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In The Country

Dogs and humans: An old friendship

Laurie Stover
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(4/2015) Sometimes the only "person" I can stand to be around is a dog. Dogs understand me in those moments when I donít want to talk or when I just want to sit on a hillside and stare at the sky. I like to imagine that I am one of the first humans, I have befriended a wolf and we have an intra-species connection. The reality is that Iím a modern human and my wolf pack is a Labrador and a Boston terrier. They may walk heel nicely on a leash and listen to my commands just like Iíve trained them to do but if given the opportunity they will immediately run to the nearest dead animal and roll in it. Thatís what we love about them; dogs enjoy living with us but their wild instincts are just beneath the surface. "They are a wild and tame; from nature but can join our culture," Marion Schwartz.

The reason it feels so natural to walk with a dog, sleep beside a dog or sit and stare at the sky with a dog is because humans and dogs have been doing these things for a long time; 20,000-30,000 years to be exact. One popular belief is that a now extinct wolf-type canid (the ancestor of all current dog breeds) was drawn to human encampments by the animal carcasses that were being discarded. They may have also enjoyed the food and the protection they received by staying nearer to the human groups. Eventually the relationship grew to become beneficial to humans as the wolves aided in hunting. As hunter-gatherer groups migrated, the wolves followed, a history that can be traced through fossil records.

The early humans and dogs would have been both highly observant and adaptable in order to survive. Both would have needed to travel great distances in search of food and shelter if the environment became uninhabitable. As humans and dogs migrated and traveled together to new areas, the attributes and behaviors of both species changed and adapted to the demands of environment. Peoples that settled in the coldest areas of the world needed dogs that could survive cold temperatures and pull sleds across snow. Those who inhabited warm climates would have needed dogs to be specialized in other areas. Hence the careful selection and breeding of dogs began.

Today we see such a vast variety of dog breeds that itís hard to believe they are all the same species, Canis lupus familiaris. Humans have bred dogs to meet many needs from hunting, herding, protection, tracking to just simple companionship. Some dogs breeds of the Native Americans such as the little bear dogs, a small dog which was used to track and "worry" bears until the hunter arrived, have not survived to current day. But other native dogs like the Eskimo dog have survived. These dogs were used for pulling sleds filled with fish, walrus and seals. They could survive with very little care or food in the harsh environment of the far north.

"Our domestic dogs are descended from wolves and jackals and though they may not have gained in cunning, and may have lost in wariness and suspicion, yet they have progressed in certain moral qualities, such as affection, trust-worthiness, temper and probably in general intelligence." This is a passage from Charles Darwinís, The Descent of Man and the Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwinís observations about what has occurred as we have domesticated dogs can be confirmed by anyone who has ever lived with a dog. Dogs are highly responsive to humans; inarguably more so than any other animal. In their book The Genius of Dogs, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods discuss that dogs are similar to human infants in the way they watch us and pay attention to us. Dogs are more in-tuned to us than even our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, and are able to detect even the slightest change in our eye movements.

It is the intelligence; eagerness to please and close observation of humans that makes dogs so easily trainable for jobs that aid us. It gives a dog great satisfaction to do the job that he was bred to do. In actuality, giving a dog a job or purpose in life is the highest respect you can pay to him. Over time we have learned how we can use a dogís keen sense of smell, alertness and intuitiveness to perform jobs such as search and rescue, bomb and drug detection, alerting owners to seizures, calming people with PTSD and bringing comfort to sick children and the elderly. Work gives dogs so much pleasure and satisfaction that they will often work until they are completely exhausted just to please their handler.

Daily walks with your dog are not only good exercise for both of you but it also fulfills the wolf-like instincts of a dog. In the wild, dogs wake every morning and walk as a pack in search of food. The alpha dog leads the way while the rest of the pack follows. This can be carried over to the human and dog walk. Leading the walk and feeding your dog upon return fulfills two basic wolf-like instincts: migrating and working for food. During the walk, dogs release immense amounts of energy by sniffing, making connections about what has changed in their territory, and concentrating on following the alpha. There is no greater way to create harmony, respect and peace in your relationship with your dog than to simply walk together as we have for thousands of years.

On April 26th at Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve we will be hosting a Hound Hike. A local dog-training group will there to give an obedience demonstration as well as guide you and your dog through an obstacle course. A naturalist will lead a guided hike on the beautiful trails of the preserve. You and your dog will enjoy this afternoon together out in nature, walking, exploring and socializing. There is no fee for the event however a $2 donation for the hike is welcomed. Activities begin at 2:00 and the guided hike will leave at 3:00. For more information visit our website at www.strawberryhill.org.

Laurie Stover is a naturalist at Strawberry Hill and a dog handler with a local canine training group.

Read other articles by Laurie Stover