There aren’t many animals that humans let live in their homes, feeding them, walking them and snuggling up with them at night. But for many pet parents it may seem second nature to have their dogs as important parts of their lives. Many dogs are thought of as family members, but how did the relationship between dogs and humans start? What was it like before fetch, chew toys and kibble?
There’s no sure way to tell exactly how dogs and humans first began helping one another, but there are a variety of theories that may help shed some light on why you and your pup can have so much fun at the park, but you’re not about to invite a wolf into your living room.
When did it start?
A study published in the journal Nature Communications discovered that dogs and wolves began to evolve separately about 32,000 years ago. The researchers used DNA analysis to find the split between the two groups in China. This suggests that before this point, dogs had already been interacting with people and human selection led to the change.
Other research puts the first domesticated dogs in Europe after humans arrived about 43,000 years ago, between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago, National Geographic explained. The humans of this time were ruthless and successful hunters who decimated a variety of mammal populations, including saber-tooth tigers. Anthropological evidence makes it more likely that wolves needed humans and approached people, rather than being domesticated strictly from the wild.
Why were dogs attracted to humans?
It may seem counterintuitive for early dogs or wolves to approach humans, who could have been predators, but the one popular theory suggests that dogs first started spending time with humans because of the waste that was left behind.
Seeds, bones, shells and other food materials that humans can’t digest would have been left behind as garbage. This may have attracted dogs who could scavenge these bits as a free meal. Eventually, this could have led to an acclimation and bond between the two species where they became comfortable with one another’s presence. The wolves would benefit from acting more friendly to the humans because they’d be more likely to get the scrap food. A 2013 New York Times article explained how this theory means that people may not have played as direct a role in domestication as once thought.
“It appears that a large population of wolves started lingering around humans – perhaps scavenging the carcasses that hunters left behind,” the article explained. “In this situation, aggressive wolves would have fared badly, because humans would kill them off. Mellower wolves, by contrast, would thrive. If this notion turns out to be true, it means that we didn’t domesticate wolves – they domesticated themselves.”
Previous theories suggested that hunters would steal young wolf cubs and raise them as their own. Although this would explain why some wolves were more docile and friendly to humans, it has been challenged in research. Biologist Raymond Coppinger, a professor at Hampshire College, has been trying to raise and domesticate wolves in modern day, but found that it doesn’t work as suspected – their tendencies are still violent.
How the relationship changed?
If this theory is correct, it’s obvious why dogs would want to spend time around humans, but why did humans want the dogs around? Anthropologists think that dogs and humans began to evolve together and develop symbiotic relationships. Dogs could use their superior smell, hearing and speed to flush out and track prey to be hunted, as well as alert humans when other predators were nearby. Dogs also may have existed as an emergency food source in some instances.
Over the millennia, dogs and humans became closer and their relationship survived. Although humans don’t need help hunting or protection in many places, people are still glad to trade food and protection for love and companionship.