Thursday, 2 March 2017

The domestic dog, our enigmatic friend

image from How Stuff Works
Humans have been training, using and relating to dogs for 15,000 years, since the dawn of civilisation. How the domestic dog emerged from wolves is not known: the DNA, archaeological and cultural evidence is confusing. Selective breeding is obviously involved but an experiment with a population of silver foxes in Russia shows that dog-like tameability can be cultivated over 50 years: millenia are not required. (I'm not sure why foxes were chosen, as opposed to wolves, but I imagine the principle must be the same.)

I have never owned a dog and have tended to be rather wary of them; but recent news items and documentaries together with the insights of Hugh Ross in his  Hidden Treasures in the Book of Job have caused me to appreciate what remarkable and unique animals they are. You have probably observed or heard about at least some of their attributes  but you may not have seen them listed together so I hope the following list will be interesting and inspire you to think more about them.

Diversity within the species

Size and appearance vary enormously over some 200 varieties, ranging from the Pekingese to the Great Dane, yet we all recognise them as belonging to the same species. They have a unique genetic code which makes it possible to achieve this diversity by selective breeding. Even character traits differ with the breed and I wonder if this could have something to do with epigenetics, by which learned behaviour (e.g. hunting or retrieving in the case of our canine friends) can be passed on to at least the 3rd generation.

Sense of smell

This is staggering. They can detect the presence of one spoonful of sugar in a million gallons of water ( = 2 Olympic swimming pools). They can also locate the source of a smell because they have a nose in which the nostrils are far apart in relation to the diameter of each and are able to tweek each nostril independently. This obviously makes dogs very useful – e.g. in explosives detection and tracking by scent. See also the dog's dazzling sense of smell

Facial expressiveness

Humans see them as able to smile and look guilty. It makes it easier to relate to dogs more than any (or almost any?) other animal. Research by Alexandra Horowitz  (‘Disambiguating the ‘guilty look’: salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour’, Behavioural Processes, July 2009, p.447-52) indicates that the guilty expression is associated with the desire to please the owner, not with any innate sense of guilt as is felt by humans.

Facial recogniton

Dogs are able to recognise the face, not just the scent, of their owners, see this abstract from the Journal of vision.  They can also pick one out in a crowd and, again, experiments have eliminated the possibility of scent. Dogs can recognise other dogs from hundreds of photographs of all shapes and sizes.

Ability to read cues or read minds

Dogs sometimes seem able to read minds but research by Mark Petter et al (‘Can dogs detect human deception?’, Behavioural Processes, October 2009, p.109-18) suggests that in fact they are picking up subtle visual cues. Yet there is so much anecdotal evidence of telepathy that this question must remain open. I know of cases where a dog can detect whether its owner is on the way home from work, although it could be that he is picking up the owner’s scent.

Consolation of humans in distress

Sensitivity to human distress is widely reported and research by Custance and Mayer reported in the Economist (July 30 2012) on a dog’s tendency to console a person who is crying confirms that this is a real phenomenon. The behaviour is definite but could it be that the dog’s hypersensitivity to smell detects certain olfactory signals which the body may emit when emotionally distressed? In any case, it is a remarkable gift to a person in distress.


It is well known that dogs normally show great loyalty to their owners and respond to their affections.


Many owners report signs of jealousy and I came across this report of an experiment reporting this.

Trainability and usefulness

Of all the animals there is something about dogs that makes them more trainable than any other. This together with their skills and attributes make them extremely useful and companionable to humans.

Servants to the lost, the blind and the sick

The ability of dogs to track escaped criminals, retrieve prey, catch pests, herd sheep, rescue victims in disaster zones, act as guides for the blind or partially sighted and sooth the anxious is well known. It is also generally accepted that owners of dogs live longer and healthier lives. However, recently there have been startling findings on their use in detecting dangerously lowblood sugar levels in diabetics and in warning of epileptic attacks, typically ten minutes ahead.  Dogs can also detect cancer long before it can be diagnosed by modern medicine.

All the above is not to say that dogs can’t also be problems if adopted as pets or working dogs by the wrong owners or owners in the wrong circumstances.  Yet in the history of civilisation they have had an overwhelmingly positive role, one that continues to grow.

 The average neo-Darwinist evolutionary biologist will interpret all this as the product of random mutations, the laws of physics, natural selection, domestication and breeding by human beings. This is a very restricted (boring?) and materialistic view of reality. As a Christian I think these remarkable creatures are also gifts from God to us and that we, unlike any other creature, are made in the image of God, the imago dei. Which is why we are writing blogs about dogs, protecting them against cruelty and organising dog shows; and they are not having international conferences on us. They are there to reflect the human soul and teach us how to relate to God, perhaps because they are in a sense closer to God, being free of egotistical self consciousness.

 See also Scientific American blog and links

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