Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Man's Best Friend

by Sandra Parshall

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 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

In Under the Dog Star, Rachel’s desire to rehab the rescued fighting dogs is perfectly realistic. The post-rescue stories of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs prove that viciousness is not an inborn trait of pit bulls; it is a response to brutal training, an effort by the dogs to do what humans expect of them. The 22 pit bulls rescued from Vick’s operation showed the same psychological trauma evidenced by abused children. In the hands of trainers at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (see and, these scarred and terrified animals have learned to trust people and to show their true natures. Some are now living as contented pets in homes with small children, other dogs, and/or cats. This is what Rachel wants for the dogs she rescues.

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. 


Ian Smith said...

yes, it is mine best friend as well

Peggy Webb said...

Sandy, I LOVE this post. You are spot on! My chocolate Lab, Jefferson, knew my moods without me saying a word. He sat under my desk while I wrote, lounged at my feet while we watched movies and shared popcorn, romped with me in the gardens, and slept by my bed at night. Once, I even woke up from a faint on a cold kitchen floor and found my beloved dog curled by my side, his big head resting on my chest. And, of course, Jefferson inpired Elvis, the basset who thinks he's the King of Rock 'n' Roll in my mysteries.

Your series with the vet who rescues dogs sounds wonderful! Thanks for a great post, Sandy!

Sandra Parshall said...

Most dog owners could tell similar stories, Peggy. I'd love to hear some of them, so post away, proud moms and dads of canine kids.

LD Masterson said...

What's the old line about "dog is God spelled backwards" so we'd remember these animal are a special gift? Absolutely true.

P.A.Brown said...

It might be possible to domesticate other canids, but it's doubtful they would have been of much use to primitive people. Foxes do not work in packs. Dogs and humans are. That's why we bond so well.

There's also good evidence to suggest that not only did man and dog both benefit from their relationship, it might have been instrumental in the rise of civilization.

Horses are another animal that almost looks like it was bred for us. Its body is perfect for bearing us and a saddle, the arrangement of their teeth makes bits possible. Even their digestive system suits us -- they can exist where other herbivores fail. Horses will dig for food in winter, cattle won't. They can get sustenance from plants that other animals would starve on.

Interestingly enough, the closest thing physically to a horse is the zebra, but despite several attempts to domesticate them, they have always fail.

Sandra Parshall said...

Horses can live quite well without human help, though, mostly because they don't need animal protein in their diets. Dogs do need protein, and they have a hard time finding food and surviving on their own. They need us in a way no other animal does.

Carola said...

Sandy, it seems possible/likely that the dog/man bond started 100,000 years ago. Read The Wolf in the Parlor by Jon Franklin.

Sandra Parshall said...

The powerful noses of canines would have been useful to early humans in tracking prey, but I don't think scientists have ever pinned down a very early association between humans and dogs. Dogs certainly became part of our lives with the rise of agricultural settlements, though. Dogs are featured in the drawings and paintings of ancient Egypt.

lil Gluckstern said...

I just finished "Under the Dog Star," and all I could think of was Michael Vick and the courage that you gave Rachel to do what she did. Oh, once again, I did not guess the ending. Just enjoyed the writing, and look forward to more. Unfortunately, I have a cat who would not tolerate a dog, but she is my only, so she is pretty in tune with me, and let's me know when I am needed.

Barry Ergang said...

Very nice article, Sandra.

The comedy writer Jack Douglas wrote a book in 1968 called The Neighbors Are Scaring My Wolf, about a wolf he domesticated.

For hardcore dog lovers I highly recommend a book called The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.