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The dog: How did it become man’s best friend?

The 11th of February marks the opening of Westminster Kennel Club’s 137th Annual All Breed Dog Show. First held in 1877, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is America’s second-longest continuously held sporting event, behind only the Kentucky Derby. The Westminster Dog Show epitomizes our long-standing tradition of domestication of dogs, but how did we arrive at such a moment in human and dog relations? The Encyclopedia of Mammals, edited by David MacDonald, offers some explanation as to how this species went from being wild prey-hunters to “best in show,” and from defending territories to defending last year’s titles.

The Dog Family

Dogs playing with a stickCanids originated in North America during the Eocene (55–34 million years ago), from which five fossil genera are known.

Canids evolved for fast pursuit of prey in open grasslands, and their anatomy is clearly adapted to this life. Although the 36 species and 13 genera vary in size from the tiny fennec fox to the large gray wolf, all but one have lithe builds, long bushy tails, long legs, and digitigrade, four‐toed feet with nonretractile claws.

Life in the Pack

The most striking feature of the canids is their opportunistic and adaptable behavior. This is most evident in the flexible complexity of their social organization. Remarkably, there is in this respect almost as much variation within as between species. Though African wild dogs, and possibly dholes and bush dogs, almost always hunt in packs, gray wolves, coyotes, and jackals feed on prey ranging from ungulates to berries. Partly as a result, they lead social lives that vary from solitary to sociable – gray wolves may live in isolated monogamous pairs, or in packs of up to 20 members.

These species, and some others like red and arctic foxes, live in groups even where large prey does not abound and where they hunt alone. Indeed, there are many other reasons for group living – cooperative defense of territories or large carcasses, communal care of offspring, rivalry with neighboring groups. This is clearly illustrated by the Ethiopian wolf, which lives in packs but almost never hunts cooperatively, its prey being largely rodents.

Dogs under Threat

For all their adaptability, members of the dog family cannot escape the indirect threat of habitat destruction. The small‐eared dog and the bush dog are seen so rarely that there are fears for their futures. The Ethiopian wolf numbers some 500 individuals, the African wild dog 5,000 individuals, and the maned wolf a few thousand in its Argentine and Brazilian strongholds. These species are all threatened. The plight of the sociable canids is especially intense insofar as they are victims of the so‐called Allee Effect – that is, at low numbers they enter a downward spiral to extinction. African wild dogs depend on cooperation, so packs with fewer than about five members enter a vortex of decline because they are too small to simultaneously hunt, defend kills, and babysit. Thus, the African wild dogs are even more threatened than their population of 5,000 might suggest, this being equivalent to no more than 700 viable packs across the continent.


Dog lying downVarious origins have been proposed for domestic dogs, and doubtless many different canids have been partly domesticated at one time or another. Even so, the wolf is generally accepted as the most likely ancestor of today’s domestic dogs. Domestic dogs are thus known to science as a subspecies of wolf – Canis lupus familiaris. The earliest known archaeological indication of domestication comes from a single canine jawbone unearthed at a site in Germany. More foreshortened than that of a wolf, with the teeth more closely packed together, this find is thought to be around 14,000 years old. Other early remains of what are believed to be domestic dogs include a specimen from Coon in Iran, which dates back over 11,000 years. These various discoveries demonstrate that the wolf entered into domestic partnership with man before any other animal species and before the cultivation of plants for food. Indeed, recent molecular evidence suggests that dogs may even have been domesticated as much as 100,000 years ago.

The precise circumstances of domestication have been the subject of considerable speculation. Various theories have been advanced that center on our ancestors’ deliberate use of wolves for practical purposes: hunting, guarding, tidying carrion and refuse around settlements, or even as food items. However, it is equally likely that domestication simply came about by accident, with hunter–gatherer societies capturing and raising young wild animals as pets.

Adapted from the entry on the ‘Dog Family’ in The Encyclopedia of Mammals edited by David MacDonald, also available online as part of Oxford Reference. Copyright © Brown Bear Books 2013. David MacDonald is Founder and Director of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit.

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