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Origins & Evolution Of The Domestic Dog

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Dogs were domesticated between 10,000 and 35,000 years ago through selective breeding.
  • The dog's ancestor was the Miacis, which appeared around 60-55 million years ago.
  • The Grey Wolf is the direct ancestor of all modern dogs, domesticated around 33,000 years ago.
  • Dogs have been selectively bred over time to develop desirable characteristics for specific tasks or environments, leading to over 400 dog breeds.
  • Today, there is a trend towards breeding dogs for looks, which can lead to severe medical conditions and authorities could become stricter about breeding standards.
Breeding Business is passionate about all sorts of domesticated pets. They have written dozens of articles across the web.
Zoo and wildlife doctor in veterinary medicine passionate about animal welfare and preventive medicine.
Published on
Thursday 18 June 2015
Last updated on
Wednesday 14 June 2023
Origin of the domestic dog
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The domestication of dogs and canines occurred thousands of years ago through selective breeding, long before the rise of agriculture. It is fascinating to learn how dogs were bred even in ancient times.

The evolution of the dog from its ancestor, the wolf, is marked by a significant increase in running speed. However, it is important to note that the exact origin of the domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, is still unclear as of 2015. Different DNA evidence, including mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA, provide conflicting conclusions:

  • Mitochondrial DNA suggests that the domestic dog diverged from a wolf-like canid either 27,000-40,000 years ago or 18,800-32,100 years ago.
  • Nuclear DNA points to a divergence that occurred approximately 11,000-16,000 years ago.

Although the timeline is uncertain, domestic dogs seemed to have appeared simultaneously in various parts of the world, each descending from their own genetically similar wolf-like ancestors. This is why some extinct animals are mentioned in this article, as they are believed to have played a role in the evolution of the domestic dog.

When it comes to understanding the relationships between different canid species, it is important to consider the broader picture. The phylogenetic relationships of canids at the generic level are complex, and while this article simplifies the relationships, it does not provide detailed information about species within a genus. The information presented here is based on various sources, including studies by Wang and unpublished data by Tedford et al.

In summary, the domestication of dogs and the evolution of the dog from its wolf ancestor are captivating topics. Although there are still some uncertainties, scientific research continues to shed light on these intriguing processes

phylogenetic relationships of canids at the generic level
Biology & Conservation Of Wild Canids – Simplified phylogenetic relationships of canids at the generic level. Species ranges are indicated by individual
bars enclosed within grey rectangles, detailed relationships among species in a genus is not shown. Relationships for the Hesperocyoninae is modified from Wang (1994, fig. 65), that for the Borophaginae from Wang et al. (1999, fig. 141), and
that for the Caninae from unpublished data by Tedford et al.

Before The Dog (As We Know It Today) Appeared


The ancestor of dogs, known as Cynodictis, lived around 20-30 million years ago and was a slender, short-legged animal, similar in size to a mink. Over time, dogs evolved longer legs and developed a unique ability to chase and capture prey over long distances. This adaptation led to important social changes, such as group hunting. The competition among dogs stimulated their intelligence to grow, unlike solitary cats.

Cynodictis gave rise to two branches of evolution. One branch led to the modern African Hunting Dog, while the other branch, through Tomarctus, led to wolves and domestic dogs. Tomarctus, which lived around 15 million years ago, physically resembled wolves and wild dogs but likely had a long way to go in terms of intelligence. Despite the wide variety of dog breeds that exist today, the intelligence and adaptability of dogs remain distinct.

According to a reprint from Natural History Magazine in 1939, dogs evolved from the now-extinct Miacis, and their lineage can be traced back to the Gray Wolf or Canis lupus.

Miacis, which appeared around 60-55 million years ago, was a small mammal with a weasel-like body, five-toed legs, a long thin tail, and pointy ears. Miacis is considered one of the ancestors of carnivores such as hyenas, canines, felines, bears, and raccoons. It lived in North America and Europe, similar to coyotes today. Close relatives of Miacis are the Creodonts, which share similar physical features.

Cynodictis, also known as “bear dogs,” was a medium-sized mammal with a long tail and a bushy coat. Over time, Cynodictis gave rise to two branches, one in Eurasia and the other in Africa. The Eurasian branch, called Tomarctus, is the ancestor of wolves, dogs, and foxes.

Daphoenus, a member of the bear dog family known as Amphicyonidae, was similar in size to coyotes and shared similarities with dogs and bears. Due to their short legs, Daphoenus could only perform short bursts of speed, so they relied on ambushing and scavenging for food.

The Lycaon Pictus, also known as the African wild dog or African painted dog, is a member of the Canidae family. It differs from its cousin group, Canis, with a body adapted for a mostly carnivorous diet. The Lycaon is an endangered species today.

In summary, dogs evolved from an ancestor called Cynodictis, which lived around 20-30 million years ago. Over time, through a process of natural selection and breeding, dogs developed into various breeds with distinct characteristics

THE ORIGIN OF THE DOG — Reprinted from Natural History, February 1939

According to this reprint from the National History Magazine (1939), the dogs has evolved from the now extinct Miacis, to the the Gray Wolf or Canis lupus.

  1. Miacis – Common ancestor of dog and bear (40 million years ago)
  2. Cynodictis – Grandfather of all dog family
  3. Daphoenus – First bear-dog
  4. Lycaon – Wild African hunting dog
  5. Tomarctus – Immediate ancestor of the family dog as we know it
  6. Borophagus – Early North American hyaena-like off-shoot
  7. Wolf – Father of all dog family that developed under man’s selective dog breeding


The Miacis was a relatively mammal with a weasel-like body, five toed legs, a very long thin tail and sharp pointy ears. Miacis is known as one of the first ancestors of the coyote and the great grandmother of all carnivores including hyenas, canines, felines, bears, and racoons. It appeared around 60-55 million years ago, at the late Paleocene era. Miacis lived in the North American and European continents just like coyotes today. Close to the Miacis are the Creodonts who show similar physical features and characteristics.

Read a page about Miacis on

Miacis Diagram
Miacis Diagram (Credits: Care2)


Cynodictis was one of the first members of the mammalian predators, then much better known as‭ ‘‬bear dogs‭’‬.‭ ‬This was a medium-sized long mammal, with a long tail and a fairly brushy coat. Over the millennia Cynodictis have then given rise to two branches, one in Eurasia and the other one in Africa. The Eurasian branch, called Tomarctus, is the progenitor wolves, dogs, and foxes, originated from.

What Cynodictis were like (credits: unknown)


Daphoenus also belonged to the family of bear dogs, scientifically named as the Amphicyonidae family. These had the size of our coyotes today and shared important similarities with today’s dogs and bears. Daphoenus could only perform short accelerations and sprints due to their short legs, thus Daphoenus were ambushing their preys and scavenging.

Daphoenus vetus
Daphoenus Vetus was the largest of the species – above is its skeleton (credits: Wikipedia & Paleontology Museum of Zurich)


African wild dog or African painted dog are the two other names used to designate the Lycaon Pictus. Member of the biological family Canidae, this sub-saharan Canid differs from its cousin group, Canis, with a body designed for a predominantly hyper-carnivorous diet with fewer toes and dentition. Still with us today, the Lycaon is now an endangered species.

African Wild Dogs have disappeared from much of their former range. Their population is currently estimated at approximately 6,600 adults in 39 subpopulations, of which only 1,400 are mature individuals. Population size is continuing to decline as a result of ongoing habitat fragmentation, conflict with human activities, and infectious disease.

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
African wild dog - Lycaon pictus pictus
The African wild dog or Lycaon pictus pictus (credits:


Drawing of the Tomarctus (credits: unknown)

On Earth for around 6.83 millions of years, Tomarctus inhabited most of the North American continent. Tomarctus had long tails for balance, sharp claws to catch preys while hunting and an appearance resembling our dogs of today.

As the giant mustelids and bear dogs started to disappear, Tomarctus further radiated to initiate a line of dogs which filled the hyena-like fruit eating and bone-crushing niches. We’ve been able to find specimens in California and up to the Montana/Canada line. We also found fossils as low as Panama. More information about the fossils discovered here.

Tomarctus had an incredibly strong bite force that exceeded what was required to kill a wild animal, the conclusion that streams is that Tomarctus’ diet was probably composed of a lot of scavenging. Carcasses and bones must have been a primary source of alimentation for Tomarctus as bone marrow by itself is one of the most nutritious food in the natural wild world. Plus, when kept in the bone under the right conditions, it can last for years after the death of the animal.‭


From the Greek “voracious eater”, the Borophagus Genus is the last known of the line of bone-crunching dogs‭, also called hyena-like dogs. Measuring around 80cm in length, they are smaller than their other bone-crushing ancestors but their jaws are way more developed so we think they relied on scavenging other predators’ kills more than proactively hunting new preys. Because their meal was already eaten by the predators who actually killed the dead animal, they had to content themselves with the leftovers, usually the bones.

Borophagus dogs
Restoration of two Borophagus preying on a camel (Credits: Public domain / Smithsonian Museum)

Historians have not yet understood why the Borophagus got extinct but the prehistoric dog formerly known as Osteoborus has now been assigned as a species of Borophagus. Based on Figure 141 of Wang et al. (1999), other species within this genus are:

  • Borophagus diversidens existed for 2.5 million years (synonymous with Felis hillianus, Hyaenognathus matthewi, Hyaenognathus pachyodon, Hyaenognathus solus, Porthocyon dubius)
  • Borophagus dudleyi existed for 2 million years
  • Borophagus hilli existed for 0.5 million years (synonymous with Osteoborus crassapineatus, Osteoborus progressus)
  • Borophagus littoralis existed for 3 million years (syn. Osteoborus diabloensis)
  • Borophagus orc existed for 2 million years
  • Borophagus parvus existed for 2 million years
  • Borophagus pugnator existed for 4 million years (synonymous with Osteoborus galushai)
  • Borophagus secundus existed for 4 million years (synonymous with Hyaenognathus cyonoides, Hyaenognathus direptor)

Origin of the domestic dog
It took millions of years for our pooches to reach our laps!

Canis Lupus (The Grey Wolf)

The Grey Wolf is the one, the one that is the direct ancestor of our dogs, all of them, from teacup Chihuahuas to Great Danes, from Alaskan Malamutes to Arabian Salukis.

All that happened because, around 33,000 years ago, men domesticated the tamest wolves by adopting their cubs into human tribes, fed them and bred them selectively. These wolves were raised amongst people, they were given tasks that would facilitate the tribe’s life such as hunting, guarding, herding, etc.

While transitioning and adapting to their entirely new environment, these wolves who are used by humans to be selectively bred start to genetically change which manipulates all their offsets. Over several generations, the original wild grey wolf has changed and a new species appeared that is genetically different from the founding stock that was adopted by the humans: the Canis familiaris.

Not considered wild anymore, the new species has been selected over time to be docile, tamed, and work-driven. From that point on, humans have started to use the same methods of selective breeding to develop desirable characteristics to get the dogs better at what a given tribe and environment need.

Huskies’ ancestors were bred to endure ice-cold temperatures and long, draining, races in the snow. Whereas the Salukis, Arabian Greyhounds, were bred for speed so they could hunt quarry such as gazelles and hares. This is why, today, we have over 400 dog breeds that specialise at retrieving, pointing, hunting, pulling, swimming, pulling, searching, etc.

Dogs Evolution From The Grey Wolf
How the heck did we take a wolf and come up with bulldogs, Yorkshires, collies, golden retrievers, whippets, goldendoodles, and otterhounds? Designed by Parisian artist Alice Bouchardon, the “Evolution of Dogs” tries to make sense of the complicated Darwinian (and not-so-Darwinian) machinations that have led us to the kinds of dog breeds that can be toted in Paris Hilton’s handbag. (credits: alice bouchardon)

Only today, the trend shifts from breeding dogs for a given purpose to breeding dogs for looks. It leads to a lot of severe medical conditions and it should be a matter of time before the authorities and international canine organisations become stricter about breeding standards.

To read more about the origin and evolution of the domestic dog, you should check out the Wikipedia page as it has the most up-to-date DNA discoveries and updates.

9 comments on “Origins & Evolution Of The Domestic Dog”


    Very detailed & nice article


  2. Roland Relova

    How come the Dingo was never mentioned?

  3. peter kersbergen

    there are quite a few flaws in this article:
    1) cynodictus and daphoenus dit not belong to the Canid lineage, but to the Amphicyonid lineage that split off, before the dog and bears seperated.
    Tomarctus is not a direct ancestor of the Caninae- modern dogs, but belongs in an older and exticht lineage in the Canidae family, nl the Borophaginae.
    Source: Dogs, their fossil relatives & evolutionary history by Xiaoming Wang & Richard H. Tedford.

    1. michael backhus

      I cannot believe how much bogus info. I find when I look deeper into what they say. And scientific literature uses language indicating speculation about this subject. “It may be this”, “It is thought to be” “Biologists and paleontologists believe”, “Point of contention” “possibly”. One of them literally said “but much of the lineage is Pure speculation” “Transitional evidence is scarce or currently undiscovered?” PBS said that. You look up anything science and they don’t use that kind of language to that degree. I have to be able to understand the evidence. Is this a soft science?

    2. Noam Sacks

      I don’t get it. what species came after the miacis?

  4. peter kersbergen

    actually there seems to be a miacid called Procynodictus that is indentified as ancester of Hesperocyon, the animal at the root of the dog family.

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