The dog has been with us for centuries. But without humans, would the dog exist at all? It’s an interesting question. Having made our canine companions such an integral part of our societies and cultures, do we have a responsibility for their welfare? If so, how far does that responsibility extend?
In the beginning there was the wolf. According to the latest science, about 40,000 years ago the dog suddenly evolved from some of these wolves. Some selection pressure in the natural environment caused this dramatic change. The archeological evidence points clearly to a key source – humans. More precisely, the first human settlements began to create garbage that became a rich and easily accessible source of nutrition for scavenging wolves.
These first dogs found that life near human settlements proved overwhelmingly beneficial to their survival. Likewise, the first humans who began to interact with these dogs found that they could be useful too. Dogs began to be integrated into human life in a variety of ways. They were hunters, they were guardians, they were companions, and we found many interesting uses for this new companion.
As the centuries have passed, humans became more and more creative in the ways we bred dogs. We selected for certain traits that suited our uses. The long lean limbs and large lungs of the Scottish Deerhound allow it to run down game. The heavy coats and endurance of sled dogs in the Arctic make them ideal for their environments. And as we come to more modern times, purely ornamental breeds like Toy Poodles and the Bichon Frise have been created for their visual appeal or their temperaments as small and agreeable companions.
But there is something else in all of this selective breeding. Always we selected for those dogs who were most compatible with us. Breeds have evolved that behave in ways that wolves would instinctively refuse to do. We have dogs that comfortably look into our eyes, seek out our touch and enjoy being held and embraced. Modern dogs are incredibly sensitive to our voices and are easily trainable for an amazing variety of useful and entertaining behaviours. None of this is an accident.
We have, in a very real way, created the dog to be the ideal companion to humans. In fact, we have created specialized breeds of dogs to match both specific tasks we required of them and the size/shape/color/appearance that most pleased us. In return we have provided them food, shelter, and protection. It is a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial to both species.
But it is not a partnership of equals. In the dog, we have created a species of animal that is dependent on our human society for its very survival. Dogs are a species that have evolved to fit into our human world. We have taken a very active role in guiding the development of this animal and it is, by design, meant to function in our human world. Yes, there are feral dogs who can continue to breed and be successful while not living in human homes but even these dogs find their way, as the first dogs did, to the garbage and cast-offs of human settlements. They are no longer game hunters like the wolves from which they evolved.
Learning to Live Together
Dogs have been wildly successful in human society. There are over 400 recognized breeds, ranging from the smallest three-pound Chihuahua to the largest 150-plus pound Lancier and Akbash. They live in human homes, from the tallest apartment complexes in major cities to sprawling rural farms. Statistics show there are over 68 million dogs owned in the United States alone. These dogs live with us because we want them. But sometimes it’s not that simple or easy.
More than 20% of owned dogs in the US are adopted from shelters. Seen another way, one in every five dogs owned in the US was given up by an original owner somewhere or turned over by a breeder who could not find a home for them. And these were the lucky ones. According to a 1997 study, 64% of all dogs turned over to shelters were euthanized, 2.7 million dogs.
Amazingly, one of the most common reasons dogs are turned over to shelters is because owners claim the dog is incompatible with their lifestyle.
How can this be? The dog is an animal specifically bred to be a companion to humans, to be compatible with our lifestyles and habits. Modern life can be complicated and circumstances may change, requiring changes to our home situation.
The Lifestyle Fit
Sometimes dogs are unavoidably displaced. But in the majority of situations where dogs need to be rehomed, the owners were not prepared for their new dog. It could be that the decision to own a dog was made for the wrong reasons. But many times it is because the owners have not adequately prepared for the breed of dog they were adopting or were not prepared to invest the time and effort necessary to train their dog.
In her book Culture Clash, author Jean Donaldson suggests our primary responsibility in training our dogs is to make them successful in our homes. This is an important point and many times it can get lost in the tidal wave of information out there about dogs and dog training. While there are competitive sports for dog obedience and training programs offered in nearly every city and town, there are no required behaviours that must be taught to all dogs.
Dogs need to be shown what we require of them to fit into our life and lifestyle. This might require a handful of simple behaviours like “sit” or “stay” or “leave it” or it may require more complex training if we should choose to get involved in more specialized activities with our dogs.
Teaching the Skills to Be Successful
The simple fact is that once we take a dog into our home, we have accepted responsibility not just for the physical welfare, but for the mental welfare and education as well. The stark reality is that dogs that cannot fit into their owners’ lifestyles are most often turned in to shelters. And more than half of those dogs will die. Many will die, not because of poor breeding or bad temperaments, but because they were not given the skills they needed to be successful in their homes.
Never has there been greater access to information about dogs and dog training than we enjoy today. From books, videos and DVDs to television programs to websites and discussion forums on the Internet, information about dogs is everywhere. Sorting fact from fiction in that information can be a challenge. But that does not relieve us of our responsibility.
Dogs would simply not exist in nature without humans. In a very real way we were responsible for their creation and we are certainly responsible for how they have developed over the past 40,000 years. Most dog breeds cannot survive in their current form without us. In fact, some breeds, like the Pug, frequently can’t give birth naturally and must have the puppies surgically removed.
The bottom line is that dogs are a part of our lives because we have chosen them; they did not ask to be here. It is encouraging that the last 25 years has seen a tremendous advance in both scientific and practical study of dogs.
Positive reinforcement training and technologies like Clicker Training are making communicating with dogs easier than ever. Training shouldn’t be that difficult considering we have selectively bred for the most trainable, attentive dogs as generations have gone on.
Dogs are a species uniquely suited to communicating with humans because that is what we have made them. We owe it to them to engage the abilities we have given them. Basic communication with dogs is not that hard – children can do it. More importantly, for many dogs, their lives may depend on it.
Wolf – Flickr Dallidee 2008
Shelter puppy – Jeffreyw 2010
Boy and Dog – Bqautrea 2008