Watoga Trail Report

The ancestor of Dogs, the Wolf. Courtesy of Inspired Images from Pixabay
From Wolf to Chihuahua, who would have thought? Courtesy of Zozz from Pixabay

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

From Wolf to Dog
Part 2 – Dogs, our accidental creation 

There is one origin story about how dogs and man became inseparable and it goes something like this: There was once a tribe of humans living in caves who were nomadic hunters. Although these people had mastered weapons and fire, they still feared the many large creatures that existed at that time – creatures that could easily make a meal of them if they did not stick together.

From time to time, one of these humans was born with a different color eyes than all of the others. Over time, the tribe realized that a small but growing number of these “Different Ones,” as they were called, populated their group.

These Different Ones were looked upon with increasing suspicion. And, every time there was a flood, drought or the chieftain stubbed his toe, it was fashionable to blame it on the Different Ones.  The chieftain decided to exile this suspect group into the deepest part of the endless forest.

One day shortly thereafter, the wandering Different Ones encountered a huge owl sitting on the limb of a massive oak tree in a small clearing. The owl sensed that they were lost and asked if they needed help, as this was a vast and dangerous forest. The leader of the group told the owl that indeed they needed help in finding food and protection from the creatures that would devour them.

So the owl called out in a voice that reverberated throughout the forest. In short order, everyone heard the steps of a large creature approaching the big oak. The Different Ones all let out a collective gasp and started trembling when an enormous wolf entered the clearing.

The owl explained the plight of the group to the wolf. The massive wolf thought about it for a few moments and told the Different Ones that perhaps he could be of help to them and to his own pack, as well.

The wolf explained that among the population of the wolf pack there were some wolves who were friendly and helpful to others outside their pack. And, he added, that these are not good traits for a wolf, not at all.  The wolf made it clear that he would gladly give these friendly wolves to the Different Ones. 

The wolf then let out a howl that echoed through the forest for many miles around. A short time later, the friendly wolves starting arriving and upon seeing the Different Ones, they immediately ran to the children to play and to the adults to help them find game. And, as the story goes, man and dog became inseparable to this very day.

The previous story is, of course, just a myth, but there are some elements of truth to the tale. To find out how dogs really came about, we have to turn to science. 

Research has determined that it was we humans who created the dog in all of its myriad forms. Albeit a creation that was accidental, or at least unintentional in its origins.

I visited the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, a couple of decades ago, following a backcountry canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. It is an amazing place where you can learn all about wolves and actually observe them close-up.

After learning that the modern dog came from these beautiful wild creatures, I wondered aloud to my friend how his wife’s Chihuahua could have possibly been a wolf at one time – it just didn’t seem possible.

Yet, some 35,000 years ago a relationship was already forming between humans and wolves. The discovery of the oldest proto dog skull was found in a Belgian cave in 1870 – it was recently carbon-dated to at least 31,000 years ago.

A proto dog is an early ancestor of the domestic dog and the shortened snout and slimmer skull made it distinct from the wolf. This was a result of divergent genes developing in the proto dogs after they were separated from the wild wolf packs due to their close association with humans.

Reasoned speculation by archaeologists suggests that wolves were originally just attracted to the food scraps cast off by humans. Over time these wolves became cautiously comfortable with the humans and followed them from camp to camp.

At some point, the relationship became symbiotic in the sense that the wolves benefitted from the scraps of food and the humans appreciated the advantage of the warnings provided by the wolves of the presence of predators, particularly at night.

It would be a safe assumption that over time these camp followers would eventually make physical contact with the humans. It is likely that when these docile wolves had pups, only the non-aggressive pups would be allowed to live. This would signal the start of an unintentional genetic manipulation of the species.

Further physical and cognitive changes awaited the dog when they were used for specialized tasks like hunting, herding and pulling sleds. Eventually, the dog became a necessity to early man. This allowed for further development of the dog beyond the proto dog and on to the modern dog, Canis familiaris.

There is no doubt that the dogs also provided friendship to humans, after all, both species are family-oriented. Research shows that when in contact with each other, both species produce a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone, sometimes called the “cuddling hormone.” This mutual release of oxytocin further strengthens the bond between dogs and humans.

The dog originally started its many changes from wolf to dog through human intervention and genetic isolation, instead of natural selection. And not much changed in terms of distinct dog breeds for millennia. There are now over 300 breeds of dogs, most of which were selectively bred during the Victorian Era, 1837 – 1901.

Dogs moved from the margins of our camps to being members of our families. Just in my lifetime, I have seen many dogs go from the doghouse to our beds. We feed them with proper nutrition in mind. We take our dogs to the vet when they get sick. We name them and buy them fancy collars.

Many of us regard our dogs as friends and family members. We sense their affection for us and we return it through kindness and proper care. It would not be a stretch to say that many of us love our animals as evidenced by the grief we experience when they die.

The Nez Pierce Indians, credited with keeping Lewis and Clark alive in the winter of 1805, adopt animal fetishes that are thought to imbue certain attributes to individuals and tribes. Adopting that of the chipmunk gives one quick movements; the badger, strength and tenacity – and so on. The fetish of the dog was the most popular of all. The fundamental qualities of the dog as valued by the Nez Pierce, were love and friendship.

In the next Watoga Trail Report, we will take a look at dogs who have jobs, variously called working dogs, service dogs and even therapy dogs. It appears that our relationship with this entirely different species of mammal is one that is only growing in size and complexity.

Perhaps it was the best match ever made on this planet.

Well, if you’ll excuse me, I have to sign off. It’s time to take my dogs to the groomer.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer

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