It’s a Dog’s Life!
‘A dog is a man’s best friend’, so they say. They are our companions. They are, like us, social carnivores that hunt in the daylight. We were made to collaborate. How much more effective we would have been as hunters with dogs to detect and chase our prey. And dogs would have played a crucial role in the development of civilization by protecting our crops and home and herding our animals.
But there’s more to it than that. Dogs offer us their devotion. To them we are the pack leaders – to be appeased and served. Dogs are attuned to us, they obey our commands, respond appropriately when we point; they can be trained. Chimpanzees, although they have 99% of our genetic code, tend to do their own thing, albeit intelligently. There is even a dog who has learnt 300 words and can fetch an object from another room, having only just seen a picture of it. And think of how working dogs can be trained to herd sheep, to retrieve an animal that been shot, to sniff out drugs or explosives.
Dogs make a deep emotional bond with us. Studies have shown that when dogs look at images of humans, they are drawn to the left side of the face which expresses emotion more eloquently and has a direct connection with the emotional right side of the brain. They tune into our emotions and can respond to our feelings. They know when we are upset or angry. They feel it. And dogs are good for us. We are more likely to survive a myocardial infarction if we have a dog and less likely to have another heart attack.
Dogs have evolved an elaborate vocal repertoire to communicate with us. Most dog owners can recognize at least six types of bark. These are emotional signals; excitement, anger, aggression, hurt, fear, playfulness. Brains scans have shown that the same area of orbito-frontal cortex lights up and we release the bonding hormone, oxytocin, when we look at pictures of dogs as when we look at images of children. Our need to nurture runs deep. Dogs induce the nurturing behaviour in us they need for survival, and they also release oxytocin when they look at their owners and are fondled. Dogs not only give but they induce unconditional love.
DNA data has established that our domestic dog is descended from the grey wolf and came into existence about 100,000 years. But wolves or wild dogs do not acclimatize to humans naturally. They cannot read our emotions and they don’t have the same vocal repertoire. When wolf puppies are brought up with humans, they revert to wolves at about 8 weeks and become dangerous. It takes many generations of selective breeding to get an animal that behaves like a dog. Long term experiments conducted on Silver Foxes in Eastern Siberia has shown that domesticity can only be induced after 50 generations. Only then do they behave like dogs. The strange thing is that in breeding out aggression, other characteristics change too, like the colour of their coats and the shape of their heads, their ears and their tails. In fact, they become like puppies. Selective breeding for domesticity favours juvenile characteristics.
This makes me wonder whether sexual selection in human societies over the many generations since civilization began has also succeeded in breeding out aggressive characteristics? Are we just all big babies? Have we bred domesticity in ourselves and with this passivity, laziness, neediness and a predisposition to obesity, heart attacks and diseases related to anxiety, such as Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Contrast our open faced, needy population with the hard bitten images of tribal chieftains, warlords who seize and impregnate their women by force. Such brutal sexual acquisition might perpetuate a much more ruthless typology until such time as civilization suppresses the behaviour that has induced it? The aggressive no longer rule the earth, at least outside the strongholds of Afghanistan, but have we become too tame, like the dogs?
This article was the topic of a Horizon documetary, shown on BBC television last week.