Friday, February 3, 2012

Like A Dog

I’m not really a dog person. My husband and I are cat people. We’ve had up to five at a time living with us, although only two are right now. But when I saw the book How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends at our local library, I thought it sounded interesting enough to take home and read.

I found it slow to get into, not because it wasn’t interesting but because the author, Mark Derr, covers a lot of territory. The book is not only about the evolution of the dog, but of the evolution of the human as well, beginning in the late Pleistocene era when both were members of what Derr calls “The Guild of Carnivores”. It is also about the sciences that allow researchers to trace the evolution of the dog from the wolf. The book is not exactly a cozy read, but I kept at it because I found the information fascinating, and as Derr was careful to build on information (and repeat as necessary from chapter to chapter), it became easier to read as I went along.

Looking at dogs from the perspective of a person born in the late 1940’s, I have always known dogs as companion animals who did no work and lived under the supervision and control of humans. Leash laws are a comparatively recent event in my life time, and some dogs, owned and stray, did roam around our suburban neighborhood, but most dogs were kept in the house or the yard and walked on a leash. The few people I knew well who had dogs (we never did) actually had purebred dogs, but I couldn’t have named more than 5 breeds: collies, cocker spaniels, dachshunds, poodles and German Shepherds.

Reading Derr’s book broadened my view. After discussing fossil finds and theories on the evolution of the dog, Derr takes us back to the end of the latest ice age, with packs of wolves and communities of humans traveling and hunting together “to meet the constant needs for company and security”. He suggests that humans (and pre-humans) and wolves observed each other at the hunt and may have learned from each other. As people began to settle down in communities, socialized wolves and dog wolves found it safer to give birth and raise litters within or near the confines of human communities, especially as humans would often help with raising the pups.  Humans were able to take advantage of the now evolving dog as workers and sometimes food. The author traces how dogs spread out across the world, sometimes with humans and sometimes not.

By the time of the Romans, guidelines were promulgated for the kinds of dogs best suited for different tasks. Large, stout  black dogs, Molosians,  were preferred for protection, and long, lean swift white “cattle dogs” for herding.

By the Middle Ages, small dogs were being bred as lady’s companions. Derr reveals rigid class rules for dog ownership: large hunters and small companion dogs were the province of the nobility, but yeoman were allowed medium size dogs for farm work and protection.

Of course, Derr discusses dog breeding and how the goals of producing desired traits in dogs often leads to health problems being bred in. He also contrasts the lives of dogs in less developed nations, where it is possible for dogs to associate themselves loosely with a given human family and still largely live, roam and breed on their own, with that of dogs in developed countries. As Derr puts it, in discussing  tests of dog’s attention to a human handler, 

“The underlying supposition is that the dog exists in a healthy fashion only within human society, but that is a limited view that denies the dog its true niche in the border zone where the human meets the natural. . . Attempts to make the dog a milquetoast who waits all day in a steel crate for the objects of its desire to come home at the appointed hour and take it to the dog park, following the daily drill, deny the dog its freedom. Producing purebred dogs with known debilitating diseases and disorders disrespects dogs and people.
The impetus behind scientific breeding was the desire to improve upon nature. Arguably, it has failed to meet that goal, which should be rethought. People crossbreeding dogs, searching for animals with intelligence, with ability and desire to learn and act - whether to play Frisbee or ball or search for victims of disasters or explosives or otherwise devote their talents to a satisfying task - present the outline of a different approach to breeding and raising dogs, one that seeks to honor and set right our ancient relationship.”

If you like dogs, or like history, or like learning about evolution, you will probably like this book. 

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