One Man's Trash is Another Dog's Treasure: A Brief History of Dogs

By Michael Litzky, CPDT-KA

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               Dogs have long been labeled as man’s best friend.  In the 1700s, it was recorded that King Frederick of Prussia used this term about one of his beloved dogs, and even requested they be buried together.  In 1821, the phrase was first recorded in print when the New-York Literary Journal published the following: 

                    The faithful dog – why should I strive
                    To speak his merits, while they live
                    In every breast, and man’s best friend
                    Does often at his heels attend.  

               While this early adulation was likely well received by our canine counterparts, it by no means marked the beginning of our beautiful BFF relationship.  In fact, humans and dogs have lived side by side for far longer. 

               Initial theories about the origin of dogs at one time placed their divergence from wolves at more than 100,000 years ago.  While some argue this is still the case, many of the methods used to make these initial determinations have since proved faulty, and most experts agree this original estimate is no longer accurate.  We know that around 30,000 years ago, in the south of France, a human child and a large canid animal walked side by side in what is known as La Grotte Chauvet-Oont d’Arc, or the Chauvet Cave. 

               However, most modern evidence suggests dogs first noticeably came onto the scene around 15,000 years ago.  It was at that time when humanity began to develop agriculture.  With agriculture came populations of people permanently living in one location, which led to central areas where garbage was collected.  Some of our best archaeological finds come from these prehistoric landfills.  It is believed dogs began as scavengers, taking advantage of these centralized and easy to access sources of food. 

               These proto-dogs, the common ancestor to modern-day dogs and modern-day wolves, likely split into two types.  One that was less fearful and more tolerant of human beings.  And one that was not.  The former continued to use cooperation and tolerance to integrate themselves into human society, eventually becoming the dogs we know and love.  The latter continued to avoid these human encampments and their residents, a natural response for most animals, and now make up the population of wolves we see today. 

                Around 5,000 years ago, a few distinct dog breeds began to develop.  References to specific dog breeds can be found in Greek and Roman literature.  In the Odyssey, Homer gave a detailed description of Odysseus’ dog, Argos.  Over 2,000 years ago, a Roman farmer named Marcus Varro recorded tips on training and raising puppies for herding.  However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s and early 1800s that most modern day dog breeds were created, nearly all of which were bred to perform a specific job. It was at this time when competitions involving pointers, setters and hounds became popular.  Many consider this the time of dog obsession. Something to consider the next time your energetic dog misbehaves.  They were bred to work and need plenty of mental and physical exercise.  Engage those idle paws and everyone will be happy

A village dog resting, but watchful.

A village dog resting, but watchful.

               If you want an example of what the earliest dogs might have been like, consider the many village dogs around the world.  Sometimes referred to as pariah dogs, these are free-ranging dogs that live outdoors in rural towns and villages.  Nobody owns these dogs and they go where they want, when they want.  Though they may seem like a nuisance, the people in the area often help take care of them by providing the occasional meal of leftovers.  It is a symbiotic relationship as the dogs help reduce the vermin and rodent population in the area.  These dogs often have a uniform physicality and are likely to be medium sized with brownish coloring. 

                Currently, nearly 40% of all U.S. households have at least one dog.  That’s more than the number of households that have cats, or birds, combined.  Our love affair with canis lupus familiaris continues to grow and there’s no end in sight.  Our obsession certainly hasn’t waned and it is no doubt a great time to be a dog and a dog lover!

Fischman, Ken, The Tracks in Chauvet Cave (January, 2012)

Grout, James, Dogs in Ancient Greece and Rome

Michael Litzky is the Owner and Head Trainer of Idle Paws Dog Training.  He is a Certified Professional Canine Behavior and Training Master Instructor and Behavior and Aggression Management Trainer.  He is also a Certified Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed.  He has worked with thousands of dogs in all areas of dog behavior and obedience.