October 7, 2020
Dogs and humans have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for thousands of years. This relationship is perhaps older than civilisation itself, and evidence of it has been found all over the world. Dogs truly are man’s best friend, and the story of how this came to be is fascinating. The fact that this relationship is still developing is a testimony to just how strong it has become.
Dogs are both closely related to and descended from the Grey Wolf. While many refer to dogs as “house wolves”, the assumption that dogs are simply tame wolves is erroneous. Over thousands of years they have evolved into a distinct species, and are as different from wolves as humans are from chimpanzees. Similarly, certain fox breeds may superficially appear similar to dogs, but the two are anatomically and behaviourally different. For example, a Chihuahua may appear very similar to the North African Fennec Fox, they are in fact more closely related to Great Danes and German Shepherd Dogs.
How wolves transitioned into dogs, though, is a question which has attracted significant amounts of interest and debate. One theory of how dogs originated is that humans themselves domesticated and trained wolves, and after generations of breeding this became the distinctive dog we know today. However, a more likely alternative is that certain wolves domesticated themselves into what became the modern dog. One of the most common characteristics of wild animals, including wolves, is a natural fear of humans and flight instinct. In other words, wolves naturally respond to seeing humans by running away from them. However, this is not the case in all animals. Recent experiments conducted on foxes showed that when subjects demonstrating the most friendliness and least fear towards humans were bred, they could be domesticated over a number of generations.
Perhaps the most credible theory of how dogs were domesticated is that wolves who did not naturally fear humans naturally gravitated towards early settlements, most likely to scavenge food waste. As it was easier to live off the foodstuffs humans discarded than hunt, these wolves remained close to settled humans. At some point, humans will have realised that this brought them practical benefits as well, most notably security. In addition, though, a bonding process will have started with these wolves and humans beginning to connect on an emotional level. This bonding is what cemented the timeless connection between humans and dogs, and elevated them from merely providing practical benefits.
Scientific studies conducted on both humans and dogs have demonstrated increased levels of Oxytocin (a hormone released during bonding processes) when they are in each other’s presence. Put simply, dogs and humans feel happier when they are with each other. Unlike wild animals, dogs actively form strong social bonds with humans they then seek affection from, and over time this relationship became reciprocal.
The utility of dogs to modern humans has endured and continues to evolve. In addition to acting as companions, modern dogs serve humans by providing security, pest control, and even search and rescue in disaster scenarios. The bond between man and dog is truly timeless, and unlikely to be one we ever see the end of.