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.
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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.