Dogs began their descent from wolves some 130,000 years ago when an enterprising pack discovered a new source of food and warmth ripe for exploitation. Today, there is little doubt who is in charge in most households, as canines have transitioned from essential workers for hunters and farmers to loveable, furry, spoiled parasites, doted over every day, and we love them for it.
We have two dogs, an older, crazy coonhound and a younger, sillier greyhound. They both share a canine’s predilection for food anywhere, anytime and the ability to sleep the entire day away, but otherwise couldn’t be more different in their personality and temperament. The coonhound, Lilly, is a nervous creature, shaking through thunderstorms, barking at the arrival of any stranger, and all around skittish. She jumps a few feet anytime anyone clangs a pot taking it out of the cabinet, but her bark is something to behold, part dog, part seal, it cuts right through you and she can keep it up for hours on end. It is not an exaggeration to suggest she’s really in charge at the house while wielding the bark like a weapon to get what she wants. No one except my wife can tolerate it for long. Her ability to bark like that is not surprising, however, when you consider the breed’s history. The coonhound originated in America to hunt racoons, of course, but also feral pigs, bobcats, cougars, and bears. The entire purpose of her ancestors was to chase prey up a tree and bark until their master arrived with the cavalry. She uses this today to manipulate her humans, chasing us around for her supper instead of a raccoon. There is a long history of chasing in her breed as well. The coonhound’s ancestor is the English foxhound. They were excellent chasers as well, armed with a keen sense of smell, but they had trouble hunting critters that could go up into the trees. The coonhound breeds we know and love today are a mix of foxhound and bloodhound, originally identified in 1900.
Our greyhound, Rose In Paradise, is descended from a much older breed, one that goes back thousands of years. The skeletal remains of her ancestors have been found up to 4 millenia ago. They first arrived in England with the Roman army, and were common throughout Europe by the eighth or ninth century. Archaeologists uncovered an example in Chotebuz fort in the Czech Republic and found it to be almost genetically identical to modern greyhounds with only four deletions and one substitution in their DNA strands. The greyhound appears to have been originally bred for hunting by combining great eyesight and speed, and they have been referred to as sighthounds at points in history. I wonder if those ancient greyhounds had a habit of “roaching” as their descendants do today. Roaching is a weird behavior where the greyhound lays flat on its back and spreads all four legs in the air. Rosie can maintain that position for hours instead of just laying down. During which her head is upside down, and she sees the world from a very different point of view. Regardless, we can assume her ancestors were certainly fast, hitting speeds up to 40 miles per hour in as quickly as six strides. The stride itself is a marvel to watch.
Last winter, Rosie decided on her own to do a little bit of exploring outside the house, and the snow was no impediment. She took off like a black furry rocket over the white landscape, easily covering 2-3 yards with each leap, so fast she was out of sight before we even knew what happened. Their spine is extremely flexible, allowing them to gallop like a horse, what is known as a “double suspension gallop” where all four feet are off the ground both at full extension and when fully contracted. Combined with a large heart and the highest percentage of fast twitch muscles of any dog breed, she looks like she’s flying across the earth, a blur in the night, or perhaps something out of a horror movie when seen in flashes. I know this from experience: I was standing at the open front door, looking out on a cold, dark night. There are no street lamps in my neighborhood and all I could see was the glow of the snow, and the dim silhouette of the house across the way. I could hear my wife calling for her somewhere to my right, precisely as you might expect for a slasher movie character who makes the mistake of wandering off. The world was silent otherwise, breath misting in the air instead of sound. Rosie was nowhere to be found as far as I could discern looking out from the front door; her mostly black body blends all too easily in with shadows at night. She could’ve been under a nearby tree or off somewhere in the woods. I had no idea and she wasn’t saying either, until she shot across the front door from the left side, so fast I couldn’t actually see her, only a dark form streaking by stark against the snow. I think I heard the music from Aliens playing, when Geiger’s inspired insectoids beast appear from the shadows to pounce on unsuspecting humans. For her part, Rosie was at the back door before I even turned around.
Rose In Paradise is actually her racing name, and she had a brief career on the Florida circuit before we adopted her at 2 years old. Americans began racing greyhounds in earnest early in the 20th century following a tradition of coursing, where the hounds actually chased a real rabbit around a field. England followed suit in 1926, Scotland and Ireland in 1927, and Australia shortly thereafter, which in turn opened up a large market for greyhounds as pets after their racing careers. Surprisingly, the breed adapts very well to retired life, at least once they learn to master going up and down stairs. The first time she made it up, she was afraid to go down, waiting in the hallway for some time before taking the plunge. Otherwise, she is a much calmer and more confident dog than our Lilly. She rarely barks, will introduce herself to any stranger, is patient waiting for her food and gets incredibly excited at the mere thought of a treat. While Lilly is doing her demanding bark, as if the treat belonged to her by divine right, Rose will bounce around the room with her eyes locked on the target. Racing greyhounds is now falling out of favor in the United States, leaving the future of the breed in doubt, but given the long history and almost iconic presence in Western culture, it seems likely greyhounds will persist in some form. This is, after all, a breed mentioned prominently in everything from the bible to Shakespeare. In fact, the greyhound is the only dog breed to appear in the bible, specifically in Proverbs, “There be three things which do well, yea, Which are comely in going; A lion, which is strongest among beasts and Turneth not away from any; A greyhound; A he-goat also.” In Shakespeare, Henry V uses the image of a greyhound to urge his men to glory before a battle, “I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot; Follow your spirit: and upon this charge, Cry — God for Harry! England and Saint George!”
Rosie is well adapted to retired life now, but her initial few days in the house were not so pleasant after she made the mistake of casually checking out Lilly’s treat, finding the rawhide roll rather interesting after her evening walk. A brief rumble ensued, and though not a scratch was to be found on either, Rosie retreated to a corner of the house and remained there for several days before finally emerging and rejoining the family. I think she learned two things from it: Her family loves her and was there for her, spending a lot of our time just sitting in the room waiting for her to come out of her shell, and her sister is a big bully. Rosie has never gone after one of Lilly’s treats ever again. Indeed, she makes sure to have her treat in a different room entirely. This is for the best because Lilly is a difficult dog under any circumstance involving food or one of her preferred spots in the house. She was bred for hunting and barking, but never did anything of the sort save for the young rabbit she got in the yard two summers ago. Even then, it looked as if she was surprised at the critter in her mouth, as though it might have appeared there accidentally. She is also a rescue, but rather than racing, we believe she was abused as a puppy and still bears the scars. At twelve, she is a dog that brooks no change to her routine. Attached to her mother first and me second, following one around and then the other wherever we may roam. You have a 95% chance of knowing where she is in the house by the time of day. She has her specific spots and will fight anyone who gets in her way. She also knows when it’s time to eat and go out for a walk, pre-empting both with a whine that gives way to the bark, sometimes at 1:00 AM. Rosie, on the other hand, can be found on a much wider variety of furniture or the floor, far more free flowing overall and sometimes even spends time by herself.
Ultimately, watching two dogs in a single house for a full day is enough to make one wonder: Did we breed dogs for our own purposes or did they breed us for theirs? I might call myself their owner, but it doesn’t take more than a day to determine who is really in charge. Once upon a time, dogs were bred to perform tasks, some of which were so essential a hunter or farmer might well depend on the canine for their very existence. Rosie actually did perform hers for a time, but nowadays they are closer to adorable, fuzzy, lovable parasites, manipulating their humans to live extravagant lifestyles, at least by animal standards. They have primary meals and desserts. Dedicated doggie beds and the run of the place when those won’t do. We walk them when they want, pet them when they come close, provide medical care if needed, as if we were worshiping them and not the other way around. Previously, scientists believed this was a new phenomenon and that dogs were first bred from wolves when humans began to gather in permanent or semi permanent settlements some 12,000 years ago. The thinking went that we almost immediately put them to work, but research on their DNA in the late 1990’s put the actual split from wolves much earlier, all the way back to 130,000 years ago when humans had yet to discover cave painting. This date suggests that it was wolves who first exploited us: One can imagine an enterprising pack, recognizing a potential source of food and warmth in an otherwise cold and brutal world. Interestingly, other studies suggest that the domestication process occurred at least twice, with wolves adding fresh DNA into the mix on separate occasions.
Whatever the case, the 150 or so breeds of dogs we have today, all of the species Canis familiarus, bear little resemblance to wolves, technically known as Canis lupus, other than four legs, fur, and a snout. Their teeth have gotten much smaller, along with their muzzles and overall body size. You might also say they have gotten more human, particularly in their eyes which seem to impart a wide range of uncannily familiar emotions. We are of course personifying a bit, but who hasn’t been confronted with a dog that at least seems sad, ashamed, excited, or even confused? Needless to say, we cannot know what lies behind their stare. We do know they certainly look the part when necessary and clearly possess something resembling rudimentary emotions, at least enough to manipulate us into believing so and tending to their needs. It should also come as no surprise that a domesticated dog’s behavior is also radically different from a wolf in the wild. They learn from birth to rely on humans for almost every need, and in experiments comparing their behavior to their wild ancestors the dog almost immediately heads to a nearby human for help. For example, in one experiment researchers put a piece of meat in a cage that couldn’t be opened by either the wolf or the dog, and then placed a human on the other side of a fence to watch. The wolf pretends the human doesn’t exist, circling the cage and attempting to open it for hours without success. The dog, however, runs right to the human and starts whining or begging.
In that regard, we certainly shouldn’t dismiss how intelligent these creatures are. Surely, they aren’t good problem solvers, and cannot plan ahead. They rely on humans for those petty details, but they do have excellent memories to the point where a Jack Russell Terrier that belonged to an old roommate of mine recognized me 10 years after I’d last seen him. They know their people. They know their houses. They know their routine, and along with their affection for humanity, that appears to be enough for them to colonize the entire planet, and be spoiled like pampered royalty for the most part. It is a remarkable evolution and evolutionary trick in a lot of ways: From exploiting humanity for warmth and food, to working side by side with us for thousands of years, to dominating humanity entirely, at least in wealthy cultures. I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’ breakthrough evolutionary theory, the Extended Phenotype, where he noted that an animal’s DNA can have an impact on their environment. A beaver evolved to build a dam. A dam completely changes the landscape. Therefore, we can reasonably say that natural selection acted on the beaver for the purpose of changing the landscape, meaning the DNA of the beaver was selected because of its ability to create a new world. The phenotype of the beaver is the change to the environment. Dogs were domesticated, not naturally selected, but their DNA has been entwined with ours for thousands of years, each acting on the other in a symbiotic relationship until they have become inseparable. Something in us calls out to dogs. Something in them calls out to us. We would not be the same without them.
I’m also reminded of The Usual Suspects. If the devil’s greatest trick was convincing humanity he didn’t exist, the dog’s must be convincing us we’re in charge for a time. What more could a domesticated wolf ask for, save for maybe another treat?