There has been a lot of discussion on this topic over the years as it is a fundamental question and I believe that it is still an ongoing discussion. However, we have the benefit of a new study published in the journal Nature a few weeks ago. That is about as current as you can get on this topic. The study author and lead scientist, Pontus Skoglund, working out of the Frances Crick Institute near St Pancras, London, tells us that his study “is the first-time scientists have directly tracked natural selection in a large animal over a time-scale of 10,000 years, seeing evolution play out in real time rather than trying to reconstruct it from DNA today.”
They compared the DNA of wolves with domestic dogs today and ancient dogs. They concluded that domestic dog DNA is most similar to gray wolves living in Siberia between 13,000-23,000 years ago which is the last ice age.
Adam Boyko said that the conclusion is “consistent with a wolf population from Central Asia leading to the origin of dogs”. He is a canine geneticist at Cornell University, who was not involved in the study. His own research on the origin of the domestic dog came to the same conclusion. However, he remarked that: “I don’t think that the final story has been written yet.”
That is because, as I understand it, ancient dogs in southern Europe, Africa and the Middle East also have gray wolves as their ancestors in the Middle East in addition to their central Asian roots.
This may point to a parallel second occurrence of dog domestication which is perfectly plausible. When you think about it there may have been several or more in-parallel instances of the domestication of the gray wolf across the planet where they were present in the last ice age.
A complication in pinpointing when the gray wolf was first domesticated is the fact that domestic dogs and wolves have interbred over thousands of years. This made it difficult to trace back genetic traits.
Skoglund says that genetically speaking ancient wolves are similar to other ancient wolves in different areas and they more similar to these other ancient wolves than to modern-day wolves living in these areas now. He said: “This connectivity is perhaps a reason why wolves managed to survive the ice age, while many other large carnivores vanished”.
But the connectivity made it harder to work out the origins of the domestic dog by trying to link dog domestication to a single wolf population. The research continues at the Frances Crick Institute to narrow down where exactly domestication occurred.
Boyko still questions the reason why the wolf was domesticated. He said: “It’s kind of interesting to think about, staring into your dog’s eyes and wondering what actually brought the wolf out of the den and into the campsite.”
P.S. The African/Asian wildcat was first domesticated, it is believed, around 10,000-13,00 years ago in the area that is now Syria. Although these were tamed wild cats. True domestication perhaps came with the ancient Egyptians many thousands of years later.
Below are more articles on dog history.