans actually adopted wolf pups, even breastfeeding them along with their own babies, and that natural selection favoured those with milder temperaments.
There are around 400 breeds of dog in the world today but they all belong to the same subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris. In theory, any dog breed could mate with both their wild wolf ancestors and with each other, although the great size differences in some breeds can make this not only difficult in practise but also downright dangerous. The huge diversity of dogs that we see today is all down to humans carefully selecting what they see as valuable inherited traits, whether for practical reasons or just because they are aesthetically pleasing. The desired traits – short legs, for example – are selected time and time again, so that dogs with slightly shorter legs than normal that are bred together will eventually give rise to a variety that has very short legs.
The bodies of almost every dog breed has come about because mankind has had some kind of use for it. The dachshund, for example, has a long, sausage-like body so that it could historically pursue badgers into their setts (‘badger’ in German is dachs). The large Doberman was bred by Karl Freiderich Louise Doberman in Germany in 1890 because he needed a new type of dog that could protect him from bandits as he went around the towns collecting tax money. Greyhounds, the second-fastest accelerating animal on the planet after the cheetah, were first bred to have a thin, streamlined and flexible body in Egypt around 3,500 BC to hunt down swift gazelles.
And we haven’t just used dogs for their bodies – we’ve also made ample use of their senses and hunting abilities. Bulldogs were bred so they could bring down bulls, jumping up at them, grabbing their lip and pulling them down. Basset hounds were bred in France to hunt rabbits and hares, and their sense of smell for tracking is second only to the bloodhound. They were used by the not-so-wealthy countrymen who hunted on foot and needed a dog with a keen nose, but also one that wouldn’t outpace them (hence the basset hound’s short, stumpy legs).
The English Springer spaniel was bred to flush out gamebirds; the pointer to guide humans to hidden birds using its sharp eyesight and to point its body in the right direction but not attack; and the retriever to pick up birds that had been shot, usually in the water, and bring them back to the hunter. Even the poodle was originally used for duck hunting; its name actually comes from the German word pudel, meaning ‘to splash about’ (note the similarity between the dog’s name and the word ‘puddle’).
Over the centuries, dogs have been used as hunting companions, herders, watchdogs, guide dogs and, of course, just our friends. They can detect drugs, smuggled animals, landmines and even cancer with their superb sense of smell. They’ve been into space and fought in wars. They are even used in the conservation of other species; Anatolian shepherd dogs, a large breed from Turkey pictured below, protect livestock in Africa and scare away cheetahs, which means that fewer cheetahs are trapped and killed by farmers for threatening their animals.
As you can see, the different roles that dogs have played in both historic and modern times are almost limitless. There is no doubt that Canis lupus familiaris, the first and most popular of all our domesticated animals, will prove its worth for many more years to come.