Human-Canine Relationships

Coevolution, Choices and Challenges

Evelyn Lee Barney

 

"There is no friendship on this planet as intense, profound, and finally mysterious as that between dogs and humans” (Masson)

 

The term "coevolution" is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. It is most often used to explain coadaptations between species. The coevolution of humans and canines has a long and fascinating history. Researchers estimate that the history of humans and dogs coexisting reaches back 15000 years. Archeologists have found numerous samples of canine fossil remains along with human remains at prehistoric sites.

Our modern domestic canines evolved, by a number of divergent paths, from Asian wolves. The ancestors of our dogs seem to have chosen to live in symbiotic relationship with humans for food, warmth, and eventually, companionship. It is thought that their ability to read social cues began as part of their “pack” lifestyle. It is supposed that those with the most malleable temperament, the intelligence to learn human, as well as canine, social cues, the ability and willingness to assist with human hunts and provide protection for their human companions, were encouraged to remain with the human family-tribe. Wolves with the ability to adapt to living with humans were rare. Genetic testing has shown that 90% of the domestic dogs living today have descended from only 3 early female wolves. (Hair) The natural breeding of these canines and the resulting litters raised with both human and canine support resulted in the first of the domesticated dogs. The animal we know today as the domestic dog has evolved as a human companion from its beginnings. It’s no surprise that dogs became known as “man’s best friend.”

It is interesting to note that chimpanzees, man’s closest animal relation, and wolves, the animal most closely related to the domestic dog, do not have this innate ability to read human social cues. Yet, even puppies born in the wild to modern dogs quickly learn to respond to human gestures. Clearly, humans and dogs have become “hardwired” by evolution for a unique interrelationship.

Most dog owners say that there's something special about the mutual understanding and empathy that exists between humans and dogs. Though most animal behaviorists agree that it is a mistake to anthropomorphize dogs, these same behaviorists disagree about a dog’s actual motivations, and their ability to experience emotion as we understand it. The question “is it love, or self-serving survival instinct that causes a dog to behave towards humans with apparent loyalty and devotion?” continues to be asked. The debate has raged for centuries, and is likely to continue:

Did Lassie really love Timmy? Or was she only saving him from disaster, time and again, so that he would reward her later with a tasty morsel from the dinner table?

Scientists, veterinarians and dog owners have long questioned the relationship between man and his best friend. Even philosophers have ventured opinions on the idea: Plato described dogs as "lovers of learning" and Voltaire refuted Descartes' theory that dogs were merely unintelligent machines. (Etter)

This relationship, like all relationships, has its advantages and drawbacks. Not all dogs are suited as partners for particular individuals. Not all dogs are suited for the tasks assigned to them. And, despite our heritage as socially related species, not every person is suited to be the guardian of a dog.

Those of us who love dogs, and choose to share our lives with them, must face the unfortunate fact that a dog’s life span is shorter than a human’s. Loss is an inevitable part of the human-dog relationship. If we find the companionship of a dog, for whatever reason, necessary to the quality of our life, we may face this loss multiple times. Those of us who choose dogs as service partners must prepare, not only emotionally, but practically, for this loss.

When the service tasks a dog performs are necessary for us to live our lives fully, then we must always be looking forward to the end of the dog’s ability to work, and the need to begin training a new dog. The emotional bond coupled with the dependence we experience makes this a particularly complex aspect of our relationships to our service dogs. For this reason, some people choose longer-lived species as service animals (such as the miniature horse) and others choose to find alternatives to having a service animal at all, even when it limits their functioning in life. Choosing to take responsibility for any animal companion must be done thoughtfully.

(For more detailed information on coevolution and the human-canine bond, click HERE.)

 

 

 

 

We who choose to surround
ourselves with lives even more
temporary than our own,
live within a fragile circle,
easily and often breached.
Unable to accept its awful gaps,
we still would live no other way.
We cherish memory as the only
certain immortality never fully understanding the necessary plan.

-Irving Townsend

The Once Again Prince

 

 

 

Sources:

Csanyi , Vilmos. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. Paperback. New York, NY: North Point Press, 2005.

Donaldson, Jean . The Culture Clash. Paperback. James & Kenneth, 2005.

Etter , Sarah . "Does my dog really love me?." Psychorg.com July 07, 2005. 13 May 2007 <http://www.physorg.com/news5011.html>.

Hair, Brian. "How Dogs Became Man's Best Friend." National Geographic News January 25, 2007

Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff. Dogs Never Lie About Love . Paperback. Crown, 1997.

McDougall, Alex. "Man’s Best Friend." Tree of Life May 13, 2007 <http://tolweb.org/treehouses/>