top of page

Why Do We Even Have Dogs?

Two recent papers explore how and why humans started hanging out with wolves

Jet is many things. He’s my canine companion, raider of the trash, mail watchdog, irrepressible sniffer of faces, and a second alarm clock. Each morning when he hears Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” play as my phone alarm, he wags his tail with a thump against the wall, and then (with permission) jumps up on the bed. It was during one such moment, pinned in place by about 75 pounds of German shepherd and thinking about just how many wiry black hairs were being freshly embedded into the duvet, that I wondered, Why do we even have dogs? They are lovable, but they are also loud, smelly carnivores.

As you may well know, dogs were domesticated from gray wolves, or an ancestor thereof (the process is hardly a straight line from wild thing to household pet). We literally pay homage to those origins when we buy kibble covered in all sorts of wild iconography or chatter about who’s the alpha in any given group of lovable pups. Dogs were also potentially domesticated more than once—evidence suggests our household companions came from a relatively recent instance in western Eurasia. But I was intrigued to read a new Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper which locates the origin of some of the very first dogs in the last Ice Age, about 23,000 years ago.

This is the scene, according to that paper, for our early interactions with dog ancestors: The world’s glaciers were as large as they’ve ever been during the Ice Age. Much of the habitable space around those ice sheets was chilly grassland where mammoths and lions roamed. In Siberia, that meant that wolves and ancient people were hemmed in together. The overwhelming ice created comparatively small oases of frozen tundra where both humans and wolves licked their chops looking at the herbivorous prey that grazed on the chilly steppe. Circumstance had brought the two social species together.

It’s fun imaging Jet as the distant relative of an Ice Age pup. But who on the tundra looked at wolves with all those teeth and said, “Ooo, I want one?” I know I probably would. I am fond of menacing creatures, perhaps in part with the already-well-established relationship I have with dogs. But I asked Angela Perri, a Durham University archaeologist and an author on the PNAS paper, how our ancestors were possibly endeared to those of our pups. The leading idea being trotted around archaeological circles is centered on food. “I think the trash pile theory is the most-likely and most-subscribed-to hypothesis at the moment,” she explains. Where there are humans, in other words, there is trash that dogs find yummy. Maybe humans and wolves got used to each other as they all picked what they could from mammoth carcasses. Or perhaps wolves got used to human proximity when they snacked on our garbage piles.