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K. Kris Hirst

Genetic Basis of Dog Breeds

By May 22, 2012

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A new research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 21, 2012, reports that the long and varied history of dogs and humans has resulted in a major disconnect between ancient dogs and modern breeds.

Finnish Spitz
One of the few modern breeds of dogs to retain a tiny trace of its genetic origins, the Finnish Spitz was rescued from extinction by a single determined breeder. Photo of Ginger by NoŽl Zia Lee

Dogs were domesticated from the gray wolf at least 15,000 years ago, although where that happened and whether it happened once or several times is still a controversy. Since domestication occurred while humans were all hunter-gatherers at the time and thus led extensively migrant lifeways, dogs spread with them, and thus these dog populations developed in geographic isolation for a time. Eventually, however, human population growth and trade networks meant people reconnected, and that, say scholars, led to admixture in the dog population. When dog breeds began to be developed about 500 years ago, they were created out of a fairly homogenous gene pool, from dogs with mixed genetic heritages which had been developed in widely disparate locations.

Since the creation of kennel clubs, breeding has been selective: but even that was disrupted by World Wars I and II, when breed populations all over the world were decimated or went extinct: dog breeders have reestablished such breeds using a handful of individuals or combining similar breeds.

Larson G, Karlsson E, Perri A, Webster MT, Ho SYW, Peters J, Stahl PW, Piper PJ, Lingaas F, Fredholm M et al. 2012. New genetic, archeological, and biogeographic perspective on dog domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early edition.

A couple of news stories:


May 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm
(1) Bonnie Shirley says:

Love this new, up to date article, written by many well known in the interesting field of dog domestication! Thanks, Kris, on top of things as ever!

One minor disagreement in the About.com discussion, it is probably more accurate to say that modern dog breeds were developed 500 years ago, as there are skeletal remains and paintings of running/coursing dogs such as Salukis at the time of Egypt and earlier in Iran, and Mastiff type dogs are shown in use by royal lion hunters of Assyria, etc. Clearly dogs were no longer at all like wolves at that time, and dog body types were sought depending on the need. It is very likely that the dogs were kept and bred for appearance and strength. The proliferation of breeds is new, and many of the new breeds do not have ancient lineages. Much of the breeding modernly is questionable, and sometimes cruel. Breathing issues in several lines of dogs simply to accord to breed type are an example.

Very interesting, thanks again, Kris!

May 29, 2012 at 7:22 am
(2) Hector Lazcano says:

thank you very much

June 8, 2012 at 1:44 am
(3) Jim Placzek says:

Hi Kris,
I recall reading recently an article which claimed to trace dogs to a Southeast Asian regional area of origin. Any idea which one that might be? If I find that reference I’ll send it to you. -jP

September 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm
(4) leah says:

There are grey wolves in many different areas. not just in one place or the other. it may have been in many different places that this could have taken place not just in one or the other.

November 12, 2012 at 8:56 am
(5) Laura Bateman says:

Thanks for this it has helped me in my evolution assignment.

Hope to see more information soon


February 7, 2014 at 10:36 am
(6) Sandra Fuller says:

If wolves and dogs of today are not the same species then why do wolf & dog mixes of today still produce fertile offspring?As a general rule hybrids are sterile.I question this because i have a friend that does wolf rescue she has taken in many pregnant wolfdogs.Most were high content wolf.99.08% genetically related dogs are to wolves.

February 7, 2014 at 10:42 am
(7) Sandra Fuller says:

My bad didn’t read article completely through.Trying to read on smart phone and missed part of the article.Had so many discussions about this with misinformed people in the past.

February 9, 2014 at 1:11 am
(8) Pamela says:

Given that in 2008 they found the remains of what is now known to be the first dog, which dates from 31,700 years ago, domestication began much earlier than we have imagined. It is likely that humans and wolves, the ancestor to the modern dog, began to interact as much as 35,000 years ago. Of the many breeds we have today, the Basenji, Lhasa Apso, and Siberian Husky are among the most ancient.

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