Despite the precision mechanics and computerization of modern agriculture, dogs are a part of farming and as it turns out, probably always have been.
In an industry increasingly reliant on complex technology, dogs still herd sheep; watch over cattle; detect invasive pests and plants hiding in produce for U.S. Customs; track metal theft through forensic marker recognition; and even hot-nose the trail of crop-destroying feral hogs. In addition to workaday value, for many farmers, dogs are simply ever-present, loyal companions — maybe a faithful Lab that is lord of the truck bed.
There are over 160 dog breeds in the U.S., and despite the unlikely physical spectrum that ranges from a mousey mini-Chihuahua to a lumbering Great Dane, they’re all descended from wolves — probably 12,000-15,0000 years ago.
And dovetailing with dog domestication 12,000 years back came agricultural revolution. Hunters put down the bow and spear; gatherers stopped moving with the seasons; and the first farmers took up digging sticks and punched holes in the dirt.
According to a recent report in Nature, while all this was unfolding, the old curious wolf may have been watching from the periphery. Scientists have long claimed “dog domestication began when wolves were attracted to waste dumps near agricultural settlements in ancient times.” The Nature report bolsters that argument with research on a genetic shift between wolves and dogs: Dogs are better at turning starches into sugars than their meat-eating wolf cousins.
As Discovery News reports, “While wolves have no genomic signature associated with starch consumption, dogs possess at least 10 genes that mutated to provide functional support for improved starch digestion. Wolves can digest starch, but the mutations allow dogs to do this much more efficiently.”
Yes, absolutely, dogs love meat. But every dog owner knows the truth: French fries and bread also rank high on a dog’s favorite foods. Dogs eat tater tots and wolves don’t.
It’s not exactly a stretch to consider that the lure of a constant food source may have been a factor in dog domestication. Twelve thousand years ago, maybe a farmer began splitting ground and hauling around a wolf pup. Sure, things have changed in the modern age, but farmers are still splitting ground, except the wolf pup has become a crazed rat terrier that rides in the pickup cab. Farming and dogs have always gone hand-in-hand.
Love your dog? Thank a farmer.