Monday, April 6, 2009

Where do dogs come from?

Back in the 1980s, many of us read the "Earth's Children" series by Jean Auel, beginning with the "classic" Clan of the Cave Bear. It is truly trashy yet semi-educational fun! The books tell the tale of the orphaned Ayla, a young woman born 30,000 years ago, who was raised by a bunch of Neanderthals. Literally.

Ayla (a) struggles with her identity as a Cro-Magnon blonde living amongst brunette uni-browed Neanderthals, (b) has a mixed-species child, (c) learns to ride horses, (d) has hot prehistoric "relations" with a studly guy named Jondular, and (e) goes on some Mammoth hunts with others who speak suspiciously like 20th century, college-educated engineering students.

Beyond the (enjoyable) ridiculousness of the whole thing, however, we also watch Ayla adopt a young wolf puppy (cleverly named "Wolf"). We are told, in some hilariously overwrought prose, that similar adoptions eventually led to the domesticated dog. In other words, Fido.

Yes, this is a shameless plug for our upcoming book. This Fido is our mascot.

Perhaps a woman who looked suspiciously like Darryl Hannah was responsible for canis lupus familiaris, but opinions differ. Billy, for example, thinks the original wolf-adopter probably looked more like Liza Minelli. Jill suspects that first dog owner looked like Jim Morrison. Scientists, however, have come to a different conclusion.

Generally, most folks agree that the dog (as we know and love him) is a subspecies of the Gray Wolf. In other words, a single species of wolf is responsible for nearly every dog on the planet today. The domestication of our favorite fur balls took place at least 15,000 years ago, though without Mr. Peabody's way-back machine we can never be sure.

Interestingly, "toothy canine" skeletons in Belgium have been clocked back to 30,000 years ago, so perhaps Ayla was active in dog adoption circles after all. More interestingly, some recent research seems to indicate that all dogs may come from a single group of wolves domesticated in China.

So why should we care? Actually, all dog people should care deeply about where pooches come from. Genetics are a critical issue in canine health. It's important to remember that human beings have been breeding dogs for specific purposes for millenia. Some were bred to hunt in holes (such as, terriers), while others were intended as retrievers (such as, um, retrievers). Still others were guard dogs, while some were bred to sit in your lap affectionately.

Because of that, your dog shares certain genetic history with other canines around the world -- for good and ill. Many common breeds suffer from breed-specific ailments. When you decide that a dog should join your family, learn as much as possible about that breed or breeds. If you're welcoming a purebred, learn about why that breed has a specific personality and appearance -- what types of behaviors were prized, and what types of genetic ailments are often associated with the breed. This will also help you better understand what types of "play" your dog may enjoy -- a retriever-based dog may have different preferences than a working dog. Similarly, if you're adopting a mutt, you learn about the breeds in the mix and the different types of associated instinctual behaviors.

No matter Fido's ancestry, it is worth thinking about the fact that your dog did not simply fall out of the sky. Even the scruffiest mutt is part of a long line of dogs stretching back to a wolf living in China.

And how cool is that?


  1. Great post Billy and Jill!
    Loving your blog.


  2. Dogs are different animals mixed together. Some breeds have wolf in them; others do not. The original meaning for dog was "mongrel", which also means 'mixed'. In order to begin a dog breed, you have to start with 2 animals that are half one thing and exactly have another thing. They cannot be from the same litter and they do not have to be the same type. I am sure you have heard of half rabbit/half cat, half wolf/half skunk, etc...They are freak occurances but they do happen.