Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The wolf in your home has been misunderstood

As I sit down to write this column, my friend has just settled down at my feet. This is normal.
Occasionally, as I type, he will shift to a slightly different position or sigh quietly, more or less impatient for me to finish and take him for a walk.
He, just as much as the Star’s print schedule, sets my deadlines.
He is my loyal companion. He is the wolf in my living-room (or, just at the moment, in my study).
My wolf
“The wolf in your living-room”: you have no doubt heard the phrase. It is snappy, attention-catching, memorable. And it is basically true.
But it is also misleading. And it has been used to justify a great deal of dreadful treatment of humanity’s best mate.
Often by people whose intentions are good, but who have been misled by what they have been told by supposed “experts” whose own understanding has been based on a misunderstanding.
I have myself, in the past, treated my best friend badly. Not from malice, but because – like so many people – I had been given bad advice.
So let me try to correct that bad counsel by summarising one of the most important points made by John Bradshaw in his outstanding book In Defence Of Dogs.
Professor Bradshaw has been studying dogs, and their owners, for over 25 years. He probably knows as much about pet dogs as anyone in the world.
The fact that his book is a bestseller can only be good news for a lot of dogs – a lot of wolves in a lot of sitting-rooms.
Your dog may not look much like a wolf (mine doesn’t really, as you can see), but it is one.
In fact, many dogs (mine included) look more like wolves than, say, a chihuahua looks like a great dane, a newfoundland like a dachshund, or a pekingese like a greyhound. They are all, biologically speaking, the same species.
In the past, many dog-trainers, breeders and self-appointed “experts” have taken this to mean that every dog is at heart eager to take control of its pack – or the human family who have taken it into their home.
Many still spout this belief. TV’s popular, and undeniably charismatic, “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan, still talks about “dominance” as if it was the one thing motivating all dog behaviour.
Millan, to be fair, doesn’t make this a reason to ill-treat dogs – but many do.
Such inhumane devices as choke-chains and – heaven help us – “shock collars” are based on this barbaric principle.
As is the idea that it’s a good thing to beat your poor dog into “submission”. Or to shake it, pull its ears or roll it over to “show it who’s boss”.
Bradshaw shows convincingly that the chief effect of such treatment is to make your dog scared of you. And fear is a powerful motivator of aggression, or “bad” behaviour. The exact opposite, in fact, of what’s intended.
A dog that bites, either a person or another dog, isn’t making a bid for dominance. It’s almost certainly acting out of fear.
So how should we teach our dogs to know their place? Love them, treat them well, and you shouldn’t need to.
Though it’s necessary to train them to behave in the ways our society has come to expect, that is more effectively done through kindness than cruelty.
The same is true, of course, of other creatures. Young humans, for instance.
Ah, you’ll say, young humans aren’t pack animals with an instinct for dominance. Maybe, maybe not. But neither are dogs – or, as it turns out, wolves.
So where did this idea come from?
Professor Bradshaw tracks it to three simple misunderstandings.
First, the study of wolves. Because this is difficult to carry out in the wild, it has mostly been done in zoos.
In the wild, wolves naturally live in family groups. Leadership is shared by the parents – there is no need to fight for it.
In zoos, wolves have normally been kept with non-relatives. The dynamic is different. Instead of family relations there is fear, anxiety, uncertainty.
To consider relations among zoo wolves to be “natural” is like observing prisoners in a jail and imagining you’re watching family life.
Secondly, it’s now known through DNA that dogs are mostly descended from the European grey wolf. Of all the types of wild dog, the one they are least related to is the American timberwolf – which happens to be the type that has been most studied.
Finally, there is the dog’s unique evolution, which has been tied up with that of humankind for upwards of 10,000 years.
The first domesticated dogs would have been the wolves that were most trusting (and trustworthy) around humans. Every dog since is descended from those tame individuals.
The descendants of the warier, less tame individuals went on being wild wolves, persecuted for centuries and so made even less tame, breeding out the trusting.
Just as, over millennia, the breeding of dogs by people has progressively selected the most useful, the most trainable, the friendliest. And, increasingly, the most aesthetically pleasing.
There’s no more reason to expect your dog to behave like a wolf than to look like one. For good evolutionary reasons, its main aim in life is to please you, not supplant you.
And now I’ve got that off my chest, it’s time for a walk with my pal.


Friday, 15 February 2013

What else are they selling us without telling us?

LES MISERABLES really is the show of the moment. Alain Boublil, who wrote the words for the hit musical more than 30 years ago, could hardly have known how topical it would become in 2013.
Consider these words, sung by the evil publican Thenardier (the “master of the house”) and his scheming wife:
“Food beyond compare, food beyond belief,
Mix it in a mincer and pretend it's beef.
Kidney of a horse, liver of a cat,
Filling up the sausages with this and that.”
Quite makes your mouth water, doesn’t it? Almost enough to make you want to pop out for a Shergar-burger.
Sorry. Actually, my favourite among the recent deluge of related jokes is this: “I had a Tesco burger last night – I’ve still got a bit between my teeth”.
But the current food scandal is really no laughing matter. And it’s not as straightforward as it might seem, either.
Emotion-based scruples aside, horse is a better-quality meat than beef – especially the kind of “mechanically-recovered”  beef that goes into cheap burgers. So all those ready meals and convenience foods that have just been removed from the shelves were probably of higher, not lower, nutritional value than they were meant to be.
Throwing it away is a shocking, almost criminal, waste. Not least of the horses that went into it.
If they really were, as is suggested, tired old nags driven off Romanian streets by new regulations against horse-carts, then it’s doubly sad.
Not least for the owners who have lost their fellow-workers and companions, fed into the mincer of the European cheap-food chain.
I don’t much fancy the thought that I might be chewing on Dobbin in my cottage pie.
But then there are good reasons not to eat beef too – none of them anything to do with whether it’s actually horse rather than cow.
  • Reason 1: If it’s from the USA, there’s a good (or rather, evil) chance it’s been reared in conditions of overcrowding that would horrify a decent person.
  • Reason 2: If it’s from South America, it’s probably been raised on grazing-land that was recently rainforest and should have been left that way.
  • Reason 3: Wherever it’s from, raising one meal of beef takes land, time and resources that could have fed many families. Overall, worldwide, the eating of large quantities of beef by the relatively rich is one of the reasons why so many other people can’t afford to eat properly at all.
  • Reason 4: The mass farming of cattle is believed by many scientists to be among the significant causes of global warming, partly – but not only – for reason 2 above.
  • Reason 5: It’s not actually very good for you anyway. Not like a nice horse steak, for example. And certainly not in the quantities people in Britain, western Europe, and especially America, gulp it down.
It would probably be good for all of us, and the world, if we ate less meat. Not just beef, but meat of all kinds.
The amount of animal flesh so many of us consume is unhealthy for all concerned. It’s simply not viable to produce so much meat in ways that are sustainable and humane.
Vegetarianism is one answer. Simply cutting down drastically on how much meat we all eat is another, possibly better one.
It would mean we could afford – from every point of view – to eat better meat; quality over quantity.
If anything good has come out of the scandal now galloping across Europe, it’s the awareness that has been raised. The shining of a light into some very murky places indeed.
You thought your nicely packaged lasagne came from a supermarket shelf. But before that it came from a factory somewhere in Europe. And before that, various parts came from other factories in other places – Romania, Poland, France or wherever –  whose sources and methods you may never have seen, imagined or wanted to.
The real scandal is not that something labelled “beef”  might include horse. It’s not even that it might be full of drugs administered to living horses in Britain, exported for slaughter, then imported back as ready meals.
It’s that all these things were going on unknown, apparently – even by the companies selling us the stuff –  until now.
It’s makes you wonder what else they’re selling us without telling us.
If the production line that ends on your table begins in a back yard in Bucharest, where else might it pass through on the way?
This whole seedy saga has revealed some things we might never have considered or wanted to know. But now we do.
When it’s over, dropped off the news agenda, let us not forget what we have learned.
It’s always good to know what you’re eating. Unless, perhaps, you’re dining Chez Thenardier.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Crazy growth of the gambling habit

I NEVER invited Ray Winstone into my living-room with his incoherent EastEnders blather and I wish he’d get lost.
The Italian footy presenter Tiziano Crudeli with his increasingly over-the-top “game on!” squealing is equalling irritating.
The Sky tag-line “It matters more when there’s money on it”is a) untrue, b) insulting to the genuine sports fan, and c) another example, like those above, of a worrying trend in our society.
Just when smoking has been driven off our screens, out of pubs and workplaces and into a less-cool hinterland of chilly corners, a new evil has arisen as if to fill its place.
As if alcohol wasn’t already addiction enough to inflict on our vulnerable young, we now have the destructive power of gambling.
All right, it isn’t new. Betting on sport is at least as old as organised games.
But the emergence of “in-play” betting via the internet, and our bombardment by TV and online advertising of gambling of all kinds, amounts to an epidemic.
When grown men can sit at their office desks gambling away their earnings on such vagaries as “next goalscorer”, “next corner”, or “number of yellow cards”, someone has a problem.
When poker – after snap, the dullest card game ever devised until you add the cash – has whole TV channels devoted to it, there’s something badly wrong.
And when teenagers can be initiated into the gambling habit via“free” games on Facebook and other websites, we’re stocking up a mountain of trouble for their future.
The 12-year-old who “borrowed” his dad’s credit card to register with an online poker site lost £7,000 before the card was stopped. But his is by no means the worst case. He may well never do it again.
Unlike the 60,000 British 12- to 15-year-olds now estimated to be “problem gamblers”.
Or many of the 28 per cent of children who have played a free online gambling game in the past week.
For many – I hope most – of those, the habits ingrained now may lead to nothing worse than a weekly flutter on the National Lottery and an annual punt on the Grand National. But I wouldn’t bet on it.