Not more than a few paragraphs into her winsome account of raising a golden retriever puppy named Scout, based on the column she wrote for the newspaper she runs, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson inadvertently answers the title question of John Homans’s What’s a Dog For? It’s the first time she has set eyes on her new dog, which has caused Abramson to reflect on her old dog, a grouchy West Highland terrier named Buddy: “I was madly in love and forgave Buddy all his sins,” she writes. “He also seemed to certify me as a nicer person.”
So there you have it. Dogs are for love, affection, and making us better humans.
Homans, the executive editor of New York magazine, knows this too. He is in the thrall of Stella, a young lab-mix mutt rescued from the pound, and before her was smitten with his wife’s dog, yet another grouchy West Highland terrier who happened to be named, oddly enough, Scout. But Homans also knows that “dog people” almost never stop to marvel at the strangeness of sharing life and home with a member of a different species. We are so habituated to dogs that we don’t even think to think about what it means or why it is or how it happened.
Stella, though, brings with her the kinds of questions on which journalists love to chew: Where did she come from—geographically, genetically, historically? Why does she look the way she does? How smart is she really? Does she have a conscience? Pursuing these and other mysteries, Homans bounds through the relatively new discipline of canine science, which aims to “shed light on what makes dogs dogs but also on what makes people people,” and the reader gets pulled along in the chase.
Dogs and humans began their familiar pas de deux about 15,000 years ago. The fossil record supports this, as does a study of the mitochondrial DNA of the hair of some 650 dogs undertaken by the Swedish scientist Peter Savolainen. Another DNA study, by the evolutionary biologist Robert Wayne, put dogs and people together 135,000 years ago, which would mean that dogs were present near the birth of what we consider to be modern humans, but there has been no archaeology to confirm it, so the later date is more commonly accepted. What’s not in dispute is the domestic dog’s ancestry. A dog’s mitochondrial DNA differs from a gray wolf’s by a mere 0.2 percent. (Coyotes, in contrast, have a 4 percent difference.) In Robert Wayne’s estimation, “dogs are grey wolves.”
Yet dogs, obviously, are not wolves. They don’t look like wolves except in their broadest outlines, they don’t act like wolves, and they are revered and celebrated in the popular imagination just as wolves are feared and reviled. Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Harry Potter, and Twilight—children are raised to dread wolves. Such “lupophobia” resulted in the extirpation of the wolf from much of its natural habitat, especially in the United States, where the first wolf bounty was established in 1630 by the Massachusetts Bay Colony and where, more than three hundred years later, wolf populations had dwindled to the point that the federal government declared the wolf to be an endangered species. Only in the past few decades, through a concerted and often contentious public campaign, have gray wolf populations come back, though the protection given them is now being lifted in many states, and—though it is now on hold—a year ago the state of Alaska exploited a federal loophole to approve aerial wolf hunting. Lupophobia persists.
Still, the genetics are clear: dogs evolved from wolves, and the question is, how? Were their ancestors the most passive of the pack, the ones that hung around human encampments, willing to do the humans’ bidding? Did people then deliberately breed those wolves that were most attuned to them, understanding their value as hunters or guardians or, even, playmates? Or did dogs essentially domesticate themselves, as docile animal mated with docile animal, by chance creating a human-centered species? And did those dog precursors possess some kind of emotional intelligence that enabled them to read human social cues above and beyond any other animal, thus developing, as John Homans writes, “a new mental mechanism for communicating with humans that wolves didn’t possess: mind reading, as it’s called in the comparative cognition world”?
Just as there are fashions in dog breeds—remember the Shih Tzu?—there are fashions in dog evolutionary theories. The “newest version of the domestication hypothesis,” according to Homans, “posits that humans did not necessarily select dogs to breed based on their attention and skill at responding to human cues. Rather, the tamest and least situationally aggressive dog had those qualities built in.” An even newer theory, though, published in the January 23 issue of Nature, takes domestication in a wholly different direction. The wolves that became dogs, its authors argue upon examination of the entire wolf and dog genomes, were the ones whose bodies were best able to digest the starches that newly agricultural humans left behind in the trash.
From her puppydom onward, Abramson’s Scout displays all the seductive physical characteristics we’ve come to associate with pet dogs. She is fluffy and soft, her gaze is direct, inviting, and soulful, and her ears flop over into perfect velveteen triangles. Abramson admits to singing Scout lullabies with silly, invented lyrics, and to thinking of her dog as a little baby, to be cuddled and swathed in unbridled, joyful tenderness—habits that, as most dog lovers know (and welcome), persist in perpetuity. Neoteny—retaining juvenile features into maturity—may be the dog’s most successful evolutionary adaptation. It triggers a human’s innate caretaking impulse. As Homans notes, “cuteness can be a powerful evolutionary weapon if one wants to succeed with a species as committed to child-rearing as humans are.”
That wolves could morph not only into animals able and eager to respond to human cues, demands, and needs, but into animals that activate deep human emotions by their looks, suggests a magnificent and unusual malleability. The Victorians noticed and exploited this, finding dogs to be the perfect avatars of their own aspirations. “Dogs in the Victorian age…were stand-ins for humans,” Homans writes, “replicating their masters’ inner excellence and class pride and their vision of a well-ordered society.” Possessed of enough biological knowledge, farmers and hunters, especially, began “constructing,” through cross-breeding, dogs that could perform specific tasks. Seeking a dog that could flush badgers out of their burrows, for example, German farmers crossed the short-legged basset hound with the dig-happy terrier to create the dachshund. The golden retriever, born of the English aristocracy in the nineteenth century to be a loyal, water-loving hunting companion, was created from the genetic stew of Newfoundland, yellow retriever, bloodhound, water spaniel, and Irish setter. Of the nearly four hundred registered dog breeds, most are only a few hundred years old (although the pug derives from ancient China).
There is more diversity among dogs than there is among any other species of mammals. This, Homans writes, “persuaded Darwin and many later scientists up to Konrad Lorenz that dogs must have descended from several different kinds of canids, rather than just the wolf. But dog genetics has turned out to be surprisingly simple. The dog is a basic template…infinitely customizable with the variation of a fairly small number of genes.” As Evan Ratliff observes in a recent issue of National Geographic, a single gene determines if a dog will have the short, squat legs of a dachshund or the long, elegant legs of a greyhound. Another gene controls for color in Labrador retrievers, another for floppy ears. “Flip a few switches, and your dachshund becomes a Doberman, at least in appearance. Flip again, and your Doberman is a Dalmatian.” There is even a single gene that will make distinctive white “socks” on a black Lab that disqualify it from meeting the breed standard.
Breed standards were the invention of organizations like the British Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club, which came about, essentially, to organize dog shows. In 1873, when the first registry of dog breeds was established in England, it was analogous to farmers’ sheep and cattle stud books, noting who was mated with whom. It was not long before the genetic purity of the pedigreed dog was promoted as a bulwark against the “racial” pollution of the mongrel, and all that implied beyond the dog world.
The prejudice in favor of purebreds has only recently been challenged, as mutts are thought to have “hybrid vigor” from their mixed gene pool, while purebreds, with their limited lineage, have fallen prey to certain diseases and disabling conditions. When Jill Abramson was looking for a dog to replace Buddy, she considered a pound puppy—and felt guilty not acquiring one—but she and her husband were seeking a dog with a specific appearance and temperament, which is what a “pure” dog promises. Scout is what is known as an “English” golden retriever—though in fact all goldens trace their heritage back to Great Britain. English goldens are not only distinguished by their nearly white fur, square heads, and stocky builds, they are also less prone to cancer than their more common—and more commonly inbred—cousins. A dog’s pedigree, Abramson learned, was not enough; in any case, a dog’s breeder’s pedigree was more important.
When humans breed dogs, we breed them for us—to suit our fancy, primarily, and sometimes to help us accomplish certain tasks. Snout-compressed dogs like the bulldog have been bred to appeal to a particular human aesthetic, even though this means that they sometimes have trouble breathing. The Cavalier King Charles, which in the twentieth century was rejiggered to resemble dogs in royal portraits, is, as a result, often born with a brain too big for its skull, with excruciating consequences. And bulldogs, as handsome as their oversized heads may be, are typically too large now to descend through their mother’s birth canal and require surgical extraction to be born. The soft mouth of the retriever is a human invention, and so is the tail of a pointer. The labradoodle—a cross between a poodle and a Labrador retriever—was initially made to create non-shedding guide dogs because the standard guide dogs—German shepherds, Labs, and golden retrievers—could not be used by people with allergies.
Meanwhile, most dogs that were originally bred to work—herding sheep, ferreting rats, retrieving game, or even, like those first labradoodles, guiding the blind—now live out their days as suburban or urban habitués, with little to do all day but wait for the return of family members from work or school. The fact is that dogs—at least dogs like Scout and Stella, and my dog and probably yours—come into our world for our pleasure, whatever that pleasure is. They are here at our invitation, and exist under our control. We determine what they eat and when, and how much they exercise and how, and we train them—à la Abramson’s Scout—to live according to our rules and standards. The human–canine bond is inherently unequal. Like it or not, it is a power relationship.