Man’s Best Friend

Working sheep dog from Victorian era (British Museum Archives)

I have something of a reputation as a crazy cat lady, but to be truthful I like dogs as much as I like cats. Dogs play a very important function beyond being pets. Dogs have been trained to herd animals; track lost people and animals; act as guards; detect drugs, bombs and bodies; assist the blind, the elderly and the police; they can even be trained to detect cancer and termites, and that is only a partial list of the useful roles that dogs undertake for the benefit of the human race. Of course, this sort of work depends on senses and skills that human beings don’t have, but it also takes a great deal of intelligence to work in such a collaborative manner.

Now, canine intelligence is very different to ours. Dogs are a pack animal, and work best within the hierarchy of a structured

Blind dog and his guide dog (from the Internet, source unknown)

pack. When we domesticated dogs, (or, conversely, dogs domesticated us) dogs substituted human beings for other dogs in the pack hierarchy; modern dogs consider their family their pack. Generally, one of the humans is the pack leader, and trouble can occur if the dog thinks it is the pack leader; we’ve all met those pampered dogs that rule their owners with an iron paw. Most of the time, the family dog is lower in the hierarchy.

Human beings are also a collaborative species. We aren’t a pack animal as such, but human beings prefer to work in a team or a social group for the benefit of the entire group. This means that we are already primed instinctively to work in a partnership. So, this means that human beings and dogs found it relatively easy to form a bond, since both species prefer to work in groups. Human beings might have the superior cognitive skills, but there are certain basic aspects that correspond between human and canine behaviour when acting as a team.

So – on what level are dogs and humans collaborating?

Dogs let us do the thinking for them. Even though they are highly intelligent, dogs usually let their humans do the thinking while they get on with the task. The perfect example is the sheep dog, which lets the human direct where the sheep are supposed to go while doing the dog does the actual work of moving the sheep. This means dogs have developed a high level of understanding of human communication, which we humans depend upon without questioning it.

I have taken for granted how well my little dog knows me. He has only one eye, and so can easily lose sight of the ball. When he hasn’t seen where the ball has gone, he will look at me, and I point in the direction the ball has gone, and he shoots off in that direction. Taking direction from a pointing finger – simple right? But dogs don’t have fingers. There is nothing in their instinctive behaviour for the recognition of human body signals.

Humans think we are pretty clever because we can read some basic canine body signals, and forget how amazing it is that dogs can read our signals right back, and to a higher level than we realise. Brian Hare from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and colleagues, have studied dog behaviour for human-dog collaborations.  Hare has been quoted saying, “The dog is the only species we’ve found that has some of the communicative skills that look like what infants need to acquire language and culture.” In other words, not all of a dog’s social behaviour is instinctive; some of its behavioural patterns are learnt.

Now, human beings aren’t unique in sharing bonds with other species, but we, as a species, are unique in that we seek out other animals for friendship. It has been theorised that this aspect of our behaviour meant we had a ready source of fresh food when prehistoric times were tough. Ethologists are beginning to question this theory. They think it is part of the ‘altruism’ that human beings use as a species to survive. The prehistoric dogs contributed to the hunt and shared the food; a well-trained dog would be too valuable an asset to kill for food and would be considered part of the family group (just like now).  If our ancestors killed their pets every time they were too lazy to hunt, dogs would never have been domesticated.

And how did the canine species benefit from domestication? They had formed a pack that hunted better than any group made up of just humans or dogs. Of course, dogs didn’t think ‘This is a better pack’. The dogs that were domesticated had longer lives and more puppies than those who remained untamed. And it works both ways … human beings that didn’t have dogs (or ate their pets) were probably less successful than those human beings who did team up with dogs.

Domestication is a two-way street.

And cats? Well, who wouldn’t want a furry companion sleeping on their feet in a chilly climate? However, they are generally not a pack animal. Scientists are still working on whether there is the same level of communication between human beings and their cats as there is between human beings and their dogs.

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