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Dogs: Man-Made friends?

17 May 2006

Have you ever wondered how we ended up with the amazing variety of dogs we have today? Well, Dogs: Man-Made Friends? is an exhibition that explores the origins of our best friend, the domestic dog.

For thousands of years mankind has used dogs for hunting, guarding, herding, and companionship. In China, dogs have been bred as pets for more than 2,000 years.

15,000-year-old pet
Skeleton of an Early Bronze Age dog from Tell Duweir, near Israel.

Skeleton of an Early Bronze Age dog from Tell Duweir, near Israel © The Natural History Museum, London 2005.

Archaeological evidence suggests the domestic dog appeared around 15,000 years ago and on display for the first time is a skeleton of a dog from the Early Bronze Age (around 4,500 years ago) excavated from Tell ed-Duweir, part of the ancient city of Lachish, 40 kilometres south west of Jerusalem, Israel.

Selective breeding

Over time, man selectively bred dogs to encourage particular characteristics, for example large dogs with long shaggy coats were bred for their fur to make warm clothing.

'Today's domestic dogs are man-made friends,' said Alice Dowswell, exhibition curator at the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum. 'Humans have altered their shape, size, coat, colouring and, to an extent, their behaviour to create hundreds of very different breeds'.

An interesting example is the unusual bulldog, Spike (pictured at the top), who was bred 'backwards' to achieve a longer-legged, more active version of the breed. This is illustrated in the exhibition by a display of different sized bulldog skulls from  different time periods.

Dowswell explains how some characteristics of modern pedigree dogs haven't proved practical, 'Certain breeds experience difficulties with seeing, breathing, movement or even giving birth, because they've been bred to have heads, legs or bottoms of a certain shape and size.'

The exhibition examines the results of selective breeding using mounted dogs, skeletal material, and fun interactives.

DNA almost identical
A Timber wolf - domestic dogs are thought to be descendants of wolves.

A Timber wolf - domestic dogs are thought to be descendants of wolves © The Natural History Museum, London 2005.

It has long been thought that the domestic dog, Canis familiaris , evolved from wolves, but this has been hard to prove. Recently though, scientists have studied the genetic code of dogs and have found their DNA to be almost identical to the wolf - only 0.2 per cent of their DNA is different - compare this to the difference between a wolf and coyote which is four per cent. The domestic dog is therefore essentially a descendant of the grey wolf.

Dogs: Man-Made Friends? is a free exhibition on until 9 July at the Natural History Museum at Tring , Hertfordshire.

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