The Evolution Of The Family Dog



After discussing breeds and behavior of dogs, it is interesting to examine their history.

Although scientists do not agree on many aspects of dog's evolution, wild dogs have been roaming the earth for millions of years.


What would Higgins' ancestors think if they got a load of this pooch all decked out for Halloween?

Canids are mammals characterized by pointed canine teeth, (developed for an omnivorous diet) and a skeleton built for a mode of walking or running called digitgrade (walking on the toes without the heels touching the ground). The dewclaw is a remnant of earlier times.

The modern Canid family includes three sub-families: Cuoninae, Otocyoninae and the familiar Caninae, which includes the dog, wolf, fox, jackal and coyote.

Canis etruscus (Etruscan dog) appeared one to two million years ago. Despite its smaller size, it is thought to be the ancestor of European wolves.

Canis cypio, which lived in the Pyrenees eight million years ago, seems to be the ancestor of modern jackals and coyotes.

More than 45 wolf sub-species have been classified and this diversity helps explain the diversity of dog breeds. The DNA of dogs more closely matches that of the wolf than the coyote, but though most breeds of dogs are said to be descended from wolves, some researchers believe certain breeds of dogs might be descended from coyotes. Wolves and dogs do interbreed, but many feel that dogs and coyotes do not. Canin familiaris (dogs) were so named because their ancient remains have always been found near human skeletons.

What is presumed to be the oldest pictures of dogs were found on the tomb of Amten in Egypt, which dates to the fourth dynasty, between 2900 and 2751 B.C. These carvings in stone show sleek hounds hunting gazelle. Later carvings show a variety of dogs used for guarding flocks and protecting the home fires.

Cicero wrote about 2000 years ago, "Such fidelity of dogs in protecting what is committed to their charge, such affectionate attachment to their masters, such jealousy of strangers, such incredible acuteness of nose in following a track, such keenness in hunting -- what else do they evince but that these animals were created for the use of man." Fido, a common name for a dog, is the Latin word for faithful.

The little dogs of luxury, such as the Maltese, Pomeranian and Pekinese, are among the oldest of breeds and were found in noble homes and royal palaces from the Mediterranean to the Orient.

The baffling variety of dogs seen today once served a practical purpose. The dachshund's body was sausage shape so he could wiggle into the badger's den. The sled dog's fur coat and plumed tail functioned as sleeping bag and muffler. Hunting dogs became specialists, bred for quickness, strength, sight and scent acuteness.

Changes of the past 50 years have done as much to affect the dog than his entire history. From cavemen to farmers, dogs lived and worked with their families, herding, guarding, hunting and rescuing. Finally, their work was mostly gone. They ran free on the farm and even in town. As cities grew and cars took over the world, dogs were fenced and their people spent the day away at school and work. Dogs were alone and bored.

With nothing to do, dogs began digging, barking, chewing up stuff and biting people. We got mad and confined them to a small kennel in the yard. We put food out and gave them water and we wondered why they seemed apathetic.

A study reported in USA Today (Sept. 26, 2003) reports that 75 percent of canine genes have equivalents in the human body. We must give dogs credit for having intelligence and not only the eagerness to learn but the need to be taught so they can feel useful and fit into our world of today.

Throughout history, dogs have wanted to work beside their people and please them. They still do. We must give them opportunities and show them how.

(Resources used in the column include: The Complete Dog Book of the American Kennel Club, Man's Best Friend - the National Geographic Book of Dogs, and The Royal Canin Dog Encyclopedia)

Christy Wrather can be reached by e-mail at or by phone or fax -- (928) 476-2239.

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