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Dogs: Wolf, Myth, Hero & Friend

Dogs Extend Our Abilities
The key to the dog/human relationship doubtless lies in the way dogs extend human abilities while providing companionship. At an apparently early date, humans learned to breed dogs for certain characteristics—trainability, sociability, size and coat color among them. They also began to create dogs who concentrated certain inherent wolfish talents and were thus even more valuable as hunters, guardians, warriors or herders. By 7000 B.C., Egyptian tombs show hunting, herding, war and guard dogs, as well as esteemed pets.

Dogs extend virtually all human senses. They detect odors at concentrations that are 1,000 to 100 million times lower than what humans can perceive, and they perform better than any machine. Today, dogs are used to detect explosives, guns, money, drugs, underground oil and water leaks, contraband agricultural products, termites, and almost as many objects as one can imagine. Dogs continue to find game and humans, including people trapped in rubble, and even to track endangered species.

Dogs see better at night, dusk and dawn than humans, and they can recognize moving objects at up to 540 meters (900 yards). Humans created gaze, or sight, hounds thousands of years ago to take advantage of the dog’s ability to see and run down large, fast prey, like gazelles and deer. Dogs hear over a much broader range of frequencies than humans, which enhances their value as watchdogs and as helpers for the hearing-impaired.

All canids exhibit both skeletal and physiological adaptations for running, and some species/breeds are better built for running than others. In the wild, canids run to catch prey and to avoid predators. For millennia, humans have taken advantage of the dog’s ability to run for hunting, hauling and sport racing.

Canids are also highly vocal, communicating through barks, bays, yodels, yelps, whines, growls and howls, with domestic dogs being the champion barkers. When it comes to howling, though, many of them come up short, and some dogs lack even a full range of barks. Humans do not always understand or appreciate these vocalizations in their house dogs, but these sounds are important in hunting and guard dogs, and dogs understand their meaning.

Looking at the work dogs perform and the companionship they provide, it is easy to romanticize their place in human society. Numerous myths and legends from many cultures attest to the importance of dogs and various wild canids—they are presented as creators of the world or of men, bringers of fire, healers, guardians or guides to the underworld, the inseparable companions of gods as well as men.

The Deadly Relationship
But there is a dark side to human interactions with canids. Despite enjoying a popular fascination among many groups, wild canids have long been subject to persecution on the grounds that they kill livestock and threaten people. The slaughter has decimated wolf populations around the world, even while it has failed to suppress coyotes, who are expanding their range through much of North America. Other wild canids continue to suffer from hunting and habitat loss. Negative images, like that of the big bad wolf in the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood,” are nearly as common as positive portrayals.

Dogs, too, have suffered persecution as spreaders of rabies and killers of livestock—in some areas dogs have long killed more livestock than wild predators, who are more frequently blamed. Millions of dogs are abandoned and abused each year or sacrificed in research. In some parts of the world, health officials continue to slaughter tens of thousands of stray dogs during rabies epidemics, despite the presence of a vaccine. Even without the fear of rabies, dog bites remain a major public health problem in the United States and other countries, serving as a constant reminder that for all of his virtues, the dog, like every canid, often acts with his teeth.

Dogs can also spread diseases like parvovirus and distemper to their wild cousins, a particular problem for endangered canids such as the Ethiopian wolf. Hybridization with domestic dogs is a problem for that imperiled wolf as well.


Mark Derr is the author of A Dog's History of America, Dog's Best Friend, The Frontiersman: The Real Life and Many Legends of Davy Crockett, Some Kind of Paradise and How The Dog Became the Dog and numerous articles on science, environment and transportation. He blogs for Psychology Today.

Photographs by Gaud Photographies

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