Results of selective breeding

 

While we do find descriptions of “greyhounds” in Egyptian palaeontology and “molossers” in Assyrian history, they are actually simply subspecies of Canis familiaris, varieties or types kept by different clans. The dog breeds we know today developed well after domestication, dating as they do from antiquity.

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Adaptation of the canine species as civilisations developed

Apart from a few breeds such as the Maltese, whose racial identity was maintained over a limited territory, most dog breeds are the result of human selection, which only became possible once dogs had been domesticated and breeding could be controlled.

Adaptation of the canine species over time

Unlike undomesticated species such as crocodiles, which have scarcely evolved in two hundred million years, dogs adapted (or were adapted) in record time to every type of climate, civilisation and geographic area they now inhabit. Siberian husky, Mexican Hairless Dog, Pekingese, Great Dane, Boxer and Dachshund are just some of the 339 breeds currently approved by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), which, despite their diversity, all belong to Canis familiaris. It is interesting to note that the shape of the head, legs and spine have evolved independently from breed to breed in the evolution of domesticated dogs.

This diversification began in the late Stone Age when humans became sedentary and changed from being hunters to producers. Dogs were most likely medium-sized at this time, resembling the “Peat Bog Spitz” described in England by Von den Driesch and closely related to the current spitz-type, although very different types of dogs coexisted throughout the world.

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Human influence

Human selection can achieve substantial leaps. For example, in Argentina it took just a century to produce miniature horses measuring 80-86cm (32-34 inches) at the withers from standard horses. Things can go even faster in dogs, because of their prolificacy and short gestation period.

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Failures of domestication

Attempts at domestication have not always been crowned with success. The ancient Egyptians tried to domesticate hyenas, gazelles, wildcats and foxes, but they only managed to tame a few individuals at best. More recently, attempts to domesticate wild dingoes have also failed. Indeed, in many respects, the domestication of the cat is still a work in progress.

Appearance of different types

Two large types appeared in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC: molossoids which had the job of protecting livestock from predators (bears and ironically, their ancestor, the wolf) and the “greyhound” type, which was suited to running and life in desert regions, providing crucial assistance on the hunt.

Alongside these two basic types, there would obviously have been other types corresponding to the main groups as defined by the FCI.

 

Growing ties between dogs and humans

Since antiquity, dogs have fulfilled numerous roles and participated in activities as diverse as combat, meat production, sled pulling at the Poles and sacred rites in ancient religions. Later, the Roman Empire pioneered dog breeding, priding itself on the title “homeland of a thousand dogs”, foreshadowing the diversity of dog varieties whose primary uses would be companionship, guarding farms and herds, and hunting.

It is easy to imagine how this diversification snowballed down the centuries due to human migration and trade, genetic mutation (which is probably the origin of chondrodystrophic dwarfism in modern Bassets), selective breeding and natural or voluntary elimination, leading to the appearance of extreme types like the Bulldog, which was originally bred for bull baiting, and the Pekingese, which became the companion of Chinese empresses.

Hunting dogs and the first standard

Different dog varieties were selected in the Middle Ages according to their aptitude for different types of hunting. Bloodhounds and pointers were used to locate game without barking, scent and sighthounds were used to tire deer and bird dogs were used to flush fowl. Barking dogs were also described as being used to pursue prey, even Bassets that chased small animals underground. However, while it is impossible to identify a given breed from a skeleton with any great certainty, some breeds will undoubtedly have disappeared.

The process of retaining traits, which is an integral part of the concept of breed standards, only really got going in the 16th century for hunting dogs. Over the next two centuries an attempt was made to establish a family tree of the breeds recognised by Count Buffon, and interest in breeding soared after the first dog shows in London (1861) and Paris (1863).

From then on, breeders invested efforts to create new morphological types from existing breeds. Every breed club can pinpoint the exact date of the show that officially recognised a group of individuals as a breed, rather than a variety, as had been the case up till then.

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Results of selective breeding
    Results of selective breeding

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