“Man’s best friend.” It’s a phrase that excludes women and non-binary people, and spits in the face of cat lovers. Even so, it’s somehow synonymous with dogs of all shapes and sizes, and the role they play in our lives. For as long as humans have kept records, dogs have been our companions, sentries, hunting partners, and confidantes. They’ve helped us to source food, raise our children, fend off predators, navigate terrain, warn against sickness, and stay alive. In short, we wouldn’t be where we are if humans and dogs didn’t share a bond.
In the past, we’ve written about where dogs came from, and how they first learned to live side-by-side with humans. However, our furry friends have changed a lot since the days in which our ancestors hunted mammoths to survive. The Papillon sitting out the front of an Armadale cafe has come a long way from the first canines, and the reasons are more complex than many would think. In fact, the evolution of dogs is one of the greatest collaborations between humans and nature in the history. Not only have dogs “trained” humans to care for them, humans have learned to highlight the best in each breed. The cornucopia of canine breeds we see today are the fruit of 10s of thousands of years of coexistence. They’re the result of a bond that puts mosts human alliances to shame – and their numbers will only grow.
If you’ve ever wondered how and why man’s best friend evolved from one breed into many, read on!
Let’s start at the very beginning
Before we look into how dogs became dogs, we must know how long they’ve lived and worked with humans. When we first wrote about it, experts believed humans domesticated dogs between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago. However, more recent research suggests pooches have lived among us for up to 40,000 years. Prior to that, the dog as we know it belonged to a now-extinct species of wolf. What’s more, these wolves were no friends to the human race; rather, they were competitors and, in some cases, enemies. These wolves hunted many of the same prey as our forebears, and would have feasted on humans when hungry. Humans, for our part, would have slaughtered these wolves to protect our food sources and ourselves. In a nutshell, it was a far cry from the cozy bond we enjoy with pooches today.
Experts suggest the turning point was triggered not by humans, but by wolves. With humans forming groups to hunt mammoths and other large prey, some wolves discovered a simpler way to survive. Instead of warring with humans for a live mammoth, they could simply follow groups of mammoth-hunting humans. By doing so, they could pick at the carcass remnants left by the triumphant human hunters. The humans, in turn, would have realised the presence of the wolves wasn’t such a bad thing. They would deter other predators from moving against the hunters, which would make their lives much easier.
Over time, this arrangement would have evolved for both parties. Humans would start to willingly leave scraps for the wolves, who would track new prey and fend off other predators. At this point, evolution would have reached a fork in the road, with the wolf species splitting in two. On one side of the family would sit the grey wolf, and on the other, man’s best friend.
Humans and dogs: the bond that built the world
Once humans and dogs had forged this symbiotic bond, it’s easy to grasp how the first breed of dog evolved. Hunters would have killed any dogs who were hostile to humans, while the friendly pups would have bred and flourished. In such a fashion, those first generations of dog paved the way for their pups to become man’s best friend. Meanwhile, their lupine cousins would live and hunt beyond the sphere of human influence – just as their ancestors did. They would depend on us for nothing, seeing us as something between a nuisance and a threat.
Within a few decades, the roles of humans and dogs would have defined themselves more clearly. Indeed, the first breed of dog would have shared many skills with the German Shepherd: capable of herding animals, tracking quarry, and guarding their Homo Sapien allies.
However, for every breed that shows a likeness to the first dogs, you’ll find 10 that don’t. For instance, how does this active, powerful proto-breed relate to the Yorkshire Terrier, which can fit inside a handbag? Or the Beagle, which is too friendly to serve as a guard dog?
Without a doubt, up to 40,000 years of selective breeding has had a key role in shaping different breeds. Indeed, humans and dogs tended to each other’s evolutions since the advent of their bond. But to what extent have humans and dogs’ environment played a part? Have dogs that live and breed near the ocean evolved to swim by virtue of their home territory? Are pooches that hail from the mountains better equipped to deal with the high altitude? And if so, how much is due to nature, and how much is a result of nurture?
To answer these questions, we look at two different breeds and assess the role nature of nurture in their evolution.
Breed #1: the Saint Bernard
If you’re looking for a pooch to embody the image of “man’s best friend”, look no further than the Saint Bernard. These days, the breed is famous thanks to the 1992 family flick Beethoven (and its litter of sequels). However, back in the 1700s, Europeans (namely the Swiss) revered the Saint Bernard for its service as a rescue dog. The monks of the Swiss-based Saint Bernard Hospice trained these dogs to save lost travellers on a perilous mountain pass.
The reason these pups were ideal for rescue work was due to their unique physical features. Their hulking frames allowed them to plough through snow, while their dense coats let them withstand the cold. Similarly, their sense of smell empowered them to find stranded travellers, then track their way back to the hospice.
It would be easy to give nature the sole credit for the Saint Bernard’s prowess. After all, the breed evolved in a region that is, at its peak, around 8,000 feet above sea level. Any species that hopes to live in such a climate needs to possess the right traits to survive. Breeds with thinner coats and smaller frames would have died off, leaving the Saint Bernard to prosper. However, nurture deserves its share of the kudos as well.
Most dog breed groups agree the Saint Bernard was likely the product of cross-breeding during the era of Emperor Augustus. Take Mastiff-like dogs from the Roman Empire, mix them with native Swiss Alpine dogs, and voila! You have the early version of a Saint Bernard. Whether or not the Romans of 10AD intentionally bred their Mastiffs with the Swiss dogs isn’t clear. What is clear, though, is that humans are adept at fine-tuning dog breeds to match their surroundings.
Remember how, around 40,000 years ago, our ancestors killed hostile dogs and bred friendly ones? Well, since then, we’ve only refined the concept. This breed didn’t appear in written records until 1703 – roughly 1,700 years after the Roman dogs mated with Alpine locals. This gave breeders roughly 1,700 years to hone the traits that make the Saint Bernard perfect for alpine rescue duty. In other words, the “Bernie” is a perfect example of how nature and nurture can entwine to shape a breed.
Case Study #2: the British Bulldog
Admittedly, the Saint Bernard had time on their side. After all, they did spend the better part of two millennia adapting to their climate. However, if you want a breed that evolved in a short time, the British Bulldog is the pooch for you. Their underbite, their stocky frame, their hardy rolls of skin – every trait they possessed was a product of selective breeding. Much like the Bernie, the British Bulldog is believed to have descended from the Roman Mastiff. However, whereas Swiss breeders refined the Saint Bernard for alpine life and work, English breeders moulded the Bulldog for violence. All of those classic British Bulldog features we just listed? They all facilitated the bloodsport of bullbaiting, in which their Owners forced them to compete from the 16th century.
Thankfully, English authorities outlawed bullbaiting within 200 years. In response, breeders embarked on an evolutionary quest to morph the vicious British Bulldog into a wrinkly ball of cuddles. Their aim was clear: retain the physical aspects of the Bulldog while phasing out the strand of aggressive behaviour. Fast forward another hundred years, and we have this marvellous creature:
By only breeding the smallest and most gentle British Bulldogs, 19th century breeders gave dog lovers a gift. They turned a bull-mauling terror into man’s best friend, and showcased the power of selective breeding.
“Okay, but how did those first dogs evolve from one breed to many?”
…we hear you ask. The truth is, the techniques that sculpted the Saint Bernard or the British Bulldog also birthed the first dog breeds. While all dogs may have hailed from one breed, each dog would have possessed different traits. For example, some of the first dogs may have been large, and some may have been small. If they lived in a region swarming with predators, humans would have exclusively bred the larger dogs. Of these, the dogs who displayed a protective bond towards their humans would have kept siring puppies. This would have spawned a breed of dog like the Boxer: quick, powerful, and able to tangle with large creatures.
In other regions, though, predators may not have been a problem. Instead, perhaps rodents were the issue: small, insidious creatures that pilfered food stores and spread sickness. Here, big dogs wouldn’t have been of much use. They wouldn’t be nimble enough to catch a rat, nor compact enough to chase them into their holes. As a result, humans in these areas would focus on breeding the smaller, wily dogs. From this nascent breeding programme, the dogs that proved the most adept at killing rats would breed further. Before you knew it, breeders were shaping the early moulds for breeds like the Jack Russell and the Scottish Terrier.
Within a short time, humans would have found a dog type for every problem. A sharp, nimble, mid-sized dog with an urge to run all day? You have the earliest form of the Border Collie. A big dog with a bite too soft to injure predators or prey? You have the first guise of the Golden Retriever – capable of fetching felled birds on the hunt without damaging them. Even small, gentle pooches like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel would have served a purpose. By acting as companion dogs to children, they would have introduced the youngsters to the concept of a canine bond. In short, man’s best friend was quick to take many forms.
Yes, the countless breeds we see today are the result of refined and scientific breeding efforts. However, the principles haven’t much changes since the dawn of the human-canine rapport.
What does the future hold for man’s best friend?
In their mission to create new and appealing breeds of dog, some modern breeders have spawned health problems for pooches. Many flat nose breeds suffer serious breathing issues, while poor breeding practices can lead to hip displaysia in some dogs. As is sadly the case in many human pursuits, lifeforms can suffer when people put profit ahead of compassion.
However, for all of these problems, the bond between humans and dogs has never been stronger. Pups are present in all walks of society, and our knowledge of sound breeding practices is more advanced than ever. While backyard breeders do exist, groups such as the Kennel Clubs and Dogz Online now exist to promote ethical breeding. So long as their health needs are always met, dogs can remain man’s best friend ’til the end of time.