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Charlottesville's Professional Dog Grooming

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Dogs — We Made them that Way

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007 by Mike Cronk

I just watched a fascinating program on National Geographic Explorer called “The Science of Dogs.” It covered the evolution of the dog—a “must see” for dog lovers. I can’t do the program justice here, but I will relay some of the highlights.

Dogs originated from the wolf about 15,000 years ago. Archeologists speculate that early hunters were interested in having animals around as company and wolves responded the best.

Studies show that dogs still have 99.8% wolf DNA—that leaves only .2% for all their varied behavior, sizes and shapes! This .2% of genes has a remarkable amount of plasticity unique in the animal kingdom. Cow genes only allow for slight variations—you won’t see a cow the size of a mouse nor one the size of an elephant.  Plasticity means that dog genes are much more flexible thus we are able to breed dogs from one end of the spectrum to another-compare a Newfoundland and a Chihuahua, for example!

The first time a dog was bred for a purpose was 5,000 years ago in Egypt. Today’s Saluki was originally bred to be a sleek, swift hunter. Over the next 4,000+ years, man guided the breeding of a few select mongrels that exhibited qualities he felt would be useful for hunting, herding, and guarding.  The TV program called this selective breeding “eugenics” which means the forced direction of evolution, something that has been heavily debated in regards to human genetics.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, the upper-middle class began to fancy their dogs just as they did their gardens and architecture. The “companion dog” became a status symbol for the well to-do and breeding reflected the dog’s new purpose. Over the past 100 years, 320 of the 400 recognized breeds were created (80%).

Because small dogs can be bred as often as twice a year, a new breed can be developed in less than 20-30 years. Aggressive manipulation of the breeding process to design and shape the perfect pet led to more sizes, shapes, and colors than any other species of animal. That’s what dog shows are all about– a public measuring of the success of breeders. Hunting dogs have their trials, scent dogs theirs, and earth dogs too.  Research has also been conducted to explain a dog’s affection for us—which has been heightened through selective breeding. Dogs look to man for guidance and imitate our behaviors. We have become a team and man serves as pack leader. 

Unfortunately, careless breeding in small gene pools has caused a sharp increase in genetic diseases such as cancer, blindness, hip dysplasia and epilepsy. Most dog books will list the health problems that have a higher incidence in certain breeds like hip dysplasia in German Shepherds and blindness in Dalmatians. There is an ongoing effort by professional breeders to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.” The best breeders are knowledgeable about the genetic defects that have come up in the breed so they keep thorough health records and refuse to breed any dog with defects.

As we continue to selectively breed dogs to our standards I do not see comparing them to wolves anymore than we compare man to monkeys!  The underlying biology may be similar but the behavior and physical appearance are very different.

National Geographic often repeats its programs—look for this one under the explorer series.

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