Dogs are known as man’s best friend for a reason—they’ve been by our side for tens of thousands of years. But how did they go from being wolves to lap dogs? Let’s dive into a brief history of dogs.
45,000 Years Ago
When ancient humans migrated to Europe, they competed for food and shelter with Neanderthals and wolves. Although wolves and humans were natural competitors, archaeologists believe that wolves who were kicked out of their packs found allies in bands of humans. The wolves alerted them to danger and in return they dined on bones and other meal scraps—now that’s the beginning of a beautiful (and generous) friendship.
31,700 Years Ago
Mietje Germonpré and a team of scientists unearthed the bones of an ancient canid in a cave in Belgium, and their research indicates that it is not a wolf. It more closely resembles other prehistoric dogs and is currently the oldest example we have of wolves evolving into something totally new and different species from their wild ancestors.
15,000 Years Ago
The first bones of domesticated dogs appear in the fossil record in Western Europe. These canines look much more like the animals we recognize as modern dogs today, and evidence showed that their behavior became more dog-like too. They made the leap from tame animals (wild animals who are acclimated to human behavior) to domestic animals (a multi-generational process of selective breeding to create an animal engineered to have the traits we desire).
12,500 Years Ago
Domesticated dogs appear in the fossil record in Eastern Asia. Palaeogenomics and bio-archaeology expert Greger Larson of the University of Oxford believes that this is a totally separate instance of dog domestication. He states that the minimal evidence of domestic dog fossils anywhere between Western Europe and Eastern Asia for another 4,500 years makes it extremely unlikely that they migrated from one location to the other. Basically, dogs are so good that we domesticated them twice!
It seems that this Asian population of dogs dominated as they spread across the globe—genetic studies show that only 10% of modern dogs can trace their ancestry back to the Western European breeds.
10,000 Years Ago
The First Agricultural Revolution began in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East almost 12,000 years ago as human populations began to settle down and start farming instead of hunting and gathering. Fast-forward 2,000 years and dogs got jobs for the first time as they were bred to match this new farming lifestyle. Whereas dogs had previously relied on their natural instincts for hunting and protecting their pack, they were now bred for herding, guarding livestock, and other specialized roles.
9,000 Years Ago
A thriving population of dogs was living in the Americas at least 9,000 years ago. Genetic evidence shows that they did not evolve from American wolves, but instead from a population of ancestral early dogs that migrated across the land bridge from Siberia to North America with humans. They were domesticated over time here in the Americas to create a whole range of native American dog breeds. (Meaning dogs were so good, we domesticated them at least three times.)
Unfortunately, the native American dogs almost entirely died out and were replaced with European dogs in the 15th century. The closest living relatives of these early American dogs are American Arctic dogs, including the Alaskan husky, Alaskan malamute, and Greenland dog.
8,000 Years Ago
Historical records show the first mentions of the Basenji: the oldest dog breed still around today. This African dog still has many traits more in common with its ancient ancestors than other modern dogs, including the fact that they howl and yodel instead of bark and lack that classic dog smell. They may be the great-great-granddaddies of the dog world, but they’re still recognized by the American Kennel Club!
6,000 Years Ago
The very first cities were formed by the ancient Sumerians in Mesopotamia, and dogs quickly became urban companions. By 3,300 BCE, the Sumerians invented the dog’s most popular accessories: the collar and leash.
4,000 Years Ago
Long before Toto and Lassie hit our screens, the Sumerians also gave dogs starring roles in their pop culture. Ancient tablets titled “The Show Dog” and “Why the Dog is Subservient to Man” were prominent literature. (We’re still waiting for them to be turned into coffee table books.) The Sumerians loved dogs so much that they were the first culture to include them in their pantheon of gods!
2,000 Years Ago
When Rome invaded Britain in 43 CE, they were shocked by how strong and fierce the British dogs were that joined their fighters on the battlefield. Before long, Europe developed a voracious market for ferocious war dogs who could fight on the battlefield and in coliseums.
At the same time, Romans also bred small toy dogs that became the hottest accessory in the city. They were most likely bred to be cute companion animals, but this was conveniently right around the same time that the black rat population went wild in Europe—meaning they could be lap dogs and pest control in one.
1,400 Years Ago
A French monk named Hubert spent his life breeding large hunting dogs that specialized in tracking down scents of different animals. Hubert would go on to become Saint Hubert, the patron saint of hunters, and his dogs became the ancestors of today’s bloodhounds.
270 Years Ago
Dogs gained another essential job in the 1750s when the staff at a Paris hospital for the blind began training dogs to help their patients. By 1819, Johann Wilhelm Klein, founder of the Institute for the Training of the Blind in Vienna, Austria, published the world’s first guide dog training manual.
There are countless other notable moments in the history of humans and dogs, but what’s clear is that dogs have remained our constant companions for the last, oh, 45,000 years or so! Today, we celebrate our relationship with our canine companions with joyful festivals in Nepal, the Iditarod race across some of the most grueling terrain in the United States, and star-studded dog shows across the globe.
Dogs have a noble history (and many more amazing events to come, we’re sure), so break out the popcorn and the dog treats and celebrate your pooch and their hardworking, lovable ancestors that came before them.