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Dog, as the saying goes, is man’s best friend. But how did our canine companions become so close?
Despite the abundance and variety of dog breeds—over 400 unique breeds recognized around the world—all dogs, even the tiniest Chihuahua, share one common ancestor: the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus).
Thanks to the interred remains of both dogs and humans, we know the dog-human partnership dates back at least ten thousand years. In Belgium and France, fossils uncovered in caves hint at domesticated dogs much older, but the archaeological evidence dissipates about 33,000 years ago. More recently, researchers used molecular evidence to establish a much longer timeline that suggests the two lines diverged as far back as 130,000 years ago.
Like every other facet of dog’s fascinating history, researchers differ over possible explanations for this phenomenon. Some argue that early humans may have socialized orphan wolf pups, resulting in a tamer wolf that passed on such traits through offspring. Others describe a process of “self-domestication”: wolves foraging in refuse piles from nearby settlements demonstrated a higher tolerance for human proximity, a desirable trait for survival. In either case, physical traits followed the behavioral traits, as subsequent generations retained features often observed in pups: a smaller frame, a shorter muzzle, and even floppy ears.
Eventually, humans and dogs formed the familial bond that we observe to this day. Even now, modern dogs demonstrate an uncanny ability to decipher human social cues, even better than chimpanzees. This reciprocal, innate understanding hints at a long and shared past. Naturalist Mark Derr sums it up: “Some call it love, I call it a ‘deep empathy’ between these two species that resonates with each other in a way that makes them comprehensible to each other, even though they don’t speak the same language.”