Man's Best Friends: They were not our pets but our co-workers – valued members of the human packs into which they had been inducted. The lives these wolf-like creatures led with their human companions weren’t, in truth, all that different from the lives they’d led as wild creatures. They still ranged far and wide in search of prey: padding softly through vast forests; loping tirelessly across endless grasslands. The wolf within was never very far away. Neither was humankind.
NO ONE KNOWS exactly how it happened. Some say it was the starved remnant of a hunting pack drawn to a human encampment by the smell of roasting meat. A single individual, most likely female, probably ready to whelp, willing to risk anything, even the wrath of these hairless apes, for the sake of her unborn pups.
No one knows who did it. A mother, perhaps, looking out into the darkness at the edge of the firelight and seeing its reflection in the eyes of the wretched, desperate and importunate she-wolf looking back at her.
No one knows why she did it. When the hunters asked, astonished, she just tightened her hold on the shivering animal’s neck and shook her head.
The men would have killed the starving creature there and then, but the tribal shaman stayed their hand. The call had been made. The call had been answered. The she-wolf was theirs now, the tribes’, and so were her offspring – for all time.
What they had feared would now be feared by others. The Tribe had a new hunter, a new lookout, a new protector. Henceforth they would call themselves, and be known as, the People of the Wolf.
Sixteen-thousand years later, it’s easy to forget the context out of which the human species acquired its oldest and most steadfast animal companion.
Long before we learned to cultivate the grasses of the hillside, or to domesticate the animals that grazed upon them, the canine carnivores that would, in time, become “dogs” hunted and gathered at our side.
They were not our pets but our co-workers – valued members of the human packs into which they had been inducted. The lives these wolf-like creatures led with their human companions weren’t, in truth, all that different from the lives they’d led as wild creatures. They still ranged far and wide in search of prey: padding softly through vast forests; loping tirelessly across endless grasslands. The wolf within was never very far away. Neither was humankind.
To gain some insight into the sort of expectations our distant ancestors had of dogs, one has only to visit a farm, or join a pig-hunting expedition. In both contexts, the hunting instincts of dogs’ wolfish ancestors have been honed to a nicety. To witness a well-trained sheep-dog turning a herd of ewes, or a trio of pig-dogs launching themselves upon a tusker at bay, is to understand what a very beneficial bargain was struck all those millennia ago between the barkers and the talkers.
Had they remained our co-workers – valued partners in the enterprise of survival – dogs and humans could have remained the truest of friends. Unfortunately, however, the clever brains of the hairless apes, and the almost infinitely malleable genes of the canine species ruined the relationship.
In the words of Slate magazine columnist, William Saletan: “Dogs are the world’s longest self-serving, ecologically reckless genetic experiment, perpetrated by the world’s first genetically engineering species: us.” He’s right: we have been breeding dogs for centuries; re-purposing them in lock-step with human civilisation’s own ever-increasing reliance on specialisation.
“In the course of engineering dogs to look, feel, and act as we wanted,” says Saletan, “we ruined millions of them. We gave them legs so short they couldn’t run, noses so flat they couldn’t breathe, tempers so hostile they couldn’t function in society.”
Signs warning passers-by to “Cave Canis” – Beware of the Dog – abounded in Ancient Rome. As well they might have, given the Romans proclivity for breeding large, black and thoroughly vicious guard dogs to protect their property. Not that these squat canine sentinels were anywhere near as intimidating as the terrifying dogs-of-war that accompanied Rome’s legions into battle. These brutes could crush a man’s skull like an eggshell.
It is only relatively recently that anyone other than the very rich could aspire to keep dogs as pets. Up until the twentieth century, dogs, like plough-horses and house-cats, were expected to earn their keep. An aristocratic lady might carry a little dog in her lap – but not a peasant girl.
How things have changed. Dogs are big business in today’s world, their upkeep alone representing billions in corporate profit.
Popular culture paints the dog as a fun-loving member of the suburban family – as harmless as it is companionable. It is considered neither helpful nor polite to remind these folk that they are sharing their lives with animals boasting inch-long incisors and bone-crushing jaws.
True, the aforementioned genetic engineering has eliminated much that is dangerous from a large number of dog breeds – many of which are too small to pose a serious risk to human life and limb. In some dogs, however, the purposes for which they were bred: hunting and fighting; sit uncomfortably with suburban family fun.
The wolf within is never far away. Neither is humankind.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 April 2016.