Evolution of Dogs

The Evolution of Dogs and How To Define a Dog Breed

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Carlotta Cooper

Researched & Written by

Carlotta Cooper

At EasyPet, we are committed to presenting the most accurate and up-to-date information to assist you in your pet care journey. When appropriate, we consult licensed and practicing veterinarians to fact-check our professionally written articles.

According to Merriam-Webster, a breed is “a homogenous grouping of animals within a species, developed by humans”.

Another dog breed definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary – “a line of descendants perpetuating particular hereditary qualities”.

The evolution of dogs from the early breeds to those that currently exist today come from a single species – Canis lupus. More specifically, they come from the same subspecies, Canis lupus familiaris. This is the scientific name given to the domestic dog.

Okay, but what does any of that really mean?

How is a Dog Breed Defined?

A dog breed is a family of dogs with uniquely similar characteristics that has remained hereditarily consistent and has not been influenced by outside genetics.

Evolution of Dogs

The dog was the first species to be domesticated by man and scientists estimate that this happened sometime around 9,000 years ago.

The first dogs domesticated by man were used for two primary purposes – hunting and sledding. These early dogs were selectively bred by man to make them better at their intended jobs. Sled dogs were medium in size, built for speed and stamina. Hunting dogs were large and muscular, bred to chase and take down large prey.

Over thousands of years, humans changed and so did their needs. When they spread to different parts of the world, they took their dogs with them. In each location they settled, they continued to breed their dogs to optimize them for their current climate, environment, and purpose. Different dogs were bred to hunt different types of prey ranging from small prey like hare to large prey like deer – even dangerous prey like bear.

With the birth of agriculture, dogs came to be used for herding and guarding livestock. These dogs needed an entirely different set of skills. Herding dogs needed to be small, smart, and fast. Livestock guardians needed to be large, intelligent, and independent. Some dogs were developed as general farm dogs, others for ratting, and even some solely for companionship.

Over the centuries, as the needs of man changed, so did their canine companions.

Each culture developed its own unique breeds. Some of the oldest dog breeds, referred to as “ancient breeds,” became the foundation for many of the dog types we know today.

Though resources vary, scientists agree on nine ancient breeds still in existence today. These nine breeds are those which have the greatest genetic similarity to wild wolves and they give us a sneak peek into the history of dog breed development.

The 9 Ancient Dog Breeds:

  1. Afghan Hound
  2. Akita
  3. Alaskan Malamute
  4. Basenji
  5. Chinese Shar Pei
  6. Chow Chow
  7. Saluki
  8. Samoyed
  9. Siberian Husky

Although the exact details regarding the domestication of the dog is still unknown, historians are able to trace the origins of most of today’s breeds to these ancient breeds or to the extinct breeds they came from. There is also an entire subset of “primitive breeds” which are primarily aboriginal dog breeds linked to specific parts of the world.

Do you have a better understanding now of what a dog breed is?

To put it simply, a dog breed is a certain type of dog bred for specific characteristics (both physical and temperamental) and/or skills. They are distinct from other types of dog in discernible ways.

Let’s move on to talking about how many dog breeds there are.

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