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As this year’s Nobel Prizes were announced, I faced my annual wish for anyone interested in dog training and behavior to know that three scientists in the field of Ethology have been awarded this prize. In 1973, Niko Tinbergen (The Netherlands), Karl von Frisch (Austria) and Konrad Lorenz (Austria) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine “for their discoveries concerning organization and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns.” They are regarded as being among the founders of the field of Ethology, which is the study of animals in their natural habitat.
While they are best known for their work with birds, insects and fish, all of them studied a variety of species. Konrad Lorenz was quite interested in dogs, and wrote a wonderful book called Man Meets Dog. One of the great contributions of this book to the study of animals concerns Lorenz’ interdisciplinary approach to understanding dogs. As Donald McCaig states in the introduction to a recent edition, “He made it respectable to bring the practical observations of animals trainers and handlers into the academy. It was a great first step, and although the gulf between academic study and practical applications remains with us today, Lorenz did much to merge what is known from different areas into a cohesive body of knowledge in order to further our understanding of animals.”
Some of my favorite aspects of this book are personal stories. For example, Lorenz describes the close relationship between his future brother-in-law, Peter, and a Newfoundland named Lord who joined the family when the dog was 1½ years old. Peter was the smallest of four brothers, and the youngest in a gang of boys who participated in their fair share of mischief. The dog protected him to such a degree that even his schoolmaster dared not raise his voice to Peter, lest he growl and leap up with his massive size on the shoulders. Naturally, this dog kept the other boys from teasing or bullying him as well.
Lorenz discusses his great sadness at losing dogs to old age. When he was 17, his dog Bully died of a stroke and he describes his sadness that the dog had left no offspring. For a long time after Bully’s death, Lorenz says he heard the pattering of Bully’s peculiar gait following after him as he had done for so many years in life. He writes, “If I listened consciously, the trotting and snuffling ceased at once, but as soon as my thoughts began to wander again I seemed to hear them once more.” Only when his new puppy Tito began to run behind him and follow him everywhere did the “ghost” of Bully cease to follow him in his mind.
Years later when Tito died, Lorenz felt a great guilt knowing that another dog would take the place of Tito just as Tito had replaced Bully in his heart. He says he felt ashamed of his own unfaithfulness and decided that for the rest of his life, only descendents of Tito would be his companions.
Besides being a brilliant scientist, Lorenz is an excellent writer whose words are equally effective when he is discussing scientific principles as when he muses on the transience of life: “In human life there is enough suffering—of which everybody gets his share—when we come to take leave of someone we love, and when we see the end approaching, inevitably predestined by the fact that he was born a few decades earlier than ourselves, we may well ask ourselves whether we do right to hang our hearts on a creature that will be overtaken by senility and death before a human being, born on exactly the same day, has even passed his childhood.”