Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cave Canem

We all know dog people. The reader may be one. You know the people I mean: the ones for whom life without a dog (or two, or three, or five) is inconceivable, except perhaps for a brief moment between burying the last and picking out the next. I’m not a dog person. Oh, I like them well enough. It’s hard to improve on Mark Twain’s observation: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.” But as an adult I’ve never owned one, mostly because a dog is one more responsibility than I want to have. Not that there is a particular number of responsibilities I want to have. Well actually there is: zero, but I’ve always found myself with considerably more. Don’t we all?

I grew up with dogs however. The first one I remember was a big goofy Great Dane named King.
King and I, c. 1956
When unattended he lived in a very large enclosure with chicken-wire fencing because if free he would run down the street and chase the neighbor’s geese: just for sport you understand. The neighbor objected; he was not a sportsman, I suppose. When my parents were around he wouldn’t run off anywhere, and so he came out and joined us. He was good-natured and even befriended our pet skunk, which he allowed to eat out of his bowl. King ate the diamond on my mom’s engagement ring though; one day he gave her hand a slobbering lick and the diamond was gone. She never found it. I’m not sure she really tried, for which I can’t blame her.
Woody 1969
It was the next Great Dane named Woody who overlapped the larger part of my boyhood and youth, and who was my companion of those years. He lived 12 years (long for a big dog); I buried him back by the barn in 1975. He was not so good-natured. He adored the immediate family, but he could be protective against others, and a protective big dog can be scary. He scared more than one person.

Four dogs barked at me protectively today as I ran various errands around the county. None of them scared me, but they reminded me of a recent read. Their barks lent credence to an argument made by Nicholas Wade (writer for Nature and Science) in his book on prehistory Before the Dawn.

Dogs are the first domesticated animal, predating agriculture by many thousands of years. They definitely were domesticated and widespread no later than 15,000 years ago, and there is some evidence for 40,000 BCE. Dogs are useful work animals if you make your living by hunting and gathering. They can assist in hunts, they can be pack animals, and, notes Wade, “They made good bed warmers during cold Siberian nights.” But they became these things after domestication from wolves. It is harder to see what our ancestors had in mind bringing wolves into camp in the first place. Wade argues it was precisely for the reason we still use them: watchdogs. They were protection – at the very least an early warning system – against other people. This alone was an enormous advantage in the Pleistocene.

We think of the modern world as a violent place, and not entirely without cause. There always are wars and physical assaults going on somewhere. There is almost a weird kind of humble-bragging in the commonplace contention that we modern folk are so much more murderous than our ancestors who lived a more natural lifestyle: “Yeah, we’re bad.” The opposite is closer to the truth. Life within hunter-gatherer bands of up to 150 people (they tend to split as soon as they get any larger) is pretty peaceful since anyone who does not play well with others is expelled. But raids on neighboring bands, tribes, and encampments for fun, women, or revenge are a constant part of life. Only in very recent years has it been suppressed to a large degree by encroaching civil governments. Early anthropologists often missed (perhaps were inclined to miss) just how large a toll these little wars took. Because each raid typically was a small hit-and-run affair that most often resulted in no casualties, it was easy for observers to dismiss them as hijinks. But because they were constant the effects added up. It was not uncommon for 30% of the adult male population to die from aggression. (This, as it happens, is the same percentage of adult male chimpanzees who die from aggression.) By contrast, even in the dreadful 20th century with its massive wars and ethnic cleansings, the number was well below 1%. Harvard archaeologist Stephen LeBlanc: “We need to recognize and accept the idea of a nonpeaceful past for the entire time of human existence.”

As a recent example, the !Kung (dubbed The Harmless People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in her early study) were found to be not so harmless by Richard Borshay Lee when he revisited the group for his own study and asked a different set of questions almost as an afterthought. After discussing hunting tactics and game with four !Kung men by a campfire, he writes, “it suddenly occurred to me to pose the question, ‘And how many men have you killed?’”
            “Without batting an eye Toma, the first man, held up three fingers, ticking off their names on his fingers…”
            The next two men had shot one person each with a bow, but said both survived. Lee describes the fourth man as “a kindly old grandfather.”
            “‘I never shot anyone,’ he wistfully replied. ‘I always missed.’”
            It turned out that even the internal homicide rate for the bands was 29.3 per 100,000. While this makes it a rare occurrence within a group of 20 to 150 people, it is still three times the homicide rate in the United States, which notoriously is high by First World standards.

The good news is that we evidently are capable of becoming more peaceful when we put our minds to it, but it is anything but a natural choice. (Freud, without knowing the numbers, came to this same conclusion in Civilization and Its Discontents; repressing our destructive natures is a source of unhappiness, he argued, but is a worthwhile trade-off for the benefits of civilization.) All the same, watchdogs still have their uses.

War dogs too. The most renowned US Army war dog was a mixed German shepherd/husky named Chips. In World War Two Chips was awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart. He had charged and disabled an Italian machine gun team pinning down American soldiers in the Sicily campaign, and on another occasion he had jumped into a pillbox, soon convincing the four men inside to surrender. The medals were revoked when parents of undecorated human casualties complained, but General Eisenhower congratulated the dog anyway. Chips bit him.

The Monkees - Gonna Buy Me a Dog


  1. My family has had both dogs (most cocker spaniels) and I had a cat (once I was living off on my own). Cats generally are more inside animals. Though now I don't own either, but sometimes I think about it. I don't particularly want any animals that I'd have to keep inside full time however, not until I have my flooring redone to all wood. That seems a bit extravagant just to own a pet though. I'd probably be shocked at how owning a pet has changed from back when I was younger to now.

    1. I've owned several cats over the years and own one now, though more by happenstance than plan. I inherited Maxi and Mini from my mom in 2001; Mini, the bigger of the two, died last summer. They are easier but still need care -- and, their lifespans being what they are, always deliver sadness at the end.

      There were a couple of dogs in my previous home during the few years I was married (we were divorced in 2001), but they were very much her dogs, not mine. One died of natural causes while we were married. The second died trying to protect her several years afterward -- unsuccessfully regrettably.

  2. I grew up with dogs too. But over the years I've become a cat fan. Like you mention, they take less effort to care for, and they can be a pleasant companion to have around. But sometimes they can be little terrors. I loved your story about Chip, I'd never heard that before.

    1. Part of the appeal of cats is that they are just barely domesticated. Almost all domestic cats descend from the Near Eastern Wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) from which they are morphologically indistinguishable. If you raise a wildcat from a kitten it will be a domestic cat – unlike a wolf, which if raised from a pup remains a wolf. Cats adopted us more than the other way around.