What did dogs look like before they were domesticated and bred into the many different shapes and sizes we see today? Natural, aboriginal dogs still exist in some parts of the world – and they tend to have more robust health than many modern breeds.
Perhaps no other animal displays as many diverse forms as the domesticated dog. From the great Dane to the toy poodle, dog breeds can look so different from one another that it’s sometimes hard to remember they’re from the same species. All these variations have arisen from decades and centuries of selective and extreme breeding, which has not only led to a host of genetic health issues in many breeds (see chart at left), but also raises an interesting question – what did natural, indigenous dogs look like when they were first domesticated?
You might be surprised to learn that natural, aboriginal dogs still exist in some parts of the world, and they tend to be more robust than many of today’s breeds. This article will focus on my experience with the native dogs of the Nilgiris in south India; I became familiar with these dogs while running an animal shelter and providing community veterinary services for ten years starting in the late 1990s.
A profile of the natural dog
Natural, aboriginal dogs can still be found in many developing countries like India, especially in rural communities, as well as in the US, as detailed in my books Dog Body, Dog Mind and The Dog, Its Domestication and Behavior. One example is the so-called Carolina dog or American dingo, originally a landrace or naturally selected type of dog that was discovered living as a wild or free-roaming dog by Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin. A breed standard has been developed by the United Kennel Club that now specifies the appearance of these dogs — which could be their undoing if genetic diversity declines. We have met very similar dogs from some of the Native American reservations in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
In appearance, these dogs vary in size from 25 to 50 pounds. They are long of limb, with usually erect or semi-erect ears. Tails are normally long and straight and are curled upward or downward in display, though some dogs have more permanently up-and-curled “Spitz” tails.
Normally, all these dogs are protective and very faithful to their owners. They have good musculature, and the males are clearly more robust and have more powerful jaws than the females. All have characteristically small paws relative to their size, as compared to most modern breeds. The females are more protective towards their puppies than non-native breeds; they will choose to whelp in a secluded place and may sometimes burrow a den. They will often nurse their pups for several weeks longer than other dogs do — pups may continue to be accepted as old as four to five months of age.
The native dog’s sense of smell and tracking abilities are considered superior to that of most imported European breeds. They are skilled hunters, and tribal people rear these dogs to guide them in the forest and hunt smaller animals. These dogs also instinctively alert to the scent tracks of potentially dangerous panthers, tigers, wild boar and cobras, and are especially on the alert after dark. They are noted for their courage and tenacity, and will defend their owners from wild boar and sloth bear attacks. Around other domestic animals, such as chickens, calves and goats, with which they normally live in villages and tribal settlements, they are gentle and even protective, most probably as a result of selective breeding and training.
Efforts in the West to reduce indigenous/aboriginal dog numbers by various means (both humane and inhumane) for public health reasons (especially rabies control) may actually lead to the disappearance of landraces and the loss of genetic diversity in regional canine populations.
These dogs have great stamina and better resistance to many diseases when compared to imported breeds and cross-breeds. They are able to sustain themselves as scavengers, often existing on a subsistence diet that for other dogs would frequently mean rickets, stunted growth and other deficiency diseases. They show innate nutritional wisdom, and have often been seen eating mineral-rich dirt, and the feces of suckling calves, which are rich in enzymes, bacteria and protein.
The native dogs’ vocal repertoire varies considerably, and is generally rich and subtle in terms of sound combinations (like growl-whines, yelp-barks and pant-huffs), giving a clear indication of an animal’s emotional state and intentions. Some emit low “huffs” and growls when sensing danger, while others give full voice (not preferred when in the potentially dangerous jungle). They will give different barks when alerting to wild boar in the bush versus monkeys in trees, and will engage in coyote-like yip-yap howls when they sing in choral groups. One distinctive sound some of these dogs make in greeting is a coo-like twitter with high notes that sound like whistling, much like the whistle-call of the Dhole or Asiatic Wild dog.
Coat colors among Nilgiris native dogs include black, red, tan, white, piebald and brindle. The most characteristic coat color is red (or ruddy tan), possibly a parallel or convergent adaptive coloration seen in the indigenous wild dog (Cuon alpinus), also known as the Dhole or Chennai, one of the few wild canid species that hunts in packs.
Saving indigenous dogs
Nilgiris native dogs, like other indigenous dogs around much of the world, are in a state of potential extinction due to breeders introducing foreign “exotic” European breeds that are seen as a status symbol. Many of these purebreds are deliberately crossed with the Nilgiris native dog, in part to help them adapt better to local conditions, which further dilutes and “contaminates” the genetic lineage of the indigenous dogs. Spay/neuter “birth control” programs have further reduced their numbers.
Outside breeds contaminating the gene pool of this native lineage in the Nilgiris include the German shepherd (Alsatian), Doberman, Labrador retriever, Rottweiler, terriers and hounds brought in decades ago by the British, and more recently by affluent Indian citizens.
A policy decision to not neuter classic phenotypes of this now-threatened domestic dog variety would be a wise move in this and other bioregions where there are viable populations of relatively “pure” indigenous aboriginal dogs. This would allow the conservation of an ancient lineage, and preserve the beauty and temperament of the Nilgiris native dog (and other indigenous dogs), which some believe is the classic prototype of the earliest domesticated dog.
Extreme breeding leads to genetic health problems
Veterinarian Dr. Wayne H. Riser was one of the first to identify health problems arising from selective breeding for sizes and shapes that did not conform to what he saw as the ancestral aboriginal/pariah dog.
“An associated cost of selection for specific traits in breed dogs is an enhanced likelihood of (inherited) disease,” adds a study published in December of 2015 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. UCLA geneticist Clare Marsden and her colleagues examined the genomes of 46 dogs from 34 distinct breeds, and compared them with the genomes of 19 wolves, 25 village dogs and one golden jackal (a more distant relative of wolves and dogs). They found that, compared to wolves, breed dogs had 22% more cases of genes that had not one, but two, copies of a harmful mutation, because it was inherited from both parents. Compared with wolves, breed dogs averaged around 115 more mutations that posed some risk to their well-being.
The researchers concluded that their results “question the practice [of] favoring the breeding of individuals that best fit breed standards…. Considering that many modern breeds have been selected for unusual appearance and size, which reflects fashion more than function, our results raise ethical concerns about the creation of fancy breeds.”
Dr. Michael W. Fox (drfoxvet.com) writes the nationally syndicated newspaper column "Animal Doctor" and has also authored the best-selling books Understanding Your Cat and Supercat: How to Raise the Perfect Feline Companion.