Dogs and People: The History and Psychology of a Relationship

Article excerpt

We're going to be talking about dogs and people and their relationship to each other. During the course of this I will give you a little bit of information about why we love dogs and the personalities of people who pick particular breeds of dogs.

The first thing which I think is really important to know is that most of us don't know an awful lot about dogs because our canine education comes from Walt Disney and his ilk - you know, 101 Dalmatians or Lady and the Tramp. For real-life experience we might have a little bit of Lassie, Benji or Rin Tin Tin. This often results in a number of misperceptions about dogs, such as the belief that they are all heroic, incredibly intelligent and actually sort of four-footed people in fur coats.

Learning about dogs through the media can also cause us to gloss over differences between the various breeds of dogs. You have to recognize that if you were a Martian biologist and you came down to earth and you looked at a Great Dane, who stands about 32 inches at the shoulder, can weigh up to 135 pounds or so, has long elegant straight legs and short hair, and then you looked at a Pekingese who stands about 8 inches at the shoulder, weighs around 12 pounds, has crooked legs, has more hair than it has body weight - you would probably, in fact, classify these as being in different species. The thought of how these guys could get together to produce offspring boggles the mind, but the truth of the matter is that if we could somehow or another get the sperm and egg cells together, they would in fact produce live, fertile offspring (although they might be rather strange looking). Both of these breeds of dogs are part of the same species. If you think about what would produce the kind of gene pool that you need to create a Great Dane and a Pekingese, you'd begin to understand the complexity of the dog.

There is a long standing controversy as to where dogs come from. The current belief is that dogs started out originally as wolves. Early in our history we domesticated the wolf and that eventually became our pet dog. There are a couple problems with this theory, however, such as the fact that many wolves have oval pupils in their eyes, not the round pupils of domestic dogs, and wolves don't sweat through the bottom of their paws, the way that dogs do. None the less, if you bred a dog and a wolf together they would produce live and fertile offspring, just like the Great Dane and the Pekingese, which is usually the sign that we are dealing with the same species. Another candidate for the grandfather of the dog is the jackal. Now that's not as popular as the wolf. Farley Mowat writes stories about wolves and makes them all seem like elegant and noble animals. On the other hand, jackals are smelly little garbage eaters, and we don't want to think of the fact that the great grandfather of the dog sleeping at the foot of our bed was a smelly little garbage eater. However, jackals have the familiar round pupils in their eyes, they do sweat through their paws, and we can successfully interbreed domesticated dogs with jackals and produce live offspring. If we are using interbreeding ability as the measure of ancestry it is important to note that we can also interbreed dogs with dingoes, with coyotes, and the various African wild dogs. We can't interbreed dogs with the common red fox, because he's got the wrong number of chromosomes. However, there are several different kinds of foxes, such as the Arctic Fox and the Niger Black Fox, which in fact can breed with dogs and produce those live, fertile offspring that suggest that we're dealing with, if not the same species, certainly species with the same great grandfather.

Probably what happened is that back in the stone age some primitive man simply grabbed hold of a wolf puppy, or a jackal puppy or in the case of Australian aborigines, a dingo puppy, and they domesticated them. Mostly they just kept them around the house (as playmates for the kids of course) and they eventually became tame. …