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Canine Ancestry
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*Winner of the Society of Animal Artists Award of Excellence 2010

In 1993 the taxonomy of the dog was changed from Canis familiaris to Canis lupus familiaris, a subspecies of the Gray wolf. Evidence from behaviour, morphology and molecular biology led to the classification change indicating that the Gray wolf is the common ancestor for all breeds of domestic dogs. The method in which this process occurred is the source of the controversy, but most scientists agree that human interaction was key in shaping the evolution of the domestic dog. In fact, mitochondrial DNA studies suggest that this process was well underway 14-17,000 years ago. Other studies indicate an earlier divergence dating up to 140,000 years ago!

The wolf to dog evolutionary process is also linked to other controversies involving dog breeds today. There continues to be debates among dog trainers and ethologists on the validity in assuming dogs “think like wolves” in regards to shaping and correcting behaviours. Some argue that domestic dogs dependence on humans has bridged too much of a gap to assume such a degree of instinctual “pack –like” mentality of today’s breeds.

Diet is another hotly debated issue among dog owners. Many people claim that the similarities in the physiology of the digestive system between wolves and dogs means we should feed them something akin to what a wolf would eat. Dry foods with dangerously high protein contents are all the rage among some dog owners. Others believe the digestive organs of dog breeds today are less tolerant of high levels of protein and can have a disatrous effect on the liver and other organs.

When I watch my two goldens, I have to admit I am torn. As a zoologist it was ingrained in me early on not to be anthropomorphic in regards to animals but I cannot help seeing intrinsically human traits in them sometimes. As a trainer I have found that thinking of my dogs as wolves has had its flaws in execution, and other times it has been spot-on. As a veterinary technician I have seen dogs in good condition on  a broad range of diets. Regardless of the debates, one thing is certain – I am so glad we found that relationship with the wolf that developed into the most beautiful friendship of all time.

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