I believe that we humans and our dogs have a very special bond that goes well beyond a simple domestication of a wild animal. It’s like we’re meant to be together, meant to have each other in our lives.
I was talking about this to my husband the other day, and we suddenly recalled an ITV series about this that we’d watched a decade earlier.
I particularly remember the series as our then-dog, a greyhound, Ginger, hadn’t been with us all that long. He never took any notice of the television, even when dogs were barking on it, but during this show, wolves howled… and Ginger pricked up his ears and really took note!
The series was Martin Clunes’ ‘A Man and his Dogs’.
I decided to revisit the themes of the series with the accompanying book to the series ‘A Dog’s Life’…
And I couldn’t believe how pertinent it was to what my husband and I had been discussing.
The book examines our relationship with dogs – how it started and how it developed – what dogs were to us and what they are now – with visits to learn about the dog’s wild ancestors (wolves, dingoes and African wild hunting dogs); modern breeds (including different working breeds that no longer work); and with the story of Martin Clunes’ own doggie relationships and the troubles and fighting within his own canine household and his efforts to remedy these.
The whole premise of the book could quite aptly be summed up in the very first sentence to the introduction:
(Martin Clunes doesn’t specifically state it, but for ‘man’ I read humankind throughout the book as I feel like this was the intent.)
It seems that our modern dogs are descended from Asian wolves (through Europe). Our modern dogs are 99.9% wolf genetically!
So what happened to allow dogs to live in harmony with us humans while their wolf cousins remain wild and untamed?
Martin Clunes visits a wolf project in Devon where he discusses the idea with wolf-expert Shaun Ellis, who feels that the environment and experience dictate that the modern dog’s behaviour is different from his wild ancestor.
Early humans would have wanted to use the wolf/dog’s skills – “their ability to hunt and move faster than us as well as their acute sense of smell that can help us as an early warning system” as well as warmth, companionship, and simply the fact that dogs make you feel good.
Co-evolving with Dogs
In Australia, Martin Clunes talks to vet Associate Professor Paul Mc Greevy from the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science, who believes that “dogs domesticated themselves.”
They were attracted by our rubbish and “we then capitalised on dogs as resources for guarding and keeping the place clean.”
“The first step in the domestication process was accomplished when those parent dogs [of the first pups selected from those early proto-dogs] overcame their fear because of their need for food.”
Paul believes there is a ‘missing link’, a ‘proto-dog’ between wolf and dog – “wolf shaped but having certain characteristics that allowed it to come closer to us than most wolves would.”
Paul believes that man and dog have co-evolved together:
“We were both beneficiaries in this process. Dogs don’t have to hunt any longer. They don’t have to worry about competing with other dogs or being killed by them. We provide them with warmth, shelter, and companionship. At the same time, we’ve used them more than we have any other species. They’ve been used in warfare, for food, for haulage, guarding, hunting, transport. We’ve used dogs for every possible use a domestic animal can be put to. We’ve even used their fur as fibre. So they are the most useful of the domestic pets and we owe them a great deal.”
Early humans would have first domesticated the puppies of the bitches who lived closest to the camp and fed on our food waste.
“It’s called co-evolution and it’s still going on,” says Paul. “But …. we, as guardians of the dog, need to look at the bigger picture when it comes to keeping dogs healthy in the future.” Domestication is a process that’s still going on and what we want now in a dog is a good companion.
Also in Australia, Martin Clunes gets to learn a little about the Aboriginal view of the dingo, the Australian native wild dog. Baden Williams explained the Aboriginal view that, “Through Dreamtime, we’re related to one another.”
As our traditional, western view of dogs is very much that they should not be mistaken for a child, this is quite something to ponder (and maybe it’s actually our treatment of our children that could be brought into question on this point when criticism does arise).
As Martin Clunes points out, “…it seems to me that men and dogs look after each other’s needs, so a dog deserves to be treated well.”
For Aboriginal people, a dingo is part of the family. It’s seen as an independent spirit, still a wild animal. A dingo “…contributes more to the family than just companionship … They can understand what we say and they respond to our feelings,” providing warmth, protection and healing.
So humans and dogs seem to really have this common bond that carries through right to the present day and our devoted relationships with our own dogs.
How we got to modern day dog breeds.
Of course, these days, we have hundreds of different dog breeds to choose from. Many developed from original working dogs, bred to serve a specific and useful purpose. This is why we have such a variety of sizes and shapes of dogs in the modern world.
In fact, I was talking to a friend and neighbour the other day about the fact that small children often mistake our rough collie for a lion. When we had our very tall greyhound, children were often convinced he was a ‘horsey’. She commented that it was impressive that even small children were able to (reasonably reliably) recognise most species of dogs as dogs, whether they were miniature Yorkshire Terriers, massive Great Danes, or somewhere in between…
With tiny scraps of dog, great hulking giants, long-legged or short-legged pooches, long fur, fluffy fur, curly coats and smooth coats, flat-faces and long-noses, there’s such an amazing variety on show that, yes, it is truly impressive that a small child can fairly well identify that essential element that makes a dog a dog. Perhaps it’s something to do with our special bond and co-evolution with the dog?
Visiting vet and dog expert Bruce Fogle at the Natural History Museum in Tring, Martin Clunes discusses dog evolution and dog breeds with him. Bruce believes, “The dog is self-domesticated.”
“These [Asian] wolves [brought to Europe when Asian people migrated across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia] took advantage of the new environment that human habitation created when we became agricultural. Wolves realised there were rich pickings by moving in on our campsites. The ones that survived were the ones small enough to live off what they could scavenge, because they were no longer catching large game. The humans had captured the large game."
Breeds like the pariah dog are genetically very close to the original wolf:
“If you compare its teeth to the Asian wolf, you’ll see that they’re more compacted. The vrain is smaller because the animal no longer has a large territory to cover, so navigating territories was no longer so important. The intestinal tract is shorter, because it had a smaller variety of foods to eat. All those changes were due to natural selection, not to our intervention.”
Probably one of the first ‘breeds’ humans intervened to develop would have been sighthounds like the saluki. The breed is thousands of years old and would have been specifically selected and bred for longer legs and thick muscles for fast running and hunting.
Dogs that barked loudly or at the slightest sound – like my collie! – would have been selected and bred for guarding.
Some dogs would have been selected and bred to give companionship, comfort, or just because they were appealing in some way – the same then as now.
Nowadays, ‘breed standards’ have strict rules about size, shape and colour. Many of the characteristics we originally selected for were actually a mutation or deviation from the norm in the original dog and were (and are) the cause of pain or health issues.
By breeding from a limited gene pool in order to meet the breed standards, “we haven’t always helped our best friends.”
Dogs like the Bernese Mountain Dog, as little as 40 years ago, were actually an aggressive breed, in general, originally bred as guarding dogs. Breeding since that time for a gentle temperament has created a gentle companion, a placid family dog, but has shortened life expectancy and increased risk of serious medical problems because of such a small group of dogs being used in their breeding.
In fact, as we become more aware, now, of specific medical problems amongst pedigree dogs, this is one of the criticisms often levelled at organisations such as the Kennel Club who apparently promote pedigree breeds whose very breed standards seem to perpetuate features that can cause medical problems – such as the breathing difficulties endured by many of the flat-nosed breeds.
For Rough Collie Fans
I was particularly interested, in the section on working dogs, in the piece about canine acting royalty, Lassie – a rough collie – actually a male ‘actor’ called Laddie. I was relieved to discover that even Lassie, that paragon of dog obedience, isn’t the perfect canine that his on-screen persona makes him out to be…
Bob Weatherwax, rough collie trainer (of Lassie), says that rough collies aren’t as easily manipulated as some other breeds.
So this explains why my rough collie, Noah, is so watchful and antagonistic about any stranger walking past our house and so vocal about anyone stopping to go about their business or pass the time of day (“…lurk suspiciously,” thinks Noah) nearby – and why he alerts me faithfully, and noisily, to this every time. (Once he’s ascertained you’re not suspicious, you will probably get to pass quietly!)
Even superstar Laddie gets “upset or spooked” so I think I can allow for my rough collie’s little bit of nervousness around the unexpected. Clearly, it’s all in the breed.
Meant to Be Together
I know, from my relationship with my own dog, how special our bond is with our furry family members. It seems that it might really be that humans and dogs are just meant to be together, have evolved together and exist together for mutual benefit.
But an awareness of where our pampered little pooches have come from, their original family (pack), and their place and role in that family, can only help us in moving forward with our dogs as our family members and cherished companions – and making sure that our relationship with them continues to work just as well for the dog as for the human in the equation.
I like the idea from the Aboriginal people of the dog being one of our family – deserving our respect and permitting him an independence as his own being, even while living in interdependence in our human lives.
This is a really interesting book that takes a journey to examine the true nature of that special relationship that exists between humans and dogs, where it came from, how it fits with the dog’s ancestral pack roles, how it developed, and where it’s going.
Entertaining and easy to read with lots of stories and personal anecdotes, it manages to take some weighty topics and discuss them in such a way that you go on a personal journey with Martin Clunes.
I think the book would be an interesting and valuable read for anyone the least bit interested in dogs.
There’s so much more to the book than what I’ve discussed here, so if you love your dog, I heartily recommend you read it yourself.
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