Dog Domestication

By Jennie K. Willis, PhD as printed in the Coloradoan in February of 2013

Last time, we discussed the beginning of dog domestication starting in China approximately 15,000 years ago. Dogs played an important part of cultural history for many early people by:

  • Allowing travel enabling people to carry more as they moved from place to place, either with travois or by pulling sleds
  • Alerting their communities to dangers their humans couldn’t detect and protecting people from invasion or predators
  • Helping with hunting and cooperating with us as we began keeping other animals for food
  • Keeping people warm leading to the saying “It’s a three dog night”

Now, fast forward a few thousand years here. Just how old are most breeds? We have archeological evidence from Egypt 4,000 years ago of sight hounds looking very much like they do today. The Romans in the 5th century began taking an active hand in breeding for particular characteristics, but the most modern breeds didn’t originate until the mid-1800’s.  With the emergence of a middle class, people had time and extra money on their hands and the dog fancy was born.  Prior to that time, function was prioritized over form.

Dog breeds have a distinct appearance that tends to correlate with the behaviors that have been important in their historical job. Sight hounds have a narrow body and head, with ears that fold back making them aerodynamic for chasing small game. Sled-dogs have a coat that doesn’t ball up with snow and will keep them warm in cold climates. Both of these breeds are examples of an ancient breed group, shown by genetic testing to have greater variation and an older origin than more modern breeds.

Breeds have different behaviors that they have been performing for humans for centuries.  Sometimes these behaviors can cause a problem in home situations.  Herding breeds have historically roamed the countryside all day with their owners moving livestock from place to place.  Sitting in a living room may not be the challenge they are looking for.  Sight hounds have trouble ignoring a glimpse of a moving thing in the distance and will run to chase it.  Scent hounds have similar issues ignoring their noses.  Some breeds have been bred to react to noises and sounds, and may demonstrate excessive alarm barking.  Expecting a terrier to ignore their urge to subdue a small animal may not be practical.

Individuals within each breed do not always conform to the “job” of the breed.  Breeding for behavior is a complicated thing.  It is good to know what behaviors may be associated with your breed or mix of breeds, but be careful not to judge them solely on those when making a choice for a new companion. No breed is meant to display fearful, shy or aggressive behavior towards their human caretakers so if your dog shows these behaviors, they can be helped and you do not simply have to live with them.  Join me next time to learn more about the origin of cats.




Dr. Jennie Willis is an instructor of animal behavior at Colorado State University and owns a private consulting business, which provides counseling for problem pets and their people. For more information about consultation, seminars and classes please visit


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *