Friday, January 30, 2009

"The Truth About Dogs"

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky
Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

“Man’s best friend,” according to popular cliché, is devoted, faithful, and downright useful. He waits by the door for us to return home, greets us joyfully, defends us from intruders, and fetches our newspapers and slippers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that prehistoric humans “created” dogs by taming wolves and raising them to be companions and hunting assistants. How else can you explain the nearly constant presence of canines in the human ecological niche? Some of us who keep dogs for pets will insist that they have a deep emotional life, that they suffer from separation anxiety when we go to work, that our dogs know when we are coming home even if our schedule is inconsistent, and that they love us the same way we love them. To all of this, Stephen Budiansky says, “nonsense!” His “Truth About Dogs” is that they are the greatest con artists, optimists, and opportunists in creation.

Mr. Budiansky, according to his biographical statement, is “[a] scientists, author, journalist, and dog lover”. He is also a “correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly [and is] the author of seven highly acclaimed books about animals, nature, science, and history.” In other words, he is well qualified to share his theory of how dogs came to be. In The Truth About Dogs he makes a strong case that most of our dearly held beliefs about our canine companions are false because we think of dogs in human terms. (One of his favorite words is “anthropomorphize” which means to assign human characteristics to things.) Mr. Budiansky supported his thesis by researching archaeological and anthropological studies of human societies over time and across continents. He also studied the evolution of dogs going back to the common wolf ancestor of dogs, foxes, and hyenas. After reading this book, you will most likely look at dogs a little differently than before. And that is not a bad thing.

Mr. Budiansky offers an alternative explanation for how dogs came to be. Wolves – isolated from their packs by accident or circumstance – learned to coexist with early humans and adopted new behaviors. Scavenging, instead of hunting with a pack, led to genetic mutations, giving rise to canis familiaris. This new species lost the wildness of its wolf ancestors and became almost totally dependent on humans for survival. To demonstrate this, Mr. Budiansky examines cultures which revile dogs as well as those which pamper them. In parts of Africa, dogs are considered filthy and are banished to the outskirts of society, where they pick over what humans discard, excrete, or leave unattended. If people disappeared, many African dogs would have to re-learn how to take down live prey but a good number would figure it out before too long. Domestic dogs, having been reared on kibble and canned food, would have a more difficult time adapting to life without us. Many, if not most, would starve if left to fend for themselves.

In another writer’s hands, this book could have been a dry scholarly text. Mr. Budiansky is graced with a wonderful sense of humor and pokes fun at almost everyone: kennel club snobs, politicians, racists, and so-called dog “experts”. I have never learned as much while laughing so hard. Under the veneer of humor, however, this book is quite serious about what people have done to the domesticated descendents of wolves. Kennel clubs bear huge responsibility for propagating unhealthy and unsound dogs all the while convincing breed enthusiasts of the superiority of closed breed registries.

If you took basic biology in high school, you learned about dominant and recessive genes. Recessive genes are not in themselves bad, for example blue eyes in humans is a recessive trait. If, however, two dogs with a recessive tendency toward hip dysplasia produce offspring, chances are one out of four puppies will have it, two in four will have no symptoms but will pass the recessive gene on to their descendents. The fourth dog is the one with good genes. Dog breeders, however, can be fairly unscrupulous (or careless) and crank out plenty of pretty purebred puppies with lots of hidden health and genetic problems. Sadly, the market for pedigreed dogs is very strong which leads to more in-breeding and results in weaker animals, in the same way that making copies of copies eventually yields an unreadable document.

In their early evolution, dogs joined different groups of people with different means of survival. As humans figured out how to train dogs to be useful as herding, guard, and hunting dogs, they also figured out how to breed them for specific traits such as size, temperament, and ability. This early form of genetic engineering is why there is such great variety within the species. As societies became wealthy and more hierarchical, many dogs were bred for status, rather than work. Kennel clubs were formed as a way of authenticating individual dogs as having the most desirable bloodlines. Once established, kennel clubs typically close the book on a breed to prevent the influx of new blood, thereby creating more valuable puppies. As elite as many humans believe their dogs to be, Mr. Budiansky’s research reveals that there is virtually no genetic difference between a champion and a mongrel.

In addition to weakening dogs through successive inbreeding, dog breed enthusiasts also contribute to the problem of dog bites. Mr. Budiansky examines the various schools of thought surrounding what to do about “problem breeds” such as pit bull terriers. Are certain dogs more likely to attack humans than others? Yes, but in his opinion it is a complicated tangle of nature and nurture. According to The Truth About Dogs, every year in the United States there are more than 1 million dog bites requiring medical attention, with “a total cost to society estimated at greater than $1 billion.” The dog breed most associated with these bites is neither the pit bull terrier nor the Rottweiler. Hint: it looks more like a mop than a wolf.

Before reading this book, I was concerned that The Truth About Dogs would make me love my dog less, and while it did make me look at him differently it also made me appreciate him more. What I found most surprising, is how little I care that dogs are opportunists and con artists (not to mention thieves). I was also gratified to know that fancy purebred dogs are not genetically superior to my shelter dog (of questionable parentage). As Mr. Budiansky puts it, when it comes to loving dogs, he “had no choice in the matter.” I feel the same way. Dogs are so successfully adapted to living with humans that they have learned to make us love them against our better judgment. Those of us who share our lives with dogs feel lucky to have such good-natured and comforting companions.

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