Two characteristics distinguish the dog from other canids and, indeed, from all other animal species. The first is its worldwide distribution in close association with humans, encompassing both hemispheres from the tropics to the Arctic. The second is the enormous amount of variability found within the subspecies. For example, the Irish wolfhound may stand as high as 39 in. (99.1 cm) at the shoulder, while the Chihuahua's shoulder is usually no more than 6 in. (15.2 cm) from the ground; the silky coat of the Yorkshire terrier may be 2 ft (61 cm) long, while a few breeds of dog (such as the Mexican hairless) are entirely without hair. The evolution of such widely differing breeds has been heavily influenced by conscious human selection, in addition to natural evolution.
Dogs have been selectively bred through the centuries for special purposes, notably to pursue and retrieve game, as draft animals, as guides (e.g., for the blind), and as companions. Although dogs possess hearing abilities far superior to humans', their acute sense of smell is probably the sense most utilized. In addition to traditional hunting and tracking, the dog's sense of smell has been put to such diverse uses as the location of exotic foods and the detection of drugs and explosives, e.g., in luggage and packages.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.