Dog sniffs at reporter
Kevin P. Casey  /  AP
Reporter Lu Yi from the Chinese publication Lifeweek gets up close to Strider, an Irish Wolfhound, during the news briefing in Seattle Friday.
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updated 3/30/2004 1:33:04 PM ET 2004-03-30T18:33:04

From Yorkshire terriers the size of a teacup to Irish wolfhounds near the size of a small pony, all dogs originated from a single species, probably an East Asian wolf seeking the warmth of the human hearth and an easy meal.

“We think there was a series of domestication events in East Asia,” said Norine E. Noonan, a dog researcher at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “It happened a lot longer ago than anybody once thought — at least 100,000 years ago.”

Probably, there was a set of “dog Eves,” a central proto-dog that adopted humans as a protector, provider and best friend. In return, the early wolf-like animals helped humans hunt, Noonan said Friday.

She and other scientists gave a report on the status of dog research at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Based on genetic research, said Deborah Lynch of the Canine Studies Institute in Aurora, Ohio, “there were only about a half dozen domestication events in East Asia.”

After that, dogs followed where humans went, migrating to the Americas, for instance, when people did.

“Domesticated dogs are much older than we once thought,” said Lynch. “They literally walked out of the caves with us.”

Somewhere along the way, humans learned they could breed dogs for particular jobs. Mating two fast dogs produced young that were also fast. The same was true for dogs that could dig, herd animals, hunt or attack humans.

Eventually, the experts said, the dog became the most variable animal on Earth in terms of shape, size and color. There are now more 300 recognized species, ranging from the very small Japanese Chin to the monster St. Bernard.

The various breeds look the way they do because sometime in the distant past humans wanted a dog for specific service to people, said Lynch.

“For instance, that’s why guard dogs are always a dark color,” she said. “There is almost always a functional reason for why dogs look the way they do.”

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Living with humans and sharing the environment for thousands of years also caused dogs to develop some of the same genetic health problems, from cancer to night blindness. Cancer, a major killer of elderly humans, is now the leading cause of death for dogs over the age of 10.

“In the company of man, dogs may have been under very similar pressures, and that may have given rise to similar diseases,” said Gordon Lark, a canine genetic researcher at the University of Utah.

For that reason, humans are once more finding a new job for dogs —— as test animals for learning about human diseases. Dogs are becoming the new laboratory rat.

“The dog genome is much closer to the human genome than is the mouse,” said Lark. “It will be a better model.”

To further that purpose, researchers are now sequencing the dog genome. A rough genetic map has already been assembled for the poodle. One for the boxer is expected to be finished in April.

From this, researchers hope to learn the genetic basis for many diseases that affect both dogs and humans.

“Dogs offer a new window on the influence of genes on disease,” said Lynch. The result may be better health for both dogs and humans, she said.

Lynch said the studies focus on conditions from narcolepsy, a sleeping disorder that affects Dobermans, to a type of night blindness that occurs in other species.

Noonan said researchers also hope to locate genes that cause some dogs to be more aggressive than others. For instance, she said, the aggressiveness of one breed of mountain dog was traced back to two animals that were imported into the United States.

If genes for such behavior can be found, it may be possible to genetically manipulate a breed to remove undesirable behavior from some breeds of dog.

It won’t solve all the problems of dog ownership, however.

“I don’t think there’s a gene for peeing on the floor or chewing up shoes,” said Lynch.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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