Look at your four-legged companion beside you, whether they’re a small and sassy Chihuahua, a giant yet gentle Saint Bernard, or anything in between. That face you’ve looked at time and time again has been thousands of years in the making through dog evolution!
From dogs’ diverse physical features to their earliest relationships with humans, learn more about the evolution of dogs with these 10 fascinating facts!
#1: Dogs Are Descendants of the Gray Wolf
Starting off our list is one of the more well-known facts: dogs are descendants of the gray wolf. This can be difficult to believe with the number of different breeds to choose from, but dogs (Canis familiaris) are actually direct descendants to gray wolves (Canis lupus), according to PBS Evolution.
#2: The Canine Family Was Derived Through a Weasel-Like Creature
Although dogs have been tied back to wolves, the evolution of dogs dates back even further. A small-mammal genus called Miacis, which primarily populated North America and Europe about 60 million years ago, was discovered as one of the earliest ancestors to dogs, according to Breeding Business. This animal is illustrated to resemble a large-sized weasel with the ears of a lynx.
#3: Wolves Played a Part in Their Own Domestication
The dog domestication era began about 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, and there is speculation that it was not based entirely on human activity, according to Stony Brook University. Though humans raised wolf puppies and contributed to dog domestication, it is also likely that wolves scavenged for food on the edges of civilization and interacted with the settlers there, as reported by National Geographic. Though, only the more friendly and docile wolves were tolerated, which initiated a progression toward a more mild-tempered dog.
#4. Dogs Were Status Symbols Within Royal Families
Throughout the history of dogs, humans have utilized furry friends as hunting companions, bodyguards, status symbols, and more! Specifically for royal or elite families, dog breeds often represented social hierarchy—so much so that if anybody outside of the imperial court in China owned a Shih Tzu in the 1600s, they were sentenced to death, according to the Continental Kennel Club.
In France, dogs represented wealth and nobility. In fact, the royal family was known to gift dogs to family members to raise as companions, according to Getty.
Thankfully, times have changed, and you no longer need to be royalty to enjoy a dog’s company!
#5: Dogs’ Love for Bones is Rooted in Ancient Survival Instincts
Today, our dogs enjoy bones and other natural chews, but did you know this innate urge to chew ties back to when wolves and wild canines hunted their prey? There were times when the fat content in prey was so low that there was hardly any nutrition for wolves to gain from animals in the wild, especially during the colder months or if the prey was pregnant or nursing, according to Psychology Today. In response, wolves chewed on the bones to reach the bone marrow, which is almost entirely made up of fat.
RELATED: Why Do Dogs Like Bones and Other Natural Chews?
#6: Changes in the Environment Affected Dogs’ Anatomy
In the earlier stages of dog evolution when North America was warm and wooded, dogs resembled weasels and mongooses. At the time, the smaller stature was ideal for dodging around and climbing up trees to escape predators. Then the land became drier, and forests eventually turned into grasslands. Researchers at Brown University found dogs adapted to this environmental change and evolved over time, developing longer limbs to run farther and stronger teeth to chew bones and skin.
#7: Squeaky Toys Remind Dogs of Hunting Prey
Ever consider why your dog loves squeaky toys? It’s in their genes! Dogs used to listen for the noises of rodents—which were a primary source of food—to help track down the creatures, according to Morgridge Institute for Research. Theorists have pinned this activity to an ancient catch-and-capture type of satisfaction that modern dogs can find in squeaky toys.
#8: The Saluki Is the Oldest Known Domesticated Dog Breed
Ancient Egyptian carvings that date back as far as 7000 BC portray a dog that very closely resembles the Saluki breed. Though, the modern Saluki dog isn’t considered to have originated until 329 BC, according to Guinness World Records.
In fact, in ancient Egypt, dogs were considered a type of guardian, according to Britannica. And, once a ruler passed away, one of their dogs would be buried with them for protection purposes in the afterlife.
#9: Dogs Evolved to Digest More Than Just Meat
Although dogs are the descendants of wolves, the modern dog’s digestion methods are more closely linked to humans. Once domestication took place and dogs ate a variety of foods rather than just meat, their food tolerances evolved over time.
Starch, for example, is a food that hasn’t always been in a dog’s diet. The amount of amylase—the protein that initiates the breakdown of starch—found in dogs is 28 times more active than it is in wolves, according to Science. This allows dogs to eat rice and boiled chicken, which is recommended by veterinarians when dogs are sick. In fact, rice is the main ingredient in a lot of homemade dog treat recipes today!
#10: Dogs’ Anatomy Has Changed to Better Communicate with Humans
Deviating from wolves’ physical characteristics, dogs evolved to develop more “fast-twitch” muscle fibers, which are the muscles responsible for showing brief facial emotions (think quick smiles and frowns). In turn, experts believe these “fast-twitch” muscles help dogs better communicate with humans, according to NBC News.
And if you’ve ever given in to your dog’s classic “puppy dog eyes,” there’s a scientific reason: the same researchers found that dogs developed a muscle above their eyes that makes their eyes appear bigger!
The History of Dogs is Extensive
Thanks to the evolution of dogs, our furry family members have come a long way from resembling weasels! Today, we are so lucky to have them as our companions.