By Ricardo Ribas
How did dogs become domesticated?
Dogs have long been man’s best friends but this was not always the case. Dogs are descendants from wolves and up until domestication, they were considered wild animals. It is believed that humans, as solitary hunters, needed help hunting and herding, as well as companionship and protection, so they would have captured wolf pups, kept them as pets and gradually domesticated them. Alternatively, dogs benefited from this process by obtaining protection, love, food and shelter from humans.
Recent studies comparing genomes from several breeds of dogs and wolves showed that the genetic divergence between both species has occurred around 20.000-40.000 years ago, which is the same time that the domestication process is believed to have happened. Besides that, archaeological reports have found remains of domestic dogs buried besides humans, the oldest of which dating back 14.000 years ago in Germany.
The geographic location where domestication has occurred is still controversial. Some studies suggest East Asia, whilst others the Middle East and Europe. More recent data indicates that dog’s domestication may actually have occurred twice in both Europe and Asia.
And what about other species?
After dogs, other species have also gone through the process of domestication. Cats, for instance, became domesticated around 8.000 years ago in the Middle East to control mice and rats that use to attack crops and farms. Other animals were domesticated for food, such as goats around 10.000 years ago in Iran and pigs/cattle approximately 8.500 years ago in Western Asia. But many other animals have become domesticated around the world. Examples include horses, camels, donkeys, llamas, sheep, guinea pigs and many birds used either for work, food, wool, transportation or for company.
But would dogs be able to survive in a world free of humans???
The domestication process made the dogs very dependent upon humans for food, love and protection, so how would our best friends behave and learn to survive without humans?
There are many examples of free-range dogs being able to live in the absence of humans as well as several reports of family dogs that survived after disappearing from home for several months. As a matter of fact, it is believed that around 80% of the dogs in the world are already living without humans. Certainly, family dogs would struggle in an initial phase, but with the time they would learn to go back to their natural instincts, to adjust and become independent. To do that, dogs would need to learn survival skills such as forming packs in a similar manner to the wolves, create new relationships with other species, become independent and more willing to take risks, adapt quickly to the changing conditions and find shelter to protect themselves from predators. With time, they probably would also need to breed with other species such as wolves and coyotes to be able to produce fertile offspring to propagate survival genes to future generations.
But not all breeds would survive in the same way. Some believe that small animals would be more vulnerable whilst others think they would be at an advantage as they required less food and would easily hide from predators. On the contrary, large animals would be more visible to predators, but would be stronger at fighting them back. Hunting dogs, such as Foxhound, Pointer, Retrievers and Irish Setter would have the advantage to run quicker and easily catch preys, but some breeds such as Pugs, Pekingeses and Bulldogs would struggle to survive due to their breathing issues. Weather conditions would also influence dog’s survival capacities. Huskies, for instance, would have a better chance of survival in cold climates, whilst dogs with short hair would be more resistant to hot conditions.
But not only the animal’s size, gender and breed would influence its survival. Individual characteristics such a personality and social skills would also be of extreme importance. Street dogs, which are more independent and risk-taking, would likely be at more of an advantage compared with house-dogs who are less adventurous and not used to co-habit with other animals.
It is difficult to predict which breeds of dogs would be more likely to survive in a world without humans or indeed ‘how’ they might survive, but one thing is for sure, our best friends will be here to stay for a long time to come yet.
By Ricardo Ribas
Veterinary doctor, doctorate in veterinary sciences and Researcher in the field of oncology