Sunday 1 February 2009

Man's Best Friends

I don't think we understand dogs properly.
Or actually, I don't think we understand the relationship between our two species.
Or let me rephrase that, the experts don't.

It's not a phenomenon that has been studied enough, the relationship between Homo Sapiens and Canis Familiaris.

And I guess, if you're not a 'doggie' person, you won't get much of this post. But if you are, I think you'll probably end up agreeing with at least part of what I'm saying.

Man and Dog (or Wolf as Dog was back then) have been pals for about forty thousand years. Dog is unique. Dog is the only species on the planet who has been created by another species. The closest relative of Canis Familiaris is Canis Lupus, the wolf. Most species separated from eachother by natural selection. But Canis Familiaris has been separated from Canis Lupus by being descended from the wolves who decided to run with man.

Indeed, one strand of thought says that that was the edge Homo Sapiens had over Homo Neanderthalis. He had a little furry friend to help him.

Man and Wolf, I guess, had similar hunting styles. Spatial thinkers. Pack hunters. And so it began as a kind of alliance. Similar hunting styles, but each has a different talent to offer. We often look at man and ask what his hunting talent is. He's not fast, no sense of smell.
But do you realise, man has the best eyesight of any Mammal? And Primates are the only Mammalian order that can see in colour?

What a lethal combination! Eyes and brain of Man, nose and speed of Dog!

And now Canis Familiaris is our own special little animal. One different in many ways to his ancestors. No other animal is like that. The cat? He's been with us five thousand years. He's a tame wildcat from North Africa. He joined us because the Egyptians thought he was sacred. He hangs around us, but he's not our friend.

But think about this, the Dog is actually a different species to the wolf. Genetically different. And the history of the evolution which makes our furry chums separate, is the history of a wolf evolving to be man's best friend. So when we treat a dog as just any other animal, we're wrong. It's not an animal in the sense any other animal can be.

And this I think is what we can sometimes overlook. We look at the Chimpanzee and the Gorilla looking for things to find alike. Ways their thoughts work like ours. And obviously, in many ways they do. Because their brains didn't part from ours so very long ago, perhaps six million years ago. The brain of the Dog? Much longer ago. Before we parted company from rats, actually. So in a genetic sense, they're far distant. Not close cousins.

But- blood isn't always thicker than water. I think Dogs think more like we do than Chimpanzees do. And if you forget genetic relationship, you'd expect them to. If you think about the history of their evolution.

And ours too, of course.

Desmond Morris points out that generally, whether or not we like or dislike an animal, depends on how much like us it looks. Monkey, cute, sloth, cute, in spite of it's vile nature, koala bear, cute, lobster, not so cute, jellyfish- anyone think a jellyfish is cute?

We're anthropomorphic, basically. If you show children pictures of animals and ask them to sort them in order of which ones they like, it will actually be in order of how closely the face ressembles a human face.
With one exception.

Ninety percent of children will rank Dog highest of all.

And I don't actually think this is cultural, though Morris does.

Because Morris also states that dislike of snakes and spiders actually seems ingrained. It is instinctive. We have actually evolved to fear them. Because those of our ancestors who did, lived longer.

I tentatively suggest, the opposite is true of dogs. Over forty thousand years of history, surely the human beings survived longest who instinctively liked dogs? My guess is, that we actually ARE programmed to love the species that exists because we bred it into existence.

Think about it now. Your gut feeling. Don't think a big ferocious Rottweiler. Think a little Labrador puppy. Now think how you feel about that puppy.
Now be honest, could you instinctively feel the same about the young of any other species?
No, because you do actually feel about puppies not how you feel about human babies, but it's in the same league. And dogs generally evoke similar sentiments in us to sentiments children do. We love them as our own. And I firmly believe it's not acquired, it's inbred in us now. I believe that, being descended from generations of dog lovers, most of us are BORN loving dogs, in a way we don't love other animals.

And now we come to the dog himself. As I have said, logic seems to tell us the mind of the dog should be very different to ours. Yet our gut instincts tell us otherwise.
I think our gut instinct is right.

Because whilst the mind of the wolf may merely tessellate with ours, it is alike because we had similar hunting skills and therefore in reality the mind of the chimpanzee really IS closer, we forget we bred Canis Familiaris. And therefore it's reasonable to assume that over forty thousand years, we have bred doggie minds that think more and more like we do. The dogs survived and bred most who learned to think like us and anticipate us. I would say that the differences in the minds of the two species Canis Lupus and Canis Familiaris are that the latter species actually has a mind that's basic composition is far more similar to that of Homo Sapiens.

For one thing, it is a generally agreed fact that dogs are empaths. Dogs detect human emotions and respond to them. Dogs know how you are feeling and it affects THEIR behaviour. We take this for granted, but it's quite profound when you think about it. Dogs actually know your mood. Being able to detect human emotions and behave accordingly has become part of their senses.
And it's been valuable to us. We're generally right not to trust people the dogs growl at. Because the dogs can usually pick up what we can't. If they're putting the dogs on edge, it means the emotions they are giving off are not positive ones. They're shifty, basically.
Dogs know good people. It's not an old wives tale, anyone who has been around dogs knows; the dogs are usually right in their character assessments.

And as for the intelligence of dogs. It really annoys me the things people blindly say about dogs. That dogs aren't actually that bright. That actually they only respond to the tone of your voice, they don't know the words, and of course the conception that the dog's loyalty is slavish.

I've watched cats and failed to see their much vaunted intelligence compared to dogs. Admittedly, dogs have tendencies to do some pretty daft things, like burying logs, chewing squeaky toys till the squeak dies, hiding dead frogs behind the sofa, etc, etc. But one could argue that these bizarre activities have human parallels, equally incomprehensible from a canine perspective.

But they are not stupid. Sometimes one cannot fail to be amazed. They can clearly conceptualise and plan. Their strategic thinking is astounding.

I think we make the mistake of confusing kindness with weakness. Dogs are more loving and caring than cats. For some reason we think because cats are more devious, they're cleverer. Dogs are loving and soppy, so they must be stupid.

Well, who has the last laugh though?

Who do we trust more?
The dog knows which side of the bread the butter is on.

And as for dogs not actually knowing words, I don't buy that. And I'm not sure how many dog owners would either. My Mum will tell you, you can't say the word cat in a sentence if the dogs are around. You have to say C.A.T. Because they know the word. They'll be demanding to be let out to chase the cat. And in my experience they learn any word that might mean something to them. Even the word 'fag' they recognise, because it suggests someone is going outside. In my estimation, dogs can learn about five hundred words or phrases. They know that 'annoying' isn't a compliment and 'bugger off' suggests they're getting in the way. Unless of course, you're the Baker's grandad's old dog who would wag his tail when called a 'orrible little dog!'

In fact, I guess this is again, one of those things where long term doggie people do something that experts would say is pointless, and some people say is quirky, but in fact is quite normal and healthy, both for human and dog. And that is actually talking to the dog. And kind of expecting to be understood at some level.

I know my Mum talks to the dogs. All day long. And I will talk to them on the occasions I go round. If I took them for a walk, I'd chat to them on the walk. In fact, I'll always talk directly to a dog. Because they do learn words and I think it does aid in communication. It tells them how you are feeling, it helps them emote to you. I actually think people who don't talk to their dogs properly, probably aren't really treating them properly. Dogs need to be talked to.

And as for the idea that the devotion of dogs is slavish...
Only someone who hasn't spent much time with dogs could think that. Dogs are obedient when they feel like it. They will weigh up the pros and cons. If they can see that doing whatever daft trick it is you want them to do will get attention, they'll do it. But every now and then you'll remind you that they're man's best friend, NOT his slave. Sometimes they think 'If you're my mate you'll stop calling my name and stop expecting me to come. I'm finding out what this interesting smell is. Stay there and finish your cigarette. I'll be along in a minute'.

To be honest, I have a sneaking sympathy for them here, frustrating as they can be. You can't really stay angry with them for long. They're not actually anywhere near as obedient as we like to think, we just forgive them very easily.
They're cheeky. I guess I quite like that. The nerve of them sometimes.

The world would be a poorer place without dogs in it. Personally, I feel we have come to depend on them as much as they have on us. I feel that because one of the things I find I miss most in my life is having a dog. Life really is just far better when you have a little furry friend about the place.

To me, dogs aren't animals.
They're friends.


Anonymous said...

Simi and I think this is a great post, Crushed. I agree with what you say about dogs understanding words and being able to underdtand humnan emotion. They can even anticipate it. A dog trainer once told me that poodles are the dogs closest to the wolf.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post, I enjoyed every sentence.

Sometimes I don't say nice things to bart and sometimes I really resent him for all his whining and yelping ( he does do it a LOT - half poodle, half cavalier). But you know, a greater little friend you wouldn't find. He's a ball of fluff.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Crushed, I have been hoping you would write something I am able to understand for a while now.
More human - less Stephen Hawking's.

Nice one.

Anonymous said...

Dogs understanding words --they certainly do.

We have trained our dogs to sit when we put their food out, and to stay seated until they are told to eat.

While they are sitting, we sometimes talk to them in sentences, and they don't anticipate and rush to their bowls but only when they hear the word "Eat".

We sometimes say things like "Drool if you have to but stay sitting. Now you may eat", and on hearing the word "eat", they go to their bowls.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I certainly believe that we get along so well with dogs because they are the species that thinks most like us. Not exactly like us, but damn close.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Barnsley Bill, this post is just a tad more accessable than most ;)

I agree, dogs are excellent at weeding out the good folks from the bad. Take for instance my Mom's dog Izzy, one of the most friendly canine's you could ever meet. One day a hydro guy came into the house to fix something and the dog went wild. My Mom had to hold her back, she was showing teeth and all. This dog barked only once in awhile so my Mom took Izzy's que and asked the hydro worker to leave because the dog could not be controlled. Who know's maybe Izzy saved my Mom a rotten experience.....

Anonymous said...

As you would expect, another dog person commenting here. Stanley Coren, psychology professor and writer of many books about the intelligence of dogs says that dogs have the intelligence of a 2 1/2 yr old if very smart, normally a 2 yr old while a smart cat is equivalent to a 2 yr old with normal at 18 months.

He also said they understand about 150 words, less than you think but more than many others give them credit for.

Anonymous said...

It's a pity to have to go without if you want the dog. But I guess I can see why you haven't got it yet - cos even a dog is a big commitment, if you don't want it to suffer. Time, attention... it'd be alone all day (so in fact, if one were considerate, getting a dog is an even bigger step than getting a partner, cos at least the partner won't be stuck alone in the house all day ;-))... I find that dogs help calm one, too... maybe you could help out at dog pounds during weekends...! :-)

Anonymous said...

Welshcakes- I can't work out how they do it, but yes, I think they must pick up on nerve tensions and things.

My Mum's dogs will actually start moving around when credits roll on a film late at night. They recognise that bed might be looming for them.

You wouldn't have that, would you, Poodles?
One would have thought Alsatians.

Kate- Yes, I've found one can easily feel guilty if one says nasty things to a dog. I must admit, I'm no good at telling dogs off. Puppy dog eyes win every time.

Bill- Sometimes I write posts just because. I think this one was really just something that was on my mind.
I'm feeling in a kind of advance the cause of dogs mood.

Steve- That's actually quite well behaved from some of the dogs I've known.
I think it is true what they say about dogs having selective hearing. They know when they want to hear something.

Charles- Which is why, I think we find it hard sometimes to think of them as animals. Cat is an alien thought process, but Dogs, well, we feel we connect to them. We feel we kind of understand eachother.

Reeny- I think they pick up on the impulses being given off.

But yes, I don't trust people who don't seem to get on with dogs. One always wonders why.

Izzy probably knew best :)

jmb- Which would make all the difference. We generally mark the onset of cognitive yunderstanjding as being between 2 and 2 and a half.

So the dog actually approaches human intelligence.

My Dad always used to tell me not to give the dogs nicknames because it would confuse them. But he's long since realised that isn't true. Kip is quite well aware he is Kip, but also Fatty Lumpkin and Lumpy Loos as well.

Eve- It's that and the fact who would look after him in the daytime? Technically I'm not allowed to keep a dog in the flat either.

Though I'd love to be in a position to have one and take him everywhere. Like Tintin and Snowy.

I often think if I could make a living as a freelance writer, it would be fine.
After all, my local pub allows dogs, so really it would then just be a case of getting my landlord to agree.

Anonymous said...

My dog can spell. So the C.A.T thang just doesn't work. And when he wants something he cocks his head to one side before running off to whatever it is he wants you to do for him. If I'm a bit tardy with it - he runs back to me and cocks his head again as if to say - C.O.M.E O.N. T.H.E.N.

The little blighter.