Barefoot at the Lake, my childhood memoir of the summer when, at 10 years of age my eyes were first opened to the natural world around me, Will be published in April, in the UK by September Publishing, in the United States and Canada by Greystone Books and as a talking book by Amazon’s Audible Books.
Saturday, February 28th, 2015
Friday, September 17th, 2010
In my latest book,
DOG: The definitive book for dog lovers,
I explore the sometimes mysterious, often complex relationship between dogs and us, revealing it through the contexts of history, anthropology, behavior, and genetics.
As our lives become ever more hectic and more complicated, “the dog remains immutable.” It is always there, always responding in the same, understandable and reliable ways, always offering the same feelings.
“Dogs don’t criticize. In a world of dizzying change, our canine good buddies provide comforting consistancy.”
This book is a sequel, almost 20 years on, to The Dog’s Mind. It provides up to date information including:
• How dogs became dogs
• How dogs are classified
• Modern dog breeds
• Development from infancy, through puppyhood and adolescence to adulthood and old age
• Our relationship with dogs
• How to choose a dog
• How a puppy develops social skills
• Feeding, training, and caring for a dog
• How dogs relieve stress
• How to cope with the loss of a beloved pet
In addition, there are thoughtful essays and personal anecdotes, plus useful questionnaires, informative sidebars that highlight health and nutrition issues, the key questions to ask a breeder, and other practical topics. DOG celebrates all things dog, from their origins to their role in modern life.
Although DOG is comprehensive, there was only room for around 150,000 words. That meant I had to cut a few chapters. If you want an inkling of what I had to abandon, here are four short chapters on:
How dogs emigrated out of Asia and around the world
The relationship between dogs and the world’s major religions
The roles that dogs played in ancient times
The varied forms of canine intelligence.
In DOG, this text would have appeared as main text, boxes and side bars. Of course, it would also have been illustrated.
Dogs migrate out of Asia
The first dogs were much of a muchness. No one knows what their hair was like – what colours existed or whether it was always the same length and texture – but their skeletons were all roughly similar. The majority of biologists say that around 14,000 years ago, when human culture made its transition from hunter-gatherer to a more sedentary lifestyle, that this created new selection pressures on dogs breeding. Now there were only smaller game to capture around human settlements because humans had captured the larger game and scavenging was now from less nourishing waste from settled human communities. These new realities lead to alterations in their skeletal structure that physically differentiated “proto-dogs” from local wolf populations. Their teeth became smaller and more crowded than the wolf’s and their muzzles narrower. Curiously and inexplicably, the sinuses in the skull increased in size, so dogs looked ‘brainer’ than wolves but (don’t let your dog know) the cavity in the skull for the brain became about one-third smaller. The dog’s brain became and still is considerably smaller than the brain of a wolf that’s the same size but that doesn’t mean its brain deteriorated. In fact, it improved.
I’ll explain how dogs learn in Chapter Nine but briefly there are a variety of learning centres in the brain. The wolf needed extensive brain power to mentally map large territories. It also needed brain power to determine where it was safe to build a den, where it was most productive to hunt, how best to climb the pecking order and who it was best to mate with. Domestication reduced the need for efficiency in these learning centres while at the same time it increased the need for efficiency of other learning centres, for example, how to live and work compatibly with another species (us), how to inhibit predatory aggression towards other species (our livestock) and, better than any other species, how to read our intentions, to understand what we said with our voices or signalled we wanted with no more than a nod of the head or a look in the eye.
There were fewer dangers from other larger, carnivorous predators when den sites were around human settlements, so coat camouflage became less important, but there was one increased danger, the risk of capture by people. Captured adults were eaten immediately while pups were probably raised and fattened before they too were eaten. Some of these captives survived into adulthood and mated but now that happened under the authority and control of people. This was the true beginning of planned breeding, when we took control of the dog’s destiny.
Descendents of these dingo-sized ‘first dogs’ accompanied people as they traded, migrated or invaded. They rapidly spread throughout Asia, north into Siberia, west into Arabia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and south into the Indo-Malay regions. As humans populated new areas of the world, the Americas, Australia and finally Polynesia and New Zealand, dogs accompanied them. These first dogs served a simple purpose. They were a ready source of food and their pups were possibly a local alarm system.
Pups weren’t much different then to what they are now. Nor were our ancestors’ instinctive reactions much different to ours. Let me give you a relatively modern but I think relevant example. A little less than 200 years ago, in 1828, a major in the British Army, visited the Aboriginal people living on Stradbroke Island off the coast of what is now Queensland, Australia. He saw a dingo pup, admired its unusual dark colour and tried to buy it from his Aboriginal owner. This was one of the first meetings between the island’s native inhabitants and Europeans and this is what Major Lockyer wrote in his diary. “I was very anxious to get one of the wild native breed of black colour, a very handsome puppy, which one of the men had in his arms. I offered him a small axe for it; his companions urged him to take it, and he was about to do so, when he looked at the dog and the animal licked his face, which settled the business. He shook his head and determined to keep him.”
Aboriginal or European, we were suckers then, as we are now for a pup’s inherent behaviour, especially the lick on the face. That’s a puppy behaviour we’ve intentionally perpetuated into adulthood in so many dogs. As our ancestors evolved from hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities young pups would have offered amusement, even companionship although it would be thousands of years more before they efficiently assisted humans with hunting or herding.
Archaeological ‘dog’ evidence is extensive
Remains of the first visibly identifiable dingo-like dogs are found extensively throughout Eurasia and North America. Bones of ‘wolves’ such as Canis lupus variabilis – I’ve put ‘wolves’ in parenthesis because as I’ve mentioned, some biologists say these were not wolves but rather a closely related but different canine species that was our dogs’ direct ancestor – have been found in association with humans and our hominid ancestors as far back as 400,000 years ago but the oldest archaeological evidence of the ‘dog’ comes from two skeletons probably 14,800 years old (but up to 17,000 years old) found at a very late paleolithic settlement called Eliseyevichi in the Bryansk region of Russia. (The paleolithic is the longest part of the Stone Age, from the beginning of the use of stone tools until 15,000 years ago.) These skeletons belonged to large Ice Age dogs, 70 centimetres (27.5 inches) high at the withers, the size of Tibetan mastiffs (or as the Russian researchers preferred to compare them, the size of Caucasian owtcharkas). These two dogs had shorter and wider muzzles than local wolves. Their bones were found next to reindeer, polar fox and mammoth bones. One of the skulls had a hole bored into it, doubtlessly to extract the brain to eat. That’s not an uncommon find in dog skulls found in late Stone Age and early Bronze Age settlements. I’ve got a small reservation about the accuracy of the interpretation of these bones. Their size surprises me. Everywhere else, the oldest dog bones come from dingo-sized animals. These are wolf-sized skeletons. I’d like to see the Russian researchers confirm these are dog bones which can be done simply by analysing their mtDNA.
The oldest archaeological evidence of a companionable rather than a nutritional relationship with the dog comes from a dog jaw bone, 14,000 years old, found interred with a human at Bonn-Oberkassel, an archaeological site in Germany. Two more adult dog skulls, almost as old, have been found in internment sites near Kiev, Ukraine.
The oldest of all these dog remains are from sites of very late Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies but by the time of the Neolithic Period, beginning around 12,000 years ago in the Middle East and slightly later in Europe, dogs had become an integral part of human culture and filled specific roles. A Neolithic rock painting from what is present day Iraq shows people hunting deer accompanied by dogs with curled tails. Another painting found in what is present day Algeria shows an ox-like animal surrounded by dogs with curled tails and a man holding a spear. In what is now Israel, at a burial site at Ein Mallaha dating back 12,000 years, is the oldest and most touching evidence that our ancestors could form emotional bonds with dogs. There, a woman is buried with her arm around a young dog around the same age as my pup Bean. In another site at Hayonim, 500 years older than the Ein Mallaha site, there are two full dog skeletons that have been intentionally interred. To me, this also suggests that dogs already had, let’s call it ‘spiritual value’.
Dog graveyards are ancient In Ashkelon, Israel a more recent dog burial site tells of the value of dogs or the respect they were accorded. A Phoenician graveyard 2500 years old has been discovered in which there are 700 dogs, all carefully buried in the same position, on their sides with their legs flexed and their tails tucked neatly around their hind legs. According to the archaeologists, these dogs, all similar in type, are not unlike the modern Israeli Canaan dog, itself a descendant of Bedouin pariah dogs.)
In continental Europe, as well as the mandible in Oberkassel, a dog skull carbon dated to be over 13,000 years old has been found in a cave at Kniegrotte and a 10,000 year old dog skull at Bedburg-Koningshoven, both in Germany. The oldest dog remains in France, over 10,000 years old, were found near St Thibaud in the Alps while the oldest dog remains in Britain are 9,500 years old.
In east Asia, on the Russian Kamchatka peninsula a 10,500 year old intentionally interred dog skeleton has been discovered in an archaeological dig while in northern China, eleven buried dogs have been uncovered in a burial site at Jiahu (Henan) that is 9,500 years old. Equally old dog bones have been found in a shell mound, an ancient waste dump, at Natsushima (Kanagawa) in Japan while a full dog skeleton has been discovered intentionally buried near Kamikuroiwa (Ehima).
Words for “dog” have a common origin
One possible clue to a common origin of dogs comes from the similar words used in various languages for the species. Throughout the world, many of the words we use for “dog” have common roots in ancient languages.
Ancient Chinese k’iuon
Modern Chinese Mandarin cao
Modern Chinese Cantonese gao
Ancient Japanese ken
Proto Indo-European k’uon
Ancient Greek kun
Latin canis and its variant kani
Old Spanish can
In some Asian languages, the Indo-European “k” evolved or “sound-shifted” to “sh”. Kuon became shuon producing the Sanskrit shvan and Armenian shun.
In the Germanic languages the Indo-European “k” sound-shifted to “h”. Kuon became huon producing the German and Scandinavian hund, Dutch hond and English hound.
The English word dog might derive from the Old English docga, a “powerful breed of canine”.
Dogs migrate throughout East and Southeast Asia
Today, local dogs in East Asia, in China, Tibet, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia and Japan, have a greater genetic diversity than dogs found in West Asia or in Europe, Africa or North America. This is what you’d expect if dogs originated in East Asia. Just as the greatest genetic diversity in humans exists in the cradle of our evolution, Africa, the greatest genetic diversity in dogs exists in the regions where they evolved. DNA evidence shows that modern Korean dogs such as the Jindo and Sapsaree arrived in Korea from the northern regions of East Asia. These dogs genetically resemble Siberian dogs. Other genetic evidence shows that the indigenous dogs of Japan, inhabitants of that country for at least 8,500 years, have their origins in Korea. Today’s Akitas and Shibas trace their ancestry, via Korea, back to Siberia. On the vast sub-continent of India and east through the Malay peninsula dogs have coexisted with people since paleolithic times. Their descendants are the dingo-sized ‘pariah’ dogs, common everywhere, although there are regional varieties such as the smaller basenji-like Jonangi dog on the east coast of India. From the Malay peninsula dogs either travelled on their own (when sea levels were lower) or were actively transported throughout the nearby islands of southeast Asia, on to Australia and eventually throughout Polynesia. On Bali alone there are now around 800,000 feral dogs. MtDNA studies of these dogs show that they are genetically most closely related to the Australian dingo and the Chinese Chow Chow and that their ancestors existed on Bali before that island became geographically isolated from southeast Asia around 12,000 years ago. Even today these dogs remain genetically distinct from European dogs.
The dingo’s history has been rewritten
Recent MtDNA studies have lead to a revision of the history of how the dingo arrived in Australia. This newest evidence shows that the Australian dingo originated 5,000 years ago from domesticated dogs in East Asia. What fascinates me is that all dingoes from throughout all the states of Australia have almost identical mtDNA (there is only one slight variation). That makes it safe to say that they all descend from a very small population. The dingo arrived in Australia perhaps as a single family of dogs introduced on a single occasion as people moved in the ‘Austronesian expansion’ throughout the islands of Southeast Asia. It’s not inconceivable that dingos all descend from one arrival in Australia of a single pregnant female.
Dogs arrived much later in Polynesia
The Polynesian people, the greatest seafarers in history, originated in the Indo-Pacific region. Western Polynesia was settled by these people starting 3,000 years ago but it was much later that Polynesians successfully colonised Eastern Polynesia, reaching Hawaii only a thousand years ago. When Captain Cook visited Hawaii in the late 1700s he described the local dogs as short with crooked legs, long backs and upright ears. Old Hawaiian petroglyths show people with dogs much as Cook described both of them. The Polynesians brought their dogs to Hawaii as food, but also for trade, as sacrifices and as pets. Feeding them poi – cooked taro root – fattened them up and made them tastier to eat but according to island tradition dogs were also childrens’ companions. Mothers nursed pups with their children and when a pet dog died, the child wore one of its teeth to ward off evil. Polynesians arrived with their dogs on Easter Island 200 years later but not in New Zealand until only 700 years ago. New Zealand was so far away by sea that dogs were the only ‘commensals’, fellow travellers, to survive the journey.
I say that Polynesians are the greatest ever seafarers because there is new DNA evidence, from a single chicken bone excavated in South America, that Polynesians travelled as far as South America. The bone confirms what Thor Heyerdahl postulated, Polynesian sailors crossed the entire length of the Pacific Ocean and reached South America before European explorers and adventurers did. Wherever the Polynesians travelled they took their food with them, not just chickens but pigs, rats and dogs. (We’ll get to edible dogs in the next chapter.) It’s not impossible that dogs as well as chickens survived the sea voyages to South America. The oldest evidence of dogs in Polynesia is a dingo-like skeleton excavated on Pukapuka Island in the Cook Islands. MtDNA studies of indigenous dogs on remote islands of Polynesia show two distinct lines which means there were at least two waves of migration that spread dogs through these islands.
The Middle East was a centre of dog breeding Working dogs we now call shepherd dogs and sighthounds have existed in the Middle East for over 10,000 years. MtDNA studies show that not only the modern sighthound, the Saluki, but also the Turkish guarding breed the Akbash and the indigenous Israeli ‘pariah’ dog, the modern Canaan Dog, all share their mtDNA with a large group of dogs from China and Indonesia. By biblical times shepherd, guarding and feral dogs were sufficiently numerous throughout the region to be mentioned, often with distain, in the Old Testament.
Dogs migrated slowly throughout Africa
There is considerable evidence that dogs arrived from Asia into Africa via Egypt. The modern Basenji, although it eventually became isolated in the Congo, doubtlessly traveled to that region of Africa from Egypt. Archaeological and pictographic evidence shows that dogs similar to these have been resident in Egypt for almost 7,000 years. During the dynasties of the pharoahs, dogs were selectively bred for speed. These have the form of the modern Pharoah hound. Through trade, migration and conquest these sleek hounds were taken throughout the regions north of the Sahara Desert. While the sighthound of northwest Africa, the present day Moroccan Sloughi, is genetically partly related to the Saluki, it curiously shares more of its mtDNA with the Basenji. The Moroccan livestock guarding breed the Aidi, shares little mtDNA with Spanish or Portuguese breeds, suggesting that it evolved long ago in the Atlas Mountains from Asian and African dogs rather than being the descendant, as has been suggested, of a more recent import of guarding breeds from Europe. Archaeological records show that dogs spread rapidly along the Nile into the Sudan and eventually beyond into ‘black Africa’. The Sahara however was an overwhelming obstacle for them. Not until 3,000 years after they arrived in Egypt did they make their way across it. Dogs arrived in Southern Africa with the migration there of the Early Iron Age Bantu speaking people. Dogs of Egyptian origin joined human migrations, traveling along Africa’s Great Central Rift, following corridors through Zambia and Zimbabwe to reach Botswana and finally South Africa. The earliest evidence for the presence of a domestic dog in South Africa is relatively recent and comes from remains dated 570 CE found near the Botswana border. By 650 CE the house dog was established in the Lower Thukela valley and by 800 CE it was part of a Khoisan settlement in Cape St. Francis. Throughout South Africa, modern European dogs have now replaced indigenous African dogs, but descendants of the original dogs are still found in tribal areas where people maintain their traditional lifestyle.
Dogs evolved dramatically in Europe
Morphologically identifiable dogs arrived in Europe around 15,000 years ago. MtDNA studies of 10,000 – 15,000 year old wolf skeletons and 3,000 to 4,000 year old dog skeletons in Italy show that the two species shared common mtDNA. This means that the European wolf contributed at least in part to the development of dogs in Italy, confirming previous mtDNA studies that indicated four distinct wolf ancestors involved in the origin of dogs. The mtDNA recovered from the ancient Italian wolf skeletons is similar to that found in modern Eastern European wolves. That means that the wolves of the Carpathian Mountains today may still reflect some of the genetic variation of the European dog-founder population.
Recently, the indigenous breeds of Portugal have been studied and their mtDNA compared to representative dogs from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. While the Moors from North Africa introduced a wide variety of domesticated livestock into Europe through the Iberian peninsula, there’s no genetic evidence that they brought their dogs with them as no canine mtDNA from African dogs was found in any Iberian (or other European) dogs. I’ll discuss in detail how Europe became the cradle of the diversity of forms and functions of dogs in the next chapter.
Dogs inhabit the Americas The history of dogs in the Americas is filled with hypothesis and speculation. Is the Mexican Hairless the Inca’s Xoloitzcuintli? Where exactly did the Chihuahua come from? Is the Carolina Dog, found in western Georgia, a remnant of the original dogs that crossed the Bering land bridge over 12,000 years ago?
Once more, genetic studies answer many of these questions. An mtDNA examination of Native American people from throughout North, Central and South America as well as of native people such as the Yakut from Eastern Siberia, cast new light on exactly when people migrated over the Bering land bridge and inhabited the Americas. Published at the end of 2007, this most extensive yet study indicates that only one migration occurred from Asia to North America and this took place around 12,000 years ago. This single wave of people came from a single source in Eastern Siberia. Without doubt they brought their local dogs with them or at the very least, dogs accompanied them as uninvited fellow travellers. We know this because of mtDNA studies of ancient American dog bones.
Genetic dissimilarities increase with distance
These first Americans migrated along coasts and major rivers throughout the continents. Those who settled closest to the Bering land bridge, eventually became the Chipewyan, Ojibwa and southern Cree. These are the Native Americans who genetically most resemble the indigenous people of Siberia. The farther away people migrated, the greater the dissimilarities became. The same is true of their dogs.
The oldest dog remains discovered in the Americas, around 10,000 years old, were found in Danger Cave, Utah. DNA studies of other ancient dog bones found in archaeological sites in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, sites that predate the arrival of Europeans in the New World show that these dogs are genetically more closely related to the Eurasian grey wolf than they are to the North American grey wolf. That means that these dogs must have had their origins in Asia, although, as people of East Asian origin spread through the Americas, taking their dogs with them, there could have been some small admixture of North American wolf.
Many of the oldest remains found in American archaeological digs are of dogs that are roughly the size of the modern Dalmatian but by 4,000 years ago size differences had developed. While dogs in Alaska and Greenland were the size of dingos, those living in what is now Kentucky and Alabama were much smaller although there’s nothing to suggest this was through deliberate breeding. Regional dogs probably naturally adapted to local pressures. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, most ‘Indian’ dogs from the eastern forests to the great plains and down to Mexico were the size of dingos but there was one notable exception.
Controlled breeding rarely occurred
On the northwest Pacific Coast from southern British Columbia and the Fraser River to northern Washington State and the Columbia River but also including southeastern Vancouver Island, there were in addition to the coyote-sized Indian “village dogs”, smaller long-haired dogs. The local Native People kept no written records but archaeological remains, oral histories and accounts from early explorers who visited this region in the late 1700s suggest that these “wool dogs” were intentionally bred and reared for their long hair, which wasused to weave blankets. Genetically speaking, long hair is ‘recessive’. If a longhaired dog breeds with a shorthaired dog their descendants will have middling or short hair but not long hair. Long hair can only be assured when a longhaired dog mates with another longhaired dog. That ‘wool dogs’ existed extensively in this local region means that their owners must have controlled their breeding, allowing only longhaired males to mate with longhaired females. That involves a degree of husbandry, a system in which longhaired females are isolated during their heat cycles from the more common ‘village dogs’. Local people may have done this by transporting their ‘wool dogs’ to an island where they were ‘safe’ from ‘village dogs’ during their heat cycle. When brightly striped Hudson’s Bay blankets became available in the early 1800s, local weavers stopped using dog hair and the economic value of the “wool dog” was lost. By 1858 the small, longhaired dogs of the northwest Pacific Coast had become extinct. Around the same time commercial sheep’s wool became available and local weavers resumed their craft using this rather than dog hair.
In the north, Inuit dogs are likely to have occasionally interbred with Arctic wolves, probably male wolf to female domesticated dog, adding wolf genes to the domestic dog population but rarely the reverse although recent evidence suggests that the reverse does happen. Swedish scientists investigating the mtDNA of one of the very few wolves that survive in Sweden discovered that the animal was a hybrid between a Scandinavian female wolf and a male dog. Their finding confirmed that inter-specific hybridization between wolves and dogs does occur in natural wolf populations.
Contrary to the many “coy-dog” stories in circulation, genetic studies show that few coyotes and wolves living in the wild today actually carry domesticated dog genes. Coat colour however is sometimes a clue that a wild animal is not as wild as it seems. Although solid black does occasionally occur in wolves, fawn coat colour doesn’t. The mutation for fawn coat colour exists only in dogs. If you’re ever approached by a fawn-coloured wolf, it may be a dog in disguise.
Is the Carolina Dog North America’s true feral?
Dr Lehr Brisbin has championed the Carolina Dog as a true remnant of the New World’s original dog population, brought to the Americas 12,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge. Since discovering dogs thirty years ago, with pariah-dog-like features living on an isolated 300 square mile site owned by the US Department of Energy near Aiken, South Carolina, he has studied feral and pariah dogs worldwide and his Carolina Dogs in particular. When mtDNA analysis became available, this was carried out on Carolina Dogs and Brisbin published that these dogs carry ancestral mtDNA that comes from Eurasian wolves. They certainly do but so do the Labrador retriever, the German Shepherd and the Cocker spaniel. The dogs that Brisbin has meticulously studied and documented are certainly similar in looks and behaviour to “long-term pariah morphotype” dogs from elsewhere in the world but that can happen not just because of genetics but because of “adaptive convergence”, the ability to end up looking and behaving like dogs elsewhere. This happens when two different populations have adapted to similar environmental pressures in identical ways in order to succesfully inhabit the same ecological niche in different geographical locations.
Although there is abundant archaeological and genetic evidence for ancient, indigenous types of dogs in the Americas none of that evidence has survived in the genes of modern American dogs, including the Carolina Dog. Either by intent or by accident, after Europeans and their European dogs arrived, their Old World dogs interbred so successfully with the indigenous New World dogs that the mtDNA even of such unique New World dogs as the Xoloitzcuintli, the modern Mexican hairless, is indistinguishable from European dogs.
Dogs and world religions
Religious beliefs of course profoundly affect our attitude towards dogs, how we live with them, even whether we live with them. Most pet dogs today live in regions of the world where a few religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism dominate.
Christian and Jewish biblical attitudes are dog neutral.
Christianity developed from Judaism and the Jewish Old Testament is explicit that animals are part of God’s creation and should be treated with compassion. “The righteous person regards the life of his beast”, says Proverbs. In Deuteronomy, Jews are instructed to feed their animals before themselves but dogs themselves are never mentioned in a positive manner. The Old Testament however gives clues about how dogs in the eastern Mediterranean behaved several thousand years ago and how they were treated.
1 Samuel 16:43 “He said to David, “Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks?” And David said, “No! Worse than a dog!”
Dogs must have lived in close proximity to people if they were beaten with sticks. They weren’t thought much of either.
1 Kings 16:4 Anyone who belongs to Jeroboam and dies in the city, the dogs will eat, and anyone who dies in the field, the birds of the sky will eat, for the LORD has said it!
Dogs were urban scavengers.
Job 30:1 But now they mock me, men younger than I am, whose fathers I would have refused to put with my sheep dogs.
Dogs were useful. They either guided or much more likely guarded livestock.
Psalm 59:6 They return at evening, snarling like dogs and prowling around the city.
Dogs were feral and dangerous.
Proverbs 26:11 As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
Dogs had just as disgusting habits in biblical times as they have now.
Proverbs 26:17 A passerby who meddles in a quarrel that is not his is like one who grabs a dog by the ears.
Dogs didn’t like being grabbed by their ears then either!
Ecclesiastes 9:4 But there is hope for whoever is joined with all the living, since a live dog is better than a dead lion.
As dangerous or feral or disgusting as they are, dogs can still be useful.
The Talmud is a collection of interpretations of the bible, an integral part of the Jewish religion. The relative importance of dogs in biblical times is exemplified by the fact there is but one mention and it’s combined with an injunction on health and safety in the home!
Breed not a savage dog, nor permit a loose stairway.
The New Testament is equally uninterested in dogs although there is one mention of the dog’s fealty to humans.
Luke 16:21 He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores.
These historical Judeo-Christian attitudes towards dogs have, of course been modified. The Jewish tradition of ‘dominion’ over animals is interpreted in liberal Jewish and Christian thought today as ‘stewardship’, a responsibility to care for other animals, including dogs. Dogs have been integral in Christian households for millennia while the companion dog in the Jewish home has become commonplace only within the last few hundred years.
There is help for “Jewish Dogs”
The belated participation of dogs in Jewish households had lead to modern publishing and business opportunities. First time Jewish dog owners can get advice from books (the wry and witty, How to raise a Jewish Dog) and buy kosher food for their dogs. Kosherpets.com offers food “Approved by top breeders not to mention The Almighty”!
Traditional Islam considers the dog unclean
The most recent of the Abrahamic religions, Islam, has a more problematical relationship with dogs. Just as in Judaism and Christianisty, the Quran says that all animals are made by Allah, that Allah loves all animals and that they should be treated with kindness and compassion. As in Judaism and Christianity, Islam instructs that all animals exist for the benefit of humans. Dogs are mentioned only five times in the Quran in which it explicitly states they are allowed for hunting. In one mention, there is a description of a family living in a cave with their companion dog. There’s no mention of the dog being dirty.
Just as the Jewish Talmud is a collection of interpretations of the Bible, in Islam the ‘Haditha’ are supplements and interpretations of the Quran. And this is where the dog has become ‘dirty’. One Sunni commentator in particular, Abu Hurayra appears to have simply disliked dogs. (One of my Muslim clients tells me his name translates as “father of the little cat” and that while he loved cats he hated dogs – and women even more.) Islam incorporates public hygiene laws into religion (just as Judaism does) and one hadith states that if a dog drinks from your vessel, the vessel must be washed seven times. In a region of the world where rabies, transmitted in saliva, was endemic, this was a profoundly sensible regulation but it has been re-interpreted in a more draconian fashion, including the need for ritual cleansing if you are touched by dog saliva. There are a number of haditha concerning Muhammad’s attitude towards dogs. One says that the company of dogs, except as helpers in hunting, herding, and home protection, nullifies your other good deeds as a Muslim. However, another hadith advocates kindness to dogs. It recounts that Muhammad told a prostitute that because she gave water to a thirsty dog her sins were forgiven.
Islam remains in a quandry concerning dogs. A fundamentalist British-based website issues these instructions to believers.
Do not allow a dog in your house as a pet or any other non-necessary reason.
When you hear a dog bark at night, say “audhu billah” (“I seek refuge in Allah”).
Do not own a dog unless used for hunting, or as a guard dog to people or animals such as cattle, or any other necessary reason such as a help to the blind, etc.
It is no sin to kill a rabid dog, even in the Masjid If using a dog for hunting, always say “Bismillah” (In the Name of Allah) before releasing it to catch prey. If another dog may have killed the animal other than the one you said “Bismillah” on, then do not eat the animal.
Kill a dog that is pure black. Take the pure black dog to the dog pound; they automatically “put down” (i.e. “put to sleep”, kill) a dog after a few weeks of no-one claiming the dog.
Do not sell a dog for a price.
Have mercy on a dog (that is not pure black) who needs help to survive.
On the other hand, many modern Muslims are perfectly comfortable keeping pet dogs and using dogs for reasons other than hunting or guarding. In Pakistan, religious scholars such as Qudrat Ullah Shebah have argued in print why pet dogs and assistance dogs such as guide dogs for blind people are perfectly acceptable within the tenets of Islam. My veterinary clinic is adjacent to a large Muslim population, mostly from Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine but also from Indonesia. Of course I meet a self-selected sector of the Muslim world but my clients are, I think, representative of mainstream assimilated Islam where attitudes towards dogs are enlightened and relaxed.
East religions favour the dog
Outside the Middle East, major religions were and still are more dog friendly. Zoroastrianism became established well over 3,000 years ago in what is now Iran. Although its sacred literature was not written down until 500 CE, one of its sacred books, Fargard 13 of the Vendidad, which forms part of the Zend Avesta is devoted to the dog. In an English translation dated 1887, in Part VIII of Fargard 13 it says:
“A dog has the characters of eight sorts of people.
He has the character of a priest.
He has the character of a warrior.
He has the character of a husbandman.
He has the character of a strolling singer.
He has the character of a thief.
He has the character of a disu (a wild beast).
He has the character of a courtesan.
He has the character of a child.”
An explanation follows. He’s like a priest because he’s “patient and easily satisfied”, like a warrior because he “fights for the benefit of the cow”, like a husbandman because he’s “first out of the house in the morning and last in at night”. The analogies continue and to me they accurately reflect an excellent understanding of dog behaviour. Dogs are “fond of sleep, full of tongue, fond of singing, fond of darkness, shameless eaters, tender like snow”. They can be “ill-trained, wound those who get too near, roam the roads, dig the earth with their paws”.
With the expansion of Islam from the west, the centre of Zoroastrianism moved east from Persia into India where it survives. (Queen’s late Freddie Mercury, the music conductor Zubin Mehta, the Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry and the industrialist Ratan Tata are internationally famous present day Zoroastrians are Parsees.) According to Khojeste P. Mistree, who I contacted through a veterinary colleague who practices in Mumbai, even today at a traditional Zoroastrian funeral ceremony, a dog is brought into the room several times to view the corpse before it is placed in the “Tower of Silence”. A dog that has two white markings above the eyes has a gaze that is said to frighten away evil. The gaze of this so-called “four-eyed dog” can frighten away the demoness that is said to pollute the corpse at the time of death. The dog accompanies the soul of the deceased as it proceeds to judgement at the Bridge of the Separator. In the Zoroastrian creation story, the dog is seen as the collaborator of Srosh, God’s vice regent on earth. The barking of a dog is said to frighten away evil, particularly at night.
In Hinduism the dog is included in the autumn Tihar festival in Nepal. Religious belief says that the dog is a messenger of the angel of death, and dogs guard the doors of Heaven. Dogs are said to protect homes and their inhabitants. In order to please the dogs that they will meet at Heaven’s door, in order to be allowed into Heaven, people in Nepal mark the 14th day of the lunar cycle in November as Kukur-tihar, the dog’s day. On that day, dogs are garlanded with marigolds, incense is burned and a vermilion dot is applied to the dog’s forehead. Dogs are also offered special food on that day. In Zoroastrianism, dogs fulfil a similar role. A soul cannot pass the Chinvat Bridge and go to heaven without passing the dog who guards the Gates of Heaven.
Buddhism is also dog friendly although the religion can be surprisingly negative about dogs, as it can be about all animals. As do all major beliefs, Buddhism teaches love and kindness for all animals, including dogs. A dog is as capable of perfect enlightenment as a person is but the concept of karma teaches that wrong behaviour can lead to your soul being reborn in the body of a non-human animal and this includes a dog. I know lots of people who’d love to be reborn as beloved pet dogs, but in Buddhism, being reborn as a dog is a serious spiritual setback. That’s because dogs can’t engage in conscious acts of self-improvement so that means continually being reborn as a dog and never being able to resume your quest for nirvana.
The dog is a good friend in Chinese tradition
The dog is one of the 12 animals honoured in Chinese astrology. The second day of the Chinese New Year is considered to be the birthday of all dogs and Chinese people often take care to be kind to dogs on that day. In Chinese tradition, the dog is an auspicious animal, a friend who understands the human’s spirit and obeys its master, whether he is wealthy or not. Chinese tradition says that if a dog comes to your house, you should adopt it for it symbolizes the coming of fortune. (Or meals on wheels. I’ll explain that other popular Chinese tradition – ancient and modern – of eating dogs, later on.) A person born in the Year of the Dog has a straightforward character. In their career and in love, they are, like the dog, faithful, courageous, dexterous, clever and warm-hearted although women born under this sign “lack stability”. In case you want to check whether this is you, previous Years of the Dog are 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994 and 2006. The next Year of the Dog is 2018.
Dogs and death are often associated
Regional religions throughout the world frequently associate dogs, as Hinduism does, with death. Dogs are often the companions of the dead, gatekeepers or guardians of the underworld or intercessors with the gods. In many Central Asian regions, by feeding human corpses to dogs the souls of the dead passed directly to dogs. Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Greek myth, guards the entrance to Hades while hounds accompanied Hekate, the somber Greek goddess who haunted tombs and crossroads and to whom dogs were sacrificed. In Scandinavian lore the dog Garm was a sinister creature while in the Americas the dog-headed Aztec god Xolotl led the sun through the nocturnal underworld until it was reborn with the following dawn. In Mayan myth dogs carried human souls across the river of death. In North America, the white dog was sacred to the Dog Feast, a widely held practice of both plains and eastern Native Peoples such as the Ojibwa in which a white dog was strangled, seared over a fire and eaten.
As the first true dogs spread around the world, our ancestors’ attitudes towards them were almost always practical and utilitarian. Sometimes dogs were simply irritating. At other times they were useful. But in our early relationship with them dogs seldom filled the social and psychological roles that dogs like Bean do today. Or did they? Native American sayings may be genuine or the products of vivid modern minds but there’s one I like that says. “God Made the earth, the sky and the water, the moon and the sun. He made man and bird and beast. But He didn’t make the dog. He already had one.”
Dogs are useful
You may not think so but your dog’s got a specific job. His role in your family is probably social and psychological rather than functional and utilitarian, as dog jobs once were, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to us. In fact, the dog’s modern role in our lives may be more important than ever. If that were not so, then why is it that more than one out of three households in North America, Europe and Australasia go to the expense and trouble of housing dogs? Why do we burden ourselves, emotionally and financially, by housing and caring for so any of them?
From the beginning of their relationship with us dogs served ever-changing roles and functions. At different times in different places they’ve been no more than irritants to human society, not much different to how we think of rats and mice today. At other times and in other localities they’ve been marginal participants, involved in but not central to human endeavour. Human communities would still have evolved as they did but the presence of dogs was certainly useful for that evolution. Yet in other circumstances, and some commentators include in this category the very first Neolithic livestock raising communities in the fertile lands between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq, dogs played a crucial and elemental role. The dog’s importance in our transition from hunter-gatherers to livestock raisers can only be speculated about but it’s not speculation, it’s fact that regions of the world such as high mountain pastures would never have been settled for livestock production without the help of dogs and that vast areas such as the Asian and American Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere and remote islands of Eastern Polynesia in the Southern Hemisphere would not have been inhabited when they were without the vital participation of dogs. In some instances human history would not be what it is without the dog.
Dogs are nutritious
It doesn’t take much understanding of the dog’s history to realise that its first job was to fill people’s bellies. Dog people don’t like talking about eating dogs. For those of us who live with them, who learn to understand how they think and feel, who adopt them into our families as “honorary humans”, not quite children but also not quite as ‘animal’ as other animals, eating a dog seems almost cannibalistic. (I bet some people have never forgiven Roald Amundsen and his colleagues for eating their sled dogs during their successful expedition to become the first explorers to reach the South Pole.) That’s possibly why most of the books I’ve read gloss over the subject of dog meat and say that the dog’s first job was to help on the hunt. But that’s impossible. It would have taken countless generations of breeding before dogs came to assist us rather than compete with us when hunting. Dogs were our first livestock. Just as thousands of years later the first domesticated horses were originally raised for food and only after used for other purposes, so were dogs. The first domesticated dogs were ready made meals.
There’s a curious clue in the DNA of the human tapeworm Taenia solium that reveals we’re a species with a long history of eating dogs. Genetic studies of this tapeworm indicate that humans acquired it by eating dogs. Other studies show that ancient pigs ate us or dogs and that’s how they acquired another tapeworm, Taenia asiatica.
Eventually, we developed techniques for raising more energy-efficient animals to eat, the herbivores. Dog dropped from the main course on the menu but remained an emergency food supply, a reliable source of nourishment when crops failed or hunting was unsuccessful. Dog meat was widely eaten wherever there were dogs; in Europe during times of famine, most famously during the deprivations of the French and Russian Revolutions and those of the two World Wars.
Needs can turn into pleasure. There were dog meat shops in Germany until the 1980s while, according to the Swiss newspaper the Rheintaler Bote, in the Appenzell and St. Gallen cantons of Switzerland there was and allegedly still is, a local tradition of wind-curing dog meat.
Dog meat has been vital for survival elsewhere, especially amongst the indigenous people of the Arctic regions, the Inuit. In Arctic Canada, oral histories of the now aging Inuit who hunted before the arrival of the snowmobile have been recorded.
Mary Irraju Anugaaq Sr., tells this story.
“…one time Juugini was out hunting at the open sea during winter and he fell in the water and was drowning and the only help he got was from a dog. As he was drowning, his own dog saved him (…) during a starvation period, Juugini was very hungry and freezing and he killed the dog and ate it.”
Issacie Padlayat says this about “Qimmiit”, the Inuit word for “dogs”.
“The Inuit and Qimmiit were very knowledgeable of the land and never got lost even when they travelled everywhere (…) They were our only means of transportation, I don’t think anyone would have survived without the use of dog teams. They were used for long distance travel and hunting. Even when the Inuit were starving, we used to survive by eating our dogs (…) We used them for trapping, hunting, to transport our belongings to shore when we had to travel by qayak in the spring…I’ve seen a few summer dogs .. which they used for caribou hunting during summertime.”
Elsewhere, dogs were actively bred and fed for their meat. I mentioned in the last chapter that the Polynesians fed their edible dogs cooked taro root. Studies of ancient dog bones in Mexico show that the Aztecs’ dogs ate a diet that consisted almost exclusively of maize. That would only have been possible if they were actively fed it. When Hernando Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519 he wrote in a letter that “small gelded dogs which they breed for eating” were sold in the marketplace.
In China, records from 3,000 years ago, from the Zhou Dynasty, refer to the “three beasts” that were bred for food, the dog, pig and goat. Seven hundred years later, the Chinese philosopher Mencius recommended dog as the tastiest of the three.
Of course, the tradition of eating dog continues in China, as it does in Korea and throughout southeast Asia down to The Philippines. The reasons for eating dog meat evolved with time. In The Philippines, where half a million dogs are consumed annually, eating dog meat started as a religious practice. Dogs were sacrificed and their meat eaten when a family was faced with bad luck, or when a death was witnessed. The Filipinos believed that the spirit of the sacrificed dog protected and guarded the spirits of the living family, not unlike the Ojibwa Dog Feast in North America. Today dogs are eaten mostly because of fantasies such as eating dog meat improves your sex life.
In China, dog meat is sometimes euphemistically called “fragrant meat”. On a television programme I was technical advisor on, we sent a reporter and cameraman to a dog (and cat) market in Guangdong, and to a dog restaurant. It was a distressing visit but we learned that eating dog is a social display. Dog meat is expensive so eating in a dog restaurant broadcasts “I’m rich!” We were told that dog meat is “yang”, it increases your positive energy. In northern parts of China (and in the northern regions of the Philippines) it’s cold weather food, said to regulate blood circulation and keep you warm. I haven’t read statistics on how many dogs are killed for their meat in China each year but according to Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food import statistics for 2006, Japan imported 31 tons of dog meat from China, for dog meat restaurants used by Korean residents or visitors.
Korea remains the world’s epicenter of eating dogs and what’s particularly unpleasant is that for some Koreans eating dog has now become a symbol of nationalism.
As in most other parts of the world, the dog’s first role in Korea was to provide nutrition. Dog bones have been found in Korean “midden sites”, in waste mounds, that date back to Neolithic times. After other livestock was domesticated however, dog remained on the Korean menu, as it did for the Aztecs, Polynesians and Chinese. Today, South Koreans eat two to three million dogs each year.
In Korea, there’s a continuing, simmering, conflict between dog eaters and pet dog owners. The dog eaters think that pet lovers are insipid, over-emotional, Westernised, tree-hugging weaklings. The government naturally bends towards where votes are, money is or image matters. When I visited Seoul in 1988, six months before the Summer Olympics, I wanted to visit a dog restaurant but those in central Seoul had been closed down and hotel staff and taxi drivers had been instructed not to take Westerners to the restaurants in the suburbs that continued to offer dog stew and dog soup.
Prominent Korean businesses such as Samsung work hard to promote a cultural change in South Korea but they have been opposed by equally prominent South Koreans who support the continued eating of dog for nationalist reasons, because it’s part of Korean culture and to stop doing so would be to give in to Western “cultural imperialist” pressure. I see a light on the horizon however. The Korean editions of my books sell really, really well! It will take a generation or more before this younger group of Koreans gain influence and the number of dogs eaten in their country starts to decline.
Dogs are companionable
While meals on wheels was the dog’s first role I think that companionship was a close second one. This idea is discounted by many commentators who say it’s too modern an interpretation to put on our relationship with dogs. Companionship with another species can only develop, they say, in a resource-rich environment where there’s surplus time to invest in emotional bonds. Balderdash! The hard-wired instincts of our ancestors 500 to 600 generations back were no different to ours. Hunger, sex, aggression, territory guarding, these all existed then as they do now. So did nurturing. The instinct to nurture is in all mammals, it’s elemental to the survival of the young but what differentiates us from perhaps all others is our lifelong need to nurture. Virtually every single culture that anthropologists have ever studied keeps pets and when dogs are available they’re the preferred species.
In his book, Studies in Animal and Human Behaviour, Konrad Lorenz, the Nobel Prize-winning Austrian ethologist explained why we innately feel affection for animals with juvenile features, why we go soft and sloppy when we see puppies or kittens, fawns or lambs, lion or bear cubs. He said that certain baby features – a large head relative to the rest of the body, large eyes compared to the size of the head, short, thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, clumsy movements – that these juvenile features automatically trigger “innate releasing mechanisms” in us, both for feelings of affection and for nurturing. Lorenz said that when we see a living creature with babyish features, – and a young pup is just about as cartoon babyish as you get – we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness. The adaptive value of this response is self-evident if we’re to be successful raising our own young.
Lorenz points out that the German names of many animals with features mimicking human babies end in the diminutive suffix chen, even though the animals are often larger than close relatives without such features for example Rotkehlchen (robin), Eichhörnchen (squirrel), and Kaninchen (rabbit).
Lorenz said we don’t need all of these features to trigger a response but rather just an individual characteristic, such as large, round eyes in the middle of a round face, that acts as a “releaser”. He says that we transfer this instinctive evolutionary reaction to our own babies to other animals with similar features, – large eyes, a bulging forehead and a retreating chin while we instinctively reject animals with beady small eyes and long snouts – animals such as rats.
Stephen Jay Gould, in an article titled A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, published in the journal Natural History, says that our emotional response to Walt Disney’s cartoon characters also rests on the same pre-set reactions. Disney’s villains, regardless of their age have adult appearances while those we are meant to worry about and to care for are, regardless of their chronological age, juvenile in their looks. Think of Mickey Mouse, Dumbo or the Seven Dwarfs.
Most animals display flexibility and play in childhood but follow rigidly programmed patterns as adults. Wolves don’t. Dogs don’t. We don’t either. That’s our little trade secret, the reason why we’re always curious about life, about what’s around the next corner. That’s why we play games, hike, explore, experiment. We’re a naturally ‘neotenised’ species. We retain throughout life both physical and mental characteristics of youth. Just like us, in an evolutionary context, the wolf is also a naturally ‘neotenised’ species but our intervention in the breeding of its descendent, the dog has made it even more so. Dogs are like Peter Pan, caught in everlasting childhood, something to care for and to be amused by. Just like us dogs never grow up but alas, like us they do grow old.
Dogs maintain local hygiene and control vermin
I exercise Bean in parks, fields and woods where rabbits live but one day I took her to a new location crisscrossed with bridle paths. On seeing horse manure for the first time, she picked up a bolus, ran back to me and said, “You have no idea how big the rabbits are around here!!” Then, in a flash, it was gone. Down her gullet.
Dogs eat poop. That’s wired into their brain circuitry. It’s part of a discreet “learning centre” in the brain that helps a dog learn what’s good and what’s not good to eat. (I’ll explain “learning centres in a minute.)
All dogs are hardwired to eat poop but in some the instinct is firmer than in others. Bean’s breeder warned us when we picked her up at eight weeks of age that she was a poop eater, the only one in the litter, and the breeder was absolutely right. As a pup, she’d dump and if we weren’t hovering to intervene, she’d simply turn around, scoop it up, run back inside, smile, swallow, and try to lick us. In the park she’d eat other dog’s poop (especially if it was still warm) but given the option she preferred Canada goose or swan droppings and especially rabbit droppings. Until she discovered deer droppings and horse manure.
This is another subject that books seem to shy away from but I think that the dog’s natural inclination to eat faeces is one of the reasons that our ancestors allowed them to hang around human settlements. They were the local sanitation engineers, vacuuming up human waste that otherwise would have accumulated in substantial quantities once people ceased to be nomadic and settled in permanent communities. This is evident today, not just in Bean’s inclination to eat faeces but in the role that dogs still play worldwide. (I hate to admit it but my daughter Tamara’s Labrador Lola, has a preference for dosser poo. During warm weather when men sleep overnight in the local parks, they use certain trees as their latrine sites. We didn’t know this until Lola explained that fact to us.)
Throughout the world there are two species that routinely feed in our latrines, pigs and dogs. In some cultures, we dump our faeces directly into pigstys but dogs are more inclined to search out our latrine sites. Anthropologists mention this when they write about cultures in Asia, Africa and South America although almost always in passing, as if it were a natural assumption that this is what dogs always do. The parasitologist Christopher Barnard says that amongst the livestock-raising Turkana people of dry, arid north Kenya, mothers of newborn babies are issued with a puppy as a substitute baby wipe. He says that dog faeces from their Basenji-like livestock dogs, mixed with charcoal, is used by the Turkana to treat wounds while women traditionally used dog faeces mixed with fat as a lubricant to prevent damage caused to their skin by their heavy necklaces. Barnard was interested in the Turkana’s interactions with dogs because these people have the world’s highest incidence of hydatid disease, a serious tapeworm illness transmitted through dog faeces. Raymond Coppinger says that in his studies of the dogs on Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania inhabited by a Muslim culture, the feral dogs – culturally disliked by the people – space themselves out in settlements aligning themselves to specific locations where they eat scraps and raid outdoor latrines.
Once our ancestors had settled in permanent habitations, and stored food, as well as acting as natural toilet cleaners, dogs also controlled local vermin such as mice and rats that were attracted to the food stores. It wasn’t until centuries later, when the North African Wildcat evolved into the domesticated cat, that the dog’s vermin-killing role came to be shared with our other favourite domesticated carnivore
Dogs explore and investigate
The first dogs passively helped people in other ways too. Dogs are naturally inquisitive but their senses, particularly scent and hearing are better than ours. They are superb at following invisible scent trails.
My previous dog Macy is a good example of a dog with a particularly good nose. Because of a rare neurological condition, she lost most of the use of her eyes when she was still a robustly athletic five year old. Her eyes rotated and sank back in their sockets. Extensive surgery allowed her to continue to see out of the corner of one eye as long as she rotated her head hard left. That meant when she exercised she no longer found game by seeing it. After she’d lost most of her sight we might be casually walking on a path through a wheat field when she’d suddenly bristle and charge off through the crop. Inevitably I’d see a pheasant or partridge fly off from more than 15 metres away. She could smell its presence at that distance.
Dogs readily and intuitively follow the scent trails of other animals but that doesn’t mean that they helped us hunt. Not yet. That needs much more intervention on our part, more complicated breeding and then training to neither scare game away nor to compete with us for the right to eat it. The dog’s natural inclination to investigate and follow scent trails originally lead us to animal dens; they’d show us where animals lived and if there were young animals there we had the bonus of easy nutrition without wasting much energy. Dogs also probably lead us to sources of water and through difficult terrain to where herbivores seasonally moved. They certainly helped us find meat and survive.
Dogs guard their own
One of the characteristics of youth that’s perpetuated into adulthood in dogs is barking. Wolf pups bark but adults seldom do. Anthropologists who study regional cultures in which feral dogs live today say that although dogs are not owned, each has its own sleeping location, often on the grounds of someone’s home and when a stranger appears the dog barks an alarm. You don’t have to train a dog to do this. It just does it. The dog barks to guard its own territory and protect its own litter but, if it shares its territory with people its bark unwittingly protects them too. This is how dogs came to guard our homes and eventually to guard our livestock but to do the latter needed more of our intervention, our selectively breeding for impressive size, for the power to take on our livestock’s natural predators, and more.
Dogs guard and protect our livestock
One of the dog’s historic jobs was to guard and protect our livestock but to do so meant they had to have learning abilities we could not only take advantage of but also somehow modify. They had to learn to do something they wouldn’t normally do. I first became interested in the brain’s learning centres when I read Stephen Pinker’s The Language Instinct. I thought that if we’re born with a hardwired brain circuitry to learn to speak, then it should be possible, working backwards from observing what dogs do, to calculate what learning centres they have in their brains. There must be natural brain circuitry already in the dog’s brain that we harness so that they guard and protect our livestock rather than chase and kill it. I drew up a list of ten discrete learning centres that must exist in the dogs brain and that we might be able to modify or influence, but never add to or subtract from.
1. A dog knows what should and should not be eaten.
2. A dog naturally chases anything that moves quickly.
3. A dog knows how to choose where to live, both for safety and for productivity.
4. A dog has a natural understanding of danger and how to be cautious.
5. A dog has an innate understanding of the behaviour of other animals including the ability to predict their behaviour by observing their actions.
6. A dog has the capacity to mentally map large territories.
7. A dog has an intuitive inclination to patrol, investigate and mark territory.
8. A dog has a natural knowledge of motion and forces and an understanding of mechanics.
9. A dog has a natural understanding of the value of relationships, both of kinship and of dominance. A dog bonds to its family early in life.
10.A dog intuitively has a need to mate, knows the time to mate and understands differences in sexual attraction
You dog’s ability to think and to communicate with you is based on these discrete ‘brain’ abilities that it inherited from the wolf. All dogs inherit hard-wired modules for each of these ten specific types of behaviour, but in some breeds, modules for certain behaviours are more efficiently wired than for others and that’s a consequence of our ancestors seeing that certain dogs had looks or abilities they liked and making sure that these dogs were allowed to breed. This is how the livestock-guarding dog evolved.
Livestock guardian dogs guard flocks, on their own, by instinct. They work in the absence of a shepherd or a master. Simply by seeing the difference between pups raised from birth with people and those raised outside of human contact, ancient dog breeders saw that dogs adapt best to the environment they’re raised in. Raise a dog from birth with people and it’s both less inclined to attack them and more inclined to be defensive of them. People saw that the same applies to dogs raised with livestock, with sheep or goats. When this happens, the guardian becomes a member of the flock, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The majority of the livestock guarding breeds are described as “independent” or “stubborn” or “selectively deaf” and they consistently receive a lower ranking on canine “intelligence” tests than herding and droving breeds receive but this isn’t necessarily true. It depends what you mean by “intelligence” and I’ll get to that shortly.
In 1990 I took my kids to a 20th anniversary veterinary class reunion in Banff Alberta and afterwards we visited a classmate Daryl who ranched sheep in British Columbia’s Kootenay (sp) Valley. The other sheep ranchers constantly lost sheep, especially newborn lambs to coyote predation but Daryl had what was then an exciting new answer, European sheep guarding dogs. He’d imported Kommondor pups. This Hungarian breed was (and still is) used for its original purpose. Kommondor pups are raised from infancy with sheep, live with them, are even shorn with them. Daryl habituated his two Kommondors both to him and to his sheep. He proudly told me he was the only rancher not laying down poisoned bait to kill coyotes. Since adding the two livestock guarding dogs to his flock he hadn’t lost a single head of stock.
I experienced the livestock guardian’s inherent ability to guard and protect in 2005 while traveling with my dog on a seldom used track in the Polish Tatra Mountains close to the Slovakian border. It was autumn and sheep had just been brought down from high mountain pastures, for overwintering in the valley. On a track through the hills I chanced upon a sheep-filled corral guarded by seven large resting dogs, either Tatra Mountain Sheepdogs or Slovakian Kuvacs. One dog got up to do no more than turn around and find a more comfortable position and as he did I noticed he would not bear weight on a visibly swollen forelimb. I had a medical pack with me so I stopped but as soon as I took a step towards the corral all seven sprang to their feet, faced me down and barked. Ferociously. I’m familiar with aggressive dogs but this was as frightening a display of guarding as I’ve ever seen. My dog and I decided to simply move on.
Impressive size and a quiet disposition are vital aspects of the livestock guardian but even more so is the guardian dog’s lack of “prey drive”, lack of an instinct to chase and kill. A dog naturally chases anything that moves quickly but through selective breeding this instinct has been diminished in livestock guarding breeds. (In other groups of dogs such as terriers, this instinct has been enhanced. Some terriers are so reactive to movement that unless they’re trained not to do so they’re inclined to bite anything that moves, including people’s legs when they walk past.)
Virtually all guardian dogs are larger than dog-average and they probably evolved in Central Asia. The Middle Eastern Assyrians depicted giant dogs in battle with lions while in India the massive Hyrcanian dog that came from the lands below the Caspian Sea in what is now northern Iran and Turkmenistan are also part of art and folklore. Asian mastiff guard dogs were probably brought by Xerxes from Persia when he invaded Greece almost 2500 years ago. Others were brought back to Greece by Alexander the Great when we expelled the Persians and went on to conquer their entire empire. These became the livestock guardian dogs of Epirus and Sparta.
Molossia, a region in Epirus, located on the Ionian Sea in what is now the northwest coast of Greece, gave rise to the term “Molosser,” a name given to the mastiffs of that region and which is still used to refer to members of the mastiff family.
From Greece, Phoenicians traders transported livestock guarding dogs to Italy, France and Spain, and from these regions they spread throughout the rest of Europe. By this time there were differences both in the looks and size of the ancient mastiffs. Some, the white, longer muzzled dogs, remained classical livestock guardians while darker, heavier dogs were used in war or in the absence of war for dog fighting.
The Tatra Mountain dogs I met evolved from the similar dogs that served as livestock guardians in what is today Turkey, Iran, and Southern Russia. These, in turn probably descend from Central Asia where Asian ancestors of the modern Tibetan Mastiff were found. As ancient nomadic peoples moved westward, they brought their flocks and their guard dogs. The sheep culture Sumerians took their sheep and dogs as far west as Hungary and perhaps even to what is now Estonia and Finland. The central Asian Turkomens brought their sheep and dogs west from the regions of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to what is now Turkey. The Ottomans brought their sheep, sheepdogs and coursing hounds deep into Europe, as far as Austria.
The very first book on European dogs, written 2000 year ago, says that livestock guarding dogs were preferably white because that color allowed the shepherd to distinguish them from wolves (or other predators). Ben Hart, a veterinarian at the University of California who has been investigating animal behaviour since the 1960s has a different opinion.
He says that sheep identify each other primarily by the colour of each other’s face and head. A dark spot painted around one eye on a lamb is enough to cause a white-faced lamb to be rejected by its mother. In the Sivas region of Turkey, the local Kangal-Karaman sheep are uniformly white with black markings on the head. So are the Kangal sheepdogs that guard them. In Italy the ancient indigenous sheep of Tuscany were all white, guarded by all white Maremma sheepdogs. Ben Hart says that it is the ancient colours of indigenous breeds of sheep that have influenced the colours of today’s sheepdogs.
Sheep and sheepdogs both contributed to Europe’s development and their histories are deeply intertwined. The Mausoleum of Galla in Ravenna, Italy contains a detailed mosaic from the fifth century now entitled Christ the Good Shepherd and in that mosaic there are small, fine boned sheep with long legs, not unlike the modern Italian breed the Appenninica. A thousand years later and Italian art still shows similar sheep but suddenly, in 1580, a totally different type of sheep appears. The sheep of Leandro Bessanos’ Moses Striking the Rock have short ear, thick necks and wool covered dewlaps. These are, in fact, Merino sheep, originally brought to Spain by the Moors. Merinos were and probably still are the world’s best wool producers.
Merino sheep were a major source of Spain’s wealth and because of their economic value, the King of Spain banned the export of Merino sheep but by the 1500s there were over three and a half million of them in Spain and not enough land to graze them on. The king owned land in Italy so he sent flocks there, overland, accompanied by flock guarding dogs to graze on his Italian estates. Dogs accompanied these flocks as they traversed the Pyrenees into France, crossed France into Italy and moved south to regions including Tuscany. Merino sheep ‘lost’ during these migrations eventually lead to the breed being established elsewhere including England. As Merinos spread throughout Europe, so too did the livestock guardian dogs that accompanied them.
Dogs willingly fight with other dogs or other species
Fighting dogs and warrior dogs both probably evolved from livestock guarding dogs and this too needed more of our intervention, not just in selectively breeding for massive size but also for both ferocity and obedience
Dog fighting has existed as a “sport” for as long as we’ve lived with dogs. Livestock guarding breeds, already massive in size, were ideal for selectively breeding for other attributes that would be useful in a fighting dog, for example dense, protective hair and thick skin. They were also now bred for attitude, for an inclination to keep on fighting, in war or in sport, to go for the neck, to go for the kill. The Roman army certainly used military dogs, the British-bred Pugnaces Britanniae, and when these dogs were not serving in Roman wars they were used in dog fight contests.
Although they are now technically illegal in most countries, dog fights are still widely organised including in one of the cradles of the dog’s evolution, rural Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Dog fighting is common in Russia where owtcharkas, massive sheep guarding dogs are used. In Spain, mastiffs were used as was the Presa Canario both in mainland Spain and in the Canary Islands. In Argentina and some parts of Brazil, dogs such as the Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro were developed specifically for fighting as was the now extinct Dogo Cubano in Cuba. The Japanese Samurai retained their aggressive image during peaceful times through dog fights. Fighting was particularly popular in Akita Prefecture and in present day Kochi Prefecture (once called Tosa Province). Even in Muslim countries where dogs are culturally disliked, dog fighting takes place. As in Europe and North America, young men in Arab countries now primarily use Pit Bull terriers and Rottweilers. (By the Middle Ages some mastiffs had become butcher’s dogs. This is the origin of the Rottweiler. Dogs such as these went on to be used for bull-baiting and dog-fighting.) In the Middle East the fighting dogs are caged, starved and abused before they’re used in fights. Someone who is familiar with dog fights in Oman tells me their wounds are seldom treated and become infested with maggots. Dogs that lose fights are brutally killed or left to starve to death in cages.
Dogs work as draft animals
You know what the most common dog problem is, the question dog trainers are most frequently asked?
“How do I stop my dog from pulling on his lead?”
Wired into your dog’s brain is the imperative, “Resist!” Tug on your dog’s lead and unless he’s been trained not to do so, he’ll just yank you in the opposite direction. People have known this for millennia which is why an original dog job was to pull sleds or travois.
The Inuit’s ancestors were accompanied by dogs as they spread from Far East Asia across Alaska and Canada until they reached as far east as Greenland. No one knows for sure when they harnessed the pulling power of dogs (Inuit folk history says this happened over 2,000 years ago.) but the sled dog remained at the fulcrum of their survival until well into the 20th century. Farther south, Native Americans on the Great Plains of Canada and the United States harnessed the power of dogs to pull their travois, sleds made from two long poles connected by rawhide to a frame. At the same time dogs in Switzerland and Belgium were routinely used as cart pullers. Big dogs have helped us travel or carried our loads for at least a thousand years and they do so instinctively. That function disappeared in my lifetime not because they didn’t have the intelligence to adapt to modern needs but rather because we found more efficient ways to move goods.
Captain R.E. Peary, who reached the North Pole in 1909, (at least he says he did) depended on Eskimo sled dogs and credited his reaching the Pole to the dogs. In his book recounting his adventure he wrote, “…it is an absolute certainty that it [the North Pole] would still be undiscovered but for the Eskimo dog to furnish traction power for our sledges … enabling us to carry supplies where nothing else could carry them.”
Dogs have many forms of ‘intelligence’
What type of “intelligence” does a dog need to get duped into trusting us only to be eaten, or to live compatibly near to or with us, to lead us to animals that have gone to ground, to bark as a warning, to guard either home territory or what it considers as family, even to fight against restraint, to pull a load? How do you compare these types of “intelligence” to what’s needed to drove, to point, set or retrieve, to obediently follow command, to undertake agility exercises, to serve by acting as the eyes or ears for people with disabilities? I’ve put “intelligence” in quotations because it’s a word I hear at least once a day.
“Doesn’t she look intelligent?”
“He’s the most intelligent dog I’ve every had.
“I think he’s going to grow up to be quite intelligent.”
“She’s very intelligent. She knows to bark to go outside.”
I doubt that there’s a breed standard anywhere in the world that doesn’t use the word “intelligent” in its description of that breed but what does it mean? I also hear its antonyms, “dumb”, “dim” and “slow”.
“She’s just a dumb bunny but I love her.”
“He’s wonderful but a bit dim.”
“Goofy’s a bit slow off the mark.”
“He’s a few eggs short of a dozen.”
Do you know what you mean when you say your dog is “intelligent”?
In a dog context, there are four different types of intelligence .
Dogs use their instincts intelligently
Instinctive intelligence is hard wired into the brain’s various learning centres and the wiring in some dogs is certainly more fault-free than in others. As I’ve mentioned, dogs inherit from their ancestors a variety of learning centres in their brains. Natural pressures on the dog have modified these, enhancing some learning centres in some groups of dogs while diminishing the quality of some learning centres in others. Dogs inherit these augmented or diminished abilities. Then, through selective breeding, we’ve heightened or lessoned other inherited dog characteristics – barking – running – digging – retrieving. Terriers are persistent and inveterate diggers. Toy dogs bark territorially. Hounds communicate through howling. Retrievers do what the label says they do. Instinctive intelligence is what’s there in the genes, to be strengthened or weakened but never eliminated
Dogs communicate intelligently
Dogs must communicate well with each other, to work harmoniously together and to avoid fighting. But more than any other mammal, the dog has an extraordinarily sophisticated ability to communicate with us, to understand what we mean by a nod of the head or a look from the eyes. This type of intelligence, variously called, “communication intelligence”, “obedience intelligence” or “working intelligence”, helps a dog work with us. A dog needs efficient communication skills to understand what we want it to do. It needs a willingness, a desire, to take directions from a person and not be diverted by distractions. Dogs with longer attention spans and persistence are more capable of concentrating on what they are being asked to do.
Dogs have the ability to learn through experience
Dogs can use their skills and abilities to help them adapt to their environment or they can alter their environment to make it better to live in. I leave the back door off the latch so that Bean can go in and out but before she could do so she had to learn how to use her nose to push open the door and how to use her paw and especially her claws, to pull it open to return inside after the wind almost closes it completely. She watched by daughter’s visiting Labrador do these things and immediately copied her. Generally speaking, dogs with good learning intelligence need only a few exposures to a situation to form stable responses.
Dogs can solve problems
Problem solving is a slightly different form of intelligence. This is an ability to mentally construct a solution to a problem. The faster a dog solves the problem, with the fewest false starts, the better its problem solving capacity. For example, if you place a food reward on the far side of a barrier and attach it to a string running under the barrier to an anchor on the side where the dog is, how long does it take the dog to understand that if he pulls on the string he gets the reward? This is an actual experiment that has been carried out on a variety of animals and certainly compared to primates, dogs are not good at mental problem solving. However some are much better than others.
When dogs are ranked by “intelligence” (I’ll give their rankings in the next chapter.) what they’re really being ranked by is a combination of learning intelligence and problem solving abilities. Sheep herding breeds such as the Border collie have been selectively bred for their problem solving capabilities and their willingness to be trained. They’re also phenomenally good communicators. That’s why they always come tops in “intelligence” tests.
Dogs can be trained to herd and drove livestock
Herding and droving dogs almost invariably evolved from guarding breeds, mostly in the last thousand years. While guardian dogs worked on their own, herders and drovers were dramatically different. They worked in unison with their shepherds and cattlemen, helping to move livestock to new pastures or to the market place. These dogs combined the livestock guardian’s reduced instinct to chase, with an increased willingness to listen to and obey the shepherd or farmer. In that sense they had a different, you could say more sophisticated form of intelligence. You may question this when I add that the Welsh Corgi, a breed not renowned for its ability to listen to and follow commands, is a herding and droving dog but the Corgi, together with its close relative the Swedish Vallhund (Vallhund means “farm dog”) are dwarf exceptions to the reality that most of today’s shepherd dogs and sheepdogs are medium or large in size and responsive to human command. Typical of regional herding dogs are the Bouvier des Flandres (more aptly described by its original Flemish and French names Koehund – Cow dog – and Toucheur de boeuf – Cattle drover) and the various Swiss mountain dogs including the most popular breed, the Bernese Mountain Dog. The German Rottweiler is a classic drover while the Australian Cattle Dog is perhaps the most successful of the modern drovers or heelers. The New Zealand Huntaway performs a similar task in that country.
On canine “intelligence” tests, livestock movers often rank high. On dog “personality” tests many of the “shepherds” and “sheepdogs” rank high on excitability while classic cattle drovers such as the Rottweiler rank low on excitability but high on trainability and aggression. I’ll discuss all of these dogs in more detail in the next chapter.
Dogs inherit specialised hunting skills
The dog’s most recent jobs were developed only after we started hunting with guns and killing from a distance. Small dogs (bantams) and short-legged dogs (dwarfs) that otherwise would not have survived in nature had been kept and intentionally bred for probably no more important a reason than our inherent human capriciousness. (I’m sure that’s also the reason why certain coat colours that are rare in wolves or feral dogs – white, black, deep red, piebald, tricolour, black and tan, merle – became more prevalent in dogs. Don’t go looking for logical reasons for everything we did once dogs started living with us. One factor that’s predicable in our relationship with dogs is our quirky unpredictability.) These smaller or shorter legged dogs became the hunting companions of the foot hunter, the man who walked to hunt. The smallest dogs were used as earth dogs, to scent out prey that had gone to ground. Their descendants evolved into terriers, dachshunds, pinschers and other small farm dogs. The larger ones – those that went on to become the Bassets and Laufhunds – were eventually used to chase larger prey over rough terrain.
Royalty, nobility and aristocracy throughout Europe and Asia used trained hunting dogs for sport hunting before the development of the gun, when game was captured by net or shot by arrow and it was these dogs that formed the breeding root stock for the modern gundogs, the pointers, setters and retrievers. I’ll discuss all of these dogs too, in the next chapter.
Where ever royalty or nobility hunted they enacted laws to prevent local peasants from using their own dogs to capture game set aside for the pleasure of the king. Peasants were compelled to hobble their dogs, usually by mutilating them. In some regions laws stipulated that peasant dogs have their tails docked. This was thought to alter their balance enough to make them inefficient hunters. It was also a way to determine whether a dog belongs to the aristocracy or the peasantry. More often the mutilation involved amputating a limb. The Swedish province of Oland, a thin, long island just off the east coast of that country was once a private hunting ground of the Swedish king, who had fallow deer imported onto the island as suitable game for his court and his friends to hunt. Until the law was changed in 1801 it was illegal for Oland peasants to keep dogs unless one of the dog’s front limbs was amputated.
The dog’s brain has finite abilities
Over the millennia dogs were bred for a variety of utilitarian reasons, to be eaten, to be companions, to guard, attack, fight, kill, pull carts and sleds, turn spits, herd and chase, follow trails, point, set and retrieve. They are capable of such varied abilities because their minds are flexible. They inherited from the wolf a wonderful selection of hard-wired biological “learning centres” in their brains, abilities the wolf needed to survive and breed. Through intentional selective breeding, but just as often through whimsy and serendipity, we enhanced some of these learning centres and diminished others.
One of the factors that differentiates what a dog’s brain is capable of, from what our brains are capable of, is the influence of culture. In us, behaviour spreads from person to person, almost like a contagion. This is, of course the basis for our religious beliefs, our fashion sense, even our food preferences. Not so in the dog. Other than in puppyhood, dogs are relatively poor learners from the ‘culture’ of other dogs. In that sense, there are limited cultural influences on their behaviour. But our culture has certainly influenced today’s dogs. In the last two hundred and fifty years we began breeding them primarily for their looks – for conformity – rather than for utility. We started classifying dogs into categories and then into breeds. Once we had done that we prohibited other dogs from joining these elite categories. We created “purebreds” around 400 types of dog that have come to dominate dog numbers throughout North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Most of my family’s dogs have been purebreds – Scottish and Yorkshire terriers, Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Most of the dogs I care for at work are purebreds. This has given us an eclectic choice of colours, shapes, sizes and dispositions to choose from, but it has not necessarily been good for dogdom, certainly not for their physical health and well-being.
Wednesday, November 22nd, 2006
BAREFOOT AT THE LAKE is published by September Publishing and Greystone Books in April 2015
DOG TALK was published by Little Books in November 2009
NEW DOG was published by MB in February 2008
A DOG ABROAD was published by Ebury Press in January 2007
TRAVELS WITH MACY
was published by Ebury Press, in paperback, in January, 2006
IF YOUR DOG COULD TALK
was published by DK in February, 2006
EYEWITNESS COMPANIONS – DOGS
was published by DK in May, 2006
EYEWITNESS COMPANIONS – CATS
was published by DK in October, 2006
Saturday, October 22nd, 2005
In the autumn of 2005, Bruce and Macy took an extended journey through Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Central Europe. His book of their travels was published by Ebury Press early in 2007. A paperback edition was published the following year
Saturday, February 5th, 2005
Travels with Macy has been published by Ebury Press
If any of you have seen a golden retriever in a queue at the American Embassy, applying for a resident green card, that’s my dog. Last year I took her on an extended journey around America, to retrace the American novelist John Steinbeck’s route in his 1960s book Travels with Charley. I wanted to reacquaint myself with a continent that was once my home, to see what it was now like. Mace liked North America. A lot!
After living in Britain for more than three decades, after obtaining British citizenship, driving on the right, apologising to people who step on my feet (Sorry. My fault. Shouldn’t have had my feet on the ground.), waking up to rain and fog and thinking it’s a lovely day, I knew where home now was. It’s here, from the Sussex Downs to the Highlands and Islands, in keep-your-head-down, don’t-speak-unless-you’re-spoken-to Britain. I feel comfortable here, not just with the glorious scenery, but with the way of life, the values, the culture, the history.
The trip was a sabbatical – sort of – but it turned into much more. Macy, my four year old golden retriever took time off from her voluntary job enforcing Hyde Park Rules and Regulations (Park Regulation 7 [d] stipulates “All park squirrels must return to their trees before 7:00 AM and remain in their trees until dusk.” Mace told me so, so I know it’s true.) I took time off from running my veterinary clinic and from being a husband, father and son-in-law. Macy and I knew we’d both have fun but for me the trip was more arresting. I ended up re-evaluating who I am, who Americans are, where home really is and why values can be so different in lands that speak the same language.