Approximately 16,000 years ago, south of the Yangtze River in China the first dog may have been born. But it is highly unlikely that modern dogs look or act anything like those ancient “first dogs.” That’s because the history of dogs is one of incredibly fast mutations. There are now more than 300 breeds of dogs in the world and the number is growing. Even dogs of the same breed are genetically distinct. Dr. Klingenberg has a simple explanation for this phenomenon: “Domestic dogs don’t live in the wild so they don’t have to run after things and kill them… so they can get away with a lot of variation that would [in the wild] lead to their extinction.”
Humans of course had a lot to do with this variety. Small dogs, for example, probably originated in the Middle East because the people of the region “preferred smaller dogs because they were easier to house … where space was at a premium.” And have you ever stopped to think how wonderfully cute your furry companion is? That may not be an accident either. Researchers suggest that how we view our dogs’ appearance may be having a profound effect on their evolution. But that isn’t all we’re influencing. The dog after all, “has been selected for living in a human environment and engaging in communicative interactions with humans for more than 10,000 years.” It should therefore come as little surprise to find that modern dogs are smart.
Stanley Coren, one of whose books I recently reviewed, points out that dogs can “understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats.” And they can count. According to Coren, dogs’ mental ability is roughly equal to that of a two or a two and a half year old child. And dogs may be capable of what we call symbolic thinking. Research has also shown that dogs can classify complex photographs into categories in the same ways people do. In other words, upon creating a “category” of “dog,” a dog will put individual dogs—including those never seen before and even those seen only on a computer screen in the computer screen—in the “dog” category. You may think that’s no big deal but the discovery that Neanderthals may have been capable of symbolic thinking (in other words that they may have been as smart as modern dogs) made the Science section of the New York Times.
If our canine friends keep evolving at this rate, I wonder what they will be like even a century from now. Do you think they will they be as smart as us? I won’t ask if you think they will be as cute for I know that some people anyway think that our dogs are already cuter than humans.