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The Dog: Man's Most Useful Best Friend

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Mammals Dog

Published on July 30th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie


The Dog: Man’s Most Useful Best Friend


Playful, loving, endearing, and loyal, these are just some of the adjectives that people use to describe their canine, dog friends. A young girl throws a stick to her faithful Labrador, who in turn happily retrieves it, scampering back, wagging its tail in delight. These are just some of the scenes that are repeated on a daily basis throughout the world.

Dogs are said to be man’s best friend. It is not difficult to see why. Dogs and humans have had a close relationship for thousands of years and during that time their bonds have been strengthened. They are one of the most intelligent and thoughtful animals. Because of this, they are a staple in many people’s homes.

Boxer Dogs

Boxer Dogs

The Common Dog

Dogs (Canis lupis familiaris) come in all shapes and sizes. Although they are a child of nature, their appearance is governed by humans. Through careful selection, man has managed to breed dogs to his specific requirements.

However, it must be noted that, as of yet, all breeds can interbred with one another. Likewise, dogs can interbred with wolves and foxes.

In common parlance, a male is simply referred to as a ‘dog’ while a female is commonly called a ‘bitch’.

Domestication Of The Dog

There is widespread disagreement as to just how exactly dogs became tamed. There are two different competing trains of thought on the subject. Some believe that it was once-off encounter with wolves which led to their domestication.

Others believe that it happened gradually and in different regions. What’s more, there is also disagreement about who initiated the first contact – humans or wolves.

Gray Wolf Photo By Daniel Mott Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Gray Wolf Photo By Daniel Mott Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

One of the stronger theories is that wolves gradually familiarised themselves with people as they prowled our rubbish dumps. This led to them being indifferent towards humans and rendered them more susceptible to being domesticated.

However, an opposing argument suggests that we adopted wolf pups. Darwin’s ‘Natural Selection’ then became apparent as those most suited for human companionship survived to become our domestic dogs.

Revealing Experiment

During the 1950s, an interesting experiment by a Russian scientist took place. Dmitri Belyaev demonstrated that wild foxes could be tamed relatively quickly. In his famous experiment, Silver Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) essentially became domesticated canines after only 20 years of intensive breeding.

The foxes were completely at ease in human company and displayed dog-like behaviour by wagging their tails and licking people.

Even more startling than the behavioural changes, was the fact that they developed floppy ears, curled tails and spotted coats. This was completely different than their wild counterparts.

However dogs become tame, DNA evidence has shown that theyevolved from the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) approximately 15,000 years ago. It is estimated that they were subsequently kept by humans somewhere between 12,ooo and 14,000 years ago. Dogs quickly travelled where ever their human compatriots went.

Invaluable Asset

They were an incredibly important asset to man. As well as assisting in hunting and providing food, canines would provide protection from dangerous predators. In terms of transportation, sled dogs assisted in transversing some of the most difficult of terrains.

In more recent times, dogs still play a very valuable role in society. They aid in animal herding and provide protection and security. They act as drug detectors and assist the blind and physically disabled.

One of the most remarkable aspects of canines is their olfactory capacity. Their sense of smell is immeasurably better than a human’s. On a quantifiable level, a dog possesses over 200 million olfactory cells, while we only have a paltry five million.

According to the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, a dog’s sense of smell is on average 10,000 to 100,000 times better than humans. Even the best odour detecting machines are greatly outperformed by our canine friends.

Guide Dog Guides A Blind Man Photo By Antonio Cruz

Guide Dog Guides A Blind Man Photo By Antonio Cruz

Cancer Detectives

According to the Pine Street Foundation, a cancer research organisation in San Anselmo, California, dogs can accurately detect if people have cancer or not by smelling the person’s breath.

In a study carried out on breast and lung cancer, it was found that dogs can detect cancer with an accuracy of between 88 per cent and 97 per cent, depending on the type of cancer. They have close to a 99 per cent success level with lung cancer patients. These results are higher than current cancer screening techniques such as mammograms and CT scans.

In fact, dogs can be trained to find most objects by smell. Currently, they are used to detect drugs, landmines, dead bodies, and even smuggled goods.

Breeding And Its Problems

There are currently, approximately 400 million dogs in the world. This number is comprised of just under 400 different breeds.

However, it must be noted that, although canines have been domesticated, nearly 14,000 years ago, they can still inter-breed. Therefore, ignoring birthing and mating difficulties, a tiny Chihuahua could theoretically produce a pup with a Great Dane.

The huge amount of different breeds is due to humans picking inherited traits which are valued more above others.Many of these traits would make dogs impotent in the wild. For instance, it is highly unlikely that a tiny Yorkshire Terrier or a Papillion would survive without a owner to look after it.

Another problem with aggressive breeding programmes is that pure-breeds suffer more diseases and genetic disorders than mongrels. Which raises questions. Therefore, should this type of breeding be allowed to continue unregulated when much of it is done for reasons of vanity and ego?

If you would like to learn more check out Yellow Magpie’s articles on Inbred Dogs: Dogs Who Pay The Price For People’s Vanity and The True Cost Of Pedigree Dog Breeding.

Dogs And Their Owners

Dogs provide people with protection, companionship and unconditional love. Perhaps even more importantly they act as a mirror in which our true selves are revealed. We project our feelings and emotions upon our pets.

We anthropomorphise our dogs by bestowing human characteristics upon them. It is perhaps no coincidence that after a period of time some dog owners start to look like their canine pets, or vice versa.

Dog's Nose Photo By Piotr Grzywocz Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Dog’s Nose Photo By Piotr Grzywocz Creative Commons ShareAlike Licence

Vital Statistics

  • Dogs come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest adult dogs can be under 10 cm (4 inches) at the shoulder and have a body length under 15 cm (6 inches).
  • According to The Guinness Book of Records, a Yorkshire Terrier is the smallest known dog with a measurements of 6.3 cm (2.5 inches) at the shoulder and a body length of 9.5 cm (3.75 inches).
  • The tallest breed of dog is the Irish Wolfhound which can be in excess of 80 cm (2.5 feet) at the shoulder.
  • Dogs’ weight are as varied as their breeds – from less than .2 kg (8 ounces) right up to the 100 kg (200 lbs) St. Bernard.
  • Dogs can live for up to 20 years of age. However, the average dog lives around 12 years.
  • Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as dog years – it is just an invented term.
  • Canines, like Cats are found in most parts of the world, with the exception of Antarctica. Basically, where ever there is man – a dog is sure to be not far away.

Further Reading

You may wish to check out Yellow Magpie’s Mick The Miller: The World’s Most Famous Greyhound.

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know is a fascinating read detailing the complexities of dog behaviour and anatomy. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, offers amazing insights into a dog’s world from their amazing sensory abilities to how they smell emotions. Highly recommended.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know here.

For those who live in Canada, you can obtain Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know from here.

For Germany: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

For France: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

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