Scientists Still Guessing At Origins Of Domestic Dogs

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Recently, I mentioned a documentary that appeared on Channel 8 titled, "Dogs That Changed the World."

For generations, people have been attempting to track the origination of the dog. Many felt they evolved from wolves, but mysteries remained.

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Did the wolf actually turn itself into a dog during the Stone Age? Wherever and however the transition happened, the dog has come a long way in 15,000 years.

In this documentary, they refer to the change from wolf to dog as happening in "the blink of an eye." Some scientists actually believe that it happened during a single human lifetime. It was long believed that early people would find wolf cubs and raise them, thus domesticating them. Dr. Raymond Coppinger believes that in order to domesticate a wolf, you would have to take it from its mother at 13 days of age. He maintains that the people of the Stone Age did not have the time, inclination or knowledge to bottle-raise a wolf. He feels that the wolf turned itself into a dog during the Stone Age.

Fifteen thousand years ago, humans began living in permanent settlements. Along with these settlements came dumping grounds. Naturally, the dumps attracted animals. These animals would struggle between themselves and the weaker ones were run off. But also, those more fearful of humans would run off. The less fearful ones stayed nearby and got the best of the garbage.

Some believe that, at this time, the wolves divided, depending on their fear of flight distance. The wolves that were less fearful parented less fearful offspring. Since they were now rummaging for their food rather than bringing down prey, their physical structure also changed.

In 1950, an experiment was carried out at a fox farm in what was then the Soviet Union. Many of the foxes were extremely frightened of humans and therefore were too stressed to breed. They decided to only breed foxes that were tolerant of people. The test to determine those less fearful involved putting a gloved hand and arm into each cage. The foxes for the breeding program were selected from how they reacted to this contact. As the less fearful foxes were bred to other less fearful foxes, very quickly, the subsequent generations of foxes were gentle, friendly and loved to be around people. They became house pets.

But, surprisingly, as they were selecting for tameness, along with this came a cascade of other changes. The set of genes resulting in colors of black and white also impacted on the entire makeup of the animal. The fight or flight hormone is chemically connected with the skin and fur hormone. Alterations in one system resulted in a domino effect, from color to behaviors.

This study with foxes is very significant in leading to the belief that there could be a sudden transformation from wolves to dogs, including color, body shape, head and jaw function.

The dog was the very first wild creature to become domesticated and live among us. They made a lasting impact on cultures and civilizations around the world. They worked as healers, herders, guardians, hunters and guides.

In Mexico, a particular hairless dog is said to relieve the pain of rheumatism and arthritis when one holds the hairless, newborn puppy next to the painful joint.

Wolves do not bark. They howl.

Early dogs, it is believed, did not howl. However, because of their value as hunters and guardians, barking became a sought after characteristic. Don't blame the dog. It was humans who chose the bark.

The bond between human and dog, and the dogs usefulness, caused them to travel with the humans wherever they went. Thus, they were quickly found throughout the world.

Every culture has its story about the creation of these animals. Today, scientists are trying to track down the place of their origin. Professor Peter Savolainen is gathering DNA samples from dogs around the world and developing a database. The results clearly indicate that the one place on earth is the homeland of all dogs -- East Asia. Now, they are working to pinpoint the exact location but they believe it is China or Siberia.

Dogs have a phenomenal ability to adapt to any climate it encounters.

One of the most amazing adaptations is to the frozen lands of the Arctic Circle. These dogs came from Asia and now can thrive in temperatures of -58 degrees and they never sleep inside. They have become endurance athletes and are the fastest land animal, over long distances. In the Arctic, man depends on the skills of the dogs to warn them of weak spots in the ice, to help them find food and to find the way home during a blizzard. It is an example of harsh natural selection. Puppies are born on the ice and only the toughest survive.

Throughout the world, dogs are asked to do work that humans cannot do, including herding in rugged terrain. The herding dog is one of the most amazing dogs, combining natural instinct and responding to human body language, words and a variety of sounds.

Dogs, after 15,000 years of evolution, have mastered the art of reading human emotions and language in remarkable ways. Dogs have earned a fundamental place in the human heart.

Part two of this documentary, "Dogs by Design," will be covered in a future column.

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