Canine companions have been companions to humans since 11,000 BC[1]. But before they became our faithful companions, they evolved from small animals that were not so lovable. Nowadays, there are hundreds of breeds of domestic dogs, each with their own unique appearance, abilities and temperament. In this article, we will explore the origin of dog breeds, what makes them unique and how they’ve changed over the years.

History of Origin

The earliest domesticated dogs were believed to have descended from a long line of wild canines[2], including wolves, foxes and jackals. As people began domesticating animals, they found it beneficial to have some canine companions around to herd and guard their livestock, as well as provide hunting assistance. As a result, these domestic dogs slowly began to evolve into the hundreds of breeds that we know today.

The First Purebred Dog Breeds

Purebred dogs, or canines that are bred for a specific set of characteristics and traits, are some of the most recognizable and loved types of dogs. From the Middle Ages (c. 1000–1500 AD) up until the late 19th century, these breeds had already been established. Some of the earliest purebreds included the Poodle, Chihuahua and Afghan Hound, all of which are still recognized today.

Dogs as Working and Herding Animals

As the need for working animals increased during the middle ages, farmers began using more breeds to fulfill their needs. These breeds were known as utility dogs and were bred for various purposes such as herding and hunting. Collies, Shepherds, and Sheepdogs were some of the earliest utility dogs that were developed to assist the farming community.

Dogs as Companions

From the 17th century onwards, a growing number of dog breeds were bred for companionship. These breeds tended to be smaller, more docile and affectionate. The Greyhound, Pug, and Bulldog were some of the most popular companion dogs during this period.

Dogs in the Show Ring

Over time, breeders began focusing on refining certain qualities to make the breeds look and act the way they wanted them to. During the Victorian era, people began to show their beloved pooches in dog shows, which allowed them to compete for prizes and recognition based on standards for each breed. This was the beginning of more purpose-designed breeds such as the Fox Terrier and Dalmatian.

Modern Dog Breeds

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the number of purebred dog breeds continued to grow as advancements in breeding and genetics allowed breeders to further refine certain desired characteristics in their dogs. This is the reason why the majority of modern-day dog breeds have such varied physical and temperamental qualities, as well as the reason why we have breeds such as Labradoodles and Cockapoos which are crosses of two very different breeds.

Phylogeny and Genetics of Dog Breeds

While it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of every single dog breed, a 2019 study[3] classified 500 modern dog breeds into eight distinct clusters based on their genome. According to this study, the majority of dog breeds tend to fall into the Spitz or Herding group, with the Terrier group representing the second largest cluster of breeds.

From working animals to companion dogs to show dogs, the origin of dog breeds has come a long way throughout the centuries. Through refinement and selective breeding, dog breeders have shaped and molded various breeds to develop the unique characteristics that we recognize and love today.


[1] Savolainen, P. et al. (2002). “A detailed picture of the origin of the Australian dingo, obtained from the study of mitochondrial DNA.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 99(14): 9575–9578.

[2] vonHoldt, B.M. et al. (2016). “Genome-wide evidence reveals that African and Eurasian golden jackals are distinct species.” Science Advances 2(3): e1501714.

[3] Barberan, al. (2019). “Genomic Variation Landscapes of 500 Dog Breeds Point to a Single Origin of Domestic Dogs.” Current Biology 30(2): e2175-e2185.