Dogs are one of the most diverse species on the earth—only worms are more varied in appearance. We groomers see dogs in all their diversity every day in our businesses. Take, for example, a Chihuahua versus a Saint Bernard. It’s hard to believe, looking at them side by side, that they are the same species.
Even more surprising was a discovery made when mapping the canine genome. In 2003 when the dog DNA study was released, it revealed that only three genes out of thousands contribute to the appearance of all dogs.
We humans—no matter where on Earth we live—are relatively similar in appearance, yet there are thousands of genetic differences between us individually. Even members of the same family are more genetically distinct from each other than are the differences between dog breeds.
Genetic scientists call this rare phenomenon a “large effect” where one or two tiny genetic variants change a species dramatically. This is almost certainly the reason that human beings have been able to so easily manipulate the appearance of various breeds of dogs over our long shared history.
But why so many breeds of dogs?
A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
Scientists have been conducting some fascinating studies into the role that dogs have played in human history. There is clear evidence that human beings and dogs, two separate and very different species, are actually “co–evolved,” which is also very rare in Earth’s biological history.
The more genetic, archeological and anthropological study that is done, the more we get affirmation of the unprecedented nature of the human–dog bond. We have something special between us that exists literally nowhere else on this planet. And, there is even evidence that dogs may be responsible for the very survival of our species.
The wide variety of dog breeds is a direct result of the different functions and roles they played in human civilization: hunting, either with us or on their own for us; pulling carts and sleds and carrying loads for us; digging for vermin that destroy our crops or spread disease; attack, guarding and defense; rescue in water or snow or mountains; and even companionship and artistic expression.
One example of early human–dog cooperation was during the late Pleistocene Era and especially during the last Ice Age that finally ended about 12,000 years ago. After millennia of deep cold, the human population had fallen drastically to tens of thousands worldwide. We were at risk of extinction. Archeologists and geneticists have confirmed that human–dog cooperation during hunts enabled them to bring down prey—even the size of Wooly Mammoths. Hunting and defending against predators cemented the mutually beneficial relationship for each other’s survival during that critical epoch.
Dogs’ unique ability to hunt strategically in packs, surrounding and confining a target prey, worked well with humans’ unique ability to make and use tools. As the pack dogs would hold the prey in place, we would come in with our primitive tools and take the prey down. Then we would share the spoils of this partnership hunt together, where both species benefited.
SEEING EYE TO EYE
Dogs, among all other canine species, are able to look human beings directly in the eyes. This adaptation is one of the reasons that the relationship thrived. We can communicate with them because of a unique variation in our own eyes, the white sclera around our pupils, which allows wordless communication as we move our eyes around in various expressions. We can use our eyes to convey all sorts of information and emotion.
Other primates such as Chimpanzees and Gorillas do not have any white around their pupils. This unique universal human mutation allows us to communicate danger, where the prey is located, or even to express fear or joy when we move our eyeballs. Dogs can read emotion in our eyes and the surrounding facial muscles and understand it. This is just one example of the many ways our two species have co–evolved.
When I teach about this unique co–evolved history, I always remind groomers that we should take a moment with every dog we are working with and look them in the eyes. When I first get them up in the tub or on the table, I pull my mask down for a minute, say their name and smile at them. I let them read my friendly, confident mood and make eye contact. It can make a world of difference in the grooming experience!
DOG BREEDS IN HUMAN HISTORY
For the millennia that dogs have been co–evolving with us, we have become the two closest species on the planet. This is just one of the reasons that the retired history teacher in me takes such satisfaction in caring for dogs—the species responsible for our very survival. It gives me a strong sense of the history of our two species together.
Dogs evolved globally, adapting to their natural environment. Extremes of cold, heat or other conditions reinforced some helpful mutations, such as a third protective layer of fur undercoat in what became Arctic Breeds such as Huskies or Samoyeds.
Some ancient human civilizations helped encourage certain other beneficial adaptations in dogs, forming some early breeds. Egyptians helped to develop early forerunners of the Sight Hounds who could run like the wind after prey in some of the harshest climates on the planet. The oldest recognizable breeds still in existence, such as the Saluki, are from what is now Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Africa. In Africa, the Basenji, a primitive breed that is still barkless today, was an early hunting partner. Ancient Rome pioneered Mastiffs, using the earliest giant breeds for military purposes.
During the thousand years following the fall of Rome, known as The Dark Ages or The Middle Ages to historians, there were no governments, countries or states with political boundaries such as we know today. Feudal lords would create communities built around their fortresses. What I have identified as the earliest professional groomers, known as “kennel boys,” would live with and care for the noble lord’s hunting dogs, such as early Deerhounds.
Terriers were critical to human survival during the three centuries of the bubonic plague. Living as we do now in our own pandemic, it is fascinating to see how important dogs were to human survival even then. One out of every four human beings living on earth died during the three centuries of the global bubonic plague. Had it not been for the tenacious Terriers with their protective wire coats hunting and killing the vermin that spread the plague, we might not have survived. So be thankful next time a Westie or a Scottie doesn’t want you to clip their toenails! Their tenacity and ability to dig saved our skins.
By the Renaissance and, later, the Elizabethan era in the late 1500’s, urban centers became more common and people began to live together in smaller apartment–like dwellings, giving rise to more small dog breeds. Toy–sized dogs also became a status symbol for ladies from higher social classes.
But even with all these dog breeds beginning to emerge in human history, by the beginning of the Victorian era in the 1830’s and following, there were still only a handful of identifiably different dog breeds worldwide. All Sporting Group dogs, or “Gun Dogs” as they are called in Europe, exploded in popularity and breeding with the invention of the gun. We benefited from their abilities to find and point to our prey birds and then retrieve them. This era also saw an explosion of dog breeding and creation of breeds. There were only two breeds of Terriers early in the Victorian era, but by the 20th century there were dozens.
DOG BREEDS TODAY
We have only recently cracked the DNA code and learned that, at least genetically, there are actually only two groups of dogs; the Primitive breeds and all the rest of the many diverse breeds we know. The important functions and roles that dogs have played throughout our history led to the creation of dog “groups.”
In the US, the seven groups are Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non–Sporting and Herding. Herding dogs are called the Pastoral Group in Europe, and the Sporting Group is called Gun Dogs, but the AKC Groups largely align with the recognized groups of dogs in other countries based on their “function” and specialized abilities. These evolved both naturally and in response to human need throughout our history.
Today, genetically, the international agency governing all dog breeds, the Federation Cynologique Internationale (www.fci.be), recognizes almost 400 distinct breeds. The American Kennel Club (www.AKC.org) recognizes over 200 separate breeds of dogs.
It can only enhance our grooming to understand and appreciate the unique history, function and evolved abilities of the dogs and their coat types that we see before us on the grooming table each day. ✂️