When Did Dogs Become Pets?

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that the dogs we share our homes and lives with are distant relatives of wild, majestic wolves. Be it a teacup poodle or a massive Dogo Argentino hard at work hunting down large game, all of our dogs ultimately stem from the same stock. But when did dogs first become domesticated and kept as pets, as they are today?

Woman holding a black dog wearing a sweater
credit: Capuski/iStock/GettyImages

The answer to that question still has yet to be answered, but in searching for the explanation, researchers and curious pet owners alike often find themselves wondering more about the evolutionary journey of our canine companions, including where they became domesticated dogs, and why.

The debate

When it comes to the question of exactly when dogs became domesticated pets, the answer is still unclear. Despite the fact that dogs have been regarded as "man's best friend" for centuries, it is only relatively recently that research and studies have been conducted to get an understanding of how, when, and why this happened. The answers to any of those questions are still subjects of much debate, but one thing that the scientific community can generally agree on is that the dogs we live among today, regardless of the size, shape, or breed, are descendants of grey wolves. Anything speculated after that point will depend on who you ask and what research you follow.

When did dogs become pets?

This is a question that has no single, correct answer. Some papers state that dog domestication occurred 130,000 years ago, others claim it's closer to 15,000. Smithsonian reported that dogs were likely first domesticated around 40,000 years ago. Genetic studies conducted using Neolithic dog fossils showed genetic mutation that backs that number, and further revealed similarities between these early dogs and the dogs we live among today. However, the article goes on to explain that some people believe that the fossils found from that long ago are the remnants of a group of domesticated dogs that did not survive and contribute much to the dog DNA we see today. Instead, it's suggested that a second, and ultimately more successful attempt at domestication occurred more recently but at least 14,000 years ago both in Europe and East Asia.

Profile portrait of adult Xoloitzcuintle dog (Mexican Hairless), male standard size. Beautiful dog with red mohawk on the head, harsh attentive look.
credit: All the rights for presented photos are my own./iStock/GettyImages

Where was the first domesticated dog from?

According to the BBC, the dogs that we know and love as our pets today all most likely descended from European domesticated dogs, which can be traced back to DNA evidence found on a 14,000 year old fossil from Germany. However, dogs are believed by many to be much older than that, and domestication is still believed to have possibly taken place in two different parts of the world — Europe and East Asia. A 2013 paper released on PLOS One notes that some people consider Southern China to be the birthplace of the domesticated dog, while others stand by findings that dogs were first kept as companions in the Middle Eastern and European region. Many researchers suppose that domestication could have taken place in both areas, separately.

Why were wolves domesticated?

We don't know when dogs were domesticated, and there isn't really a consensus on where they were domesticated, but what about the answer to why they were kept as pets? If you guessed, "No one can really agree on why humans domesticated dogs in the first place either," you would be correct.

Much like the other hotly-debated topics of when and where, researchers have a few theories that they feel may explain why, although none have been confirmed. One theory supposes that humans kept wolf puppies as their own and gradually domesticated them over time, but how they captured puppies from wild, aggressive wolves (who would likely not hesitate to defend their litters from what would be considered a competitor — humans) and kept these creatures among them is tough to explain.

A wolf out in nature
credit: Sandra Dombrovsky/iStock/GettyImages

Another more widely accepted theory is that some wolves essentially "self-domesticated." The idea behind this theory is that friendlier and less aggressive wolves stayed closer to roaming groups of humans, who may have given or awarded these future-dogs with food. Much easier than hunting large game in packs, sometimes over the course of weeks, these more social wolves would have ultimately benefited from their less-timid dispositions, and may have even chosen to stick closer to people for their easy accessibility to food, fire, and safety. In return, these early dogs may have offered humans protection from other environmental threats, and may have served as a sort of alarm system, who would alert their people of impending intruders, or possibly just offered a head's up if anything within the encampment was out of the ordinary. We can speculate and imagine scenarios all day, but the truth is that we may never really know what this early relationship looked like.

Smithsonian states that self-domestication, which they describe as "survival of the friendliest," can also result in physical changes in an animal over time. Wild wolves have pointed ears, straight tails, and rough coats, but sometimes, animals can change their physical appearance to appeal to their human counterparts, usually for some benefit of their own (like food.) The article goes on to cite an example of Russian foxes who were domesticated. The less aggressive foxes learned to pick up on hand gestures given by their human captors, which, when followed, resulted in the discovery of food kept hidden in secret places. The foxes that performed the best were less fearful of human handlers, and were bred for further domestication. Along the way, these new fox kits appeared more "dog-like" and cute in their physical appearance.

This study also backs up the theory that dogs self-domesticated, as taming a wild animal like a wolf back when food resources were scarce and everyone was a competitor would be a massive undertaking. Because the friendlier, less timid and less aggressive dogs choose to interact more closely with humans, they essentially self-selected, making the domestication process more of an evolution to coincide with their needs than a premeditated act on the part of human beings.

Group or pack of ten dogs sitting and lying down looking at the camera seen from the front with king poodle, bernese mountain dog, norwich terrier and pommerian dogs isolated on a white background
credit: LeoniekvanderVliet/iStock/GettyImages

Dogs as pets today

Dogs may be related to wolves, and in some ways there are still similarities that we can spot today. Genetically speaking, dogs and wolves are nearly identical at a 98.8 percent match. They are both social animals, who flourish in a pack environment — wolves in their wolf pack, and dogs with their human counterparts, and sometimes, other animals in or around the home. They also behave in many similar ways, including marking territories with urine or feces, licking those they seek food or attention from, seeking out den-like spaces to retire and find comfort in, and operate in a hierarchy, with some more dominant and aggressive, while others are more submissive and docile.

Despite their many similarities, however, dogs and wolves are not the same species of animal. Wolves are classified as canis lupus, while dogs are a subspecies of that, called canis familiaris. Physically speaking, wolves are much larger and more athletic than most domesticated dogs, and their feet are designed to cover more ground running and a variety of terrain, unlike dogs. Wolves have intense, yellowish eyes, while dogs are usually spotted with blue or brown eyes, or a combination of both. While they do use their voices to communicate with one another, wolves seldom bark that way that dogs do, and dogs rarely engage in long, exaggerated howls without adding a little bark or yipping sound at the end, which wolves will not usually do.

Conclusion

The answer to the question of when dogs became pets is unclear. Dogs may have begun to be domesticated anywhere from 15,000 to 130,000 years ago. The way that dogs became domesticated is also unknown—they may have "self-domesticated," choosing to be near early humans for convenient access to food, or the domestication process may have been started by the early humans themselves. We may never know the truth, but we're grateful that, somewhere in our long history together, dogs became our friends.