The domestic dog is loyal and courageous, intelligent and adaptable. Useful as well as affectionate, the dog guards people’s flocks, plays with their children, and helps them hunt. A loving pet, the dog is known as a trusted companion.
Wherever human beings live-whether in an Eskimo village, a jungle clearing, or a crowded city-dogs live, too. In the United States alone, about 34 million dogs are kept as pets. Some are mongrels. Others are pedigreed-for through selective breeding people have created many distinct kinds of dogs. In North America alone, more than 120 standard breeds are recognized.
People admire domestic dogs. But they usually fear the dog’s untamed relatives-the wolves, coyotes, jackals, foxes, and other species that make up the family Canidae, or doglike mammals. There has always been open warfare between wild dogs and people. As carnivores (meat eaters), wild dogs often compete with people for prey. Sometimes they attack domestic stock as well. People may be forced to kill wild dogs in order to protect themselves and their livestock.
It has been only recently that people started to realize that dogs in the wild if kept in confined spaces contribute more good than inflict harm. They help to control destructive rodents. And where game animals threaten to become too plentiful, wild dogs remove many that might otherwise starve to death. In short, they play a part in nature’s checks and balances.
Most scientists think that the wolf is the principal ancestor of our domestic dog. But jackals, coyotes, and dingoes undoubtedly also contributed their blood to the domestic dog. For example, many dogs of India are almost identical with jackals in appearance. And the American Indians had dogs that looked like coyotes.
How did people first tame these wild dogs? Thousands of years ago, primitive people lived in caves and hunted with clubs, spears, and other crude weapons. Wolves or other wild dogs often lived near them. Skulking about their campfires, these animals cleaned up the bones and scraps of meat people threw away. Sometimes primitive people killed the wild dogs when they tried to steal their meat. At other times they probably picked up roly-poly wolf or jackal puppies as playmates for their children.
These puppies grew up tame and affectionate. People gradually learned that they made good hunting companions as well as pets. Then, much later, people found that they could breed their best hunting dogs with their speediest dogs and get offspring with the best qualities of both parents. Through crossbreeding, different kinds of dogs began to develop. Ancient sculptures show us that the Assyrians had huge mastiff-like dogs that they used for lion-hunting in 600 BC. And long before then the Egyptians had dogs that looked like greyhounds.