Interesting Tidbits on the History of Dogs

September 25, 2013



By Linda Cole

Regardless of how human and canine paths came together, the history we share is unique and special. Early dogs weren’t the cuddly, family-friendly pets we cherish today, and domestication was likely initiated by the animal and not by man. The history of dogs is filled with fascinating facts.

Dogs, wolves, coyotes, dingoes, jackals and foxes are members of the Canis Family. (Canis comes from the Greek word kūon and means “dog”). These animals are opportunistic, adaptable, intelligent and found in every habitat on Earth. Their early history goes back to around 65 million years ago to a carnivore that resembled a weasel, the Miacis (My-ah-sis) that made its home in trees and dens in Europe, China and North America. These creatures evolved into the Tomarctus (Toe-mark-tus), a hyena-like animal that lived about 15 million years ago and lived throughout North America. These animals are thought to be direct ancestors of the Canis Family – prehistoric dogs.

The Tomarctus had five toes on their back feet, but as it evolved into Canids, the fifth toe became immature, and the remnants of the fifth toe are seen in the dew claws found on the back feet of wolves and some dog breeds.

One of the first Canids, the dawn-wolf, looked like a fox with an elongated body. This creature was as cat-like as he was dog-like, living in and climbing through trees. It’s believed this animal could be related to the feline species as well as to Canids.

Because the domestication process happened so long ago, and archaeological findings have provided small clues, scientists are divided on the evolution of wolves. They are equally divided on the origin of where wolves first lived. One theory says Canids began in North America before spreading out to areas in South America and Asia.

It’s possible the grey wolf had a smaller ancestor that crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to Siberia where it evolved before making its way back to Canada and the United States as the wolf we know today. And a third theory suggests Canids began in North America, found their way to Asia, and then migrated back.

The Dire Wolf was common in North and South America, but quickly became extinct about 14,000 years ago. What puzzles scientist is why the larger wolf died out while the smaller grey wolf flourished. This happened about the same time the grey wolf was moving towards domestication. Large numbers of skeletons of Dire Wolves have been found at the Rancho La Brea tar pits in California.

English Mastiff

In ancient Egypt, dogs were highly prized and when a pet died, their owner shaved off their eyebrows, covered their hair with mud, and mourned their loss for all to hear for days.

Mastiffs and Great Danes were used in the Middle Ages during battles and to defend supply caravans. To make them look more impressive, the dogs wore suits of armor with spiked collars.

To make sure peasants’ mixed breeds dogs couldn’t mate with royal hunting dogs, peasant dogs were forced to wear blocks around their neck to prevent breeding.

After the fall of Rome, breeding and training dogs ceased as humans struggled to survive this difficult time. Packs of abandoned dogs traveled the countryside terrorizing people, and the legend of werewolves began.

In Chinese astrology, if you’re born under the sign of the dog you are loyal, responsible, sincere, compassionate, honest, reliable and a good listener. Years under the sign of the dog are: 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994 and 2006.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato is quoted as saying, “A dog has the soul of a philosopher.”

Cave paintings in Spain as old as 12,000 years are the earliest known images of dogs.

In China, dog trainers during ancient times were idolized.

The first guide dogs were trained in Germany after WW I to help soldiers who lost their sight during the war.

Japanese Chin

Japanese Chin

The cat-like Japanese Chin and the Pekingese were treated like royalty. These breeds were extremely important during ancient times in East and Southeast Asia. The dogs were highly prized and had their own servants. When a dog was given as a gift to a king or emperor, they were carried along established trade routes to their destination.

The Bloodhound has been tracking criminals and finding lost people since the Middle Ages.

Dogs were likely domesticated before cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys, horses, chickens or cats.

In England during the 1300s and 1400s, the Beagle rose in popularity during the reign of King Henry VII.

Archaeological excavation of ancient Roman cities have uncovered mosaics found on doorsteps of homes that said “Beware the Dog.”

Top photo by SD Dirk
Middle photo by Claudio Gennari
Bottom photo by Alex Archambault

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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