Wednesday, February 04, 2004

That's a Dog of a Different Color

Hi-De-Ho Rene,

So far, I’ve resisted various urges to let my contribution to this blog turn it into a dog blog, despite my pride and affection for my Bassetweiler, Dutch. I won’t give in this time either, so you are spared innumerable stories of Dutch’s intelligence, sensitivity, and all-around cuteness. (That also rules out slobber stories, which unfortunately are just as common.)

But, spurred on by PBS’s wonderful NOVA once again, I am thinking about how incredible it is that all dogs are members of one species.

Dutch, as alluded to above, is half Rottweiler, half Basset Hound, which is quite a trick if you think about it. Brent’s dog is a purebred Scottish Terrier. It’s amazing, isn’t it, that both the 60-pound Dutch and the 16-pound Tank, who get along famously but look like two different kinds of animals altogether, are distant cousins?

All dogs are descendents of the gray wolf, which, according to genetic data, they split from as long as 135,000 years ago. The earliest archeological evidence of dogs – not wolves – is about 12,000 years old. And Peter Tyson writes: “By 2000 B.C., dogs resembling the modern pharaoh hound are depicted on Egyptian tombs, implying that both domestication and diversification were well under way.”

There’s something about dogs that makes them especially malleable. With natural selection and breeds man-made for work and sport, there was already a rainbow of varieties when breeding for appearance became en vouge a little more than 100 years ago. Then the variety of distinct breeds exploded.

But is that why dogs have flourished while their ancestor, the gray wolf, flirts with extinction? Stephen Budiansky thinks the answer is simpler, albeit unromantic. He says dogs, both now and historically, exhibit behaviors that in any other species would have them deemed social parasites.

He writes: “Calling dogs parasites is fighting words, but what can I say? Dogs have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all....”

That seems a bit over-the-top, but there’s no doubt that dogs, whether wild or domesticated, live off the scrapings of man. Many dogs earn their keep, but most would have a hard time in the true wild, far from overturned trash cans, let alone food dishes. Even hunting dogs well-trained to flush out birds and retrieve game wouldn’t fare so well without their shotgun-armed human companions.

Still, we’d like to think our dogs are tough enough to survive on their own, maybe on a cross-country trek to find their families, just like Lassie or Milo and Otis. Dutch and my brother’s dog, another mutt-of-many-colors named Jacques, once caught and killed a pair of young possums, and Dutch apparently killed a squirrel during one of many high-speed chases around the back yard, but the thought of eating any of those things was apparently quite repellant to them. Instead, they left their trophy prey sprawled out on the back steps.

Have you ever had a dog? What breed was it, and how dependent was it on you? Or were you dependent on it? I'm glad Dutch is a mutt -- it's like he's a breed of his own. I also tend to think he earns his keep just by being so darn likeable.



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