The Truth about Dogs: An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis Familiarisby Stephen Budiansky
Dogs: Man's best friends-or canine con artists? For centuries dogs have stolen our hearts, our homes, and our wallets. Just how do dogs get otherwise reasonable adults to feed them sirloin, let them occupy easy chairs, and generally allow them to regulate our every waking hour? In this provocative, entertaining, and wholly admiring reappraisal of our canine companions, Stephen Budiansky calls upon the latest research on dog behavior, genes, and evolution to explain why dogs do what they do, think what they think, and feel what they feel-and how they have come to occupy such a remarkable place in our lives and affections. Challenging many of our accepted ideas about canine intelligence and emotions, Budiansky shows how the very strange things that dogs so often do-fiercely guarding pairs of shoes, barking incessantly at the UPS man, rolling in really foul-smelling things-are the product of a rich blending of their ancient wolf ancestry, their subsequent dramatic evolutionary changes in the company of man, and their ever-so-peculiar modern social environment, neither wolf nor human. This original and insightful reexamination of an animal at once so familiar and so mysterious tells us, for the first time ever, what it truly is to be a dog.
Author Biography: Stephen Budiansky, scientist, author, journalist, and dog lover, is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He is the author of five highly acclaimed books about animals, nature, and science, including The Nature of Horses.
(Wall Street Journal)
New York Times Book Review
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.04(w) x 7.84(h) x 0.57(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
The Irredeemable Weirdness
of the Dog:
If some advertiser or political consultant could figure out just what it is in human nature that makes us so ready to believe that dogs are loyal, trustworthy, selfless, loving, courageous, noble, and obedient, he could retire to his own island in the Caribbean in about a week with what he'd make peddling that secret.
Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer, they curl up in front of the fireplace in winter, they commit outrages upon our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates. (I am thinking here of a certain collie I used to have whose specialty actually was toast.) If we had a roommate who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police.
I don't generally consider myself a pushover, and it's been years and years since I believed that any dog of mine was as faithful as, well, a bird dog, never mind as kind as Santa Claus. But not long ago, as a result of a sequence of events that I cannot fully reconstruct, much less comprehend, I found myselfbelieving it perfectly normal behavior on my part to carry a sixty-five-pound collie dog up the stairs to my bedroom every night, and back down the stairs every morning. This went on for months. I had no choice in the matter.
Flip open any veterinary journal these days and your eye is almost certain to land on a case report of a dog that has completely taken over a household, cowing its nominal owners into submission and obedience to a routine that the dog himself has dictated:
An 18-month-old male Irish Setter was owned by a young childless couple. The husband was often threatened by the dog and had been bitten several times. The dog would growl whenever the husband entered the room. This usually occurred if the wife and dog were in the room before the husband entered. The dog would willingly go for walks with the husband, but only the wife could be in the kitchen when the dog was eating. The dog was most likely to attack the man when he tried to enter the bedroom if the wife was already there.
Dogs that have their owners tiptoeing around them as they lie in their favorite spots on the living room floor, owners who are terrified to move the dog's food bowl or clip a leash to the dog's collar, dogs that refuse to allow their owner to pass through a door before them, dogs that forbid boyfriends or husbands to hug, kiss, or dance with their female owners, dogs that menace their owners into petting them on command, walking them on command, feeding them on commandthese are staple characters in the reports that pour in from veterinary clinics. But this is nothing new. Cave canem, the Latin phrase that Roman householders liked to inscribe in their mosaic floors two thousand years ago, means "Beware of the dog." I think it was a not entirely facetious suggestion that this might have meant beware of the dog not in the sense of "don't get bitten," but in the sense of "Please be careful not to trip over him because he's not going to get up and move out of your way."
Almost as common as the clinical accounts of dogs who have seized effective operational control of their households are the accounts in veterinary journals of dogs who engage in eccentric and obsessive behaviors that, were they exhibited in humans, would lead to swift institutionalizationor justifiable homicide by anyone forced to share living quarters with the patient. Yet in dogs these behaviors are suffered and endured year after year after year: chasing imaginary objects, running in circles, consuming excrement, barking incessantly. One five-year-old Shetland sheepdog was reported to have spent two years compiling an ever-growing list of things to bark at, which eventually included:
Large truck passing
Pots and pans banging
Hair dryer turned on
Person walking quickly
Dog's water bowl being filled
Owner brushing her teeth
Door of dishwasher being opened
Leaves blowing in wind
Frequent reports of dogs that chew up shoes, books, newspapers, bedsheets, currency, laundry, sofas, rugs, tables, wallboard, wood trim, doors, stairs, and window screens appear in the scientific literature. Perhaps even more impressive than the things we put up with are the things we are successfully conned into. Dogs feign illnesses with an inventiveness that rivals that of any human exhibitor of Munchausen syndrome. Having learned what makes their owners lavish attention, petting, and special food treats upon them, dogs exhibit lurid symptoms that have no organic basis; documented cases of fabricated ailments in dogs include coughing, profuse nasal discharge, diarrhea, vomiting, anorexia, ear problems, lameness, muscle twitching, and paralysis. Dogs are sharpshooters. We are saps.
As I write these words, I have the distinct sensation that off in the distance I can hear a faint whirring noise, the sound of a thousand computers coming to life as incensed dog owners from across the land prepare to compose outraged letters of remonstrance against these slanders. So let me hasten to add: I am joking. Mostly.
I love dogs, and more than that I am fascinated by them, and by the interaction of our two species. Dogs are extraordinarily beautiful animals, and they are extraordinarily interesting animals, too. Just as an amateur student of animal behavior, if absolutely nothing else, I personally find that the rewards of living with dogs far outweigh the costs. Yet as an amateur student of animal behavior I also am keenly aware that my personal calculus of benefits and costs is not one that makes much biological sense; I am keenly aware, too, that most if not all of the conventional explanations of where dogs come from, how they ended up in our homes, and why they do what they do just have to be wrong.
There has been a great surge lately of scientific and not-so-scientific publications claiming to show the medical benefits of canine companionship in lowering our blood pressure and cheering up old folks in nursing homes. I would be the last person to deny the very real joy and pleasure that dogs bring. But neither joy nor pleasure, nor even low blood pressure, is an evolutionary force that carries very much weight. For this much-vaunted "human-companion animal bond" to have been a force of evolutionary significancefor it to be the biological glue that holds our species together, as the authors of such papers claimit would have had to confer some tangible, adaptive value to humankind that translates into net increased survival. The key word here is net, and if one objectively adds up the biological benefits of dogs and sets that against the biological costs, it does not compute. The relentless force of evolution has no room for sentiment, much less retrospective sentiment, and the fact is that tens of thousands of years ago, before there were cities or even villages, before there were farms, before there was writing, before people could afford the meanest luxury, before people fretted about stress, before humans were indeed scarcely human, dogs latched on to human society, survived, and flourished.
Dogs, in short, are a brilliant evolutionary success almost without parallel in the animal world, and they owe that success to their uncanny ability to worm themselves into our homes, and to our relentlessly anthropomorphic psyches that let them do it. Throughout much of Africa and Asia to this day, millions upon millions of dogs roam freely through villages and even cities; they are generally despised, shunned, justifiably feared as dangerous and disease-ridden, occasionally eaten; yet they flourish in spite of it all. However consciously and rationally humans may dislike or distrust these free-ranging dogs, however much humans may determinedly try to relegate them to the mental category occupied by rats, lice, and pigeons, still, when man comes face to face with dog, the will to inflict serious bodily harm mysteriously melts away. Dogs, in an evolutionary sense, know this. They cringe, they whine, they look soulfully into our eyes, and we say, "Aww, the heck with it," drop the rock, and go our way.
The wild ancestor of the dog, the wolf, is practically extinct. There are probably no more than 100,000 wolves left in the entire world today. The world's dog population easily exceeds that by a factor of a thousand. For all the myths and tales of the dog's service to man, only the smallest fraction of dogs that live off human society today earn their keep. No one has done an actual study of this, but there is reason to be very suspicious even of the most common rationalization of dogs' utility to man, as guardians of property or intruder alarms; for every tale of a dog successfully frightening off burglars, there are thousands of dogs who bark incessantly at every goddamned thing that moves, and then sleep blissfully through a crime in progress. For all the myths about how some caveman or cavewoman adopted a wolf cub from the wild and found him a valuable guardian and hunting companion, the behavioral and archaeological evidence now strongly points to a conclusion that even thousands of years ago the overwhelming majority of dogs were biological freeloaders. The things that a small number of modern-day dogs do that clearly payassisting the blind and disabled, herding livestock, providing recreational sport for hunters and racing enthusiastswere late developments in the dog's checkered career. Every great crime family turns out a few solid citizens eventually.
If biologists weren't victim to the same blindness that afflicts us all, they probably wouldn't hesitate to classify dogs as social parasites. This is the class of manipulative creatures exemplified by the cuckoo, which lays its eggs in the nest of some unsuspecting dupe of a bird of another species; the poor befuddled parents see this big mouth crying out for food and stuff it full of worms at the expense of their own offspring. Every time they turn their backs, the cuckoo hatchling shoves another of its foster parents' flesh and blood overboard.
Calling dogs parasites is fighting words, but what can I say? Dogs have got us exactly were they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all. If we can manage to don our unsentimental evolutionary spectacles, dogs loom large as a huge net biological burden upon mankind, competing for food, diverting vast economic assets in the form of labor and capital, spreading disease, causing serious injury. Dogs may not quite reach the perfection of the cuckoo in their parasitism on human societythey have not quite displaced human children, at least not in most households, at least not yetbut it is striking that dogs in the United States bite a million people a year seriously enough to require medical attention, most of them children; dogs actually manage to kill twelve people a year, again mostly children. Insurance companies pay out a quarter of a billion dollars a year in claims arising from dog bites, with total costs to society estimated at more than a billion dollars.
A billion dollars, though, is canine chump change when it comes to diverting the wealth of one's best friends. Most dogs weigh less than most people (though the trend toward larger and larger dogs, especially in cities, is growing dramatically), but they consume about twice as much food per pound of body weight; factoring all of this together, it works out that the 55 million canine residents of the United States eat about as much as the entire human population of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, at a cost of more than $5 billion a year. Veterinary services currently add about $7 billion a year to the economic tab. The market for canine health care is, however, growing rapidly thanks to the twin forces of high-technology and "alternative" veterinary medicine on the one hand, and the apparently limitless guilt of owners on the other. The New York Times reports that dog owners are lining up for veterinary acupuncture sessions at $75 per half hour and described the case of a young couple in Greenwich Village who had worked their way through $3,500 for hydrotherapy treatments for their twelve-year-old Shih Tzu, recovering from disk surgery. Canine behavioral therapy is a booming business, as are canine cancer surgery and chemotherapy, canine CT scans, and canine ophthalmology.
No one has calculated the economic cost represented by the time people spend picking up the 2 million tons of dog feces deposited annually on American streets, parks, and yards, but it must be considerable. Two million tons is a difficult figure to comprehend. By way of comparison, the United States each year produces 3 million tons of aluminum and 4 million tons of cotton. The 4 billion gallons of dog urine generated each year in the United States, on the other hand, could fill all the wine bottles from a full year's output of the vineyards of France, Italy, Spain, and the United States combined, if, as Groucho Marx once said in a slightly different context, that's your idea of a good time.
Dogs, and their copious effusions, are significant vectors and reservoirs for more than sixty-five diseases that can be passed to humans, many of them too revolting or hair-raising to be mentioned in a book that may be read by small children or those of a sensitive nature. A few of the more mentionable ones are rabies, tuberculosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and histoplasmosis. Dogs threaten not only humans but wild species; epidemics of canine parvovirus that have decimated struggling wolf populations have repeatedly been traced to domestic dogs.
Deep down, we know there's something very strange going on here, and are disconcerted by it. "Dog" is an old and nearly universal term of contempt in human language. Look up canis in a Latin dictionary and you will find that the ancient Romans used it to mean "parasite, hanger-on." In the Hebrew bible the word for dog, kelev, appears far more often in a derogatory figurative sense than in a literal one; kelev was for the ancient Hebrews the particular term of choice for describing male temple prostitutes and false prophets. Freud thought the only possible explanation for man's taking such an attitude toward his "most faithful friend" was that this particular friend liked to stick his nose in really nasty places, and that that upset us. Of course Freud thought everything had to do with sex and excrement. Sometimes contempt is just contempt.
Did I mention that I love dogs? In spite of what I have just said in my role as brutally objective observer, I do love dogs. And I think the secret of loving themof not feeling contempt, even repressed and subconscious and guilt-ridden and Freudian contemptis to see them honestly and frankly for what they are. This is where science helps, a lot. Yes, dogs are manipulative parasites. But they are also beautiful and fascinating, and even more, they are windows on a series of beautiful and fascinating, and wild and strange, worlds: a world of animal minds and animal senses, aswirl with perceptions and awarenesses and emotions that are ever so familiar yet ever so alien; a world of deep and elemental forces and motives, the very engines of evolution that have forged the entire raw story of life on earth; a world of distant human pasts, of hunters and campfires on the tundra, of Roman legions and war and migration; and a microscopic world within, of molecules that miraculously encode the nature of us all. It is increasingly common to cast science as a spoilsport, reducing the poetry of the world to an equation, love to a hormone molecule, sunsets to diffraction phenomena; and there will be some, I am sure, who would rather not know what science has to say about dogs. But I have never believed that science takes the magic out of things; even when it destroys sometimes treasured myths, science always has something better to offer by way of compensation. When I look into my dog's eyes, I see worlds and eons that I can touch nowhere else in my modern life, and to me that is worth several tons of tripe about "unconditional love."
The other thing that dog science has going for it is that it is good for dogs. Dogs that are treated as furry little people who ought to love and be grateful to us for the muffins they are baked and the little birthday hats they are forced to wear are not happy dogs, for they invariably suffer the consequences of our unrealistic expectations. The number of complexes dogs develop as a direct result of their anthropomorphic owners ought to give pause to everyone who thinks we are somehow "denying" dogs their due by insisting on a rigorous and unsentimentally scientific view of their intelligence, understanding, and behavior. Owners who think their dogs are conscious of their guilt when they poop on the oriental rug, owners who try to reassure and comfort and reason their dogs through their fears, owners who desperately want their dogs to desperately adore themthese are the owners of dogs that more often than not are maladjusted and miserable. Punishing a dog for defecating even seconds after the fact is futile, for dogs do not make such connections over time and space; but dogs will earnestly search for some connection between events in their immediate world and the immediate consequences, and a dog who is punished whenever his owner returns to find poop on the rug will very quickly learn to fear his owner's return, period. A dog that is rewarded with petting and soothing words when he trembles during a thunderstorm will quickly learn to tremble all the more, and on more and more occasions, in pursuit of such rewards. A dog whose owners want love at all costs quickly learns to be a domineering bullysuch is the nature of the wolf-dog social structure. It can be worse: his owners can actually achieve their ambition, and the dog can become neurotically dependent on them and go into hysterics at every parting.
Seeing dogs as they are, with doglike understanding, doglike motives, doglike perceptions, and doglike instincts, is to see them with a respect for their true natures and true capacities, to see them as they are rather than as we, with our remarkably self-centered and limited imaginations, would imagine them to be. Grasping what makes dogs tick is a way to avoid a lot of misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and unnecessary strife in our ever so peculiar relationship with them.
The very peculiarity of this relationship of ours with dogs, though, is one hell of an evolutionary tale, and that is part of the consolation science offers us as recompense for robbing us of fairy tales. That dogs exist, and flourish, and thrive in our company when perfectly sensible biological reasons exist for them to have been exterminated every last one, is a biological story of astonishing evolutionary cleverness; it is a story that is also terribly revealing about ourselves, and I am grateful for the self-knowledge that the company of dogs provides us. For dogs (or evolution, I should really say) have discovered the chink in our armor.
Parasites can never launch a direct assault, as most all organisms have active defenses to fend them off. Parasites instead are evolutionarily guileful, and the most successful ones are Trojan horses that play on the foibles or features of their hostbest of all, on foibles or features that are indispensable for the host's survival under every other circumstance. We humans are possessed with a surprisingly suspicious and calculating mind that is always plotting stratagems and imagining the stratagems of others. Dogs evade this formidable defense by playing to our equally formidable weaknesses. Give a goose a rock the shape of an egg, and it will sit on it, tend it, turn it several times a day, guard it to the death. Give many a pregnant female mammal a stuffed toy, even one that bears only the vaguest resemblance to an infant of its species, and the female will carry it around like a real baby and try to get it to nurse. Give a human a puppy, and something remarkably similar, and almost as inane, happens.
Animal behaviorists used to refer to such phenomena as "innate releasing mechanisms." The behaviorist view is rather out of fashion now, but they were clearly onto something herecertain behaviors are just so visceral and so obviously purposeful that they must be hardwired deep in our minds. We see a snake, we jump. Show a cat a mouse, it attacks. Show us something small and helpless with big eyes and a round head, and we feel an innate inhibition against harming it. When you consider how strong the predatory and territorial instinct is in many species, ours included, it makes strong evolutionary sense that there would be some very powerful instinct such as this to protect the young of one's own species from harm. Of course parental feeling in humans is vastly more complex than this; in humans, as indeed in many species, it involves considerable learning and environmental influence. But it is hard to deny that we feel a very fundamental, innate, unlearned, and in that sense quite irrational attraction toward cute little things, especially helpless cute little things. Dogs take advantage of this no end. They play us like accordions.
Part of the enjoyment and fascination we find in studying nature comes from learning the remarkable and clever ways species have adapted to exploit their individual niches. Dogs and wolves are remarkably exploitive species, in an especially intriguing way, not in a physical or predatory sense but rather in a quite sophisticated, social sense. That said, dogs and wolves are also, and truly, a remarkably cooperative species. People who are uncomfortable with the amorality of nature and natural selection tend to ignore or reinterpret dogs' exploitiveness while extolling their cooperativeness. My contention is that we should neither condemn the one nor praise the other; we should admire, and be intrigued by, and marvel at, both. We might as well. We didn't choose dogs, after all. They chose us, and we're stuck with them.
Zoologists have never been particularly inclined to view domestic animals as real animals. They have long regarded domestic species as "degenerate," artificial products of man's tinkering, lacking the full set of wild-type behaviors exhibited by real animals.
We are all of course guilty of taking for granted whatever is familiar and close to home. It certainly is more impressive to study grizzly bears on the Alaskan tundra or elephants on the African plains than it is to study chickens down the road or dogs in the backyard. And so scientists know infinitely more about the genome of even the mouse and the fruit fly than they know about the genome of the dog; they know infinitely more about the social ecology of even the newtand for that matter of the wolf than of the dog.
It has taken a very long time, but scientists at last are beginning to notice what has been right under their noses. They remind me of some character in a Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope novel who pursues love and beauty all over the place only to discover in the last few pages that the perfect wife for him is his cousin, who has been living in his house since he was four years old. (Duh.) The fact is that if that overworked but ever-useful personage, the man from Mars, were to arrive for a quick biological survey of our planet, nothing would strike him as more astonishing than the existence of billions of domestic animals, the remarkable diversity in physical appearance within each of these domestic species, the novelty of their behaviors, and their shrewd adaptation to the ecological niches that human life has created. In some ways, dogs are degenerate, watered-down wolves, but in some ways they are wholly novel creatures who do things wolves would never dream of doing. Far from being degenerates, dogs exhibit behaviors that are complex, original, and creative.
Recently our terrestrial scientists have begun to recognize that their colleague from Mars is onto something, and dogs have started to come in for some serious scrutiny from branches of science that never paid them their due in the past. That is good luck for those of us who love dogs, and it is good luck for those of us who love the knack science has for casting the seemingly familiar in a shocking new light. Genetics, archaeology, biomechanics, cognitive science, neuroanatomyall are shaking up the old stories about dogs.
Looking over the paean to science I have just written, I worry I might be giving a slightly misleading impression on one point. I do not believe science is the be-all and end-all, and there is an element of our admiration for and enjoyment of dogs that transcends any scientific explanation. For one thing, dogs are often simply beautiful. Attempts at "scientifically" explaining beauty and love are usually rather glib and ridiculous, and I am not for a second trying to suggest that by focusing on hard scientific facts I am providing anything approaching a complete description of what is going on between dogs and people. There is another truth that I would not deny for a second, namely that those rare humans who have a real gift for training and working with dogs owe that gift to experience, intuition, and a certain kind of empathetic reasoning that has almost nothing to do with science. There are many things science can never touch. But science can take us places that our own experiences cannot, and can show us things we never could imagine if left to our own devices, and that is ever more so in an age when we drift ever further from personal experience with the natural world. And it is in that spirit that I wish to explore what we actually and truly know from the scientific investigation of Canis, not really so familiaris.
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