A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gayle Pille: Imagine this — some of our favorite dogs are descendents of the awe-inspiring wolf

It’s hard to imagine that some breeds of dogs are actually descendents of the awe-inspiring wolf.

Dogs though were the first domesticated animals. They arose out of Eurasia more than 15,000 years ago and are descendants of the Gray Wolf. In fact, the Gray Wolf and Fido’s mitochondrial DNA sequence differ by only 0.2%. Dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, are more closely related to the wolf than any other member of the genus Canis. That makes Pierre the French Poodle more of a wolf than Wiley Coyote.

Gray wolf

How did the wolf become domesticated? Archaeologists are awash with theories.

Primitive man may have adopted orphaned wolf cubs. Being pack animals, the cubs were easily socialized by humans and may have been effective hunting companions. Over generations, these tame wolves became more dog-like.

Wolves were and still are scavengers. Humans on the other hand, have always had heaps of trash. Wolves may have been attracted to the bones and debris of early human campsites. Early man, seeing the advantages of regular trash pickup, may have encouraged wolves to stick close to their camps. The wolves could then clean up garbage and give warnings of danger by barking.

Gray wolf

Wolves were domesticated long before the horse and may have been domesticated as a beast of burden. Even today, native Eskimos use Huskies (very wolf-like canines) for pulling sleds to transport individuals and supplies.

It may be hard for some to grasp, but wolves may well have been domesticated as a source of meat and fur. Even early explorers, including those of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, readily ate dog meat.

When did our pooch friends arrive in North America?

Early hunter-gatherers brought dogs to North America from Asia more than 12,000 years ago. When these Paleo-Indians migrated across the Bering Straight during the Pleistocene, or last Ice Age, their dogs traveled the long distances with them. To travel such lengths, they were surely regarded as very valuable since they needed additional care, food and water.

They may have assisted prehistoric Native Americans with hunting, transportation, security and warmth. These ancient, or “pariah” breeds evolved from the earliest wolf ancestors.They probably lived within the camp or village confines, were owned by nobody in particular, but were always eager and ready to join the hunt.

Lugar, the German Shepherd

Prehistoric Indians obviously had great respect for their canines. Archaeologists have uncovered 10,000-year-old dog burial sites that had been buried with the same care and respect as their human counterparts.

Do any pariah breeds remain in North America?

Some believe that the Carolina Dog, also known as the Dixie Dingo, Indian Dog or Ol’ Yeller, is a native pariah breed. These yellow colored dogs certainly look and act the part.

Bred by natural selection for survival in the natural world, populations of Carolina Dogs still live in the wilds of the Southeast.

These independent dogs are easily tamed but still retain many of their wild traits. Like their wolf ancestors, they are very intelligent and effective pack hunters. And unlike other stray dogs, wild populations of Carolina Dogs prefer to live in remote areas, away from human settlements.

Dogs, like their prehistoric ancestors, continue to serve us well. It’s no wonder some wise Homo sapien came up with the profound saying, “The more people I meet, the more I like my dog.”

Rex, a Black Labrador


Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com

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One Comment

  1. Solo says:

    I think you mean “descendants”, not ancestors. 😉 The title sounded really interesting for a second there!

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