Tag Archives: dogs

Adopted by Dogs

“Where you goin’?” our dog, Cassie, seems to be asking as she watches through the screen.

Cassie keeps an eye on me from the porch.

Cassie keeps an eye on us from the porch.

Turns out canines have been tracking our whereabouts for tens of thousands of years.  DNA studies indicate that dogs, Canis familiaris, branched off from wolves at least 30,000 years ago.

Aidan of the Wolf Center Pack

My fuzzy photo of a wolf in Ely, Minnesota

We humans thought we domesticated dogs, or at least that’s what I was taught in school.  But research in the last few years indicates that dogs domesticated us, or, at the very least, it was a mutual process.  Our ancestors didn’t simply choose the boldest and cuddliest wolves to train; the wolves chose us for their own purposes as well.  Brian Hare, author of The Genius of Dogs, asserts that we did not adopt wolves and turn them into dogs; it is more likely that “wolves adopted us.”

It must have been the most patient and tolerant wolves that were willing to approach our campfires.  Hare says, it was “survival of the friendliest.”  (Isn’t that a refreshing alternative to “survival of the meanest” scenarios played out in media, business, and politics?  Maybe we can learn from our dogs in this regard.)  Those are the canines that evolved into our furry friends today.

I don’t know about you, but I never use my dog as a reserve food supply or to hunt or to keep warm at night, all of which our ancestors did.  We’re companions.  The two vestigial functions of dogs that I share with my ancestors is as an alarm system and occasional cleaning and sanitation service.  Those pesky food spills on the kitchen floor disappear in seconds!

Dogs benefit from their association with humans by having secure homes, reliable food supplies, and someone to pick off their burrs and ticks.  Canis familiaris has also managed to avoid being hunted to extinction as we’ve done to Canis lupus.  In fact, dogs flourish in so many forms and places, their overall success as a species seems guaranteed.  In spite of too many cases of animal abuse which need to be addressed, our pets are getting quite a lot for what they gave up in the wild.

White German Shepherd relaxing in a warm house on a cold day

Our white German Shepherd relaxes in our warm house on a cold day.

Part of the family

Part of the family

However we arrived at this extraordinary friendship between people and dogs, I’m hoping our evolution on both sides is moving us toward a more perfect union of harmony and interdependence.  If we can’t make peace for the sake of our fellow humans, maybe we can do it for our four-legged friends.  After all, we have thumbs.  They’re counting on us.


See the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for information about protecting animals.  For more on dogs’ wild relatives, see the International Wolf Center site.


Animal Friends

Our shepherd gets acquainted with a ball python.

Making friends across species lines is part of what makes life on earth so fascinating.  The majority of households in the United States have pets in them, and many people consider animal companions to be friends or even family.  It turns out that we’re not the only ones to do this.  Jennifer Holland, a writer for National Geographic (and occasional visitor to my yoga class when she’s in town visiting family), gives 47 examples of finned, furred, and feathered friends mixing it up in her book, Unlikely Friendships.  You can also see videos of social critters on National Geographic’s Unlikely Animal Friends.

Having a friend, whether for a short time or a long time, can make all the difference in the world.  Sometimes our friends are a lot like us and sometimes they’re very different from us.  You never know who will reach out to you, bring you some warmth, and make your day.  Some of the stories in this book are about brief encounters, such as a manta ray who insisted on being pet like a cat by a diver off the coast of Florida.  Some are lifelong bonds.

Holland acknowledges the view of some people that “anthropomorphic anecdotes have no place in science,” and she is careful not to impose her own interpretations of what the animals are feeling and experiencing.  But clearly the animals she describes are acting on more than instinct.  She quotes from her interview with Jane Goodall, “You cannot share your life in any meaningful way with an animal and not realize they have different personalities.  Are their capabilities and emotions similar to ours?  Absolutely.”

Many stories feature that miracle of adaptation, the dog.  When a family in Ohio took in a nearly blind deer named Dillie, it was the family poodle that licked her, slept with her, and brought her toys.  Dillie is afraid of any other dog, but loves to be with Lady the poodle.  A dachshund welcomed a piglet to her litter of puppies when he was unable to compete with the other, bigger piglets for his mother’s milk.  The pig survived and now acts more canine than porcine.

Other pairs in the book are such unexpected combinations as a snake and a hamster, a rat and a cat, monkeys and capybaras, and a leopard and a cow.  Holland’s retelling of the famous case of Koko the gorilla and her tiny kitten, Ball, is as moving as ever.  We not only learn about animals from these stories, we learn from them as well, perhaps to overlook that bit of DNA that separates us, one species from another, and simply see a being with a capacity different from our own but no lesser.

After facing racially charged abuse, Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?”  Part of the appeal of these stories is the hope they provide that, no matter our differences, we can.

UNLIKELY FRIENDSHIPS: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom by Jennifer S. Holland, Workman Publishing, 2011.

Jennifer Holland and shiba inu, Tai
(Photo courtesy of John Holland)