When did humans and dogs first hook up?
Does it matter?
Not to me, but it's a source of infinite debate among some.
For those that like "first movement" stories, scientists now say that monkeys and wolves have developed a symbiotic hunting relationship in parts of Ethiopia, where wolves have learned to leave troops of Gelada monkeys alone in order to concentrate on rats and other rodents the babboons stir up and flush.
Aha, some some will say; humans and wolves have been cooperative animals since the beginning.
But, of course, a baboon is not a human any more than a wolf is a dog.
A dog is not a wolf?
No, it is not not.
I have never been one to salute the notion that dogs are direct descendants of wolves. In American Working Terriers I write:
"It is always best to start at the beginning."
In theory, if you are talking about dogs, this means you are supposed to talk about how dogs evolved from wolves.
I won’t belabor the point except to say that, while true, the statement is a bit overstated. A dog is not a wolf. A dog is a dog.
This is not to say that wolves and dogs are not evolutionarily related — this is an absolute fact. Dogs descended from wolves, probably through some form of long-lasting proto-wolf phase.
That said, the differences between dogs and wolves are not small, but enormous, governing the most elemental issues of existence, from reproduction to communication.
A wolf, for example, goes into estrus only once a year, generally in February or March.
A dog normally goes into estrus twice a year, and this can occur in any season. A male dog lifts its leg to pee, while a female dog squats to pee.
In wolf packs, only the top male and top female raise their legs to pee — all subordinate animals squat to pee.
Dogs bark — it is their primary vocalization and maddeningly common, especially early in the morning when you are trying to sleep. Adult wolves bark so rarely it is almost never heard in the wild.
Wolves and coyotes howl, and do so very frequently — generally in the early evening just after waking up and before going off to hunt. Dogs almost never howl except under very special conditions and in response to sustained noises that rise and fall — like the wail of fire engines. You may have 15 dogs in your yard, but they will not howl every morning as a coyote or wolf will.
The fact that dogs, wolves and coyotes CAN interbreed does not mean they actually do except under the rarest of circumstances.
Dogs and wolves operate on completely different wavelengths, and only in the most extreme kinds of "prison romance" situations do these two animals leap the species barrier, generally only in captivity or in very rare instances when a vanguard of a species (a lone coyote or wolf in a very large area devoid of all other wolves and coyotes) finds it impossible to mate with its own kind.
In short, wolves and dogs have drifted so apart from each other that key signals related to sex, communication and hierarchy are no longer shared.
A dog is not a wolf.
Scientists are divided as to when the wolf split off from the proto-wolf, and when the proto-wolf became a dog.
What seems clear is that the lives of dogs and humans have been intertwined for many thousands of years. During most of this time humans exerted little or no control over breeding, and evolution appears to have worked its invisible hand to produce a fairly common, smallish, coyote-looking dog.
This "pie dog" or pariah dog can be seen prowling the edges of dumps the world over, looking not too different from the dingo or "Carolina Dog" favored by our Neolithic ancestors.
Genetic researchers tracking mitochondria DNA have shown that most of the dog breeds seen in Kennel Club show rings today are of very recent origin.
The supposedly "ancient" Ibiza hound and Pharaoh hound, for example, turn out to have been made up within the last 100 years or so — bred to look like the drawings and sculptures of sleek, slender-necked canines found on Pharaonic tombs at the time of Carter. The Norwegian elkhound, a breed supposedly dating back to Viking dogs, was created within the past few hundred years.
And so it is with nearly every breed of dog, with very rare exception.
The terrier, it should be said, is not one of those exceptions.
No terrier breed is more than a few hundred years old, and most were created within the last 150 years.
Of course, people want to argue.
In fact, some people demand that a dog be a wolf. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because they have a complex theory about dogs and dog training, or perhaps because they want to trot out their ability to google, or demonstrate their mastery of their two-semester college course in biology or chemistry.
I know what I know from watching dogs. A dog is very wolf-like, but it is not a wolf.
The dogs know this.
The wolves know this.
And guess what? Now the scientists know it too.\
Over at Scientific American, Virginia Morell notes that new sophisticated DNA work shows that modern wolves and dogs are NOT directly related and, instead, are both descendants from a common ancestor.
It seems the statement that "a dog is 99 percent wolf" is a bit like saying a human is 99% chimp -- it leaves our a lot.
Dog and wolf DNA do not line up quite as neatly as some would have you believe, and the fact that a dog and a wolf and coyote and a golden jackal can all interbreed and produce fertile young does not tell you very much.
For many years scientists concurred on the basis of small portions of the genome that this species (the animal from which dogs descend) was the modern gray wolf (Canis lupus) and that this canid alone gave rise to dogs.
But last January geneticists discovered that this long-held "fact" was wrong....
Analyzing whole genomes of living dogs and wolves, last January's study revealed that today's Fidos are not the descendants of modern gray wolves. Instead the two species are sister taxa, descended from an unknown ancestor that has since gone extinct.
"It was such a long-standing view that the gray wolf we know today was around for hundreds of thousands of years and that dogs derived from them," says Robert Wayne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We're very surprised that they're not." Wayne led the first genetic studies proposing the ancestor-descendant relationship between the two species and more recently was one of the 30 co-authors of the latest study, published in PLOS Genetics, that debunked that notion.
So the scientists were surprised. But the dog men are not. We can see what can be seen, right before us, with our own eyes. We do not need to sequence DNA or purchase a scanning electron microscopes, or rodeo together 30 co-authors to state the obvious.
A dog is not a wolf.
Not at all.
But how about studying dogs first, eh? They are right in front of us, in our homes, yards, and parks.
Watch the dogs. Really watch. You can learn a lot from a dog, I promise. There is no need to deny their existence or to make them more, or less, than they are.
If you wan to know more about dogs, study dogs. They are the experts.