By Scott Hunt
The Dog Grumbler
I SAW a thing on television where experts were discussing dogs and whether they actually loved their owners.
I found myself embroiled in semantic tensions that spoiled the show for me.
‘Define love’, I wanted to shout. ‘Define owner.’
Perhaps I spend too much time trying to be inside a dog’s head to think like a human; I have problems with questions like, ‘are dogs intelligent?’
Define intelligent. Define dog. Define human.
Let’s give it a shot. Let’s work backwards.
Intelligence is tough; especially when comparing members of very different species.
The best definition I’ve found is still the one that equates it with adaptability.
Of course, there is the adaptability that allows a backhand stroke rather than a forehand in tennis, there is the kind that allows a dog to learn where it may sit or sleep in the car, the living room or any other situation that it recognises.
Then there is the kind of adaptability that becomes evolution — it depends on the time scale you apply.
Human: What’s that? Where do we draw the line? When an ape first walked upright?
There were canids long before then; ancestors of modern-day wolves and dogs.
They interacted with scavenging birds to find and share food.
They were defined largely by their dentition.
They were bone eaters. Marrow eaters.
How about we start when our ancestors started cooking food?
Suddenly we needed a shorter digestive tract.
Suddenly we got more nourishment from every meal and had time to dream, as well as survive.
Dog: When did that proto-wolf split off to evolve into the dog sitting next to you in the ute?
About then, I reckon.
Cooked meat was the best food on the planet and the humans discarded the best bit and moved on.
Now there were proto-wolves who watched the proto-buzzards and taught their young to follow the scent of humans to the inevitable bones and cooked leftovers.
Works for me.
The ability to find humans, the courage to approach a campsite still redolent of their presence and eventually the skill to predict human behaviour would become a survival trait.
They bred back into the wolf population at various times and in various places, but over tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, the canids who could adapt to the life of camp follower interbred and took on a new look.
Together human and dog survived the last ice age — they may not have kept each other warm, but they shared food and security.
Eventually humans got into agriculture. Soon we had grain storage and needed cats. We domesticated animals for food, fibre and muscle.
The dog saw all this and saw that it was good.
The dog is not the only animal to become domesticated; perhaps not the only one to do so of its own volition but it’s way ahead of whoever’s in second place and separated by at least one ice age I like to think.
Their very senses have evolved to detect our body language, facial expressions, vocal sounds, the smell of our emotions.
Your dog will happily learn just about anything that pleases you and allows it to share your life.
Its middle name is adapt.
Owner: A dog is not a possession, but it is a responsibility.
If it upsets people it’s your fault. So, in that sense owner is probably the best term to use.
Love: Hey, I’m not Shakespeare, just a dog grumbler.
But the definition of love? It’s curled up at your feet.