The mysterious connection between ‘homo sapiens’ and ‘canis familiaris.’
Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By DAVID AIKMAN
The Wolf in the Parlor
The Eternal Connection
Inside of a Dog
What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
In the dining room of the elegant, five-star Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans, a striking painting by the English Victorian artist Richard Ansdell (1815-1885) adorns one wall. It shows a huge, and rather fierce-looking dog, perhaps a mastiff, sitting calmly but alertly in front of a little girl who has fallen asleep, quite innocently, in a wicker basket behind him. The painting is called “Keeping Watch.”
There are, I suppose, a few misguided cultures in the world that would not understand the picture at all, cultures where dogs are primarily items for gourmet degustation at the dinner table. But the remarkable thing is that, for most of the human race, the painting requires no explanation at all. It simply depicts what is: the fascinating, universally discussed, but incompletely understood relationship of affection and trust that connects the human race to canis familiaris, the domesticated dog.
There is still an ongoing scientific dispute about exactly when dogs became fully domesticated. Scientists generally agree that it almost certainly was not later than 7,000 B.C., but it might have been as early as 30,000 B.C. But for as long as humans have been interred in graves with their favorite belongings, or have been able to write about their lives, dogs and humans have been inextricably connected.
In America there are an estimated 55 million dogs that live with families as pets—or “animal companions,” to use the snarling politically correct coinage. Yet it is exactly the huge number of them that complicates our efforts to understand them through and through. We are so familiar with dogs, we so readily attribute to them human traits—it is called anthropomorphizing—that we often forget that they are actually animals. At the same time, in our rush to compensate for the sentimentality of anthropomorphizing, we sometimes go to the other extreme of thinking that dogs are just animals. They are not; they are animals whose habits and behavior cannot be extricated from the human society in which dogs have learned to live.
There is a basic scientific consensus that dogs evolved from wolves. Over a period of time, it is speculated, dogs came to hang around human communities, learned to get fed by being of service to humans—or perhaps just by looking cute—and, through millennia of selective breeding, began to lose their most wolf-like qualities. Their snouts became shorter, their brains became bigger—as ours became smaller—and they lost their interest in hunting in packs. At the same time, they seemed to develop an understanding of humans, a familiarity with human behavior, and an intuitive sensitivity to human emotions that endeared them in a special way to their human companions.
Despite all these obvious points, the scientific literature on dogs is remarkably scant. In The Wolf in the Parlor, Jon Franklin reports the tragicomic story of one of the foremost authorities on the domesticated dog abandoning his field because he could not secure grants for serious research. The deciders of grants, it must be assumed, are as fond of dogs as the population as a whole; it’s just that they are not very interested in helping people do research on them. The benighted professor has now turned his attention to goats, which apparently are higher up the academic-grant food chain.
Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science reporter, writes perhaps the more readable of these two books. On the other hand, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog is more informative. It gives short shrift not only to anthropomorphism but to other myths, such as the assertion that dogs are color-blind (they are not). One of Horowitz’s most fascinating sections explains what, exactly, dogs are doing when they sniff the urination markings of other dogs. Generally, it turns out, dogs are sniffing up the details of the sexual history of other dogs who have left their mark. She breezily dismisses the notion that dogs look to us as part of their pack, or are always on the lookout for the alpha male.
Both authors have had dogs of their own, and both books are full of doggy tales, most of them sentimentally endearing. Franklin has, by far, the most dramatic story: He and his wife were saved from death because their dog smelled (or otherwise sensed) that a fire had broken out in a utility room and very rudely awoke them both in time to make an escape.
Of course, dogs that save lives are the staple of stories that make us feel good about ourselves. Dogs rescue drowning children from swimming pools, warn of the danger of a fire, or sometimes alert rural folk to an otherwise unobserved snake in the grass. Well and good. But what about the really difficult to explain times when dogs seem to sense things about other people that we do not? How are dogs able to detect an epileptic seizure minutes before it happens—and, in a few cases, stand at the top of a staircase to prevent an epileptic child falling down it?
Franklin has an arresting anecdote about his dog’s embarrassingly unfriendly reaction to meeting a new academic administrator for the first time. The dog retreated to the other end of the room, his tail between his legs; but Franklin had taken an instant liking to the man. Within a few days the administrator started acting towards him like a Gestapo interrogator. How did the dog know that this would happen?
Why, for that matter, do dogs have such a benign effect not just on mental patients but on their owners who are having hard times emotionally? Dogs undoubtedly have a broad range of emotions which appear to include embarrassment, jealousy, and grief. I recall reading a column in the Times of India about a dog that was so distraught by the death of its mistress that it died of grief itself within a matter of days. Since scientists admit that animals besides dogs experience a broad spectrum of emotions, it is surely not anthropomorphizing dogs to suggest that their emotional range may have been increased by millennia of interaction with humans. (Cat-lovers, of course, would claim that many of the dog’s endearing companionable traits are also demonstrated by cats.) Nobody quite understands how dogs can detect certain kinds of cancer—by smell, obviously—that do not show up on scientific machines.
More difficult to explain is the human/dog closeness that enables dogs, at times, to perceive things about other human beings (is it all smell?) that we humans don’t. Dog owners and dog lovers, as Franklin notes, are fiercely loyal in their affection for what used to be called “man’s best friend.” In the United States there are far more of them than anywhere else in the word: The dog population may be as high as 77.5 million. Dog owners deeply resent any government attempts to part them from their dog companions, and the success of books like Marley and Me, and even of memoirs purportedly written by dogs in the homes of famous humans, prove that we cannot get enough of the relationship with our favorite four-legged companion.
I have often claimed, only half-flippantly, that George H.W. Bush won his presidential race over Michael Dukakis at least, in part, because he revealed to the American people that he shared his shower with his wife’s dog, Millie—who, I mean the dog, went on to write a bestselling book. That’s my kind of guy, countless American voters apparently thought. Woof-woof! Or if you are a German mutt, wau-wau! David Aikman is the author, most recently, of The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Never-Ending Conflict in the Middle East.