The Evolution of Domestic Dogs — Part 1

The dog was the first domesticated animal. Domestication is an “evolutionary process [that] has been influenced by humans to meet their needs” (Secretariat, 1992, p. 3). In other words, domestication of a species causes biological changes over generations through selection by humans for favorable traits (i.e., traits that are useful, valuable, aesthetically pleasing, etc.).

Domestication led to extraordinarily large changes in the behavioral characteristics of domestic dogs, as well as in their physical characteristics (which is obvious when one compares the many breeds of dogs). Scientific research on the evolution of dog behavior began in the mid-1800s, most notably in the work of Charles Darwin (Darwin, 1872). In the middle of the twentieth century, a deeper understanding of the evolution of dog behavior was gained by combining behavioral analyses with classical genetic analyses of dog breeds (for a review, see Scott & Fuller, 1965).

Figure 1. An extreme example of the effects of domestication on the physical characteristics of a subspecies of the gray wolf.

Over the past 20 years, archaeological discoveries in combination with the results of highly sophisticated genetic analyses have shed a great deal of light on the evolution of domestic dogs (for a review, see Larson, Karlsson, Perri, et al., 2012). For example, there now is little doubt that domestic dogs evolved from the gray wolf, which is found in many parts of Europe and Asia (Honeycutt, 2010; Wayne & Ostrander, 2007). In fact, domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are considered to be a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus lupus). This means that, although dogs and wolves have physical features that often are very different, they can mate and produce fertile offspring.

Nevertheless, there still is much controversy about when and where domestic dogs originated. These disagreements are focused on the answers to two questions: when did domestic dogs “split” from gray wolves and where did this happen? These questions have proved difficult to answer because the results of genetic and archaeological research are complex and, hence, very difficult to interpret.

Genetic research on differences in DNA sequences have led to a wide range of estimates about when dogs and wolves first diverged: sometime between 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. One reason for the wide variation in these estimates is that dogs and wolves probably continued to interbreed, not only over long periods of time but also in many locations (Vilà, Savolainen, Maldonado, et al., 1997).

Archaeological researchers find no clear evidence for the existence of domestic dogs until about 15,000-30,000 years ago (Germonpré, Sablin, Stevens, 2009; Ovodov, Crockford, Kuzmin, et al., 2011). A major difficulty with interpreting archaeological findings, however, is that physical characteristics typically used to distinguish domestic dogs from wolves (e.g., the size and position of the teeth, the size and shape of the skull, etc.) probably varied much more in ancient dog populations than they do today (Larson, Karlsson, Perri, et al., 2012). In addition, nothing is known about the variation of these traits in populations of ancient wolves. In other words, the physical characteristics used to distinguish modern dogs and wolves probably overlapped to a relatively large extent in ancient dogs and wolves, thereby making it very difficult for archaeologists to know if they are looking at the bones and teeth of a wolf or a dog.

Figure 2. The 33,000-year-old skull of a wolf-like animal reputed to be a dog (Ovodov, Crockford, Kuzmin, et al., 2011)

Figure 2. The 33,000-year-old skull of a wolf-like animal reputed to be a dog (Ovodov, Crockford, Kuzmin, et al., 2011)

As of now, both the archeological and genetic evidence allow us to conclude with certainty that domestic dogs existed at least 15,000 years ago (Larson, Karlsson, Perri, et al., 2012). It is still an open question, however, if ancient dog populations leading to modern domestic dogs first diverged from wolves earlier than that.

In the next post, I’ll review what recent research seems to tell us about the genetic differences linked to the many physical and behavioral differences between (a) modern domestic dogs and their ancestral species, and (b) the various breeds of modern domestic dogs.

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Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London: John Murray. Retrieved January 21, 2013, at

Germonpré M, Sablin MV, Stevens RE, Hedges REM, Hofreier M, Stiller M, et al. (2009). Fossil dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium, the Ukraine and Russia: Osteometry, ancient DNA and stable isotopes. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36, 473-490. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.09.033

Honeycutt, R. L. (2010). Unraveling the mysteries of dog evolution. BMC Biology, 8(20). doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-20

Larson, G., Karlsson, E. K., Perri, A., Webster, M. T., Ho, S. Y. W., Peters, J., et al. (2012). Rethinking dog domestication by integrating genetics, archeology, and biogeography. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 8878–8883. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1203005109

Ovodov, N. D., Crockford, S. J., Kuzmin, Y. V., Higham, T. F. G., Hodgins, G. W. L., & van der Plicht, J. (2011). A 33,000-year-old incipient dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the earliest domestication disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS ONE 6(7): e22821. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022821

Scott, J. P., & Fuller, J. L. (1965). Genetics and the social behavior of the dog. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Secretariat, C. B. D. (1992). The Convention on Biological Diversity. Retrieved December 30, 2012, from

Vilà, C., Savolainen, P., Maldonado, J. E., Amoim, I. R., Rice, J. E., Honeycutt, R.L., et al. (1997). Multiple and ancient origins of the domestic dog. Science, 276, 1687-1689.

Wayne, R. K., & Ostrander, E. A. (2007). Lessons learned from the dog genome. Trends in Genetics, 23, 557–567. doi: 10.1016/j.tig.2007.08.013

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