Culture: Science & History
Canine Origin Story
Researchers have identified the origin of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, camels, ducks, chickens, cats and goats. But the genesis of the domestic dog, our oldest companion and the most varied, numerous and widely distributed domestic animal on the globe? We’re still trying to figure out that one.
The study of patterns of diversity is called systematics, and it is a critical subdivision of evolutionary biology. Systematics researchers (earlier called naturalists and taxonomists) sort out species’ genealogical relationships and estimate the points at which populations diverged from one another. Traditionally, they relied on observations of differences in stable physical traits like teeth, skulls and sometimes fossils. More recently, genome-wide comparisons have been used to provide detailed information about species relationships, including the question of when and where wolves became dogs.
Canis lupus familiaris exhibits the most variability in shape, size, behavior and temperament of any mammal species living on earth. About one billion dogs, a population larger than any other domestic subspecies, roam the globe. Canine fossils, some dating to as long ago as 36,000 years, are found on every continent except Antarctica.
Add to that the unusual phenomenon that extreme variation can occur in as little as one generation—a sort of evolution at hyper speed—and we begin to understand why classifying domestic dogs has challenged many of the taxonomical systems that have been used to make sense of Canidae, a family that includes wolves, jackals, foxes and dogs.
Historically, as far back as the fourth century BCE, theories of the descent of animals were the product of using philosophical approaches to relate organic life to the history of time. At first, fundamental ideas about species-change involved sorting out living beings by means of their common essential properties. Philosophers wanted to know how organic life forms were related, not where they came from.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE) endorsed the idea that natural beings were always here and always would be. He commented on the dog’s origin, not in respect to the animal’s continuous chronological past but rather, in terms of breed creation. In his view, the dog that nature created was bred to the fox to make small dogs and to bears to make big ones, perhaps making the point that breeds (although he was mistaken about cross-species hybridization) were created by humans. Still, in the Aristotelian view, dogs always existed.
As time went on, the earliest naturalists came to understand that species were related in more complicated ways, and began to devise orderly classification systems. The bigger picture of life, however, was explained within a theological context: a specific act of an omnipotent creator transformed all living things whole and complete. The revolutionary notion that every animal might not be a singular divine creation didn’t materialize until the late Middle Ages, a contradiction that had to be explored hypothetically to avoid conflict with religious doctrine.
In the late 18th century, France’s leading naturalist and the father of paleontology, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), introduced a new way of looking at life and death. Although he was firmly in the camp of divine creationism, he theorized that animals eventually went extinct.
Earlier, 16th-century English cleric Edward Topsell (1572–1625), author of The History of Four-footed Beasts, whose worldview was defined by fire-and-brimstone religion, based his categories on morality. This was not as much of a stretch as it might seem from today’s vantage point; during Topsell’s time, people had real reason to fear wolves. For them, the predatory wolf and sagacious, noble dog provided excellent examples of two moral extremes.
Domesticated farm livestock had derived from prey species, and no other large predator had (or has) been domesticated. So it seemed illogical that the gentle, devoted dog could have evolved from the wolf. As one writer lamented, “How could such a noble animal as the dog be derived from the likes of the wolf? If evolution were true of dogs and wolves, wouldn’t every beast choose to live the noble life?” Indeed.
But as Darwin later observed, if organic beings didn’t possess an inherent tendency to vary, humans could do nothing. Unlike bears and lions, wolves, for reasons still scientifically unclear, possessed the variation necessary for the creation of the multiple hundreds of dog breeds recognized today.
The Shape of Things
Imagine how frustrating it must have been to try to make sense of how dogs were related and where they came from based on their appearance. Travel the world over and a cat will usually look like a cat, but dogs were a vexing contradiction.
The lack of understanding of the complexity of canine morphology made it difficult to unravel relationships among the ever-increasing numbers of dogs and dog-like animals being discovered on far-away, previously unexplored continents. In the Americas, many were likely Old World breeds introduced by European explorers, eventually returned to a feral state. Over time, they interbred with American Indian dogs, wolves and coyotes, defaulting to pariah-type dogs—a catchall term for semi-feral, free-ranging canines. But a misunderstanding of the distinct differences between wild, tame, domestic and feral dogs added to the confusion about how Canidae should be classified.
The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), assigned dogs both wild and domestic to groups based on their anatomy (muzzle, jaw, ear shape), tail carriage (dog tails curve when relaxed, wolf tails don’t), hair texture, limb length and behavior, criteria that are still used today.
Linnaeus’s contemporary, Georges- Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707– 1788)—of whom Linnaeus sniffed, “Always eloquent, often incorrect”— suspected that changes in canine morphology were influenced by environmental pressures, such as climate. But, like his colleagues, Buffon did not consider change within an evolutionary context.
Dividing dogs into categories based on skull shape was Cuvier’s idea, and although his forward-thinking approach to paleontology and the history of organisms would seem to make him an advocate for evolution, he was not. Cuvier’s interest, after all, was in a species’ demise, not its origin. Nevertheless, his contributions greatly influenced Charles Darwin.
Darwin (1809–1882) believed that the dog had multiple origins: from wolves, jackals and at least one South American species. He supported the latter by referencing his observations of dogs in Patagonia who swam underwater and an unusual dog he had seen in Central America. He also advanced the idea of multi-regional domestication.
Darwin further imagined that these small populations of “inferior” native dogs were eventually supplanted by the incursion of more robust dogs introduced by Europeans, an analogy he used to demonstrate the idea of “survival of the fittest.”
Although the fundamental theory of origin is attributed to Darwin, other taxonomists previously proposed similar ideas and connections, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Alfred Russel Wallace. Unlike Lamarck and Wallace, however, Darwin suggested that the evolutionary process occurred through natural selection.
Although Darwin used the breeding of dogs and other artificially selected animals as analogies to explain how natural selection worked, dogs continued to be an untidy group of animals —a puzzle that science has began to unlock by the use of genome-wide sequencing.
In the Genes
Once scientists discovered methods to explore origin at the molecular level, they began to test these historical theories. As early as the 1970s, research papers were published suggesting that dogs may have been derived from several different gray wolf populations, and that canine domestication may have happened much earlier than the fossil record’s 15,000 years ago. By the late 1990s, geneticists worldwide were working together to build a comprehensive map that would chart the evolutionary journey of domestic dogs.
The path was not smooth. Differences of opinion erupted and criticism of research methodologies undermined a delicately balanced collaboration process. Numerous studies argued for canine origin in places as diverse as East Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, Europe and Africa, with timing varying from somewhere between 15,000 and 135,000 years ago. Archeologists who’d studied ancient canine burials were relegated to the sidelines, their fossil records dismissed as “old school,” which created further dissention. Researchers struggled to find common ground, but without much success.
The debate ramped up in 2013, when UCLA evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne and his team published a comprehensive set of data suggesting that dogs evolved from a group of European wolves, now extinct, somewhere between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago.
Two years later, Peter Savolainen, a molecular biologist, and his colleagues at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm published convincing results indicating that dogs originated in China, south of the Yangtze River. They estimated that this dog population split from wolves 33,000 years ago.
Both teams were sequencing DNA. Why were their findings literally all over the map?
Savolainen’s research team analyzed DNA samples from living global dog and wolf populations, then tracked DNA from least to most diverse, going back through time. The general rule is that the older a population of animals, the more diversity it has in its genome, which is a hallmark of ancient origin.
Whether these animals represented the first domesticated dogs or, rather, dogs who migrated to the region from elsewhere and split off from a more ancient dog population, is unresolved. Fossil remains of an ancestral and probably extinct population of wolves that would have been indigenous to the area would seal the deal, but researchers have yet to find them. As Savolainen notes, “We have access to some archaeological samples we are about to analyze. However, there has been quite little archaeological work, especially on animals, in the region.”
While Savolainen and his colleagues worked backward in time, Wayne’s group worked forward, tracking ancient DNA collected from prehistoric bones of wolves and wolf-like dogs, then measuring decreasing genetic diversity. As DNA becomes less diverse, it points to animals transitioning from wolves to dogs. A dead end indicates that a lineage became extinct in that particular region.
Wayne’s team sequenced ancient DNA on canid skulls and bone fragments discovered in present-day Siberia and the Czech Republic dating to between 27,000 and 33,000 years ago. The physical characteristics of the skulls—wider muzzles and foreshortened jaws—suggest that these were ancient proto-dogs, not wolves. The canids may have looked similar to today’s Arctic breeds (for example, the Siberian Husky and the Greenland Dog), but were probably much larger. Although their findings were met with skepticism, the team said their data showed that domestic dogs originated from different wolf populations at different times in different places, in a series of starts and stops. And, they added, living dogs are more closely related to ancient extinct wolves than they are to modern wolves.
In an interesting twist, Wayne’s findings reignited the theory of parallel and multi-regional proto-domestication, an idea that Darwin introduced in the 19th century and one that’s gone in and out of favor since.
Both studies have detractors. Some claim that diversity in Savolainen’s ancient dog population is a result of admixture with European dogs as people traversed the Silk Road. Those who criticize Wayne’s study maintain that he has no solid proof that the ancient bones he’s studying are definitively wolf or dog. Additionally, critics say, his study is geographically biased because he excluded samples from dogs in China based on his position that there are no ancient dogs there.
Although the two studies point in very different directions, Savolainen and Wayne may both be right. It’s possible that dogs were domesticated multiple times in different regions, and that most lineages died out when humans were faced with overwhelming challenges, like climate change. Their findings aren’t mutually exclusive.
Crunching the (Very Big) Numbers
One reason for the disparities, according to Oxford’s visionary evolutionary biologist Greger Larson, who was a part of a team that successfully mapped the origin of the pig, is that scientists studying the dog are not including enough ancient DNA in their studies.
Larson and colleague Keith Dobney, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen, had the idea to bring together all the evidence collected to date, find ancient canid specimens from museums, apply state-of-the-art technology and create a database bigger than anything produced before. All they had to do was convince scientists to agree to work together.
Fortunately for canine genetics, Larson was able to sell the idea that more cooperation and collaboration improves the outcome. As chief mediator and conciliator, and supported by substantial funding, he has persuaded more than 50 influential canine evolutionary scientists to join the project. Team members include archaeologists, paleobiologists, anthropologists, zooarchaeologists, paleogeologists and others.
The purpose of the study, which began in 2013 and is slated to wrap up this year, is to combine ancient DNA analysis and geometric morphometric techniques and apply them to archaeological canid remains. This, he suggests, will directly address where, when and how many times dogs were domesticated.
Geometric morphometrics, the study of form in two or three dimensions, is a powerful new way to visually quantify evolutionary relationships. It does this by correlating thousands of geometric points that identify exact places on bones—specifically, points of evolutionary significance that differ between very closely related animals such as the wolf and the dog.
Using a special camera, researchers take hundreds of 360-degree photographs. Software then transfers the pictures to a three-dimensional computerized image that emphasizes a set of tightly defined, very specific points on each bone. The process results in holographic- like images that show domestication in progress through space and time, much like a movie.
Additionally, scientists are isolating and examining ancient DNA collected from museum specimens, looking for changes in the degree of genetic diversity over long periods. This will provide a comprehensive overview of the wolf-to-dog transition from the beginning to the present.
No individual genetic fragment of DNA says This is a wolf or This is a dog. Rather, scientists tease the two apart by looking at strands of DNA and identifying and measuring similarities and differences. As differences become more extreme, the separation between wolf, proto-dog and, finally, dog is suggested.
The team hopes to isolate genetic fragments that can be linked to minor changes in the geometric morphometricimaged samples. Combining the two techniques will tell a deeper, more layered and detailed story about canine domestication.
Larson expects to analyze up to 7,000 specimens representing wolves, incipient canids and domestic dogs. “We’re taking samples from all over the world, sources in not only museums but from private collections, too. Curators are very agreeable when we ask for permission, and they’re usually very happy to have us take photos and DNA samples. They help us, and in turn, we provide more information for their collection.”
While Larson is enthusiastically optimistic about the outcome of this unprecedented project, some scientists not affiliated with the study think the findings will only add to the existing mishmash of conflicting hypotheses. But that’s how science works: come up with an answer and you invariably end up with a lot more questions.
The ongoing search to understand where, when and how many times dogs were domesticated continues to be a topic of active scholarly exploration. Besides the millions of dog lovers who are curious about the roots of our affectionate and unusual cross-species relationship, substantial scientific issues are at stake, issues that may profoundly alter the future of evolutionary theory.
Read about new developments.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The discovery of one of the last pure landrace dog breeds, the Sardinian Sheepdog (Cane Fonnese, Fonne's Dog) was celebrated by scientists in the October 11, 2016 issue of the journal Genetics.
The study revealed that the large flock guardian dog travelled the same ancient migration routes as the Sardinian people. And like their people the dog's genetic signature remains distinctly isolated.
A landrace is a regional type of domestic animal that over a long period of time has adapted to its purpose and environment through unregulated selection for behavior. Landrace dogs were common up through the early 1800s, but most disappeared as a consequence of cross breeding with dogs introduced by travelers.
The Sardinian Sheepdog is a breed because it's been created within an isolated population of animals. Sardinian shepherds allowed only their best working dogs to reproduce.
What's appealing to scientists is that the dog remains uncontaminated by modern artificial breeding practices, resulting in a robust genome. Sardinian dogs don't all look the same, but all have in common a high drive to guard sheep.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, just south of Corsica. The island was populated in multiple waves of people as far back as the upper paleolithic.
The study also revealed that the Sardinain Sheepdog originated from sight hounds developed in the near and middle east as well as large mastiff-like sheep guarding dogs from an area around Hungary.
Their genomic map mirrors human migration. Just like their dogs, the people of Sardinia derive from Hungary and the middle east.
Science Daily offers a reader-friendly description of the significance of the study: "Just as Sardinian people have long provided a wealth of genetic insights to scientists, the canine natives are an example of an isolated population that could prove a powerful resource for finding genes that influence health and behavior."
Read more about Cane Fonnese, landrace animals, and Sardinia.
News: Guest Posts
Well, it looks like recent research into prehistoric Japanese graves proves, at least, that dogs were indeed our long-time hunting companions. In this fascinating study written by Angela Perri recently published a fascinating study that proves just this. This line of inquiry started when she was a grad student at Durham University in the UK. As David Grimm writes in Science:
“She wanted to get a sense of how dogs may have aided early humans in taking down game, so she did her best to approximate the activity: In 2011, she joined a group of Japanese businessmen on a wild boar hunt in a dense forest near Hiroshima. ‘It was terrifying,’ says Perri, now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. ‘The boar sound like a train. They’re very aggressive, and they have big tusks. At any moment, one could come charging at you.’”
But the biggest takeaway she got was just how impressive the dogs were during this hunt. Not only did the 5 Bloodhounds and Shiba Inus help to track down the prey, but they also warned the humans when the boars were nearby.
That got Perri interested in investigating Japanese research papers for anything about dogs and the Jōmon culture—hunter-gatherers from 16,000 to 2,400 year ago. They lived in the northern islands with a cold climate filled with large terrestrial megafauna of the Pleistocene, like Naumann’s elephants and Yabe’s giant deer. But during the Holocene, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, there was a climatic warming displacing the larger animals with smaller, quicker ungulates like sika deer and wild boar. As Perri notes in the Antiquity paper, “This environmental shift … led to the creation of new exploitation niches for Jōmon foragers, including important variations in plant availability, coastal resources and terrestrial prey species.”
Perri’s research has involved studying dogs as “hunting technology,” and as she noted, “A hunting partnership between dogs and humans has long been postulated in the archaeological literature, with some researchers suggesting that such a collaborative alliance was the basis for the initial domestication of dogs. She points out that, “Dogs are an important, and in some cases indispensable, hunting aid for many modern forager groups, as they probably were for foragers in prehistory.” And explains that, “Injured deer often run, leading hunters on long chases, and wild boar can be aggressive and quickly learn to evade capture. Hunting dogs mitigate these factors by tracking blood trails, forcing game into vulnerable positions (e.g. in water) and holding prey until the hunter can make the final kill.”
Perri was familiar with the significance that dogs had with many ancient cultures, and how the ethnographic record has confirmed their importance and the revered status many of the dogs obtained, which often was displayed in the manner they were buried in “remarkably human-esque ways, often with grave goods and markers.”
She performed a comprehensive survey of Japanese archaeological literature, and found that the Honshu Jōmon did bury their canine hunting partners in shell middens, same as they did with humans. And found over 110 canine burials from 39 archaeological sites. “They were treating their dogs the same way they treated their human hunters.” And, “Like people, the dogs (which may have resembled Shiba Inus) were placed singly and appear to have been arranged in particular postures. ‘They looked like they curled up and went to sleep,’ Perri notes. Some had suffered what appeared to be hunting injuries—broken legs and teeth—and many of their bones had healed, suggesting people had taken care of them. Some were also found with grave goods, like shell bracelets and deer antlers.” Their ages ranged from newborn to over 12 years old. While the prehistoric puppies weren’t certainly valued as hunters, she noted that “the ethnographic record shows that puppies in hunter-gatherer groups are often valued for their potential as future hunting partners.”
Along with the burials themselves, Perri found that the “importance of hunting dogs in this region is also demonstrated by the numerous dog-shaped clay figures (dogu), including a set that features a dog barking at three wild boar.” Or, “One Yayoi representation of dogs is found on a ceremonial bronze bell (dotaku) depicting a number of scenes, one of which is a boar surrounded by a hunter and a pack of dogs.” As shown here:
A 2500-year-old bronze bell depicting a Jōmon hunt with dogs. Image courtesy of Tokyo National Museum (http://www.tnm.jp/)
Perri concludes that while dogs were an integral part of the ancestral forest hunting culture, once an agricultural subsistence culture took over, the dog burials stopped as well.
As Grimm noted in his article and quotting Melinda Zeder, an archaeozoologist at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, “it may be a disparity in loyalty. “Humans were a bit of a fair-weather friend—we were not as reliable as they were,” she laughs. “We could do to be a little more doglike.” We couldn’t agree with that sentiment more.
News: Guest Posts
Not surprisingly, a study published July 29, 2016 found that the English Bulldog no longer retains enough genetic diversity to correct life-threatening physical and genomic abnormalities. This means breeders cannot use the established population of purebred dogs to reverse the trend in extreme and painful exaggerations such as crippling dwarfism and respiratory deformities - traits that uninformed pet-owners find appealing.
In the early 1800s Bulldogs were trained for bull-baiting, a particularly cruel and vicious sport. In 1835 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals convinced Parliament to enact the first animal cruelty law for the protection of domestic animals, including outlawing bull baiting.
As such, the Bulldog had outlived its usefulness. Like the pre-19th century Wolfhound that disappeared with the eradication of wolves in the British Isles, and the Tumbler whose demise was the invention of hunting firearms, the Bulldog was destined for extinction.
English Bulldog from 1890
But it was not to be. Beginning about 1840, the Victorian dog fancy's unabashed sentimentality was a catalyst for saving even the most formidable working breeds from their inevitable demise. Like many others, such as the Dachshund and Mastiff, Bulldogs went from working hard to hardly working.
Utility dogs were "refined" and transformed to fill jobs they weren't originally bred for - as show dogs and companions. Altered physical and behavior characteristics along with decreased levels of aggression were more compatible for their augmented duties as house pets.
English Bulldogs from 1920s
Beginning in the late 1890s, Bulldog breeders (and other breeders as well) selected small groups of genes from a diverse genome and created new breed-types. They were in effect increasing the odds that genetic anomalies would more likely be expressed to bring out exaggerated traits, like the Bulldog's baby-like face, corkscrew tail and affable personality.
As "desirable" aesthetic traits were selected for, other genetic variants including beneficial genes that contribute to overall health were eliminated from the gene pool, never to be reclaimed.
In the last few decades the most exaggerated traits in the Bulldog - the extreme brachycephalic skull and deformed skeleton- have become increasingly pronounced because naive consumers want that type of dog and consequently that's what many breeders select for.
Driven by economics, fashion, and uninformed decisions, breeders and buyers either ignore or are unaware of the genetic problems that have spread throughout the population.
The demise of the breed may not be a good thing for Bulldog-lovers, but it will thankfully put an end to the malformed and painfully crippled modern Bulldog we recognize today.
The good news is that some breeders are intent on bringing back the "Olde-Fashioned-Bulldogge".
Culture: Science & History
What can archeology tells us about the “connection” origins.
Studies of prehistoric dog burials have been making splashy headlines lately. Although the popular press would have us believe that these finds are proof of the affectionate relationship our ancestors had with dogs, the unifying theory that gives meaning to burial patterns remains elusive because ancient people left no written record.
What little we know about dogs’ social roles in antiquity is a patchy mosaic of information derived from physical analysis of bones excavated from gravesites. The accuracy of this mosaic has been further complicated by archaeologists’ long-standing difficulty with reliably distinguishing between wolves and dogs, not only because the two animals look similar, but also because changes in morphology during the early stages of domestication were subtle.
However, in 1986, zooarchaeologist Darcy Morey, now adjunct professor in anthropological sciences at Virginia’s Radford University, developed a statistical equation to more accurately identify dissimilarities between skulls. A decade later, geneticists were able to extricate even more conclusive information from DNA. Then, in a landmark paper published in 1999 in the Journal of Heredity, geneticists Carles Vilà, Jesus Maldonado and Robert Wayne suggested that the first domestication event occurred more than 100,000 years earlier than dog burial remains suggested. This marked the beginning of a decades-long trend that all but excluded archaeology and other academic disciplines from the equation.
Morey—and later, Greger Larson, evolutionary biologist in Durham University’s Department of Archaeology in the UK—challenged the exclusive use of DNA analysis to identify the time and place of the first domestication event. They advocated a return to a cross-discipline approach that included traditional archaeology, DNA analysis, isotope geochemistry and radiocarbon dating in the context of environmental sciences such as paleoclimatology and biogeography.
Robert Losey, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, is among the scholars who agree with this approach. “When the genetic information can be integrated with information on dogs’ diets, diseases, activity patterns and archaeological context, we get a much more complex and informative picture of people’s emotional and day-to-day lives with their animals than we can through genetics alone.”
Siberia’s Lake Baikal, the largest and oldest freshwater lake in the world, is known for its well-preserved Middle Holocene (3,000- to 9,000-year-old) hunter-gatherer cemeteries, which attract scientists studying how social and environmental pressures influence long-term cultural change. Leading a team of researchers from various disciplines, Losey analyzed numerous Lake Baikal sites containing human, dog and wolf remains dating back 5,000 to 8,000 years; the team’s findings were published in 2011 in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.
As he explained, “What I tried to do in my study was to approach these dog skeletons just like we would a human skeleton. We applied a suite of analyses in order to tease out the interesting and relevant details of their lives. The best way to fully understand the domestication of dogs is to use as many forms of evidence as possible, and to employ a wide range of specialists.” Their interpretive model was partly based on ethnographic records of indigenous groups from across the northern hemisphere. For example, many northern people, who have an animistic understanding of their world, strongly believe that animals, plants and inanimate objects possess souls.
Using stable isotope analysis, researchers determined that dog and human diets were the same. In comparison, a wolf found buried in the same area had foraged on large game, a diet different than that of local people. Some dogs were buried with artifacts the dog would have used or been familiar with during its life: a decorative collar-like pendant made with red-deer teeth, a round ball-like stone, spoons, antlers and other implements.
Bone-wear suggested that the dogs had worked alongside people, likely as transport animals hauling heavy loads. Some had recovered from injuries that would have required special care. People and dogs were buried near one another in the same cemetery, and in some cases, were buried together (in one instance, a man was buried with two dogs, one on either side). Analysis of the dogs’ skeletons revealed a resemblance to modern-day Siberian Huskies, although they would have been larger. Genetic work on the specimens confirmed an ancestral link to our modern dogs.
According to Losey, “I think what we are really looking at is a set of relationships between people and dogs, and to study relationships, we need to try to understand the life histories of animals, not just their evolutionary history.”
Putting all of the small parts together, the researchers painted a big picture. They suggested that ancient indigenous people considered some dogs to be very special. Unlike the majority of simpler animals, whose spirits collectively recycled after death, these dogs were thought to be like humans, with powerful and unique souls that required mortuary rites similar to those of deceased people.
This special treatment was necessary for both dogs and humans so that their souls could return in new individuals. Losey added, “I think the act of treating a dog as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for. These practices also clearly indicate that people had close emotional bonds with some of their dogs, and perhaps mourned their loss like they did [the loss of] their own family members.”
Waves of Proto-domestication
Although romanticized images of digs in the shadows of ancient civilizations continue to feed the popular notion of archaeology, a more accurate but less dramatic scene would have scientists in white lab coats conducting microscopic analyses of polymorphic nucleotides extracted from bone remnants stored for many decades on museum shelves. Indeed, bones unearthed long ago have proven to be quite revelatory. The most unexpected discoveries regarding the human/dog relationship are based on analyses of materials extracted from canid bones excavated, catalogued and archived in 1873 and 1884, respectively.
The oldest skull, which dates to 31,700 years ago, was found at Belgium’s Goyet Cave. Another from a site in Predmosti in the Czech Republic proved to be about 27,000 years old. One skull from the Predmosti site had a mammoth bone fragment in its mouth. Does it indicate that a special connection had developed between people and dogs as far back as 30,000 years ago? Archaeologist Mietje Germonpré of the Royal Belgium Institute of Natural Sciences—lead author of the two papers describing the 2008 and 2012 research results—said, “I believe that the dog skull with the bone between its teeth suggests some sort of ritual treatment. The position of the bone fragment in the mouth suggests that it was inserted between the incisors of the dog post-mortem.” The ethnographic record indicates that placing body parts between the teeth of dead carnivores was a common practice in many cultures. Exactly why remains open to speculation.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman, who has written extensively on the evolutionary impact of the human/animal connection, suggested that the mammoth bone points to a cross-species alliance that may have developed even earlier—one that might account for the success of our early ancestors. She hypothesized that proto-dogs, like those found at the Predmosti site and at Goyet, cooperated with humans in a symbiotic hunting partnership that could account for the significant and abrupt increase in the number of animals found at mammoth kill-sites dating as far back as perhaps 45,000 years. The initial domestication of dogs may have been accidental, but once humans realized the value of these living “tools,” they began to refine them for increasingly specialized purposes.
In a separate study, a group of researchers led by Ole Thalmann examined ancient DNA of Eurasian dogs (the Predmosti dogs had not been genotyped) along with others, and came up with some surprising results. Separated by only a few thousand miles and a few thousand years, the ancient dogs were not related to each other, nor were they related to modern dogs. In addition, none of the lines survived, which suggests that domestication experienced many starts and stops in different regions with different wolf populations. Scientists speculated that the last ice age, which began about 26,000 years ago, might have contributed to this stutter-step process. They also found that living dogs are more closely related to ancient, extinct wolves than they are to modern wolves.
If domestic dogs somehow catastrophically died out, would we have the natural resources needed to recreate them? In Shipman’s opinion, “The answer is both no and yes. If dogs disappeared, they probably couldn’t re-evolve from the wolves we have now. But those extinct wolves evolved into contemporary wolves, and canids in general have a huge amount of variability in their genomes, which is why we have so many different types of dogs today. If by ‘dogs,’ you mean a highly variable canid that can live with and cooperate with humans, then I think the answer is yes. Would it be the same dog as today? We can’t be sure.”
Laid to Rest with Care
In the past two decades, archaeologists have unearthed the remains of about 1,400 dogs buried 2,500 years ago on prime ocean-view real estate in ancient Ashkelon, today a thriving city located on the Mediterranean Sea, 30 minutes from Tel Aviv. The dog burials spanned a period of eight decades. Carefully positioned alone in shallow pits, the dogs’ bodies were placed on their sides, legs flexed, tails gently tucked around their hind legs. Ranging in age from newborn through elderly, they appear to have died of natural causes.
Ashkelon is only one of thousands of ancient dog-burial sites scattered across the globe, and its large number of burials raises the question, “How many dogs were buried in antiquity?” The answer is, “We’ll never know.” Throughout prehistory, people mostly disposed of bodies, human and non-human, in untraceable ways; they sent them floating down rivers or buried them in shallow earthen graves—reverent practices that lost them to the ages.
In addition, dog burials were so common that they are field sites’ most overlooked artifacts. In her 2009 manual, A Practical Guide to In Situ Dog Remains for the Field Archaeologist, Susan Crockford, adjunct professor at the University of Victoria in Canada who has worked with dog remains for more than 20 years, maintains that far more dog burials are encountered than are ever mentioned in archaeological site reports. Workers aren’t properly trained to recognize dog remains, nor do most understand the history of dogs and their significant contribution to the human story. Consequently, much of what we could have learned about the human/dog connection has been lost forever.
Furthermore, scientists can’t develop statistical estimations because it’s unclear whether or not dog burials are representative of the total dog population. However, by calculating the timing of genetic bottlenecks, Thalmann and his colleagues suggested that ancient dog populations paralleled the trajectory of human population growth. Dog numbers increased steadily until about 5,000 years ago, then abruptly declined, followed by a sharp increase 2,500 years later. Even if their calculations are proven accurate, whether (and why) certain dogs were selected for burial while others were not remains unclear.
The first comprehensive review of dog burial studies, “Burying key evidence: the social bond between dogs and people,” by Darcy Morey, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science (2006), put the documented cases and site locations in perspective. Written for a scholarly audience but with enough humanity to appeal to lay readers, the paper brought new attention to a topic of inherently widespread interest. Given that so many burials are untraceable and others are uncertain, why even suggest a total?
Professor Morey said, “Depending on circumstances, for a given site, I think it’s possible to suggest how many were buried, at least in that place.” In a later book, Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond, Morey included an appendix that inventoried dog burials, including totals as known from specific places. “But,” he added, “given frequent uncertainties, I think in general that suggesting combined totals is fraught with problems.”
As companions and helpers, dogs hold a special place in our hearts, and increasingly, as our equals in relation to our place in the collective physical world. Mary Elizabeth Thurston, author of The Lost History of the Canine Race, anthropologist and historian for Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in Westchester, N.Y., said, “Fifteen years ago, about 55 percent of the public believed pets deserve mortuary rites in death. Today, the number is much higher.”
Thurston also noted an uptick in the number of people who wanted to be laid to rest with their animal companion, either by arranging for their own cremated remains to be buried with the pet, or for the cremated remains of that animal to be interred with them. “When animals fill an innate need for companionship as either surrogate children or life partners, they become truly indispensible in the eyes of their human caretakers. The desire to be together is understandable. The grief felt at the death of that pet is profound, and people want to accord their animals a measure of respectful remembrance in death, just as [they] would any other family member. However, we can’t assume that ancient people, who left no written records, held our same modern sensibilities.”
Canine remains in ancient human burial pits more often indicate that the dog was part of an offering, sacrifice or spiritual ritual rather than a companion. Thurston suggested that the ancient interment of single animals with grave goods, especially things that the dog used in life, along with evidence that shows the dog died of natural causes, might suggest an affectionate relationship and the belief that the animal had a soul—that, like people, it would need these things on the “other side” for a good life.”
In “Peru’s Mummy Dogs,” writer Roger Atwood noted that in 2006, Sonia Guillén, archaeologist at the Maliqui Center in Ilo, Peru, reported that her team had discovered 40 dogs buried about 1,000 years ago in separate plots alongside the remains of what were probably their owners. The discovery was unusual in that the dogs were interred with items that look like toys and food. As Guillén, who studies Peru’s Chiribaya culture (which pre-dated the Incas), told the press, “We have found that in all the cemeteries, always, in between the human tombs, there are others dedicated to the dogs, full-grown and puppies. They have their own graves, and in some cases they are buried with blankets and food.” Guillén, who suspects that the dogs may be direct ancestors of the companion and working dogs who populate the village today, is collecting DNA for future study.
Most human/dog burials occurred 5,000 to 8,000 years ago in hunter-gatherer societies and disappeared with the beginning of the agrarian era. But their absence doesn’t equate to a lack of an affectionate human/dog connection. At the Lake Baikal site, when pastoralists inhabited the area beginning about 5,000 years ago, they did not bury dogs, at least not in areas where archaeologists might find them. According to Robert Losey, “The difference between the pastoralists and the hunter-gatherers living in this area of Siberia is that the hunter-gatherers buried some of their dogs in cemeteries used otherwise for the human dead. The pastoralists do not appear to have done this.
“Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have interviewed local Buryat people, who are descended from some of these early pastoralists, about their dogs, and they clearly have a deep respect for [them], and do bury some of them. However, they are not considered non-human persons with individual souls, and in the local belief systems, are not spiritually equivalent with humans. So, they cannot be buried in local cemeteries. The best dogs, and the most loved ones, are given burial rites in some cases, but these tend to be elsewhere—on the tops of hills or mountains, for example. Some folks even recounted that they left pieces of meat in the graves with the dogs—food for them in the afterlife.”
As long as dogs have existed, they have been deliberately buried in every region they inhabited. Moreover, dogs have been buried more often than any other animal: singly, with other dogs, near people and with people. This ancient practice was a global phenomenon, one that crossed nearly all cultural boundaries. Precisely why dogs were buried may never be clearly understood, but the universality of the practice suggests it may be embedded in the human psyche and accordingly, is a fundamental part of the human/dog connection.
For in-depth information on sources cited click here.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
In New York City on June 11, 1928, Morris Frank took one big step for the disabled and one giant leap for assistance dogs. The 20-year-old Tennessean, who lost his sight at 16, was fresh off the SS Tuscania after a month in Switzerland, where he had been trained by Dorothy Eustis to work with his first guide dog, a female German Shepherd named Buddy. A group of curious, incredulous reporters greeted him at the dock, demanding to know what exactly this dog could do for him.
The previous month had bolstered Frank’s native Southern swagger, and he boasted that Buddy could take him anywhere. “Even across West Street?” they asked. Known locally as “Death Avenue,” it was one of the city’s most hazardous thoroughfares. Frank reportedly declared, “Show me to it, brother, and Buddy will take me across it.”
Making good on his claim, the pair began to negotiate the wide cobblestone street against a backdrop of clopping hooves, blaring horns, screeching brakes and the clamor of commerce. Buddy led her tall, blind master in his well-cut suit safely across to the opposite curb.
This was the first time Americans had seen a guide dog in action, but certainly not the last. Frank and Eustis went on to create The Seeing Eye six months later, and before long, people assisted by dogs became part of daily life.
Before I became a guide dog mobility instructor, I had no real idea what guide dogs did, much less how they did it. After eleven years of training service dogs for the blind, however, I can give you some highlights of the amazing feats these dogs do every day for their people.
Most of us know that dogs have a sensational sense of smell; the difference between their olfactory ability and ours is so huge that we can’t really comprehend it. But to me, one of the most astonishing things about guide dogs is that they are asked to constrain this quintessential faculty. They can’t wander nose to the ground, following an invisible trail this way and that. Doing their jobs requires them to override a very powerful and innate inclination.
Dogs are also adept at social intelligence; they “read” us really well. Guide dogs put this skill to use every moment they’re on duty, responding appropriately to the variety of gestures and verbal commands a blind person uses when working with a dog, including directional cues like “forward,” “left” and “right.”
We expect them to obey these commands and generally, they do. But sometimes, they’re required to make an independent assessment of a situation, and to intelligently disobey if complying would put their person in danger. For example, if there’s an open manhole cover in our path, we want them to ignore the “forward” command. Same goes for subway platforms, tight spaces and, most importantly, traffic passing in front of us as we’re about to cross the street.
Guide dogs put their memories to work as well, recalling not just the place they last saw a squirrel or a cat under a bush (both of which they’re trained to ignore), but also, their person’s bank, grocery store and favorite coffee shop. And, of course, they remember the home they share with their person. That’s particularly helpful if the individual loses his or her sense of direction.
So, back to 1928. Imagine you’re Buddy. As you begin to cross, you encounter a kaleidoscope of activity; the pungent smells of rotting produce, horse manure, and oil and gas from ships and automobiles; and the constant din of horses and cars and trolleys. To the astonishment of those watching, you safely take Morris Frank through this hurly burly to the other side of the street. It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Modern-day guide dogs accomplish this miracle, and many more, every day. But what seems phenomenal to us is run-of-the-mill for them. Fortunately, the capacities and senses with which they’ve been endowed can, with appropriate training, be harnessed to guide humans. It’s one of the most mutually beneficial partnerships ever conceived.
You can play a part in these “everyday miracles” by donating money or time to the organization of your choice. Whether you’re writing a check or raising a puppy, you’re helping to enhance the independence and dignity of the blind and visually impaired through these remarkable partnerships.
Culture: Science & History
How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
Pat Shipman, PhD, is a retired adjunct professor of anthropology at Penn State and an internationally recognized expert in taphonomy, the study of how living animals are transformed into skeletons, and then fossils. Her scientific training and boundless curiosity lead her to take on the intriguing question of just why Homo neaderthalensis, one of the most successful apex species of hunters who had thrived for millennium in Eurasia, would almost suddenly, anthropologically speaking, become extinct. Her hypothesis: The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction (The Belknap Press) points to the abilities of both certain wolves and our ancestors to pair up and this gave them the competitive edge in the battle of survival. It is certainly true that this wasn’t done intentionally, but such an evolutionary breakthrough resulted in an alliance that had devastating effects on not just the Neanderthals but on a long species list including the huge woolly mammoth, saber-toothed tigers and Cave bears. Could it be possible “man’s best friend” have been the Neanderthals’ worst nightmare ? Shipman’s thesis starts with Homo sapiens, who in expanding north out of Africa were not only as an invasive species, but the most invasive in history, wreaking ecologically enormous changes throughout continents. The evidence that she relies on, by a meticulous review of the most current archeological research and genomic and genetic studies, can perhaps most readily be seen in the mammoth remains megasites, where the number of kills increases almost exponentially after the first evidence of the wolf-dog–human alliance was discovered. For ten thousand years before the domestication of the wolf-dog, evidence of early humans hunting mega-fauna like mammoth is scant, but with the addition of the superior hunting and tracking talents that wolf-dogs contributed to our projectile throwing ancestors lead not only to more successful kills of large prey but insured the success of our two predatory species. As for the Neanderthal, it wasn’t just simply that humans bested them as hunters but climate change was also a key contributing factor: but the combo of the alliance of the apex predators with the ice age ensured their extinction, so goes evolution. As Shipman notes about the Jagger Principle, “… the immortal words of Mick Jagger (yes that one) and Keith Richards are the best statement I know of to describe evolution. Things don’t stay the same; you can’t always get what you want; but with a little flexibility, you might get what you need to survive.” This is truly a fascinating and thought-provoking book, and Shipman presents a compelling argument for how canines and humans proved their flexibility and how this could have been the main reason that we survived and the Neanderthals didn’t. But drawing upon the wisdom of another ’60s duo, we also got by with a little help from our [first] friends. See the following interview with Dr. Shipman to learn more.
Bark: How long did it take humans, once they migrated out of Africa, to team up with wolves, a species that was unknown in Africa?
Pat Shipman: There were wolves in North Africa, but my guess is that humans did not team up with them but rather, based on genetic information, with European wolves. The earliest humans in Europe date to perhaps 42,000 years ago. The earliest wolf-dogs we know at present show up about 34,000 years ago (or about 37,000, if the raw radiocarbon date is calibrated for irregularity in the deterioration of C-14). Thus, it may have taken 6,000 years, or less—I seriously doubt we have found the first wolf anyone ever attempted to domesticate.
BK: What environmental reasons led to this amazing partnership?
PS: There were many different predators in Europe when modern humans arrived; competition for prey was considerable, and even worse once humans came on the scene. The idea of domesticating any animal was completely unknown, but somehow— probably by accident—some wolves began cooperating with some humans because the alliance benefited both.
They caught more prey, faster, with less risk to canine or human, which meant more energy for reproduction. Wolves had a set of skills for hunting in packs: speed, keen ears, a very keen sense of smell, sharp teeth and claws. Early humans were much slower, had lousy senses of smell and hearing, and blunt teeth, but they had distance weapons that could kill an animal while avoiding injury from close contact. By teaming up with special wolves—wolfdogs they could capture a much wider array of animals with much less risk and less expenditure of energy. They were nearly unstoppable.
BK: You write that proto-dogs were like “living tools” to humans. Was this a mutually beneficial arrangement?
PS: Absolutely. You cannot force any animal to cooperate if it does not want to. You cannot force an animal not to be hostile to humans or to cooperate with humans if there is no benefit to the animal.
BK: Wolves are highly territorial, and may kill other wolves who come into their area. Since this was well before human settlements, humans and wolf-dogs would have traveled great distances, through other species’ (i.e., wolves’) territory. Could the advantage to the wolfdogs come from the protection offered by their human partners?
PS: Both wolf-dogs and humans were more efficient hunters through cooperation— the wolf-dogs by having hunters kill the prey from a distance after they had found it, isolated it and stressed it through charging and holding it at bay.
For wolf-dogs and humans to travel together, they must have cooperated to drive off or kill the wolf packs through whose territories they passed. Indeed, there is a marked rise in the number of wolf bones in human sites after wolf-dogs appear. I think wolves were deliberately targeted by humans in order to protect the wolf-dogs, and to protect the remains of their kills from scavengers.
BK: Why do you think that Neanderthals did not also have wolf-dogs?
PS: One quite real possibility is that modern humans had adaptations that fostered better communication with wolf-dogs and possibly (we don’t know) Neanderthals did not. For example, humans are the only primates with whites to their eyes, which makes communicating the “direction of gaze”— where you are looking—very obvious. This is a huge advantage in silent cooperative hunting. We do not yet know if Neanderthals had this adaptation or not. Assuming that they saw humans working with wolf-dogs, why Neanderthals did not steal them or make their own is unclear. Humans undoubtedly prized the canines and may have gone to great lengths to prevent them from being stolen. Maybe Neanderthals did not have the empathy and ability to understand wolf-dogs that is so necessary to a good working relationship. Maybe Neanderthals tried and just couldn’t figure out how to handle them.
BK: What do you think inspired humans to see that teaming up with wolves might give them a competitive edge? Did it have to do with their diet perhaps?
PS: I don’t think humans set out to domesticate wolves into dogs; I think it was an accident based on taking in orphaned puppies and raising them. Before working with wolf-dogs, humans were rarely able to kill mammoths or other very large game; afterward, there are sites with dozens of mammoth kills. I suspect that killing mammoths efficiently and regularly required the help of wolf-dogs, so mammoths weren’t really a preferred human food until humans had wolfdogs to help.
BK: It was interesting that the primary protein source in the bones of both wolfdogs and humans can be detected. What does that tell us?
PS: First, this sort of study tells us that, at the same site, wolf-dogs and wolves ate different prey animals predominantly. (That is a very surprising finding if my colleagues and I are mistaken and the wolf-dogs are really wolves, that would make them a very odd and distinctive group.) Second, this type of study shows us that humans may have provisioned wolf-dogs, rather than letting them simply eat whatever was left over.
BK: You say that wolf-dogs were a first, but unsuccessful, attempt at domestication; and that domestication happened several times in different areas. Are you concerned that their mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) evidence hasn’t been found in modern-day canids?
PS: Not at all. There is as much mtDNA evidence that these identified wolf-dogs were wolves as there is that they were dogs: none. The mtDNA we have so far from wolf-dogs is unique, previously unknown. What that means is uncertain.
This particular genetic material is passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter and so on; the father’s mtDNA is not. This means that if you have a small population with an unusual mtDNA, the probability that it will go extinct in 1,000 years—much less 35,000—is very, very, very high.
It could be as simple as a few females who don’t reproduce successfully or have only males due to random chance. Also, athough we have several thousand mtDNA lineages from living animals, there are millions of dogs and wolves whose mtDNA is unknown. Maybe the sample sizes of living animals are too small and the wolf-dog mtDNA is still out there somewhere. Maybe it is simply extinct.
The standard calculation is that 99 percent of all mtDNA lineages go extinct, so we can’t conclude too much from that. I am not at all worried that the mtDNA information from wolfdogs has not yet been matched in any other group. Also, the entire wolf-dog group may well have gone extinct, with a still-later domestication of wolves into dogs. We just don’t know.
Auction of Classic Painting Benefits Dogs
The painting depicts a boy and his dog in a style that has become known as American Regionalism. It is signed “Benton” for Thomas Hart Benton, the movement’s greatest practitioner, best known for his murals embracing the populist idealism of pre-war America. On this painting’s reverse side is inscribed “For T.P.’s birthday/11 years old/From Dad.” The subjects are the artist’s son T.P. and Jake, the family dog.
Last evening (November 18) the painting was one of more than 500 works from the A. Alfred Taubman collection auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York. T.P. and Jake was painted in 1938 and was estimated to fetch between $1.5M and $2.5M. After a flurry of bidding, it sold for $3,130,000. It was accompanied by the following notes in the auction catalog that included touching words by the artist describing the deep bond shared by his young son and his dog. Appropriately, the sale of this painting benefited the Sam Simon Charitable Giving Foundation, dedicated to saving the lives of dogs.
The present work depicts the artist’s son T.P. Benton and his beloved dog, Jake. T.P. was eight years old when his mother, Rita, found Jake on a farm west of Kansas City, Missouri. The Bentons adopted him as their family pet and he became particularly devoted to T.P. When Jake died in 1946 Thomas Hart Benton wrote an obituary for the dog, which appeared in the Vineyard Gazette and The Kansas City Times. In one passage Benton recalls an event which illustrates Jake’s special affection for T.P.:
“After three years had passed Rita took T.P. to Italy to visit her mother. This was a sad time for Jake. Up to now he’s given me little attention. Rita fed him and T.P. played with him. Of what use I might be he had little need to consider. I was just there, good enough to shake hands with occasionally but not important. Now, however, he clung to me and I took him with me on a long roundabout tour of the South which ended, after seven weeks, at the docks in New York were we met the boat returning his real master and mistress.”
“There was a high rail fence between the passageway for debarking passengers and the people who had come to meet them. I stood by this fence trying to catch a glimpse of Rita and T.P. in the crowd of voyagers. But Jake beat me to it. The chain leash in my hand twisted suddenly and before I knew it Jake’s full grown seventy pounds of muscle and tawny hair was soaring over the fence.”
“No one who saw the meeting of the boy and dog could ever forget it. The travelers and those who met them stood aside to watch the play of Jake’s ecstasy. They forgot their own emotions in this more intense one of a devoted animal. His yaps of joy sailed up over the arching girders to the high roofs of the dock and came back to pierce your heart. This was the high point of life and those who saw recognized it.” (The Kansas City Times, p. vi).
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Everybody left these transmitters alone
Over the winter break, my family visited the Washington D.C. area, and like my children, I find myself writing the “What I Did During My Vacation” essay. At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the great displays include the Space Shuttle Discovery, the Enola Gay, a Concorde airliner, and the 1903 Wright Flyer that was the first plane ever to take flight. Despite these historical marvels, the item I remember most from our hours in the museum was much smaller and far less impressive in appearance.
I’m referring to a military transmitter that was used successfully during the Vietnam War to help soldiers in need of rescue, to help pilots determine where to deliver military strikes and to monitor activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This homing device is officially known as the T-1151 Radio Transmitter, but was more commonly called the Doo Radio Transmitter. Many of them looked like dog feces, although others resembled feces from animals that were native to the area such as monkeys.
The genius of this piece of military equipment is that because it was disguised as feces, nobody was likely to mess with it. It could be put in place even weeks before a mission and remain undisturbed. They lasted as long as the battery power allowed, with discovery being an unlikely reason for them to cease being operational.
I never knew dog poop served such an important function—making the camouflage of military equipment possible.
Culture: Science & History
Ancient Sanskrit Myth
Just as scientific research is confirming that, indeed, the canine/human friendship goes back many millennia, it’s a good time to look at what the ancients have to say about the subject. For example, take the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit masterwork thought to be the longest-ever epic poem. Not only is it 1.8 million words, it’s also one of the oldest, with origins in the 8th century BCE.
It has been likened, by many experts, to be a combination of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” the Bible, King Arthur’s tales—it is also the only one that begins with a dog and ends with one, as noted below. The part of the poem that got our attention tells how loyalty to a dog opened a pathway to heaven for the epic’s hero, King Yudhishthira. Toward the saga’s end, the king renounces his throne and, with his wife and four brothers, sets off on a final pilgrimage across India to reach heaven in the Himalayas. Along the way, Svana, a stray dog, joins the group.
During the journey, the king’s brothers and his wife die. Finally, Yudhishthira, with the dog at his side, nears his destination. Heaven’s gatekeeper and king of the gods, Indra, arrives in a golden chariot and invites Yudhishthira to pass into heaven. But when Yudhishthira asks Indra if Svana may accompany him, Indra tells him that dogs are not allowed.
Yudhishthira then says, “Lord Indra, Svana has given his heart to me. I cannot leave him. Rather than reject him, I will reject heaven and remain here with my dog.” Indra replies, “Your words prove that you truly are worthy of a place in heaven. Come in, and your dog is welcome, too.” At that moment, the dog is transformed into Dharma, the god of righteousness and the father of Yudhishthira! The king had passed the test Indra put to him, confirming his worthiness and achieving his reward through his fidelity to his dog.
This Hindu lesson is remarkable for many reasons, but foremost because it speaks to the loyalty we owe to the most loyal of our companions.
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