Monday, December 3, 2012

Why Did Dogs Become Our Best Friends?

By Linda Cole

No one really knows exactly how dogs were domesticated, although there is evidence pointing towards a mutual benefit for both man and canine. “Why” dogs became our best friend has been more elusive. However, research into dog behavior has been giving scientists a better understanding of the reasons.

Scientific understanding of how dogs came to live with humans has led researchers to conclude there were most likely three females, referred to as the “Eves” in the early years of domestication. In 2004, scientists took 85 dog breeds and traced their genetic pattern. They consider 14 of the 85 to be ancient breeds, and seven of the 14 are classified as having the oldest genetic footprint. However, even the ancient breeds can only be traced back to around 2,000 years or so, which is far from the time when dogs were first domesticated.

The seven ancient breeds are from Alaska (the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute), China (the Chow Chow and Shar Pei), Japan (the Shiba Inu and Akita) and Africa (the Basenji). According to researchers, the history of how dogs became various ancient breeds is difficult to determine because of interbreeding and how they were moved to different areas around the world. It's a complicated history scientists are still trying to unravel.

Most of the dog breeds we know and love today were created during the 1800s. Different dog breeds were interbred to create our modern day breeds and each one was bred to do a specific job for man. Some of those earlier breeds used are now extinct. Interestingly, the Saluki was isolated by geography during the time when breeds were being created in the 19th century, and their genetic makeup appears to be different than other breeds for that reason.

Dog owners know what scientists are just beginning to discover when it comes to why dogs became our best friends. Anyone who has lived with canines already understands how in tune dogs are with us and our emotions. A study I reported on earlier explained how dogs are capable of being empathic, which is something any dog owner who pays attention to their dog already understands. According to researchers, dogs became our best friend because we reward them when they show empathy towards us. They believe their study suggests that we've simply conditioned our dogs to respond to us.

To me, one important factor the study never addressed is how selective breeding played a role. Wild animals like tigers or bears can be tamed, but they are not what we could consider safe or domesticated. The first wolves to live with man were likely those that were more curious and friendly towards humans, and they would have been the ones selectively bred for those desirable traits. In the beginning, human influence and selective breeding could be the reason why dogs show empathy towards us. Their relationship was mutually beneficial, and since dogs have been following us around for centuries, canines have had a lot of years to learn about us.

In the late 1950s, Russian scientist Dmitri K. Belyaev conducted experiments with silver foxes. The Silver Fox Experiment was important in understanding how quickly the domestication process can happen, and how it changed their behavior, general appearance and genetic makeup. Belyaev selectively bred the more people-friendly foxes and created an animal that's very much dog-like in their interactions with humans.

When I pull out the CANIDAE TidNips™ treats, my dogs come running. I reward them for obeying commands with treats and praise. I give them treats, just because they're good. But during times when I feel blue or get teary eyed watching a movie, I suddenly find myself surrounded by canines wanting to be by my side, and grabbing a treat or even giving them a heartfelt “good girl/boy” is not something I am likely to do at that time. They didn't come to me for a treat; they came because they chose to, when they thought I needed them! That is expressing empathy.

I have no doubt dogs are capable of being empathic. The bond we build with our pets is something that lasts a lifetime, and dogs will not break their bond with us. Canines are adaptable, and I'm not convinced dogs surrendered to shelters forget their owner, they simply move on out of necessity. As a lifelong dog owner, reading scientific studies about dogs is interesting, but I don't think one study explains why dogs became our best friends. A dog's mind is just as complex as ours, and researchers are still trying to figure out why we act the way we do.

Photo by Lyn Lomasi

Read more by Linda Cole


  1. Anyone who has been friends with a dog knows the answer to this. Some things you just can't put into words

  2. I think that both dogs and cats are capable of being empathic. They know the minute I am upset about something and are very award of my body language and they are my best friends. Great post.


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