Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Humankind's best friend, a tale of co-evolution and symbiosis

According to new figures, one in four UK households has a dog. That’s a lot of running and leaping for sticks and balls, a lot of wagging tails, a lot companionship, a lot of love.
WC Fields once said: “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.” Which, of course, like most of his famous sayings, was calculated to further his comic film-star reputation as a grouchy, unpleasant old man. But it also contains an underlying truth.
Dogs are a lot like children.
They are nearly always addressed as good – or occasionally bad – boys or girls. It’s common among dog-owners to refer to themselves as their pets’ mummy and daddy. My in-laws call ours their grand-dog.
And if that’s a joke, it’s a joke with a lot of affection and a certain amount of sense behind it.
What do you do with your dog? You look after it, you play with it, you love it. You may put its wants and needs before your own – and get pleasure from doing so. You discipline it perhaps, but not harshly or unkindly. You make it a central member of the family. In short, you treat it like a child.
One man and his co-evolved best friend
But why? It’s not really a child, is it?
Well, yes and no.
Its welfare is every bit as dependent upon you as your children’s. And that is part of the point of keeping one.
Loving your dog, and getting its unconditional love in return, may not in the long run bring all the same rewards as bringing up children. But it can go a long way towards keeping you calm, sane and happy.
And, incidentally, doing the same for your human children too.
There is nothing quite like the companionship you get from a dog.
I heard someone recently describe dogs as “parasites” on humankind. There’s an argument to be made there, I suppose, but it’s a pretty poor one.
We keep dogs fed, sheltered and cared for. That’s our side of the symbiotic relationship between our two species. And what do they do for us in return?
Well, provide all those benefits I mentioned above, for a start.
Some still work for a living. And if fewer shepherds, gun-dogs, retrievers and terriers still do the jobs they are named for, that is hardly their fault.
Most dogs nowadays are kept because we find them appealing – “cute”. Which is a horrid, belittling word but does in fact have a serious side.
Research shows that petting a dog, even just looking at a cute doggy face, releases the same hormone – oxytocin – that being with her baby releases in a mother. It’s involved in normal human intimacy. You could call it the love hormone. And it makes you feel good.
A cynic might say it’s the chemical mechanism by which dogs make us look after them.
But it doesn’t just feel good – it really is good for you. It lowers your blood pressure. Plenty of it really does increase your life expectancy. Pets are great therapy.
And we now know that when you cuddle your dog, or speak kindly to it, it gets a dose of oxytocin too. It really does love you - chemically. And that love, more than anything else, is what motivates its behaviour.
It’s a win-win relationship unlike that between any other two species that we know about.
How did it come about? A long, long time ago – much longer, it is now reliably believed, than our relationship with any other species.
No doubt it began when wolves and early humans discovered they could hunt more efficiently together. And then that joining together in a community round the fire made them all safer.
The natural selection process meant it was the tamer wolves that became the humans’ dogs.
Evolution at work. And not just in the dogs, but in the people too. Living with tamed wolves changed humans as much as humans changed the wolves.
It’s been suggested that it was having dogs as protectors of their herds that enabled hunter-gatherers to settle down and farm. And that was the evolutionary “moment” that ultimately enabled a previously small, nomadic human population to adapt and grow dominant over so much of the world.
An experiment which has been going on in Siberia for 55 years shows how the evolution from wolf to dog worked.
Starting with wild silver foxes, Soviet (now Russian) scientists bred generation after generation, selecting for the ability to interact with humans.
They ended up with foxes as tame, affectionate and trainable as dogs. And they found they had foxes that were more playful, and had more rounded, “cuter” faces. Adult foxes, in fact, that were just like overgrown cubs.
Just as our dogs are like wolf cubs, whose “parents” just happen to be human.
From where I sit, I can see people and dogs happily playing together on an open green space. It makes me feel good just to see them.
My end of the street falls short of that one-in-four figure. Although I didn’t grow up with dogs, I am very happy that the one doggy family here is mine.

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