One rainy day, i was standing at the stove cooking for guests at the nature lodge my girlfriend, Erin, and I were managing in the cloud forest of Ecuador. Looking out the window into the trees, I saw a large, black, furry creature lunge from the forest, speed across the grass and leap onto our covered back porch. Jolted, I started babbling; then Erin looked out the window and began to laugh.
Standing on our porch with fur soaked so deeply that we couldn’t tell whether she’d crossed our cable bridge or swam the river was Holly, a friendly dog who, to my eyes at least, had some Border Collie in her lineage. We’d seen her before in Mindo, the town nearest the lodge, at an outdoor breakfast place owned by a British expatriate couple.
After that first visit, we saw Holly often, and often she brought the other dog in her family, a dog whose actual name we never knew but whom we called Spaz. Spaz, small and yellowish, might have been part Corgi, judging from the shape of his body.
At first, we didn’t understand the situation, thinking that Holly visited us so often because she was neglected or abused at home. As we learned, nothing could have been further from the truth. Holly was liberated in a way we’d never seen before.
Street dogs are not always as benign or happy as Holly. Walking at night in rural Madagascar, one is wise to carry a large stick to fend off roaming dogs, and once in the Bahamas, I was surrounded by a pack of snarling feral dogs that only dispersed when children came to my rescue, shouting and throwing rocks.
Mindo was six miles from the lodge, about a twohour walk through semi-developed forest. The dogs in Mindo, including Holly, were a vibrant part of the town. There, dogs wandered everywhere. We once watched in wonder as a truck slowed and moved to the side to avoid disturbing a dog sleeping curled up in the middle of the street. A very large dog often slept in the park central to Mindo; we called him Bear. Bear usually had the calmest of demeanors, walking with the confidence that came from being the largest and strongest. One day, we were surprised to see Bear tear after a passing motorcycle, barking loudly. The man on the motorcycle merely raised his legs to avoid being bitten and sped past.
Mindo’s dogs appeared surprisingly well fed and healthy, although taking a seat at any outdoor restaurant table instantly attracted dogs eager to befriend us, using their puppy-dog eyes to best advantage. And Erin and I once saw a dog walk into a small grocery store as though she belonged there. She went straight to a bag of cat food open on the floor (the food could be purchased by the pound rather than by the bag) and started eating out of the bag like it was her own food dish.
The dogs at Mindo often seemed clever, selfpossessed and confident. That doesn’t mean, however, that they were completely self-sufficient. We saw Holly bark with no effect at a small flock of guans (a South American wild fowl) in a tree without coming close to catching one. In fact, we never saw Holly catch wildlife. There was a certain amount of savvy in Holly, though; she could navigate footpaths and rope bridges through dense forest like she had a map on the back of her paw. When she walked with us, either to town from the lodge or back to the lodge, she would run ahead and circle back to us, always pushing through the jungle to the path we were taking without any cues from us. Both Holly and Spaz were both extremely curious, sniffing around rocks by the river as I swam and Erin sat in the sun. They were normal dogs, filled with the joy of life.
When considering dogs, we should be careful to remember that—even with all their breeding, even for those who live in houses and sleep on cushions— there is something of the wolf in them. In the words of Craig Childs, “They are half-breeds, part wild and part tame.”
The key to understanding the relationship between dogs and humans is to recognize our deeper history together and to acknowledge that we are now in uncharted territory. For the greatest part of our mutual history, we were hunting companions, two species that discovered a friend in the wild in each other. Only relatively recently did we invent collars, leashes and dog bowls painted with bones. Only recently have hunters clipped flashing lights to dogs’ collars to protect them from being shot, and trained them to retrieve fowl dropped from the air by shotguns.
For most of our history, dogs and humans took cues from each other in organic ways: dogs finding game, humans fending off predators (or vice versa). During this long history, dogs and humans evolved similarly in their shared environments.
Our survival as early Homo sapiens likely depended on noticing cues from our canine partners as much as their survival depended on learning cues from us. Humans shaped dogs, but dogs also shaped humans. The bottom line is, before dogs became our “property,” before they were bred to toy or mastiff sizes, our survival depended on them. Dogs and humans evolved to understand each other; people don’t need to be taught what a wagging tail means and a dog knows when a human is pointing to something.
In his book, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, Daniel Leonard Everett gives us a small window into how important dogs can be for certain hunter-gatherer groups. The book isn’t about dogs or their relationship to humans, but rather, about language and culture among the Pirahã, a tribe of the Amazon. It’s interesting that Everett mentions dogs as being treated as cherished children by the Pirahã, even noting, “The Pirahãs frequently allow their dogs to eat off their bowls or plates while they themselves are still eating.” At first, this passage makes the dogs sound like they’re ultra-spoiled and have owners with strange standards of cleanliness (at least in the view of most Americans). Taken with the rest of the book, however, it’s clear that dogs among the Pirahã are far from spoiled, but rather, take part in the tribe’s risks and rewards like human participants in a culture. Everett also talks about dogs being useful hunting companions and heroically fighting (and being killed by) jaguars, sometimes perhaps even saving human lives.
Dogs, especially dogs as free as those in Mindo, have something to teach us. Most humans in the industrialized world live in places they believe were created or shaped by other humans for their own pleasure, comfort, safety and productivity. They visit “natural” or wild places as a leisure activity or to get away.
Dogs are different; they live in environments crafted by forces alien to them, not by dogs for dogs as cities are built by humans for humans. Though wolves are in their genetic heritage, dogs are shaped by their relationship to us, and so live in the borderlands, in a canine world that is not ours but also a world not entirely their own. Dogs are as comfortable as we are in human-created environments, and more comfortable than us in the world at large. Zari, the little Shih Tzu Erin and I live with, shows an enormous capacity to engage with the world around her. She’s constantly sniffing, startling at wildlife, thrilled by whatever environment she’s in.
At first, we wondered if Holly was able to cross the swinging cable bridge over the river bordering the nature reserve (I had a childhood dog who was terrified of crossing even solid bridges). Then one day, Holly was walking to the lodge with us and followed Erin over the bridge without a pause. We worried when Holly ran full force toward a barbed-wire fence, but then she slid under without a scratch. Walking along the road to town, we were concerned that Holly might get hit by a car until we saw that she often heard cars coming and moved to the side of the road before we had a clue. Holly was both intelligent and talented, although not exceptionally so. Dogs who are allowed to make their own decisions often become more intelligent, just like people given freedom.
Today, dogs are often treated as subordinate children to be looked after by their wise human masters. The first time Homo sapiens met Canis lupus, neither could afford to take care of the other, but they both found valuable partners. Dogs show us things we’ll never see—ask any hunter with a good bird dog. Dogs are great at alerting us to the approach of people —ask any mail carrier.
We have trained ourselves to believe that we’re a super-species, the ultimate dominant race. I wonder: could lightly haired apes have survived without the help of wolves? Paradoxically, dogs can also show us something about what it is to be human, what it is to be one species in relationship to every other species on the planet.
Humans try to master everything. We breed dogs to be exactly what we want. We train dogs to do exactly as we command. We disavow the knowledge that dogs and other animals, as well as mountains, valleys, oceans and plants, shaped us as much (and more) than we now shape them. We ignore the fact that we are all still operating under the rules of Darwinian evolution. While we pursue genetic engineering, no matter how we try, we cannot escape the rules of nature.
If what Thoreau said is true and “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” then dogs might very well lead us one step closer to our salvation. Dogs can show us what it is to let go a little and, like Holly perhaps, become more adept at living on this planet as one of many species.