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Why Are Dogs Man's Best Friend? 14,000 Years of Companionship

Updated on October 20, 2008

Evolving With Dogs


"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace." - Milan Kundera

When humans emerged from the evolutionary process, they were greeted by a wag of the tail and a lick on the face. It seems like that sometimes. As though we emerged from the primordial ooze and there they were. In fact, we evolved together, and our special relationship with canines has existed since prehistoric times. According to Darcy Moray, zoo archaeologist from the University of Tennessee at Martin, the oldest convincing case occurred "In Germany, about 14,000 years [ago]. Not only was the dog buried, it was part of a human double grave," (Archeology, November 8. 2006). Furthermore, Moray continues, the oldest evidence of this human/canine bond in North America is between 9000 and 10,000 years old, with dog burials documented from every major land mass in the world except Antarctica.



Talk To The Animals


There's more to it than just growing up and evolving together. "It looks like dogs really do understand what we are trying to tell them, they are thinking about what we want, and they understand that we are trying to communicate," said Brian Hare of Harvard University. A study was conducted by Hare comparing dogs, puppies, wolves and chimpanzees' ability to understand human communication methods. Since wolves have bigger brains than dogs, it was thought they would do better, and since chimpanzees are biologically closer to humans, it was thought they would do best.

The dogs surprised scientists by doing much better than wolves or chimpanzees, and even puppies as young as 9 weeks old outperformed them as well.

"Dogs have a talent for reading social cues in a very sophisticated way," Hare said.

Shepherd -
Shepherd -

A Working Relationship

There has also been a long standing working relationship between dogs and humans, which further cements our symbiotic relationship . "We know that dogs were useful for lots of things in Stone Age culture, as draft animals, in hunting, for warmth, and for protection," said Jennifer Leonard, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. Herding dogs, hunting dogs, tracking dogs and sled dogs have been joined by a plethora of modern day working dogs. From rescue dogs to assistance dogs, from war dogs to cadaver dogs, our best friends have made themselves indispensable.

In many ways, we have become as dependent on them as they are on us.


The Hero Dog

There have been many news stories detailing the bond between dogs and humans, and tales of dog heroics enter the public consciousness, capture our imaginations, and fuel our assertions that a dog's loyalty is unwavering. No mere animals these, but trustworthy companions who well deserve our praise and pampering.

Deep in a forest in Kenya in 2005, a baby was abandoned by her mother and left to die. A stray dog, herself a new mother, heard the baby's cries and dragged her to her own litter, caring for her, nursing her, and treating her like one of her own pups. Eventually the baby was discovered, the dog still watching over her, and was taken to a hospital and is now growing up a healthy baby girl.

This begs the question, "Just how deep is the tie between humans and dogs? Did the dog know instinctively how to care for a human baby, even though she was a stray and may have had little human contact?

On the infamous 9/11, blind computer technician Omar Eduardo Rivera was at his desk on the 71st floor of the World Trade Center north tower, his guide dog "Dorado" lying under the desk. Then the plane struck. It seemed impossible to get down the stairs, so Rivera unleashed "Dorado" so he could escape to freedom. The dog refused to go, but soon was swept up in the tide of people and disappeared down the stairwell. As people pushed him, knocked him aside, and spun him around in their panic, Rivera was constantly becoming disoriented. Several minutes later, he felt the familiar lick on his left hand. Dorado had returned - fighting against the massive exodus - and spent the next hour guiding Rivera to safety. A very short time later the building collapsed.

One autumn day in late October, 2006, Michael Bosch and his dog "Honey" were just heading out from their isolated 70 acre property, with the nearest neighbor ΒΌ of a mile away. Bosch was recovering from a heart attack only 2 months before. Suddenly, blinded by the sun, Bosch drove his SUV into a ravine, rolled over 5 times and dropped 50 feet, landing upside down. Bosch hung upside down for 8 hours, pinned by a tree that had come through the roof. Realizing that "Honey" - only 5 months old at the time - was his only chance for escape, he managed to get her out through a gaping hole in the windshield, urging her to get help. "Honey" made her way through the thick brambles of the forest, finally arriving at a neighbors door. In a scene right out of Lassie, "Honey" led the neighbor to the accident site and Bosch was saved. Bosch, remarkably, had saved "Honey" from a shelter just two weeks before the accident.


Friends Who Play Together...

The usefulness of dogs does not alone account for the unique bond between us. We like them. We pamper them. We buy them balls and squeaky things and stuff to chew on. We play fetch with them, teach them to catch a Frisbee, and train them to sit, stay, lie down, and heel. We take them for walks, but often they take us. They will follow us anywhere if we let them. They sleep in our beds and sit on our laps. Americans alone now spend $41 billion a year on their pets, more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.

A homeless "street kid" with his dog in Brazil      - carf/flikr
A homeless "street kid" with his dog in Brazil - carf/flikr

The Ties That Bind

We interact with each other as social organisms. We feel for each other. We share in each others joy, and suffer in sympathy with each others pain. Their feelings are hurt when we yell at them, but they cheer us up when we are down. They know how we're feeling, and they let us know if they're angry with us or if they're feeling sick. And we rush them off to the vet or the animal hospital or wherever and dear, God, please help my dog. He is like a son to me and I've raised him from a puppy and he is loyal and true and damn it I love him. And we weep when we bury them. And they are sad when we are buried. Unbearably, heart-breakingly sad. It is this emotional attachment, this un-dissolvable bond, that puts dogs over the top. This is what, ultimately, makes the dog - a simple creature but not so dumb after all - man's best friend.



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