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Have you ever looked at a pint-sized dog, like a Chihuahua or Yorkie, and thought, “Where did this little fur ball come from?” Or perhaps you’ve had the same reaction when looking at a behemoth Irish Wolfhound or Bull Mastiff. It’s hard to believe that genetically, these and all other dogs are virtually identical, with only the slightest variations. But what’s even more amazing is to think that each of the hundreds of dog breeds are the result of selective breeding from a common ancestor—the gray wolf.
Worldwide, there are over 800 recognized breeds of dogs, which makes dogs the most diverse mammals on the planet. This vast diversity is the result of selective breeding for thousands of years. So how exactly did humans become such close friends with the relatives of wolves?
A Very Long History
There are recovered burial sites from ancient times that show man and dog buried as companions, side by side. The deep bond between man and canine is apparent throughout history. This makes it all the more interesting that the dog’s ancestor, the wolf, is often portrayed as an icon of fear and ferocity. And all the more amazing that domesticated dogs and wild wolves are still so closely related.
Reflections of Ancestors
Dogs possess many of the traits that make the wolf such a proficient predator. Heightened abilities such as smell, hearing, agility and the ability to work in a group are just a few of the things passed down from wolves to their canine counterparts. Over thousands of years, these traits have been specifically bred into certain breeds, using the dogs that excel the most in the desired skill to reproduce.
But this doesn’t just go for skills either. It also applies to size, color, coat density, temperament… all the way down to muzzle length and ear height. This process of selective breeding has led to finely tuned traits, such as water retrieving in Labrador Retrievers, scent and tracking skills in Bloodhounds, guardian instincts in German Shepherds, herding instincts in Border Collies, petite size in Chihuahuas, silky coats in Afghan Hounds, and, the list could keep going for a long time. That’s just a small example of the diversity of dogs.
The Wild Side
So how closely related are modern dogs with wolves? It would be easy to think that the more dogs have evolved the more distant they become from their ancestor. However, this simply isn’t the case. Dogs are still so closely related to wolves that they can successfully interbreed and produce offspring. Yet despite this fact, there is one huge difference that makes them so completely different.
While offering humans countless ways to help make life easier, dogs are dependent on man for their well-being. When faced with a difficult problem, a dog will eventually seek out his owner to help resolve the problem. When placed in the same situation, a wolf will not—not even a tamed wolf that is accustomed to humans. Wolves simply don’t view humans as a source of help, while dogs view humans as a true provider and “pack leader.”
So the next time you’re looking at a little toy poodle, just remember that deep inside the DNA is the genetic mappings of a great predator. And then maybe you’ll be less surprised the next time you see him chase down a cricket with such skill and ease.