One challenge of writing a veterinarian protagonist like Rachel Goddard is that she knows a lot more about animals than I do, and I have to be careful not to let my ignorance cause her to make an embarrassing mistake on the page. With Under the Dog Star, I knew Rachel’s determination to rehabilitate both feral and fighting dogs might collide with many people’s beliefs that these dogs can’t be saved, but all my research told me that Rachel was right and should stand firm against anyone who tried to stop her.
Domesticated dogs have enriched our lives in so many ways that the least we can do is try to help them when they have become the victims of human cruelty and stupidity.
We give a lot of attention to the similarities between humans and chimpanzees – look-alike brains and all that DNA in common, plus a human-like family structure – but the animal that understands us best may be lying at your feet right now. Pure brain power is one thing, but when it comes to succeeding in a human-dominated world, no species can match the domesticated canine.
About 15,000 years ago, humans began to see the benefits of settling down in one place and growing their food instead of roaming endlessly in hunt-and-gather mode. Agriculture was born. And, inevitably, garbage resulted. Enter the dog. Human settlements provided a reliable supply of food. Making nice with the humans allowed easy access, and even some bonus tidbits. Dogs were undoubtedly happy to act as guards – after all, protecting the humans that supplied the food was in the dogs’ own best interests. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Now it’s difficult to imagine a world without dogs. Those few human societies in which dogs are not kept as companions seem odd to the rest of us. We have learned that affection and rewards will buy us anything where dogs are concerned. They lead the blind and assist people with other handicaps, they work alongside police officers, use their amazing noses to sniff out contraband in luggage and shipping crates,they rescue us from burning buildings, locate both living and dead people buried under rubble after natural disasters, guard our houses and businesses and stand between us and anyone who tries to hurt us. They give us endless affection and patiently put up with all kinds of silliness from us, such as being posed for photos like the one above.
I can’t see the average chimpanzee willingly doing any of those things. (And although I'm sure my cats are fond of me, our relationship is mostly give on my part and take on theirs.) Dogs, however, build their lives around humans. As long as we treat them right, they will do anything for us. And the amount of money spent annually on veterinary care, dog food, treats, toys, doggie apparel, beds, etc., indicates that we will just as readily do anything for them.
Ongoing research indicates that brain size and innate intelligence are less important to a dog’s success with people than an ability to focus on human behavior. In a testing situation, pet dogs demonstrate that what matters most to them is what the humans around them do and what they appear to expect from the dog. Dogs that can’t pick up cues from humans and do what people expect of them tend to be “selected out” – and that can mean anything from being removed from a pedigreed breeding program to being dumped at a shelter. Paying attention to people reaps big rewards for a dog.
If we wanted to invest the effort, we could probably replicate the process of domestication with other canids. Scientists in Siberia have already done it with wild foxes. By favoring the animals that showed the least fear of humans and the most willingness to accept affection and favors from people, they have created a colony of tame foxes.
Over the 50 years devoted to this project, the tame foxes have become smaller, gentler, and more skilled at interpreting human gestures and behavior. They are now being sold as pets for several thousand dollars each. (See http://www.sibfox.com/foxes/experement/) Maybe wolves could be turned into pets too. But I cringe at the thought of subverting a wild animal’s nature so I can have it sleeping in a pet bed in my house. We have myriad dog breeds to choose from if we want a canine companion.
|Ray, a rescued Vick dog|
The modern domesticated dog was, in a very real sense, created by people to serve our purposes. We have a powerful influence on the behavior of individual dogs. Humans can ruin a dog. But we can also save it.