Dog's Best Friend

The dog-wolf next door

Doing What Comes Naturally, Dogs Become Heroes

Why do dogs routinely put themselves in harm's way to save people?

Hardly a day goes by without a story detailing some cognitive or sensory or perceptual skill of dogs that helps make them the boon companions of humans.  Those skills and inclinations represent a formidable package indeed, but do they explain the enduring bond between dogs and humans any more than the claim that dogs are all about unconditional love for us?  I think not.  That bond is rooted in something that for now eludes our comprehension, perhaps because we have focused more on the dog’s adaptations to us than on the nature of the dog and the ways we might have adjusted to each other—evolved together, as it were. 

 I used that approach in my book, How the Dog Became the Dog (Overlook Press, 2011).  Much of what has been published since then has confirmed the need to consider the creation of the dog as a process involving wolves and people in different places and circumstances.

There are several reasons a different perspective is needed.  First, many of the researchers doing these experiments subscribe to the theory that dogs self-domesticated from an assortment of dump-diving wolves.  The problem with this view is that only the dog’s adaptations matter; humans were tangential. Second, the vast power asymmetry between dogs and humans that exists today makes it difficult at times to believe humans in aggregate have made any special adaptations to live with dogs, even though it seems they surely must have. Third, it is not clear what percentage of dogs possess any of the cognitive and social skills said to be necessary for self-domestication, like following a pointing finger or a gaze to hidden food. Experimenters exclude from the pool of potential test subjects dogs who show no interest in the proceedings but do not count them as failures.  Fourth, dogs are not alone among animals in displaying many of these skills, like following gaze.

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 For some time, researchers said that wolves could not follow human gaze the way dogs do, but a study published in February 2011 in the journal PLoS One showed that socialized wolves could in fact, follow human gazes.  In some ways socialized wolves are even better gaze followers than dogs.  Wolves follow human gaze into the distance and around barriers.  Dogs do not follow gaze into the distance.  At least they have not to date.  I add that qualifier because it seems that results are under constant revision as more tests are done. For now it seems that when it comes to gazing, dogs did not gain through domestication abilities that wolves lacked.  They might have lost some, but that is not certain.

In any event, humans and wolves got together before there were dogs, and so we should be looking at what could have bound them so strongly to each other.

In that regard, I wonder whether being attentive to people is as important to a dog or wolf or person as being attentive to your surroundings and protective of your family, your pack, wherever they roam.  That protectiveness takes the form of interposing yourself between danger and your family, something that dogs do reflexively.

 Around the world, dogs guard the homes of people who feed them, as they have done for as far back as records reveal.  But they do more than guard property; they are watch over the people in the house—their people.  If allowed, they will tag along when their people go on the move.

 On a basic level, these dogs serve as intimidators, capable, when necessary, of interposing themselves between their people and on- rushing danger.  That is what Kabang, a little mutt in the Philippines did a year ago.

  A nine-year-girl from Kabang’s family was crossing a busy street with her cousin when a motorbike came roaring toward them at high speed.

 According to witnesses, Kabang leapt out of nowhere into the path of the motorbike, diverting it from the children.  The impact with the speeding motorbike ripped Kabang’s snout and upper jaw off her face, but she survived.  With the help of a nurse in Buffalo, New York, and donors from around the world, Kabang fcame to the veterinary hospital in Davis, California, where surgery to close her wound and stabilize what’s left of her face now has to wait until she can be treated for heartworm and cancer.

 As I read about Kabang, I reflected on all the dogs I have known who at one time or another have interposed themselves between their human companions and danger.  How many more have waked people in time for them to escape a burning house or stood watch over a fallen, injured companion.

 I doubt there is a way to count the number of heroic acts that dogs perform (the way dog bites are counted), but I imagine it is large.  It is at least significant enough to be recognized as something dogs do.  We humans see it as a manifestation of loyalty and devotion, which we value highly.

 Like I said earlier, I suspect this behavior is tied into wolves’ innate protectiveness combined with the ability, enhanced in dogs through an extended early socialization period, to form strong, lasting bonds with other species.  It is a trait we share with them.

 

Mark Derr is the author of How the Dog Became the Dog, Dog's Best Friend, and A Dog's History of America.

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