September 19, 2010
I pushed the shovel into the earth, lifted it and swung it to one side. MacTavish pounced on the hole and began digging furiously. He backed off as I took another shovelful, then pounced back and started digging again. The third time, I finally caught on, and a whole afternoon’s behaviour suddenly made sense.
My dog was helping me work. That’s why he’d been right in my face as I worked on the wooden walkway. That’s why he was guarding the tools, standing on the next board to be screwed down, hanging in close to me wherever I walked.
He’s a working dog, a Shetland Sheepdog, very bright and observant. I was working, and he was pitching in. It sounds preposterous, but no other explanation makes sense.
Channel-surfing that evening, Marjorie and I came upon a PBS program called Nature — and this episode was about dogs. The relationship between dogs and humans, the program noted, is unique. We have close relationships with other animals — the cat, the horse, the camel — but with no other animal do we have the same level of intimacy or the variety of shared activities that we do with dogs.
Dogs live in our houses, play with our children, do the tricks we ask of them, eat our food, warn off intruders, sleep in our beds. They hunt with us, protect our property, rescue swimmers, guide blind people, track criminals and lost children, sniff out drugs and cadavers and much, much more. Many breeds have special talents and adaptations. Sled dogs bear their puppies right on the ice, subsist on snow and blubber, and can run five marathons in a day. One can argue plausibly that human beings could not possibly have settled in the Arctic but for their relationship with dogs.
The most intelligent of dogs, by common consent, is the Border Collie, developed along the Scottish border as a herding dog. The PBS program showed a couple of Border Collies working on the steep slopes of the English fells with a shepherd. The shepherd whistled his commands continuously, sounding almost like a bo’sun’s pipe, and the collies maneuvered the sheep accordingly. Bring them over here. Get them across the brook. Look back, you’ve missed one. The rapport between shepherd and dog was uncanny.
Dogs evolved from wolves at about the same time that human beings settled down in agricultural villages — and, although evolution normally takes hundreds of thousands of years, the dog emerged in an eyeblink of 5-7000 years. How is that possible?
Dmitri Belyaev, a Soviet geneticist, may have found the answer. In the 1950s, even after generations in captivity, silver foxes were still wild animals, wary and hostile. Seeking a more manageable, less aggressive fur fox, Belyaev bred the tamest foxes together. After 18 generations of selective breeding, his foxes would approach people, play games and come when called. Even more surprisingly, their coats were no longer silver-black, but piebald. Their ears were floppy, their tails curled upward, and they barked. By breeding only for tameness, Belyaev had effectively transformed foxes into dogs.
Fascinating. And perhaps that’s what happened in mesolithic villages. Perhaps the tamest wolves began hanging around the settlements, scavenging the garbage, cautiously developing a rapport with humans, and speedily evolving into dogs. The more tame the animals, the more they worked together with humans, the better they fared.
No doubt the same was true of humans. The ones who got on well with the proto-dogs had companions in hunting, protection from other animals, and warm bodies to hug in the chilly nights. For Australia’s aborigines, a really cold night is a “three-dog night,” when you need the body heat of three dogs to stay warm.
Digging away beside me, MacTavish is enjoying his work. He and I are the beneficiaries of a sad, brilliant strategy. The wild wolves are now down to a few hundred thousand. Their domesticated descendants number in the hundreds of millions. MacTavish’s ancestors made a wise choice. And so, I think, did mine.
– 30 —
Silver Donald Cameron’s environmental web site, www.TheGreenInterview.com, will be officially launched tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 at Mount Saint Vincent University. The event will be webcast live by haligonia.ca. For further details, see Silver Donald’s blog on The Green Interview site, or visit his Facebook page.