NARRATOR: Welcome to the future. PBS Digital
NARRATOR: When you're spending a million dollars on a 30-second commercial, you want your leading man to have just the right look.
MELISSA HANSEN: We're not looking for Schwarzenegger; we're looking for Mel Gibson, or you know, Harrison Ford.
BOB SULLIVAN: Harrison Ford, Harrison Ford would be really who we're looking for.
MELISSA HANSEN: Yeah, somebody who...someone who had a little glimmer of mischief in his eyes, you know, a spirit behind it.
BOB SULLIVAN: Well, and sex appeal, because sex sells.
MELISSA HANSEN: Sex appeal is so important.
NARRATOR: But what if the script says your leading man is a dog? Is this the right look? Or is it this? Or this? Fact is, dogs come in more shapes and sizes than any other mammal on the planet, and there's no shortage of opinions about what's sexy in a dog.
But this commercial is designed to sell fabric deodorizer, and it calls for a sexy "everydog" kind of dog, which is why Dino got the job.
MELISSA HANSEN: Dino has this incredible presence—that sort of everyday quality, that sort of down-to-earthness. He came across in the first casting tape. It was great. It didn't hurt that Dino's more than just a pretty face. He's the kind of performer who's willing to do his own stunts.
BOB SULLIVAN: We were thinking we were going to have to do computer animation, and we were going to have to do all kinds of techniques. And within a week, all of a sudden the director calls us and he goes, "I can't believe it, the dog can spray the bottle."
TRAINER: Foot! Foot! One more time. Foot! Good.
DIRECTOR: That's a cut, that's a cut.
TRAINER: Foot! No. Stay! Foot!
NARRATOR: Not bad for a dog who was abandoned and brought to the Las Vegas pound. That's where his trainers found him five years ago.
TRAINER: Down! Good boy.
Now he's a star.
NARRATOR: Tonight, NOVA tells the true story of dogs. How did a fierce wolf become a playful puppy? Why do they come in so many shapes and sizes? And what does the future hold for our oldest and closest animal companion? Dogs and More Dogs, right now on NOVA.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.
We see 400 employees in three years. At Microsoft your potential inspires us to create software that helps you reach it. Your potential, our passion.
Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear. Sprint is proud to support NOVA.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: In many ways, the Levines are a typical American family, always on the run. Perhaps life would be better, some of them believe, if only they had...
LILY MIRELS LEVINE: ...dog, we need a dog.
AARON LEVINE: A dog would be great!
ELI LEVINE: I want a really big dog!
MIKE LEVINE (Geneticist, University of California at Berkeley): A dog, in our family, it's crazy.
LILY MIRELS LEVINE: I think it's a really good thing to grow up knowing what it's like to have a pet.
MIKE LEVINE: I just don't particularly like dogs. They've always struck me as being rather big, smelly...they shed all over the place.
LILY MIRELS LEVINE: He never had a dog when he was a kid, and truth be told, I think he's a little afraid of them.
MIKE LEVINE: Personally, I'm more of a bug guy. I like flies, butterflies, things like that.
NARRATOR: Little creatures can help a geneticist like Mike Levine explore life's mysteries, but he's never been able to understand the passion that people have for their big, messy, demanding canine companions.
JOE VERGNETTI: They're kind of like your children. You're proud of them, and you try to make them perfect and trim them and have them look beautiful.
MAN WITH ROTTWEILER: He is so smart, he is so obedient.
MAN WITH BULLDOG: He's a beautiful, beautiful dog.
WOMAN WITH BASSET: The best thing in the world is to come home and have somebody happy that you're there.
MAN WITH ROTTWEILER: I'd marry this dog if it was a woman.
OFF CAMERA VOICE: What is it that a dog does for you?
MAN WITH LITTLE DOG: Well...a lot more than my wife.
MIKE LEVINE: I've held out now for, I would say...10 years there's been talk of dogs. And finally the time has come where I have to relent and allow a dog in.
NARRATOR: Which is why Mike recently found himself checking out potential new family members. And while he doesn't fall in love, he is unexpectedly intrigued.
MIKE LEVINE: There is one cool thing about dogs, I have to reluctantly admit, and it is all the varieties: different shapes, different sizes, different colors. It's an extreme example of evolutionary diversification.
NARRATOR: The Levines come home with a little mixed breed dog named Taxi. Fulfilling every one of Mike's expectations, Taxi's first day includes throwing up in the living room, peeing in the kitchen, and shedding hair everywhere. All of which, the boys and Lily get over quickly. It's not so easy for Mike. He's trying hard, but a month into this grand experiment, Taxi remains for him less a beloved companion than an example of a fascinating evolutionary mystery.
MIKE LEVINE: All dogs arose from a fairly homogeneous population of wolves, something on the order of 10,000 years ago. And that is just a fascinating scientific problem. How did this one population of animals that all look more or less alike, give rise to this incredible diversity of dogs in a relatively short period of time?
NARRATOR: Wolves are one of nature's elite predators. They hunt with a rare mix of endurance, speed, ferocity and teamwork. Yet these skilled killers were the first animal to be domesticated. The mystery is: how? Some say humans made it happen. If so, it's a good bet it wasn't by taming adult wolves. But a baby wolf, that's another matter. They're pretty irresistible.
JAMES SERPELL (University of Pennsylvania): We have abundant evidence from anthropological accounts, ethnographic accounts, of hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world, capturing and taming young wild animals and then bringing them home and keeping them as pets.
NARRATOR: Perhaps our ancient ancestors did the same: finding a wolf pup, falling in love with it, and bringing it home to raise as a pet, essentially adopting it. And perhaps they keep at it, even though the majority of pups grow into unpredictable and dangerous adults or simply run away.
JAMES SERPELL: We have to picture maybe thousands of these pet wolves going through this process and sooner or later when you do this with thousands, you're going to get some which grow up to be more amenable to living in that context and less of a threat.
NARRATOR: If so, early humans might have ended up with a wolf like this. Her name's Maya, and she lives at Wolf Park, a research facility and tourist attraction in Indiana. Here, staff biologists have turned raising tame wolves into a science.
WOLF PARK STAFFER: I actually thought about going in and turning around and trying to come out, but I'm too claustrophobic to be in there that long.
NARRATOR: Their process begins with a midday raid on a den filled with 10-day-old pups. They've found that the first step in raising tame wolves is to take them from their mothers at a very early age. For the next four months, these puppies are with people 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It's tricky: do the wrong thing and you can wind up with a grown wolf that's unpredictable and dangerous.
PATRICIA GOODMAN (Wolf Park): We spend about 2,000 human hours in a summer—that's not all one human—socializing these puppies to us. It's an extremely labor intensive process and we're always monitoring each other's behavior, because it's extremely easy to reinforce the wrong kind of behavior before you've even realized you've done it.
NARRATOR: All this care produces wolves that aren't threatened by human smells and sounds. Even so, everyone at Wolf Park moves carefully when they're with the wolves. Sudden and unexpected gestures can provoke a serious bite. These animals are only superficially tame; they certainly aren't dogs.
But they could be a first step on the journey to dog. The next step would be to allow only the tamest wolves in the pack to breed. If you kept that up generation after generation, in theory, you would create an animal fundamentally different from these wolves, one with tameness in its genes.
According to some biologists that's essentially how the dog was first created 15,000 or more years ago. Others think the idea you can get a dog by adopting a wolf is nonsense.
RAY COPPINGER (Hampshire College): The idea that Stone Age people could tame and then train and then domesticate a dog is just ludicrous, as far as I'm concerned. When I think of how much time it takes to train a dog, and think that those people back there, who had their own problems, and they've got to spend weeks, months, training wolves, and the wolves are going to put up with this kind of thing, and they're going to do it generation after generation, and I'm going to breed my wolf with your wolf? I mean, wolves have very strict rules about who they breed with, and when they breed, and so on. I mean, I don't see Stone Age people sitting out there with chain link fences and all the things that are required for me to breed dogs. They just don't have the stuff to do it with.
NARRATOR: For Ray Coppinger and other dog experts who reject the adoption hypothesis, the challenge has been to find an alternative. How else might the journey from wolf to sled dog—and all the other diverse forms dogs take—have begun?
It was only when he started thinking about what was in it for the wolves that Coppinger came up with an answer. Now he's convinced wolves chose domestication, and they did so because of the easy pickings in a Stone Age equivalent of this Tijuana dump.
In a dump, an animal that's a little tamer, a little less likely to get scared off by people, has a better chance of finding food and surviving. It's true today and, Coppinger argues, it would have been just as true a long time ago.
RAY COPPINGER: Imagine 14,000 years ago when people first get the idea of living in a village. They settle down, they build permanent houses, and around that permanent...those permanent houses, all the waste products of their economies build up. You've got waste food; you've got waste materials of all kinds. Now there's a whole set of animals that move in on that. We know them now: we've got house mice, we've got cockroaches, we've got pigeons, we've got all kinds of animals that are living off the human waste. One of them is the wolf. The wolf moves into that kind of a, of a setting, that new niche, that new foraging area, and it's great. You don't have to chase anything, you don't have to kill anything. You just wait; people dump it in front of you.
NARRATOR: Not every animal can take advantage of this resource. Most wild animals run away when humans approach. The few that don't, have a real advantage. They're going to get most of the food, and that means their offspring are more likely to survive. Each new generation becomes increasingly tame.
RAY COPPINGER: The ones that run away the first time anybody shows up, those are the ones that are going to be selected against, they're going to go out, have to make an honest living out in the wild. They're not going to be able to get enough out of that dump. So here's natural selection in action. Any one wolf that's a little tamer than the other, who can stay there longer, get more food, he's the one that's going to win that evolutionary battle.
NARRATOR: That's how natural selection works. It's a classic, if somewhat unexpected, example of survival of the fittest. It's also, according to Coppinger, the best way to explain many of the physical differences between dogs and wolves.
RAY COPPINGER: You look at a wolf's mouth, and he's big and he's got these robust teeth, and you can see him out there killing things. The dog has little teeth. The wolf has a big brain; the dog's got a little tiny brain. Well, who in the world has little tiny brains? Animals that don't need brains. And the dog, you know, a scavenger, doesn't need much of a brain. I mean it doesn't take a lot of cunning to figure out where a rotten tomato is. You basically have to be there when somebody throws the tomato away. So you're kind of a sit and wait animal.
NARRATOR: Was it the lure of our leftovers that ushered in the era of animal domestication, or was it a matter of puppy love? Either way, what's critical is that tamer than average individuals somehow gain an advantage and become more likely to breed.
Of course, that leaves unanswered another problem. Many dogs have floppy ears, tails that turn up and curl, patchy coats of many colors. These aren't things you see on wolves, which makes sense because none of them would help a wolf survive in the wild. It's been suggested that humans consciously bred for these traits. Ray Coppinger thinks that's more nonsense.
RAY COPPINGER: What do you do? Do you start selecting for a tail? You know—each generation of tail is going up inch by inch until it gets to the top. And while the tail is going up the ears are coming down centimeter by centimeter until they're floppy ears, you know, and so on. From a genetic point of view, I've got to have a mechanism, I've got to have something there, and believe it or not, for forever it's been a mystery.
NARRATOR: Traits like coat color, or the way a dog carries its ears or tail, are determined by its genes. Genes are pieces of DNA, and they often come in subtly different versions. Every dog gets one copy of every gene from mom and one from dad. These genes can be mixed and matched in countless ways, but if the parents don't have it, the pup can't get it.
And that's what makes curly tails and patchy coats in dogs so mysterious. Wolves don't have them. It took a remarkable experiment in a most unlikely place, to solve this mystery. The place was the middle of nowhere, Siberia. And the experimenter was an out-of-favor Russian geneticist named Dmitri Belyaev.
Local fox farmers had asked Belyaev for help in breeding a less vicious animal. Belyaev began with the tamest foxes he could find. From their offspring, and for many generations thereafter, he chose only the tamest for breeding. He'd expected that each new generation would be a little less vicious, a little more tame. But by the tenth generation, he was seeing things he'd never expected.
RAY COPPINGER: All of a sudden his fox ears started down, his fox tails started up, they started to bark, which is not characteristic of foxes. They started to have different coats, all these little features that you can't imagine being in the wild type. I mean it's not a matter of selecting for, because they're not there to be selected for—that variation isn't there.
NARRATOR: What does tameness have to do with ears, and barking and coat color? Belyaev and his colleagues immediately went looking for an explanation. They checked the foxes' adrenaline levels—that's the hormone that controls the "fight or flight" response—and they found they were far lower than normal.
RAY COPPINGER: That would explain the tameness, they're just not afraid because they're not producing as much adrenaline. But where does the multi-colored coat come from? And somebody says right off the bat, "Hey, adrenaline's on a biochemical pathway that also goes to melanin, also has something to do with the animal's coat color." So there's a correlation between coat color now and the adrenal gland.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, it all started to make sense. As Belyaev bred his foxes for tameness, over the generations their bodies began producing different levels of a whole range of hormones. These hormones, in turn, set off a cascade of changes that somehow triggered a surprising degree of genetic variation.
JAMES SERPELL: Just the simple act of selecting for tameness destabilized the genetic make up of these animals in such a way that all sorts of stuff that you would never normally see in a wild population suddenly appeared.
NARRATOR: Most dog biologists now believe something very similar to what happened to these foxes also happened to a population of wolves more than 10,000 years ago. And the rest, as they say, is history: the world's first domestic animal.
And from the beginning, dogs have been a remarkably good fit in human society, thanks in large part to the social skills they inherited from wolves.
JAMES SERPELL: The key thing, I think, was that dogs are pre-adapted to living in fairly complicated social groups. Wolf society typically has quite well-established dominance hierarchies within it. Individuals learn to slot themselves into that hierarchy and function within that context.
NARRATOR: Low-ranking wolves are adept at sucking up to their more powerful pack mates. Dogs use many of those same skills with people.
JAMES SERPELL: So we're getting these signals from our dogs that we are important, we're loved, we're the greatest thing around. And you know, to me, it's obvious why we like dogs—because they're so good at showing that they like us.
NARRATOR: This intimate bond between humans and dogs goes back a long way—according to one controversial theory, a very long way.
Jennifer Leonard is part of a team at UCLA that studies ancient DNA. She's come to London's Natural History Museum to collect some really old dog bones which she hopes will help prove the team's radical new theory.
CURATOR (Natural History Museum): These are some domestic dog remains. They date to the pre-pottery Neolithic period.
NARRATOR: Even a tiny slice of six thousand-year old dog tooth contains DNA, and DNA is a window into the ancient origins of the dog.
Back in Los Angeles, Leonard sequences the different chemicals of the dog's DNA.
These As, Ts, Cs, and Gs come from a small segment of DNA where mutations—spontaneous changes in the genetic code—harmlessly accumulate over generations.
NARRATOR: To geneticists, these changes are the ticking of a crude kind of clock. Leonard's tests and earlier experiments show that clock has been ticking for dogs for a long, long time.
ROBERT WAYNE (University of California, Los Angeles): I was amazed. And, principally, I was amazed because of the depth of divergence in different dogs. It was nothing like you'd expect among a group of animals that had diverged very recently—12- or 14,000 years. The sequences were dramatically different.
NARRATOR: This theory suggests that dogs started accumulating these mutations 100,000 years ago, back when Neanderthals and Homo sapiens were still duking it out for survival.
This has inspired some pretty far-fetched speculation, like the idea it was dogs that tipped the evolutionary balance in favor of us and the notion that dogs gave us a reason to invent language.
In truth, if there were dogs 100,000 years ago, they were probably far more wolf than dog. But by 10,000 years ago, just about everywhere there were people there were dogs that looked and acted like dogs. Back then, dogs came in a pretty standard size and shape. There's no evidence of dogs like this or this. Or even this.
But by 5,000 years ago, it's clear dogs are no longer "one size fits all." This shape has survived in dogs like the Saluki, and Salukis are the Porsches of the dog world. In a three-mile race they can outrun any mammal on the planet.
ELAINE JOHNSTON (Saluki Breeder): I think the Saluki is an amazing creature. There's such grace and such power, and such flowing movement and lines. There's just nothing like it. I mean it just makes my heart sing.
NARRATOR: Today, Salukis are an unusual breed, just as they were thousands of years ago in Egypt when these creatures were the play toys of Pharaoh's court.
ELAINE JOHNSTON: I must say that I've never thought of myself as a little mid-Eastern princess watching her Saluki course across the sands, but Saluki in full stride—it's the next best thing.
NARRATOR: The Saluki is an engineering marvel. Its long legs mean it can cover almost 10 feet in a single stride. Its tiny waist allows it to tuck those legs way up when running—twice in every stride all four feet are off the ground.
Its heart and lungs are oversized to maximize oxygen intake. Its chest is narrow to help control heat build-up. Even its long nose helps by cooling the blood. From a design perspective, Salukis are remarkable. But that doesn't stop Saluki lovers from trying to breed in a little extra.
ELAINE JOHNSTON: I think that his neck is a little bit too short. He's got great strength in the neck, but I'd like to have it just a smidgen longer. I also would like to have a little more muscle definition in the rear.
NARRATOR: Human intervention in animal breeding is so common today, it's widely assumed we've been doing it forever. But 6,000 years ago, no one knew about oxygen uptake and cooling the blood, which is why most biologists scoff at the idea that this sophisticated running machine was intentionally bred.
So how did Salukis evolve? Although we may not have bred them, people are a big part of the story. Dogs have always done things we find useful, and we've always rewarded the ones that are the best.
Eight thousand years ago, large stretches of the Middle East were open grassland where small game was abundant and regularly preyed on by hungry humans. But more often than not, the rabbits were fast enough to send the humans home empty-handed. Then, one day, a bunch of dogs tagged along on a hunt. Being dogs, they joined the chase. One of them was faster than the rest, and caught a rabbit. His master rewarded him with food. A better-fed dog has a better chance of surviving, attracting a mate, and passing on its genes.
Repeat this process for enough generations and you end up with a sleek, highly sophisticated racing machine—no assembly required.
RAY COPPINGER: Nobody had to know about a long nose or long legs. All they had to do was take the dog out there in the desert and have it chase rabbits. Over the generations of just picking the best dog, the one that can see the rabbits best, the one that can catch the rabbits, what they do is, they get longer legs. They didn't breed for longer legs, they just favored those dogs that had them.
NARRATOR: It's the glory of evolution run fast-forward. Humans set the conditions for success, reward those animals in each generation that do the job best, and nature does the rest. That same basic process produced big, aggressive guardian and war dogs, and small, quick vermin hunters like the early ancestors of these ratters.
Through our long history together, whenever we've moved to a new environment or given dogs a new job, we've ended up with very different looking animals. Yet, remarkably, as different as two dogs may appear, they're still very much the same genetically, still capable of breeding.
So how can dogs be so different and yet remain genetically so much the same? Mike Levine thinks the key may lie in stretches of DNA that, until recently, were dismissed as meaningless.
Only part of the DNA in every cell actually codes for proteins, the building blocks of life. The rest is a mystery. Some stretches probably are meaningless. But many geneticists now believe that buried in these mysterious stretches of DNA are critical instructions for turning genes on and off.
MIKE LEVINE: Turns out that there are two parts to the gene. There's the famous part, which encodes proteins. Then there's the less-appreciated part, where I think the real action is, and this is in the so-called "regulatory" DNA. It tells the protein coding part of the gene where and when to be active. It is the software of the genome.
NARRATOR: According to Levine, subtle changes in this software could produce remarkable diversity and do it without changing the DNA that makes a dog a dog. All these dogs could have the same genes for leg growth, the only difference may be in when those genes are turned on and off. The frustration for geneticists like Mike Levine is that, so far, they haven't been able to crack the code of the regulatory DNA.
MIKE LEVINE: We know the DNA exists, we know that the cis-regulatory DNA controls in detail where genes are turned on and off, both in development and in evolution, but we just don't have a handle on the language of that DNA. It's sort of like discovering the Dead Sea scrolls and not knowing Hebrew. We need to find a language to decipher the meaning of the cis-regulatory DNA if we're ever going to understand the functions of complex genomes such as dog genomes and human genomes.
NARRATOR: Even without being able to read the regulatory DNA, scientists are convinced of its importance in determining an animal's physical shape. But what about inherited behaviors, like the unquenchable desire some dogs have to retrieve? Could they, too, be influenced by when genes are turned on and off?
It's certainly a part of how biologists explain Charlie's behavior. He has, to say the least, a very different reaction to sheep than his wolf cousins. Sheep, to a wolf, are dinner on the hoof. To Charlie, sheep are comrades to protect from nasty predators like wolves.
It's a bond he formed early in life. When Charlie was a puppy he went through a stage of life when he was especially open to new experiences. It's called the "critical period of socialization."
RAY COPPINGER: All animals, all vertebrates, anyway, have this critical period, where the animal learns what species it belongs to. Birds, they have a critical period where they learn the species' specific song. If you don't learn the song, then you can't go out there and sing the song and get a mate. So they have to learn it. And they can only learn it in this one little window of time. Now, dogs' critical period for social development is probably about the first 16 weeks.
NARRATOR: At that point, a signal from the genes closes this critical social window. In wolves, that signal comes when they're about three weeks old, which means dogs have five times as long to form social bonds.
RAY COPPINGER: If a dog grows up in its critical period of socialization in a flock of sheep, then it can socialize with sheep. If it grows up in a flock of people, it socializes with people. It's very malleable in that kind of way.
NARRATOR: When genes are turned on and off may also determine why some breeds are so much better at characteristic activities like herding, tracking and retrieving. All of these have their roots in the instinctive way a wolf hunts. Every predator hunts in basically the same way. It starts with "search," which turns into "eye-stalk" when a potential meal is found. Once close enough, "chase" begins. "Grab-bite" brings dinner down, and "kill-bite" finishes the job.
RAY COPPINGER: A wolf, once he starts into the sequence, he's got to go all the way to the end. So he goes from the searching to the eye-stalk to the chase, and you can't say, "Look, all right boy, easy, easy, easy—don't go there," because for the wolf it's appetitive; at the other end of it is a dead sheep.
NARRATOR: But dogs get their food from people. Even hunting dogs like this pointer don't need to hunt for a steady meal. That means there's no downside if the genetic signal for an instinct like stalk or chase is exaggerated, weakened, or even turned off completely.
RAY COPPINGER: All right, so if I go to the pointer, I have him searching, he goes into the eye, but I don't care about stalk. I don't want him to chase, chase is a fault. I don't want him chasing the bird out of there.
If you look at, say, a retriever—I don't care about eye-stalk in a retriever. I really want the orientation. I want them searching for something, and when I find it, I want them to go right to grab-bite. So those two stages in the middle, bango, I don't want those. I just want them to go right to grab-bite.
Do I want kill-bite? No. And when I get kill-bite in a retriever...that's called "hard mouth." He stops and eats it, you know? Every retriever man's worst scenario of all of a sudden the dog stops and eats the bird.
NARRATOR: Tracking, pointing, retrieving, herding, many of the behaviors we most value in dogs today, are simply aspects of what a wolf does to survive. Give a dog a job, say, to follow a scent, reward the ones that do it best, and over thousands of generations a distinct behavior will evolve. The result is the most diverse mammal on earth. There's more than 400 different dog breeds and more than 400 million dogs. That's thousands of times more dogs than wolves. In evolutionary terms, the dog is a real winner.
And some dogs have hit the jackpot, like the lucky few who are regulars at this Manhattan doggy day care center. Here they can hang with friends, swim in the pool, enjoy biscuits on demand and the attentions of a personal stylist. They even take field trips.
GABRIEL (Dog care provider): Sometimes we have...we take the dogs to Southampton. We're going to have a cruise at the end of November.
NARRATOR: Once primarily working animals, dogs today are mostly pets. They're frequently chosen more for what they look like than what they can do or how they behave. But a preoccupation with appearance is not without consequences. All purebred dogs are products of intensive breeding, and every year more and more of them suffer from an ever-growing list of genetic diseases.
Interestingly, the disease problem and the dog's elevated place in our lives can both be traced to Victorian England. A growing middle class, looking for ways to show they've arrived, mimic the rich by bringing into their homes unproductive animals.
HARRIET RITVO (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): So, by the middle of the 19th century, it was not only ordinary, but highly desirable for a prosperous, respectable, bourgeois to have a dog or several dogs, and also several cats.
NARRATOR: These animals are badges of wealth, a declaration that the owner is rich enough to keep and feed an idle pet. Like lavishly appointed homes, dogs are status symbols. But as more and more people can afford them, some way has to be found to anoint a few with the mantle of aristocracy. So the dog show is born, a competition that's soon restricted to purebred animals. And since few if any of these dogs herd or hunt, their quality is judged solely on appearance.
JAMES SERPELL: And that's when you get bizarre and somewhat eccentric groups of middle class people focusing their lives on breeding perfect animals in particular breeds.
NARRATOR: In this world, ideas about status, competition, and the importance of parentage and bloodlines quickly become inextricably combined.
JAMES SERPELL: The idea of pure blood and breeding pure strains of things coincided, of course, with a lot of racist talk about refining the purity of human groups and races. And the breed literature from this early period, some of it is unashamedly eugenicist and racist.
NARRATOR: And the legacy endures: a preoccupation with bloodlines and appearance. In the show ring, only purebred dogs are allowed to compete, and they're judged on how closely they match a written description of perfection, called the breed "standard."
CHARLOTTE McGOWAN (Papilon Breeder): The standard is the blueprint for the breed. In this particular breed, the ears are very important: they're set at a 45-degree angle to the head, just like Allesandro's ears. They're round, like this, and they're fringed. The skull end is two-thirds, the muzzle is one-third, the stop is defined, the nose is tapered, the eyes are round. These are all elements that go into making a perfect papilon.
NARRATOR: Charlotte McGowan has been showing dogs since she was eleven.
CHARLOTTE McGOWAN: I'm hoping that I'll still be doing this when I'm 90, that's why the dogs are getting smaller and smaller.
NARRATOR: Of the ten papilons that live with her, all the adults have earned the right to be called champion, and the puppies will soon. What's more, she's convinced she's only begun to tap the greatness in this gene pool.
CHARLOTTE McGOWAN: We really enjoy the ability to take the gene pool and use it like paints. It's our art. This is my art. I made this beautiful dog that I enjoy. I made her—I chose her sire and her dam, I chose several generations to make this beautiful dog. I'm very proud of her.
NARRATOR: Like most champion show dogs, Bibi is the product of inbreeding. Her offspring will be too.
CHARLOTTE McGOWAN: Her mother was bred to her mother's grandson to produce her. And when I choose a mate for her, I'm going to choose her grandfather who was also her great grandfather. The reason I do the close breeding is that I have something very good. I want to keep what I have and I want to improve it. And by closing down the number of potential genes I'm going to improve my chances of doing that.
NARRATOR: Inbreeding is the only way to finely control what the next generation will look like, but it comes with a well-documented downside. Here's why.
Sometimes a gene that helps produce something good, say the shape of a dog's ears, is located on a dog's DNA close to another gene that produces something bad, like a disease. When that happens, there's a good chance any pup getting the good gene will also get the bad one.
Now, as long as the pup gets a healthy version of the gene from the other parent, he should be all right. But inbred dogs have a much greater chance of getting the same bad gene from both parents.
So far, Charlotte McGowan has been able to avoid the pitfalls of inbreeding her papilons. But hundreds of thousands of other purebred dogs are suffering from genetic diseases.
RAY COPPINGER: The time has come where we've just got to give up this kind of "master race" mentality that we have about dogs. Our system of breeding dogs, of isolating small populations called breeds and then practicing eugenics, generation after generation after generation, all of those dogs are inbred beyond belief. It's not good genetics and it's not good dog breeding.
NARRATOR: Determined not to give up all they've created, the dog breeding community has turned to science. If scientists can develop genetic tests to identify those dogs with bad genes, breeders believe they can do the rest.
CHARLOTTE McGOWAN: When they find the markers, we can basically select away from the disease. We can breed, continue to breed beautiful animals, and we can get rid of the disease.
NARRATOR: If only it were that simple. Only a few bad genes have been identified, and even then it's uncertain whether enough breeders will make the sacrifices required to weed them out.
In the meantime, scientists like Karen Overall believe there's a lot these inbred dogs can teach us about the links between genes and behavior. She's studying dogs born with a debilitating shyness. Confronted with anything unfamiliar these dogs freeze. Overall believes they offer a rare window into the genetic basis of fear and panic.
KAREN OVERALL (University of Pennsylvania): Hello. Look here. This is one of the affected, what have been called nervous, pointers. Notice how frozen this dog is. Normally these dogs would come up and do things with you. I mean, you can...they get so frozen you can actually just move them around. And he'll stay in this position. This is for...Dogs who are anxious and withdraw from people are just like a lot of schizophrenic and autistic humans who withdraw from people and can't interact.
And by understanding the dogs, we have this absolutely marvelous opportunity to investigate the neurochemistry and the genetics of what goes on in these people and to suggest treatment.
NARRATOR: Proton scans, a fancy form of MRI, provide Overall with information on the dog's brain activity and structure. It's her hope she'll discover levels of certain brain chemicals that correlate with this intense shyness. In this case, having an inbred extended family is a good thing.
KAREN OVERALL: With these dogs, we've got brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and grandparents and nieces and aunts and cousins, and we can look at that whole thing, and you can look at the whole disease complex as a unit. You can look at the behavior, you can look at the neuroanatomy, you can look at the neurochemistry, you can look at the molecular basis of the receptors, and you can look at the ultimate genetics. And we can't do that with people.
NARRATOR: Because the genes of dogs and humans are so similar, other scientists are using dogs to discover clues to some of the most vexing of human genetic diseases. With the help of Dobermans like Blitzen and Donner, and a dachshund named Beau, Emmanuel Mignot has already made a discovery that could improve millions of human lives. Beau has narcolepsy. At moments of high emotion, he loses muscle control and appears to fall asleep. Good canned food is enough to bring on an attack. On the rare occasions when Beau slips off into the hall, everyone knows there's no reason to race after him.
Narcolepsy is far more common in people than it is in dogs. But it's easier to study in inbred dogs because they have so much less genetic variation. Not that it was easy.
EMMANEUL MIGNOT (Stanford University): The process of finding the gene was a very, very long ordeal. And I have to say, I amazed myself with my patience. Even so, at the end, you know, we were so tired, and we couldn't believe we'd finally get the gene.
We discovered something that may have clinical application for narcoleptic patients, and that is a dream for a researcher. You know, we worked, we looked hard for this gene, but we would not have dreamed that what we found could have been useful quickly. And I think there is a good chance that new medication will come out, directly from that research, for human patients. And that's really a plus.
NARRATOR: It's another example of how dogs help us.
But how much have we helped them? Sometimes the behaviors we've bred into dogs aren't well suited to the lives we ask them to lead.
Jennifer and Troy Dow love their Siberian Husky, Emerson, but he's almost impossible to live with. So they've come to the University of Pennsylvania's animal behavior clinic. Their hope is that Karen Overall can help them change his behavior. If she can't, they face the painful prospect of having Emerson euthanized. Five million dogs a year in the U.S. suffer that fate, most often because of a behavioral problem.
Most problem dogs, according to Overall, aren't really sick. It's just that the behaviors bred into them are a poor match for the life they're asked to lead.
KAREN OVERALL: What most people want in a pet is something that doesn't shed, that barks a bit but not a lot, that tires easily so that they don't have to keep up with it, that perhaps maybe even doesn't see or hear so well because then they're not going to react to lots of things.
Look at a Dalmatian or a vizsla—easy-groom dogs, so everybody thinks, "great apartment dogs." People don't have any time to groom the dog? Get a Dalmatian or a vizsla. I've almost never heard of anything so crazy in my life, because these are dogs that can go 35, 50 miles a day and never get tired. That's not a great apartment dog.
What we have are breeds that were bred for behaviors that might be incompatible with being a good pet. Very few of us actually use them to round up our stock anymore. When herding doesn't have an outlet, or when herding goes bad, what does it become? It becomes a dog that has to control everything in its environment, including you.
RAY COPPINGER: You know, if you want a dog to be a good companion, breed it to be a good companion, breed it to be a good pet. Why do you have to have your pet have this kind of historic representation of a sled dog, you know? What does it do for you? It enhances your image as, "I'm a, one of those rough and tough guys that can go out there and mush my way to the North Pole. And you know, because I have a Siberian husky, that's kind of representative of what I would like to be." And so you're using the dog in order to, you know, project a certain kind of image. No, that's not what you want. You wanted a good companion, you wanted a pet, you know? The boy and his dog image, that's what you're looking for, you know? Breed for it. Breed for it.
JAMES SERPELL: Sometimes I fantasize about somebody in the dog world coming forward and saying, "Well, let's forget completely about what these dogs look like, and let's just focus on their behavior. Let's breed the perfect social companion; let's breed the perfect pet."
I think everybody would win in the long run. Dogs would certainly win because you would have animals that would be more suitable for living with people in the modern world, and would be, therefore, less likely to be rejected or discarded. And people would certainly win because they would have an animal that gave them the most enjoyment and pleasure.
NARRATOR: It's six months now since Taxi came to live with the Levines, and most of them have grown to love him.
LILY MIRELS LEVINE: I could imagine leaving my shoes around and not having them chewed. I can imagine driving my car around and not having it barfed in. I could imagine a life without a dog, but it's nicer with. And I think Aaron actually said it the best. 'Cause after we'd had him for a few weeks—and it was a little, really, rough at the beginning—I was grumbling, and he said, "But our family is so much jollier with Taxi here." And it's true.
NARRATOR: Even Mike admits having a dog is sometimes "kind of nice."
MIKE LEVINE: When he's happy, you know, you see the glow in the eye, that little tail starts, you know, taking off like a quick propeller, jumps up on you. And, really, after a long day in the lab, dealing with a lot of competitive personalities, having this creature greet you in a very straightforward and honest fashion is really sort of uplifting, I have to say.
NARRATOR: The Levines are determined to do the best they can by Taxi. Given the long strange journey dogs have made with us, do any of them deserve less?
Some dogs have not only been our best friends but our most valued helpers, sniffing for termites, aiding arson investigations, searching for land mines and more. Find out about dogs and their jobs on NOVA's Web site.
To order this show, or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.
Next time on NOVA, a high altitude expedition dives into the heart of a glacier to predict a catastrophe before it strikes. PBS presents NOVA: Descend Into the Ice.
NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.
Science: it's given us the framework to help make wireless communications clear.
Sprint is proud to support NOVA.
We see an explorer. At Microsoft, your potential inspires us to create software that helps you reach it. Your potential, our passion.
And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
I am PBS.
Dogs and More Dogs
Written, Produced and Directed by
Camera, Sound & Editing by
Online Editor and Colorist
NOVA Series Graphics
Post Production Assistant
Associate Producer, Post Production
Post Production Supervisor
Post Production Editor
Post Production Manager
Producer, Special Projects
Senior Science Editor
Senior Series Producer
Senior Executive Producer
A NOVA Production by The Documentary Guild for WGBH/Boston in association with Sveriges Television
© 2004 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved
© | Created September 2006
Support provided by
For new content
visit the redesigned