We often hear about the dog being man’s best friend. What we don’t hear is that the dog is man’s oldest animal friend. From far back into prehistory, when bands of early humans survived by hunting meat and gathering fruit, nuts and berries, they forged alliances with packs of wolves that served each group well for tens of thousands of years. And during those years, the once ferocious wolves evolved into the more people-friendly dogs. Scholars may disagree when, where and how humans and dogs became buddies and when and how wolves became dogs, but they all agree that every dog on this planet is descended from the now-extinct European gray wolf.
Humans and wolves lived common lifestyles. They both traveled in groups in which a dominant male was the authority and the members were protective of and cooperative with each other, which enabled the group to hunt down prey much larger and stronger than themselves. Humans and wolves hunted and ate the same animals and scavenged each other’s leftovers.
Humans made great strides in hunting technique when they began fashioning weapons from stone, perhaps between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago. The stone-tipped lances, in particular, allowed humans to hunt large bison and woolly mammoths. It appears that it was around that same time that human ingenuity and the speed and ferocity of wolves resulted in a formidable team.
We can imagine early humans gathered around a campfire roasting the meat from a day of successful hunting, the luscious aroma wafting through the forest and beckoning to the wolves. At first, the wolves would have approached the camp carefully, waiting until it was safe to scavenge the carcasses and bones tossed aside by the humans. And then the humans noticed that the wolves, in their own way, were guarding the camp, as their howls warned of approaching predators, both human and beast, and scared them away. It was in the best interests of the humans to feed the wolves and not make them wait for leftovers in an arrangement that worked well for a very long time.
So let’s suppose that humans were leery of the more aggressive wolves and killed them, which left the more docile ones to reproduce. Or the humans took care of the newly born wolf pups and raised them as part of their own band. Some say that wolves domesticated themselves, since those who fit in best with humans had better access to food as they loitered around the camps and grew tamer with each successive generation.
Whether by natural or intentional evolution, it was the survival of the weakest. From large, ferocious wolves with teeth that could chomp through bone over thousands of years, the wolves changed in body and temperament. Their skulls, teeth, and paws shrank. Their ears flopped. Their howl became a bark. They gained a docile disposition. In other words, they evolved into dogs, to such an extent that they were no longer able to survive in the wild by themselves.
When the nomadic bands of humans grew into agricultural communities in which they domesticated cows, goats, pigs and sheep, dogs had long been faithful companions and guardians. Their place in the homes and hearts of humans has never wavered through thousands of years. They were regarded then as they remain today, a treasured part of the family.