Although most people consider wolves to be the direct ancestors of domesticated dogs, elements of doubt have been creeping into this assumption. Based on DNA, the link between wolves and dogs seems to be ironclad, but DNA testing is also the subject of some controversy. In many cases, only a small percentage of the genome is actually tested, which can give a skewed result. All living creatures share over 90% of their DNA, regardless of species. The results can also be based on what the scientists in charge of the test want to discover.
While it might be considered strange to suggest that animals other than wolves led to the development of Fluffy or Scout, this can possibly be the case. There are other wild animals that have as good a claim to dogs’ ancestry as wolves – and possibly even better.
Whether or not wolves can actually be tamed is central to the question of whether they gave rise to modern dogs. One thing that separates domestic dogs and cats from wild animals is that even after attaining sexual maturity our companions remain tractable.
Many wild animals are perfectly loving and engaging while still juveniles. People have made pets of raccoons, rabbits, and other wild animals only to receive an unpleasant surprise once the animal goes through puberty. An animal that was cuddling you yesterday can literally attack you remorselessly the following. This is not the animal’s fault; it is simply how their brains work.
During the Middle Ages, numerous attempts were made to domesticate wolves; the superior strength and hardiness of the wolf was desired for a hunting companion. However, even wolf puppies raised by humans from an early age remain unpredictable, aggressive, and largely untrainable.
Pariah dogs are often associated with India and the large numbers of Pariah dog packs are found there. Pariah dogs generally live on the fringes of human settlements and have interactions with people, varying from limited up to household pet. Pariah dogs are trainable, although like the wolf, the female goes into heat only once a year.
These are medium sized dogs that can have a wide range of coat colors, but most have upright ears and curled tails. The pack hierarchy is not as strict as it is with wolves, and all female Pariah dogs are allowed to breed, unlike the situation in a wolf pack where only the alpha female is permitted to have pups.
An interesting fact that points to Pariah dogs being the ancestors of at least some of today’s dogs is that when modern domestic dogs revert to a wild state, within a few generations there will be found a pack of Pariah dogs, not a pack of wolves.
A Russian scientist, Dmitry Belyaev, conducted a decade’s long breeding experiment with silver foxes. Belyaev bred the foxes according to their level of tameness. Over succeeding generations, a population of ‘dogs’ evolved that had varied colored coats, floppy ears, and a preference for human company.
The new dogs also shed their old reproductive habits, with the females coming into estrus several times a year without regard to the season. Another fascinating fact is that the level of corticosteroids in the fox’s blood dropped significantly as they became dogs. Corticosteroids are the hormones our bodies produce in times of stress – they are responsible for the fight or flight options all creatures face when presented with danger. The lowered levels of these hormones would mean that these domesticated foxes would not constantly be ‘on edge’.
Perhaps it’s time to go beyond the ‘one origin of the dog theory’ and investigate whether the many breeds of dogs had a number of different sources. It is quite possible that domestic dogs arose from foxes, wolves, jackals, and now extinct canids over a wide geographical zone over a long period of time.
Some of our companion’s ancestors may have tamed themselves simply by living near humans and benefitting from food scraps, while others may have been actively domesticated. Some level of selective breeding program would not have been beyond Neolithic or Mesolithic mankind.