As many people know I am fascinated by evolution and what it means to us on a daily, practical basis. I think we are likely to be fitter, healthier, calmer, more productive and more successful if we work with our evolutionary biology rather than against it, which is why I follow a Primal diet.
I am also quite fascinated by the domestication of animals. Although I'm with Jared Diamond in thinking that agriculture was the biggest mistake mankind ever made, I believe the domestication of animals was not something we could have undertaken on our own. We had to have some kind of consent and co-operation from the animals being domesticated. There are very, very few species which can be domesticated which is why so-called civilisation took so long to reach places like America and Australia - they just didn't have the animals which contributed so much to the development of complex societies such as horses. From a genetic point of view though, domestication is good for an animal species. It is a trade-off. A good, safe life for a quick death which quickly leads to an increase in numbers compared to life in the wild. (I will not argue that modern domesticated animals necessarily get a 'good' life anymore and I feel we have reneged on our part of the bargain in many cases, particularly with regard to factory farming and CAFOs.)
Pets are animals that don't quite fit the criteria for domestification that horses, cattle, sheep and pigs do though, so I wondered how they came about. The domestification of cats seems fairly logical and straightforward. The start of agriculture meant grain stores. Grain stores attract mice and rats. Mice and rats attract cats, and humans, quickly realising the service cats provided, gave them shelter and protection. I don't imagine cat behaviour has changed drastically since then. They still wander in for a warm bed and a lap when they feel like it and now they usually don't even have to bother working for their dinner. Ultimately however, if humans stopped keeping cats tomorrow, they would still be able to survive. They haven't lost their hunting instinct and they aren't reliant on humans.
But dogs are a different story. Dogs are completely reliant on humans, so how and why did dogs evolve in the first place? I assumed they evolved before agriculture to help humans with hunting but that seemed quite a bizarrre and utterly unique situation in nature so I decided to find out more. After a little search on Amazon I came across this book which looked interesting. Turns out it was absolutely fascinating and turned everything I thought I knew about dogs on its head.
The authors of this book certainly have the credentials and know what they are talking about unlike many so-called dog behaviourists. Not only are they actual biologists, they have also worked for many years with hundreds and hundreds of dogs. Worked, being the operative word. As part of their research into the biology of dogs they have worked extensively with the herding and guarding dogs in Europe who travel miles and miles each spring and autumn with their flocks and herds. They have researched hunting dogs in all kinds of societies and spent many years breeding, training and racing champion dog sled teams.
The first point they made was that dogs evolved relatively recently and were not directly evolved from wolves. They no more evolved from wolves than domestic cats evolved from lions or we evolved from chimps. At some point in their history dogs, along with jackals and coyotes must have shared an ancestor with wolves same as we evolved from a common great ape ancestor along with chimps and bonobos, and cats, tiger, lions, panthers, jaguars, pumas, lynx, cougars, leopards, etc evolved from some common cat ancestor. But dogs are not directly descended from modern wolves. In fact they are very different animals and have very different and distinct behaviour and traits. This means that all those famous dog trainers that tell you that you have to be the pack leader and alpha dog are just plain wrong. Dogs don't, and never have, worked in packs. In fact dogs, don't and never have, hunted by themselves.
Dogs are, in fact, scavengers. They have much smaller heads, and consequently brains, than wolves and much smaller and weaker teeth. They are just intelligent enough to get what they want through stealth and scavenging but are nowhere near as intelligent as wolves. The archetypal dog is not some noble beast which looks like a wolf - such as an Alsation or Husky. No the archetypal dog, from which all modern 'breeds' are descended, is the village dog; the medium sized, ordinary shaped, brown village dog as seen wandering everywhere in India. The dog was not domesticated by humans deliberately to do a specific job but in fact domesticated itself in rather the same way as the cat. When humans started to gather in villages or small settlements as they transitioned from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one based on agriculture, they created dumps or middens. These middens contained Mesolithic rubbish including plenty of both animal (abbetoir) and human waste. Wolves would never have gone anywhere near these human settlements as their flee instinct is too strong but dogs were scavengers with relatively high flee instincts. The braver ones would have had rich pickings on these Mesolithic rubbish dumps and consequently their chances of survival increased. Each generation would have got braver and more accustomed to human activity until they reached the stage where, as in many socities around the world today, they existed comfortably alongside humans with the people effectively ignoring them or just seeing them as waste disposal units. This is exactly how Indian people see dogs and was a point of much fascinating discussion with both my Indian guests when they stayed here and when I stayed there.
The book then goes on to explain how, from these ordinary, not very useful dogs, people in different societies and circumstances began to accidently encourage the development of certain traits in dogs and from these the main types of working dog developed. One interesting point they made was that the huge herd guarding dogs such as the mastiff, were never developed to fight off predators such as wolves from a flock or herd. Their purpose was to merely be present and make a lot of noise. That was all they needed to do to keep the wolves at bay. A dog would be highly unlikely to beat a wolf in a fight but wolves are nervous and flighty and don't get into a fight unless they really have to. Their size developed from other needs such as keeping warm in the mountains and having sufficient reserves for the incredibly lengthy journey from highland to lowland and back again they have to make with the flocks each spring and autumn. The descriptions of the flocks undertaking this journey with their guard dogs and shepherds is one of the highlights of this book and it is tragic that those journeys are almost always undertaken by truck these days - another example of us sacrificing the 'good' life of our domesticated animals.
The development of other working dogs such as sheep dogs used for herding and dogs used for hunting is described in detail and the authors do a brilliant job of explaining how each trait has developed and how the so called intelligence of various breeds is nothing more than a job specific behaviour trait. Collies are 'differently' intelligent to greyhounds not more so - it is just that some of their behaviour looks more intelligent to the uninitiated. And none of them come close to being able to work out some of the things a wolf can if needs be.
A fair proportion of the book describes the attributes and behaviour and training of sled dogs - the dogs most often compared to wolves - and again it is clear that they bear no resemblance to wolves in reality and the last thing a dog sledder would want would be a wolf on their team.
The book is written by expert biologists and occasionally gets a bit technical with biological detail but I found it fascinating throughout.
However, here comes the caveat. I loved this book but would most dog lovers? Possibly not. The authors are not too keen on the concept of dogs as pets and some people might take offence at their point of view. They are are absolutely scathing about the practice of breeding dogs for shows and to fit some artificial concept of a particular 'breed' standard. Most so-called breeds have only been around since the nineteenth century and are the result of aggressive, sexual isolation and in-breeding by humans. The authors have no time for these practices and, to be honest, neither do I - sorry those friends of mine who keep 'pure-breeds'. I even felt a bit cruel that we don't go out and 'work' our rescued lurchers but at least they are cross-breeds and a reasonable walk and short fast run does fulfil their genetic expectations.
Another area that the authors were scathing about was the way in which guide and assitance dogs are trained and the terrible waste that involves. For one thing most of these guide dog programmes put too much faith in the right 'breed', ending up with dogs who fail because of medical conditions caused by in-breeding. Then, because of the high rate of failure, the dogs aren't trained for their job until they are about 18 months old - far too late to instill the necessary traits into a dog. The dogs are put into unfamiliar situations and expected to carry out pointless and meaningless tasks (in the dog's view) for people they don't know and then the trainers wonder why they have such a high failure rate.
I found this a really fascinating read and it has certainly made me view dogs in a new way. If you want to know more about dogs but aren't emotionally invested in the idea of a pure-breed being better than a mongrel (or the idea of a pure-breed being acceptable at all) then I can wholeheartedly recommend this book.