Every one of the world’s 400 dog breeds has its origins in Canis lupus, the wolf, domesticated on the trash middens of the ancient world, their archetype not the wolf but something like the ur-dogs that inhabit the landfills and industrial edgelands of the world today: small, scruffy, tan.
Humans and Canis lupus, in its familiaris form, have thus been together for thousands of years. In that time humans have tinkered, as they have with other plants and animals around them, to make dogs more useful. Five thousand–odd years ago, the Egyptians bred something like the greyhound. At about that time, far away on the islands recently separated from the European mainland by rising seas that inundated the aptly named Doggerland, ancestral Britons were breeding familiaris for guarding livestock and hunting.
The speakers of Anglo-Saxon, the dominant language of those islands beginning about 1,500 years ago, called these variously charged animals hund, a word shared by other Germanic languages. When the Normans, Vikings turned Frenchmen, conquered Britain 600 years later, they brought a specialized kind of chien with them, something they called dogge: huge mastiffs put to work in war to intimidate and kill. We can only guess at the genetic traits of these dogge, but they were likely as tough as the Normans themselves, at least if we are to extrapolate from the second-century Roman encyclopedist Aelian, who wrote, “The Cretan hound is agile and can jump very high, and so it is very useful in the mountains. The Cretans themselves have the same qualities. The most aggressive of hounds is the Molossian, and the men of Molossia are fierce. In Carmania, they say, both hounds and men are wild and cannot be pacified.”
So prevalent were these dogge, it seems, that in time “dog” became the generic English term for Canis lupus familiaris, leaving hund to stand for more specialized breeds.
In many ways, hounds behave more like wolves than dogs: Where most dogs seem to enjoy human company, wolves like to be apart, and where dogs can make themselves comfortable in a suburban backyard, wolves need plenty of room to roam. To quote a Russian
proverb: “No matter how much you feed a wolf, it will always look to the forest.”
As anyone who has kept hounds knows—and within my name is the Irish word for hound, cuán, making hound-keeping a requirement for me—hounds seemingly respond to commands only when it suits them, whereas dogs are glad to roll over at a word.
The distinctions are fine and qualitative indeed, though. We have only to consider the dachshund, whose German name means “badger hound.” Trained as a subterranean hunter, it resembles a terrier in ecological niche. Genomically, it’s a scent hound, a close cousin of the beagle. But every dachshund thinks it’s a mastiff, fierce and proud. Is it a dog or a hound? Call it and see.