Our First Friends:
The Co-evolution of Dogs and Humans
Evidence suggests that the co-evolution of humans and canines has been in play for at least 30,000 years.
(Image of Chauvet Cave replicate, Claude Valette, 2016, WikiMedia Commons)
A pair of meandering footprints leads 150 ft into Chauvet Cave in Southern France, a famous archeological site discovered in 1994 that hosts some of the best-preserved remnants of Upper Paleolithic life. These tandem footprints are those of an adolescent human and a wolf-like animal. The prints are measured and causal, as if the child and canine were acquainted with one another. It’s not certain that the trace of these footprints was pressed into the mud at the same time, but the image of these interspecies comrades walking together deep into a cave – their path ahead perhaps lit with the wavering flame of a torch – is a potent echo of how long humans and dogs have been in partnership.
(Palaeolithic dog from the Goyet Cave, Beligum. Image courtesy of Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)
Candle-lit romantic narratives aside, there is compelling archeological evidence to indicate that a new species began to diverge from its wolf ancestors more than 30,000 years ago. The first generations of wolves to veer from the pack and embrace relations with humans are called “proto-dogs,” and the morphologically distinct skulls of these proto-dogs have been found in various archeological sites, including in Goyet Cave in Belgium dated to 31,700 years ago and another skull radiocarbon dated to over 33,000 years ago was found in Razboinichya Cave (AKA Bandit’s Cave), nestled in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia. Some researchers studying canine lineage using mitochondrial DNA are attempting to push this timeline to as far back as 100,000 years ago.
Humans are the New Alphas
(A Woman with a Dog by Jean Honoré Fragonard, Ca. 1769. Oil on Canvas. Image courtesy of The Met Museum.)
One idea suggests that the canids engaging with humans were wolves, and they were likely wolves that ranked lower in their wolf-pack hierarchy. Humans may have stepped in as alphas for these stray wolves, and through an exchange of skills and resources, a species distinct from wolves emerged through the process of domestication: canis familiaris. The facts about proto-dogs and their role within burgeoning human societies are only as good as the evidence that has survived the ages. Hopefully this story will become clearer and more complex as the field of zooarcheology matures, new discoveries are made and novel tools emerge as research technologies improve. Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated on all of Earth’s continents inhabited by humans, and this exchange between humans and canines emerged in different places and at different times with different biological, social and cultural outcomes. Historically, our relationships with dogs are thought to have been utilitarian – that humans used different breeds of dogs as tools to help solve problems and carry out a range of work – but as our society progresses, the various problems facing humans has shifted and the “work” that dogs do, and how they fit into our lives, reflects these shifts.
Co-evolution in process...
(Taylor Leedahl using TinyHorse gear to walk a pack of dogs from Bow Wow Walkers in Toronto, Canada, 2018)
The process of domestication continues to evolve and thrive today, and TinyHorse is a company creating solutions for the rising phenomena of today’s relationships between humans and dogs. The Lead-All Leash, our premiere product, helps handlers manage multiple dogs on leash, and was a response to the rise of dog walking as a viable industry throughout the globe, and the particular physical and emotional challenges that come with overseeing a pack of dogs that come from diverse homes. Dog walking itself is a response to the increase of dogs as companion animals and the need for people to balance their responsibilities of dog ownership with their work life. The year 2020 was a particularly stressful one, and already we see a trend emerging: anxieties were on the upswing so was the rate of dog adoption and rescue. I’m a dog walker myself, and two of my clients added second dogs to their home while Canada was on lockdown. Whether the increase of dog ownership was inspired by more time at home, the need for emotional support or a bit of both, we see – even in the year that’s just behind us – that dogs were looked upon to help humans solve problems. We can only hope that dogs are honoured in this work, and have found homes prepared to make life-long commitments.
Throwing it Back
When times are tough, as they currently are with the Covid-19 pandemic raging across the globe and impacting every aspect of our lives, sometimes it helps to back up and look at the broader picture to ease nerves, strengthen our sense of belonging and reinforce our purpose. As the director of TinyHorse, I’ll be drawing on my background in Art History (Master’s thesis on “Interspecies Collaborations in Contemporary Art” completed in 2014) to zoom out on our relationship with dogs and share with readers the interesting moments and developments I discover through my research. As an art historian and a maker of gear for dog walkers and dog owners, I’ll pay particular attention to the material culture created to aid the development of these human/dog partnerships.
Hold my leash, I'm going in!
(Taylor from TinyHorse and her beagle Abigail Potato connected using our multi-leash the Leader)
Interestingly, the concept of a leash is documented as far back as over 8,000 years ago! A sandstone carving in the Arabian Desert features a hunter surrounded by thirteen dogs, two of which have lines drawn from their neck that connect to the hunter’s waist. It’s meaningful to me that the Leader by TinyHorse connects with an ancient idea that served a need to be handsfree: here a hunter poised with his bow and arrow, today we scoop poop into a dog bag or handle our smartphones to post a moment to social media. How are our needs different, how are they the same and what do the tools we use say about our connection with dogs? Having spent nine years studying art history, I’m inspired to return to examining art and material culture with the specific intention of looking for dogs… and wow, I’m already blown away by how frequently dogs populate the imagery humans produced about the times they lived in. So, let’s ring in the new year by thinking about humans’ first friends. Let’s consider our lives with dogs in the past, present and actively work towards creating an honourable future for ourselves and our canine companions. It’s my hope that these posts become a conversation with readers and that you share the information that interests you most with friends, family, colleagues and clients – this is after all our shared history!
Watch the short video below to see the sandstone carving of the hunter with dogs on leashes.
Hobgood-Oster, Laura. A Dog's History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans, 2014. Baylor University Press.
Grimm, David. "These may be the world's first images of dogs -- and they're wearing leashes." Science, published Nov 16, 2017. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/11/these-may-be-world-s-first-images-dogs-and-they-re-wearing-leashes
Evans, Pete. "Pandemic isolation sees booming demand for pets -- a businesses that cater to them." CBC News, published Dec 27, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/pandemic-pet-business-1.5850051
Cotnam, Hallie. "Year of the Dog: Pandemic Puppies in Demand, Short Supply." CBC News, published Oct 29, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/pandemic-puppies-ottawa-supply-demand-breeders-rescue-urge-caution-1.5778956
A Woman with a Dog, oil painting by Jean Honoré Fragonard, ca. 1769. Image and information accessed via The Met Museum. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436323
"Study Reveals More Clues to Domesticated Dog." Published Nov 14, 2008. https://popular-archaeology.com/article/study-reveals-more-clues-to-origins-of-domesticated-dog/