Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Happy accident launched the toy
Louis Pasteur’s remark “Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind” is true in many fields. Those who have great knowledge recognize opportunity and are able to take a random event and recognize the value of something unexpected.
In the world of dogs, a great example of chance favoring the prepared mind is seen in the original inspiration for the Kong toy. Inventor Joe Markham, founder of The Kong Company, received his inspiration from a surprising source.
He was working on his vehicle and tossed an axle stop with an attached bracket on the ground. His dog got hold of it and loved it. He was playing with it joyously, much to Markham’s amusement. He said to his friend, “What do you think of my new dog toy?”
His friend replied, “Actually, it’s not too pretty. It looks like an earplug from King Kong.” And the Kong toy was born.
I heard this story from Mark Hines, behavior and training specialist for The Kong Company, who gave a talk at a conference on applied animal behavior that we both attended this past weekend. The conference had many great talks and I learned so much, but this one brief story stands out more than any other piece of information. I’ve often wondered how Kong came up with their well-known and trademarked shape.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Woven items of the Coast Salish
Wearing dog hair has become acceptable to the point that many people believe no outfit is complete without it. The contribution of canine fur to textiles is hardly new, though.
Before European contact, the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest incorporated dog hair into their textiles, including robes, sashes and blankets. Oral histories have long claimed this, and a recent scientific study has confirmed it. Pieces as old as 200 years that are stored at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian were analyzed using protein mass spectronomy.
All items prior to 1862 contained dog hair, but pieces from the late 1800s and early 1900s did not. No items were made entirely of dog hair, leading scientists to believe that dog hair was a supplemental material. Mountain goats were the primary source of wool, though commercial sheep wool was in some items as well. Ceremonial items were made of goat hair alone, while everyday items also included dog hair.
Museums have labeled blankets made by Coast Salish people as “Dog Hair Blankets” but this study suggests that those descriptions need to be updated.
Dog hair is used to make fibers for knitted and crocheted objects in our culture, too, and the yarn spun from dog hair can be of a very nice quality. Of course, most of us still just wear the fur of our canine pals in an ad hoc, purely decorative way, which always looks good. If you love dogs and wear dog hair, you’ll always be fashionable—good taste never goes out of style.
News: Guest Posts
With backstories to match
First there was Owney the original—a Terrier-mix stray who became the loveable canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service. Then, there was Owney the stamp. Next, Owney the iPhone app and Owney the star of the interactive e-book Tails from the Rails (to be released later this fall). And, finally, Owney look-alikes.
I could suggest this is overkill, except that not only do I find all the Owney spin-offs nearly as adorable as their inspiration, I’m smitten by the finalists of the Owney look-alike contest, especially the winner, a 5ish former stray from California named Bentley.
More than 70 dogs across the country lounged on mailbags, dressed up in letter-carrier uniforms and posed by mailboxes for the contest sponsored by the National Postal Museum and the Washington Humane Society. Second and third prize went to Jordy from Virginia and Murphy from Ohio. Not only do all three dogs look the part, as rescue pups they lived the part too. Read their stories at the National Postal Museum’s website.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
News: Guest Posts
Railway Mail Service mascot gets his own stamp
A few years ago, during an East Coast vacation with my pre-teen nieces, we did the museum circuit in Washington, D.C., including a stop at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. It was my sister’s idea, and I thought a likely snooze-fest. But I was wrong; the museum is a fascinating place with a particular jewel, Owney, the canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service. Still looking rather jaunty in all his taxidermic glory, Owney wears a little brown jacket decked with the various medals and tags he accumulated on his many journeys.
For those who don’t know of about Owney, he was the beloved by clerks on mail-sorting trains at the end of the nineteenth century and became an icon of American postal lore.
According to the National Postal Museum, the stray Terrier-mix appeared at the Post Office in Albany, N.Y., in the 1880s. Clerks took a liking to him and named him Owney.
Fond of riding in postal wagons, Owney followed mailbags onto trains and soon became a good-luck charm to Railway Mail Service employees, who made him their unofficial mascot. Working in the Railway Mail Service was highly dangerous; according to the National Postal Museum, more than 80 mail clerks were killed in train wrecks and more than 2,000 were injured between 1890 and 1900. However, it was said that no train ever met with trouble while Owney was aboard.
As Owney traveled the country, clerks affixed medals and tags to his collar to document his travels. In August 1895, Owney journeyed around the world, sailing out of Tacoma, Wash., on a steamer bound for Hong Kong. Upon his return during Christmas week, the Los Angeles Times reported that he had visited Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Another reporter claimed the Emperor of Japan had awarded the dog a medal bearing the Japanese coat of arms. Owney’s triumphant return to American shores was covered by newspapers nationwide.
After Owney died in Toledo, Ohio, on June 11, 1897, mail clerks raised funds to have his body preserved.
This month, Owney will follow the mail again. On July 27, the U.S. Postal Service (no stranger to putting pups on stamps) will issue a first-class 44-cent forever stamp in his honor. The stamp features a new, and quite handsome, illustration of Owney by artist Bill Bond of Arlington, Va.
► A dedication ceremony will take place at the National Postal Museum on Wednesday, July 27 at 11 am. It’s free and open to the public.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hitler planned to use dogs to win WW2
In recent years, canine cognition research has gotten extremely popular, but interest in how dogs think isn't exactly new. In the 1920's, German animal psychologists believed that dogs were almost as intelligent as humans, and capable of abstract thinking and communication.
This school of thought even influenced Hitler in his quest to win World War II. Recent research discovered that the Nazis hoped to build an army of talking dogs that would free up human workers in concentration camps.
The Nazis set up a dog school called Tier-Sprechschule ASRA in the 1930s, which stayed open throughout the war. Officials recruited dogs from all over Germany with the intention of training them to speak and tap out signals with their paws.
These findings may seem to come out of left field, but Dr. Jan Bondeson, the professor from Cardiff University behind the research, says that a strong bond between humans and nature was part of the Nazi philosophy.
"Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind.”
I've read a lot about war dogs, but this piece of previously lost history is perhaps the most unique story that I've ever heard.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
7,000 year old dog suggests people saw canines as thinking beings
I happen to live near the nation’s first pet cemetery, located in Hartsdale, N.Y. Pet burials may seem like a modern luxury, but the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery has been burying beloved dogs since 1896. However, it turns out that canine burials may far predate New York’s venerable cemetery.
Recently, the burial remains of a dog that lived over 7,000 years ago was discovered in Siberia. Unlike wolves that were buried ritualistically during this time period, this Husky-like dog was buried similarly to a human. Robert Losey, the lead author of a study about the discovery, believes that the burial shows people saw the dog as a thinking, social being. The human-like burial was likely meant to ensure that the dog would be properly cared for in the afterlife.
We may not have a lot in common with people who lived thousands of years ago, but we do share a special bond with our dogs!
News: Guest Posts
Artistry and history—without the sticker shock of paintings.
People love collecting. Go to any garage sale, estate sale or antique show and you will see avid collectors carefully inspecting items in vendors’ booths on tables or in boxes. As antique shows gradually become a thing of the past, the Internet provides a major outlet for finding antiques and collectibles. It is especially helpful when what you collect is not common or easy to find.Collecting dog-related items has become increasingly popular during the past 10 or so years. Dog objects are fun items that dog lovers can use to personalize and decorate their spaces. The possibilities for collecting dog-related items are endless. Today, there are dealers who specialize in dog art, objects, books and photographs. While many people collect specific breeds or specific items, my collection is eclectic and includes different breeds and media. It consists of wood, metal and dog figurines, prints, paintings and photographs, with photographs constituting the primary focus of my collection. I have always loved old paintings of dogs but realized that most were beyond my budget. I started collecting photographs eight years ago when I found a framed photo of a Chihuahua sitting on a chair. I paid about $10 for it and my collection began. There weren’t many photos for sale at antique shows, so I was certain that it would take me years to build up a moderate collection. This pace would surely be better on my budget. I soon discovered E-Bay and an endless source for photos. My collection grew exponentially. I was drawn to photographs for several reasons. First, as I mentioned, they are much easier on my budget than paintings. Second, they are more portable and ship easily and inexpensively. Third, I was intrigued by the fact that 100 or more years ago so many people cared about their dogs enough to have them photographed by a professional in a studio setting. Often the dog is seated or lying on a piece of furniture or in front of a fake backdrop of woods, water, mountains or a grand interior. I primarily collect photos with only a dog or dogs in them but occasionally I buy one with a person or people in them. Within the field of photography there are many different types based on format and technology. Examples include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite (CDVs or visiting cards), cabinet cards, stereographs, albumen prints, dry plate, silver prints and real photo postcards. Although I collect black and white photos that span between 1850 and 1950, I am partial to three types: CDVs, cabinet cards and photo post cards. CDVs were introduced in 1854 and were made until about 1905. They are albumen prints mounted on a 2 1/2-inch by 4-inch card. They are often printed or embossed with the photographer’s or studio name. Cabinet cards were introduced in 1863 and were made until the early 1920s. They are made using a wet-plate negative on albumen paper that measures 4-inches by 5 1/2-inches and mounted on 4 1/4-inch x 6 1/2-inch mount. The size of the mount can vary for either type of photo. Both CDVs and cabinet cards were produced in photographer’s studios. Photo postcards were first introduced in 1900 and remained popular through the 1940s. They are real photographs that are developed onto photo paper the size and weight of a postcard with a postcard back. Postcard photos were created by professionals and amateurs alike.
Care and Preservation Without proper care photos will not last. They need to be stored or displayed out of direct light in dry, temperate spaces. Learn more about collecting and caring for photographs at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y., The American Museum of Photography (virtual museum) and Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs by O. Henry Mace. Some museums, antique dealers and art galleries specialize in animal related items, far fewer specialize in dogs. Here are a few that do: William Secord Gallery, Genesee Country Village and Museum, AKC Museum of the Dog and The Cobblestore.
Culture: Science & History
Celebrating the bicentennial of the father of evolution
Early in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin uncorks a passage to illustrate the capacity of dogs to love that is guaranteed to break the heart of all but the most unfeeling cad, and one that should hang over the door of every laboratory engaged in experiments with animals. “In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master,” he says, “and everyone has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life.”
A number of dedicated readers objected when those words and a slightly different version of this essay ran in the Winter 1999 issue of Bark, saying that the editor and I were forcing them to look at the human capacity for cruelty to dogs and other animals with which they were all too familiar. Darwin’s words remain because they bespeak much about the man whose bicentennial birthday we celebrate this year—his clear eye, his intelligence, his compassion, his deep respect and love for nature and its fruits, and his conviction that we are related fundamentally to all life. Sadly, that Darwin is nearly unknown in an America where a significant number of people believe Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection compares unfavorably with a distortion of religion and science called creationism, or intelligent design.
A casual reader of Darwin’s collected works might assume that the man was obsessed with pigeons, which he avidly bred and studied as models for his theories. But closer examination reveals the full depth of Darwin’s affection for all animals and his special love for dogs, who bound through the pages of his work, illustrating his theories of evolution and domestication as well as animal intelligence and emotion. After disembarking the Beagle in 1832 (although purely coincidental, what better name for a ship on which a naturalist is sniffing out the mysteries of evolution) to explore Patagonia and environs, he made a special trip to investigate the shepherd dogs of South America, described a few years earlier by the great French naturalist Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny.
I suspect that Darwin, a proper skeptic, wanted to determine for himself the veracity of d’Orbigny’s account of these mongrels: Suckled on ewes’ milk and raised with sheep from infancy, they traveled with their flock, taking it to pasture, bringing it home, protecting it from marauding wildlife and dogs. In their spare time, they hunted partridges and jaguars for their masters, who abused them horribly, even to the point of slashing them with knives.
In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin doesn’t confirm the hunting and slashing, but he does observe that, after the shepherd dog brings the flock in, he goes to the house for a piece of meat and then skulks away with it “as if ashamed of himself,” pursued by “tyrannical” house dogs. But upon reaching his flock, the dog, who, like all his kind, was castrated at an early age, turns and routs the house dogs with a bark. Darwin saw the whole performance as an example of the dog’s powers of affection and association, what today we call bonding and behavior modification by castration. It is a lesson everyone who considers the big white guarding dogs genetically preprogrammed to protect sheep should consider. (Or they can go look at Navajo sheep dogs, raised in this old Spanish way.)
Unfortunately, Darwin, like those other intellectual giants Marx and Freud, is seldom read but frequently invoked— wrongly—by his proponents and opponents alike. His classic phrase, “natural selection,” means simply, as he explained in The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication (Vol. I), that those individuals “best fitted for the complex, and in the course of ages changing conditions to which they are exposed, generally survive and procreate their kind.” Those who survive to pass their genes on to the next generation are by definition the fittest. They need not be the biggest, strongest, boldest, brightest, baddest or best at corralling millions in the stock market. Indeed, there are circumstances in which the meek and cautious survive while the marauding bullies perish, victims of their own aggression.
Darwin believed in the power of dogs to help shape human evolution, writing in The Descent of Man: “The strongest and most vigorous men—those who could best defend and hunt for their families, who were provided with the best weapons and possessed the most property, such as a large number of dogs or other animals—would succeed in rearing a greater average number of offspring than the weaker and poorer members of the same tribes. There can, also, be no doubt that such men would generally be able to select the more attractive women.”
Operating slowly over a long time frame, natural selection is more potent than what we humans can accomplish through selective breeding of domestic animals. Breeders can’t create new traits for domesticated species, Darwin said, they can only concentrate or de-emphasize those already present. Through “methodical,” or conscious, selection, a breeder decides what characteristics he wants and then strives to reach them. “Unconscious” selection, on the other hand, involves “the preservation by man of the most valued, and the destruction of the least valued individuals, without any conscious intention on his part of altering the breed.”
Usually the two worked in tandem in subtle ways. By Darwin’s time, several Greyhound breeders had crossed their dogs with Bulldogs to add courage, Pointers were crossed with Foxhounds for speed and agility (to match faster horses), and Bulldogs were downsized after the demise of bull baiting. The breeders doubtless were seeking to match the fastest dogs, for example, but they could hardly foresee what the animal would look like, and it was, Darwin says, different from the old hound.
Absent any knowledge of genetics, Darwin demolishes the practice of inbreeding (called “interbreeding” or “breeding in to in”), saying it arises from a misbegotten belief in “purity of the blood,” and extols the virtue of crossing and hybrids. Inbreeding may appear to work, he says, but in the long run it produces weak, infertile animals, prone to malformation and disease. On the other hand, too much outcrossing leads to reversion to the basic dog. The key to success was to choose the best, the fittest, and proceed. In The Descent of Man, he asserts that “hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed,” meaning those who were unsound mentally or physically. (More than a few modern breeders should take heed.)
Although Darwin frequently used dogs as examples, they presented difficulties not found in pigeons. He recognized that variability was essential to the adaptability of wild species, and that domestication, for reasons we still don’t understand, unloosed the variability inherent in the wild progenitor of an animal. But the astounding variety of dogs, from the noble Greyhound, “the perfect image of grace, symmetry, and vigor,” to mutant Bulldogs, with their exaggerated heads and undershot jaws, and the turnspit dogs, with their dwarfed legs (they were literally used to turn spits), befuddled him. He could only conclude that they must have come from several different wild species, primarily the wolf and jackal, a notion we now know is incorrect.
With varying degrees of success, humans have attempted to reorder the behavior of those wild progenitors. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin observes that pointing, encircling a herd or flock, and retrieving are among the general wolfish hunting and puppy-rearing traits that have been “rigorously” selected for by nature. “Less rigorously,” or less precisely, humans had concentrated one or more of those traits in specialized breeds of dog for herding, pointing and retrieving. Other changes were more profound. He writes in The Descent of Man that dogs “may not have gained in cunning, and may have lost in wariness and suspicion, yet they have progressed in certain moral qualities, such as in affection, trust, worthiness, temper, and probably in general intelligence.” They had also become more biddable, or trainable.
Underlying much of Darwin’s thought was his profound belief, shared with other 18th- and 19th-century naturalists, that animals differed from humans largely in degree, not kind. He argued that as one moved from lower to higher orders of animals, the influence of instinct declined and intelligence increased, and dogs and horses were near the top of that hierarchy. In fact, Darwin believed domestic animals were generally more intelligent than their wild progenitors, a notion that in this century has been reversed—to the detriment of all animals.
In the opening chapters of The Descent of Man, he brilliantly argues, using dogs as prime examples, that animals feel “pleasure and pain, happiness and memory.” They inherit the capacity for terror, suspicion, fear, deceit, timidity, bad and good temperament, rage, and vengefulness. More significant, they possess the powers of reason, imagination, love, jealousy and pride. They believe in the supernatural: “There must be something special, which causes dogs to howl in the night, and especially during moonlight, in that remarkable and melancholy manner called baying.” They are also religious in a way, substituting the master for God. Not possessed of human language and learning, they nonetheless communicate—who among us can’t recognize the meaning of our dog’s barks, chortles, growls, bays, yodels and howls?—and learn in their world. When in response to a whispered, “Where is it?” a dog charges from to tree to tree, she proves that she has a notion that there is something to hunt or fetch; thus, she engages in a form of abstract thought.
Dogs, and other animals, possess a sense of beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, although mostly confined to sexual attraction. Their moral sensibility is manifest in their knowledge of right and wrong and their assistance to their family, pack or herd. But they are also altruistic: “It must be called sympathy that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one who strikes his master, as he certainly will.” In another instance, Darwin tells of a story Audubon related —“that he had reared and tamed a wild turkey who always ran away from any strange creature. This bird ultimately escaped into the woods. Some days later, Audubon saw what he thought was a wild turkey and ordered his dog to give chase. But the bird did not run away, and the dog, when he came up, did not attack the bird, for they mutually recognized each other as old friends.”
Darwin admits that animals may lack self-consciousness, the ability to reflect on the meaning of life and death, their place in the cosmos. “But,” he then slyly asks, “how can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as shown by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures or pains in the chase?” How indeed?
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