Dog History in America

Dog Stories by Author John PappasDid all present day dogs come from wolves?  The debate continues.  I’m in the camp that believes they did not, though many breeds do have wolf genes.  We’re pretty certain domestic or semi-domestic dogs-wolves date back at least 7,000 years, or 12,000, 35,000 maybe even 125,000.  Based on ancient writings and symbols Egyptian Pharaohs held greyhounds as an exclusive breed of the privileged about 4,000 years ago; the penalty for a commoner to be in possession of a greyhound in those days was death.  Some believe greyhounds were the first not-completely-wolf dog, and certainly they are one of the oldest breeds, but it’s unlikely they were the first.

Maybe there isn’t a virtual “first” dog, but a series of “semi-dogs” evolving from coyotes, wolves, jackals, foxes and perhaps something else.  There are some genetic differences and anomalies that confuse any pat argument about what the first dog might have been and why a direct historical tracing is not possible with what anthropological information we have.  In fact dogs have always been taken for granted in their service to man, invisible, like everyday hardships and the labor of women and children, the diseases that regularly ravished people and animals, even the lives of slaves.

There is evidence that indicates modern dogs arrived in North America more than 12,000 years ago across the ice bridge from Siberia. There are also clues some migrated up from the south around the same period and bred with wolves and coyotes.  These “first dogs” in North America, based on skimpy archeological findings and little or no human records, are determined to be generally small animals with thick coats and would seem more likely be a meal than a mate for a wolf.  There are the off-white small to medium-sized wool dogs of early Northwest Natives which date from before recorded history and “came from the north.”  The fur of these dogs was periodically harvested and woven into blankets and clothing, while the dogs themselves were sometimes eaten.  The ancient “Eskimo dog” is still popular today and bears a marked resemblance to an arctic fox.  The early dog’s relationship to people in North America served practical purposes – as it often still does ­– and they earned their keep as guards and hunters.  The Spanish used a type of hound to hunt down and terrorize the local Natives.  These “war dogs” as they were called were actually fed Natives the Spanish brought along for their dog’s nourishment and it can be assumed to keep the animals identifying the scent of Native flesh as food.  Of course Spanish and American Natives also ate dogs, as did some of our early explorers and settlers.  In fact Meriwether Lewis during the Northwest Exploration became so fond of dog meat he demanded it at each Indian village the group encountered.

In the late 1800’s and into at least the 1950’s the genetic identity of an Alaska sled dog, Siberian or Malamute, required the “pure” individual to be ¼ wolf.  Breeds such as Great Pyrenees, Kuvasz, German Shepherd, Doberman, Akita, Rhodesian Ridgeback, etc., have many wolf traits.

In America’s early history dogs were used and often abused far more than coddled.  In the slaveholding South they were trained for hunting sport and also for tracking runaway slaves.  In Puritan New England, settlers used dogs to guard their homes and manage their livestock, to protect against wolves and to harass Indians.  In the West, cowmen used dogs to help round up cattle and manage other livestock, such as sheep.  All along the frontier, the “cur,” or “cur dog,” was used in many ways.  There are many frontier stories involving dogs:  In 1830, “A young mother was gathering beans in front of a newly built log house when she turned to fuss at her little dog for its persistent barking and saw that it was holding at bay a cougar sitting on a stump just twenty feet from her baby. The woman hastily scooped up her child and ran into the house to wait for her husband.  He soon returned with his big dog and immediately tracked and killed the cougar. He found in its stomach the remains of their brave little dog.”  From what we’ve learned about cougars since then it’s likely the big cat had its eye on the little dog all along rather than the baby.

Nowadays dogs and humans have a far different relationship, but dogs still work for us.  Police dogs help protect us.  Guide dogs serve as eyes for the blind.  Highly skilled bird dogs are the pride of many owners and compete in national trials.  In wartime dogs have served as messengers and have actually laid telephone cable.  After September 2001 bomb-detector dogs have shown to be more effective at nosing out explosives than machines and are now in high demand.

More than a decade ago, scientific research at the National Institute of Health and the American Cancer Society have begun to fund the study of canine genetics, because dog disease and human disease are turning out to be closely linked.  More than twenty inborn diseases in dogs have been traced to specific defective genes and each of these defective genes have been found in human beings.  Dogs carry the <i>brca 1</i>gene, which was identified as causing a significant increased risk of breast cancer in women.  Probably 90 to 95 percent of the dog genome and the human genome are identical.

From the start dog-genome researchers realized that along the way they might also discover a lot about the history of dogs and their innate behavior.   And although there is almost certainly not <i>a</i>gene, or even a handful of genes, that accounts for the transformation from wolf to dog, a study of the population genetics of the two species could potentially speak volumes about the origin and history of domestication.


To be continued . . .

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