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