With tiny scraps of dog, great hulking giants, long-legged or short-legged pooches, long fur, fluffy fur, curly coats and smooth coats, flat-faces and long-noses, there’s such an amazing variety on show that, yes, it is truly impressive that a small child can fairly well identify that essential element that makes a dog a dog. Perhaps it’s something to do with our special bond and co-evolution with the dog?
Visiting vet and dog expert Bruce Fogle at the Natural History Museum in Tring, Martin Clunes discusses dog evolution and dog breeds with him. Bruce believes, “The dog is self-domesticated.”
“These [Asian] wolves [brought to Europe when Asian people migrated across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia] took advantage of the new environment that human habitation created when we became agricultural. Wolves realised there were rich pickings by moving in on our campsites. The ones that survived were the ones small enough to live off what they could scavenge, because they were no longer catching large game. The humans had captured the large game."
Breeds like the pariah dog are genetically very close to the original wolf:
“If you compare its teeth to the Asian wolf, you’ll see that they’re more compacted. The vrain is smaller because the animal no longer has a large territory to cover, so navigating territories was no longer so important. The intestinal tract is shorter, because it had a smaller variety of foods to eat. All those changes were due to natural selection, not to our intervention.”
Probably one of the first ‘breeds’ humans intervened to develop would have been sighthounds like the saluki. The breed is thousands of years old and would have been specifically selected and bred for longer legs and thick muscles for fast running and hunting.
Dogs that barked loudly or at the slightest sound – like my collie! – would have been selected and bred for guarding.
Some dogs would have been selected and bred to give companionship, comfort, or just because they were appealing in some way – the same then as now.
Nowadays, ‘breed standards’ have strict rules about size, shape and colour. Many of the characteristics we originally selected for were actually a mutation or deviation from the norm in the original dog and were (and are) the cause of pain or health issues.
By breeding from a limited gene pool in order to meet the breed standards, “we haven’t always helped our best friends.”
Dogs like the Bernese Mountain Dog, as little as 40 years ago, were actually an aggressive breed, in general, originally bred as guarding dogs. Breeding since that time for a gentle temperament has created a gentle companion, a placid family dog, but has shortened life expectancy and increased risk of serious medical problems because of such a small group of dogs being used in their breeding.