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The Truth About Dogs

  • By Stephen Budiansky
  • Posted 01.01.04
  • NOVA

Dogs are a brilliant evolutionary success almost without parallel in the animal world, and they owe that success to their uncanny ability to worm themselves into our homes, and to our relentlessly anthropomorphic psyches that let them do it.

a purebred papillon

"Gusty," a purebred papillon that won Best of Breed at the Westminster Dog Show in 1995, perfectly symbolizes the strides dog breeds have taken into the very heart of our lives. Enlarge © WGBH/NOVA

 

Throughout much of Africa and Asia to this day, millions upon millions of dogs roam freely through villages and even cities: they are generally despised, shunned, justifiably feared as dangerous and disease-ridden, occasionally eaten; yet they flourish in spite of it all. However consciously and rationally humans may dislike or distrust these free-ranging dogs, however much humans may determinedly try to relegate them to the mental category occupied by rats, lice, and pigeons, still, when man comes face to face with dog, the will to inflict serious bodily harm mysteriously melts away. Dogs, in an evolutionary sense, know this. They cringe, they whine, they look soulfully into our eyes, and we say, "Aww, the heck with it," drop the rock and go our way.

The wild ancestor of the dog, the wolf, is practically extinct. There are probably no more that 100,000 wolves left in the entire world today. The world's dog population easily exceeds that by a factor of a thousand. For all the myths and tales of the dog's service to man, only the smallest fraction of dogs that live off human society today earn their keep. No one has done an actual study of this, but there is reason to be suspicious even of the most common rationalization of dogs' utility to man, as guardians of property or intruder alarms; for every tale of a dog successfully frightening off burglars, there are thousands of dogs who bark incessantly at every goddamned thing that moves and then sleep blissfully through a crime in progress.

White dog

A social parasite, according to the author Enlarge © WGBH/NOVA

 

For all the myths about how some caveman or cavewoman adopted a wolf cub from the wild and found him a valuable guardian and hunting companion, the behavioral and archeological evidence now strongly points to a conclusion that even thousands of years ago the overwhelming majority of dogs were biological freeloaders. The things that a small number of modern-day dogs do that clearly pay—assisting the blind and disabled, herding livestock, providing recreational sport for hunters and racing enthusiasts—were late developments in the dog's checkered career. Every great crime family turns out a few solid citizens eventually.

Calling dogs parasites is fighting words, but what can I say? Dogs have got us exactly where they want us.

If biologists weren't victim to the same blindness that afflicts us all, they probably wouldn't hesitate to classify dogs as social parasites. This is the class of manipulative creatures exemplified by the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nest of some unsuspecting dupe of a bird of another species; the poor befuddled parents see this big mouth crying out for food and stuff it full of worms at the expense of their own offspring. Every time they turn their backs, the cuckoo hatchling shoves another of its foster parents' flesh and blood overboard.

Calling dogs parasites is fighting words, but what can I say? Dogs have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all....

Pack of dogs

"[A] world of distant human pasts, of hunters and campfires on the tundra, of Roman legions and war and migration"—these, Budiansky writes, are just some of the vistas Canis familiaris opens to us. Enlarge © WGBH/NOVA

 

Science to the rescue

Did I mention that I love dogs? In spite of what I have just said in my role as brutally objective observer, I do love dogs. And I think the secret of loving them—of not feeling contempt, even repressed and subconscious and guilt-ridden and Freudian contempt—is to see them honestly and frankly for what they are. This is where science helps, a lot.

Yes, dogs are manipulative parasites. But they are also beautiful and fascinating, and even more, they are windows on a series of beautiful and fascinating, and wild and strange, worlds: a world of animal minds and animal senses, aswirl with perceptions and awarenesses and emotions that are ever so familiar yet ever so alien; a world of deep and elemental forces and motives, the very energies of evolution that have forged the entire raw story of life on Earth; a world of distant human pasts, of hunters and campfires on the tundra, of Roman legions and war and migration; and a microscopic world within, of molecules that miraculously encode the nature of us all.

It is increasingly common to cast science as a spoilsport, reducing the poetry of the world to an equation, love to a hormone molecule, sunsets to diffraction phenomena; and there will be some, I am sure, who would rather not know what science has to say about dogs. But I have never believed that science takes the magic out of things; even when it destroys sometimes treasured myths, science always has something better to offer by way of compensation. When I look into my dog's eyes, I see worlds and eons that I can touch nowhere else in my modern life, and to me that is worth several tons of tripe about "unconditional love."

The other thing that dog science has going for it is that it is good for dogs. Dogs that are treated as furry little people who ought to love and be grateful to us for the muffins they are baked and the little birthday hats they are forced to wear are not happy dogs, for they invariably suffer the consequences of our unrealistic expectations. The number of complexes dogs develop as a direct result of their anthropomorphic owners ought to give pause to everyone who thinks we are somehow "denying" dogs their due by insisting on a rigorous and unsentimentally scientific view of their intelligence, understanding, and behavior.

black dog

Seeing dogs for what they are—and not crediting them with qualities of intelligence or emotion they don't possess—is best for both dog and master, Budiansky argues. Enlarge © WGBH/NOVA

 

Owners who think their dogs are conscious of their guilt when they poop on the oriental rug, owners who try to reassure and comfort and reason their dogs through their fears, owners who desperately want their dogs to desperately adore them—these are the owners of dogs that more often than not are maladjusted and miserable. Punishing a dog for defecating even seconds after the fact is futile, for dogs do not make such connections over time and space; but dogs will earnestly search for some connection between events in their immediate world and the immediate consequences, and a dog who is punished whenever his owner returns to find poop on the rug will very quickly learn to fear his owner's return, period. A dog that is rewarded with petting and soothing words when he trembles during a thunderstorm will quickly learn to tremble all the more, and on more occasions, in pursuit of such rewards. A dog whose owners want love at all costs quickly learns to be a domineering bully—such is the nature of the wolf-dog social structure. It can be worse: his owners can actually achieve their ambition, and the dog can become neurotically dependent on them and go into hysterics at every parting.

Off with the rose-tinted glasses

Seeing dogs as they are, with doglike understanding, doglike motives, doglike perceptions, and doglike instincts, is to see them with a respect for their true natures and true capabilities, to see them as they are rather than as we, with our remarkably self-centered and limited imaginations, would imagine them to be. Grasping what makes dogs tick is a way to avoid a lot of misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and unnecessary strife in our ever so peculiar relationship with them.

Science can take us places we never could imagine if left to our own devices.

The very peculiarity of this relationship of ours with dogs, though, is one hell of an evolutionary tale, and that is part of the consolation science offers us as recompense for robbing us of fairly tales. That dogs exist, and flourish, and thrive in our company when perfectly sensible biological reasons exist for them to have been exterminated every last one, is a biological story of astonishing evolutionary cleverness; it is a story that is also terribly revealing about ourselves, and I am grateful for the self-knowledge that the company of dogs provides us. For dogs (or evolution, I should really say) have discovered the chink in our armor....

Yellow lab

Why are many dogs beautiful? Look not to science to supply answers to that one, Budiansky says. Enlarge © WGBH/NOVA

 

Looking over the paean to science I have just written, I worry I might be giving a slightly misleading impression on one point. I do not believe science is the be-all and end-all, and there is an element of our admiration for and enjoyment of dogs that transcends any scientific explanation. For one thing, dogs are often simply beautiful. Attempts at "scientifically" explaining beauty and love are usually rather glib and ridiculous, and I am not for a second trying to suggest that by focusing on hard scientific facts I am providing anything approaching a complete description of what is going on between dogs and people. There is another truth that I would not deny for a second, namely that those rare humans who have a real gift for training and working with dogs owe that gift to experience, intuition, and a certain kind of empathetic reasoning that has almost nothing to do with science.

There are many things science can never touch. But science cantake us places we never could imagine if left to our own devices, and that is ever more so in an age when we drift ever further from personal experience with the natural world.

The above is an excerpt from Chapter 1: "The Irredeemable Weirdness of the Dog: An Introduction", from The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry Into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis Familiaris by Stephen Budiansky (shown with his dog), copyright © 2000 by Stephen Budiansky. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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