|Scout at his "bark mitzvah"|
At 8 p.m. eastern time tonight, Poe’s Deadly Daughters will host Barb Goffman’s online memorial service for her beloved dog, Scout, who died recently.
Why a memorial service for a dog? Barb, a mystery writer and program chair for Malice Domestic, has a multitude of friends in the mystery community, and through her we all got to know the often funny and always endearing Scout. Abandoned by his first owners, Scout spent time in foster care before Barb found him and gave him a life that made up for those early bumps in the road. When he died, many of us felt the loss keenly, not only because he was a wonderful boy but because we knew how much Barb loved him and what a huge part of her life he was.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the importance of pets in our lives, or to overstate the joy and comfort and love they give us. Anyone who has lost a companion animal — and most of us have — knows the grief can be every bit as intense as that for a human friend. Please join us tonight to help Barb say goodbye to Scout.
In the meantime, I’d like to reprise something I posted a couple of years ago about the unique relationship between humans and dogs.
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 that has evolved and deepened into something unique.
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, sniff out contraband in luggage and shipping crates, chase down criminals and go into battle alongside soldiers, 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.
I can’t imagine a chimpanzee doing any of those things. In addition to intelligence, chimps share a prominent trait with us: they are self-centered. (And as much I adore my cats, 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.
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 or refuse to do what people expect of them tend to be “selected out” – and that can mean anything from being removed from a breeding program to being dumped at a shelter. Paying attention to people reaps big rewards for a dog.
Far too often, humans abuse that devotion and force dogs to do things that go against their nature and best interests. The post-rescue stories of Michael Vick’s fighting dogs prove that viciousness is not an inborn trait of all pit bulls but a response to brutal training, an effort by the dogs to do what humans expect of them. The dogs rescued from Vick’s operation showed the same psychological trauma evidenced by abused children. In the hands of rehabbers at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (see http://www.bestfriends.org/vickdogs/ and http://tinyurl.com/5webyha), these scarred and terrified animals have learned to trust people and to show their true personalities. Some are now living as contented pets in homes with small children, other dogs, and/or cats.
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.