The Taming of Man's Best Friend

The Taming of Man's Best Friend

The dog was probably the first animal species to be domesticated by humans. Its wolf ancestors hunted in the prehistoric forests, enemy to all they encountered. But somewhere, about 50,000 years ago, they discovered man. So began a mutually rewarding relationship and the taming of man's best friend.

Man's earliest association with the carnivorous canine breed was probably not all that agreeable. With procurement of food and self—preservation at the top of their survival list, our brutish ancestors of about 250,000 years ago probably regarded the wolf as something to eat and to avoid being eaten by. Stealthily the cave dweller must have followed a nursing mother to her lair. Here he split her skull with a stone ax and applied the same treatment to her whelps. These were delicacies that he brought back to his cave to feed the hungry family awaiting his return. It is not difficult to envision the same savage Stone Age man being stalked and pulled down by the slavering jaws of a hunting pack of primeval dogs.

It appears unlikely that humans of the Old Stone Age, prior to 50,000 years ago, had any pets. The doglike wolves they encountered were at first discouraged from approaching the encampments. But early man, far from fastidious in his lifestyle, with no guidelines in social etiquette and no refuse pickup, doubtless lived in an aura of filth. In those days cleanliness was certainly not one of the basic human needs. Therefore the outside of his cave, and probably the inside to a lesser extent, was a receptacle for all manner of human refuse and garbage.

Sooner of later a wolf—dog, disabled or too old to hunt, was stimulated by the scent of rotting food and came to man's cave, furtively carrying away a bone the humans had tossed aside. Other members of its pack doubtless followed, partaking of the accessible sustenance left outside the caves. None were welcome, but the bolder wolves continued to lurk near the outskirts, foraging for scraps of meat or discarded bones. As time passed they were gradually tolerated and allowed to serve as the scavenging cleanup crew until they eventually became part of the settlement. The wolves additionally took up the role of watchdogs, sounding a yelp at the approach of any intruder challenging their free lunch.

Eventually there came a time when a hunter, following a bitch to her lair, saved a pup from the litter and brought it back to his cave for his own offspring to play with. For the first time man and dog began to dwell together under the same overhang. These early men soon discovered the value of the dog, with its agility and keen scent, to the hunt. A pack of tame dogs could chase a deer to exhaustion so the hunters could close in. Their reward: good picking after the kill.

As scavengers, watchdogs, and hunting companions, dogs gradually acquired a permanent role in human society. The remains of every human encampment since 10,000 B.C. show the presence of the domestic dog. And to many children of those days long ago, the dog was a playmate and an inseparable companion. A recent excavation of a Paleolithic site in Israel yielded the skeleton of a boy flexed on his right side. The boy's left hand rested on the remains of a three— to five—month—old puppy.

Such burials are not unusual for ancient man. Many scientists believe that by the late Stone Age dogs may have already been bred selectively by the early hunter—gatherers. Watchdogs, hunters, and pets were then joined by pack and herding dogs.

The changes in the now—domesticated dog had only begun. As dogs began to accompany migrating people to other areas of the world, they would be preselected or bred to fit the new environment, and their work was cut out for them. To guard the palace or temple, guide the infirm, tend flocks, raise an alarm, fight in the arena, attack the enemy, carry messages and defend the camp in warfare, collect fleas from milady, warm worshipers' feet — those are but a few of the tasks that dogs through the ages have learned to handle capably.

It is no wonder that during the last 10,000 years dogs have become increasingly diverse. From the toy poodle that fits into a teacup to the Irish wolfhound and from the rare and valuable Chinese shar—pei to the mongrel, dog's most important role is to be good company. The cost of their domestication has been to give up their freedom for — if they are lucky — food, care, and affection. The other results of allowing man to control their destiny are smaller brains, genetic diseases, and an embarrassing array of frivolous features. The evolution of the dog might be described more accurately as the descent rather than the ascent of the species.

Although two do breeds can look wildly different as adults, the similarities of all puppies during their first two weeks identifies their common ancestry. Only a small percentage of these several hundred breeds, along with an infinite variety of mutts, resemble even remotely that ancestor of all dogs — Canis lupes, the wolf!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth