In Defence of Dogs

This is going to be about Dogs. Dogs, and in a big bad way. The aim is to, more or less, empirically prove that dogs are the best pet/nonhuman companion you can have. No subjectivity required here. If you prefer cats, great. But you’re wrong. Now if you’re curious why, please read on. If you plan on just having a rant at me for being completely biased, partial, skewed and cherry picking arguments, your comments will fall on stubbornly deaf ears.

So, what makes dogs so amazing. Well, they are adorable, but I'm going to build my campaign on something less shallow. Most present in our minds are the useful services they provide. There is the comonplace use of guide dogs, explosive detection dogs and, much to the incovenience of select travellers, drug sniffer dogs. These tasks require a dedicated companion, intelligence and a hell of a nose. What else is amazing, and what makes them, as mentioned previously, the best possible pet/nonhuman companion is the intertwined history and social evolution occurring between their species and humans. It is believed that dogs came into being somewhere between 15,000 to 100,000 years ago. The presumed origin was the result of our domestication of wolves (why someone decided that would be practical, appropriate and appreciated by others I could not estimate). Reexamining the spread of dates, this could mean domestication occurred during Homo sapiens' angsty hunter-gatherer phase, way before the development of (relatively) sophisticated agricultural based societies. Additionally, genetic studies indicate a number of separate domestication events, whereby a convergent evolution was achieved across a number of cultures. 1 So we can see that the origin of dogs was remarkable and, apparently, destined to be. One last point worth mentioning is that, through the rise of agriculture, while other species have since been exploited as natural, fleshy vending machines (bacon, spare-ribs, backstops, and milk please), dogs largely appear to be raised and bred for a singular purpose, our happiness. Dogs never toiled the fields and for the most part, never sacrificed themselves for human sustenance. They stood beside us, and still do, as members of our tribes. Our embracing of this species, over such an extended period, with selective breeding for particular traits, has led to some staggering connections being forged between us.

One would naturally assume chimps, being just one rung below us on the genetic stepping ladder, would share many traits with respect to intelligence, communication, and social order. There are similarities to be found here, yet our attempts to begin any cordial inter-species dialogue have been rebuffed. 2 In contrast, dogs, despite their differences, can impressively interpret a number of social cues and gestures from humans. Perhaps the most fundamental is the ability to understand the concept of pointing to reference an object out of reach. It sounds trivial, but the development of these actions highlight a conceptual leap to more abstract notions (i.e. this represents that), not entirely dissimilar to the development of language and mathematics, which has benefitted our species so much. An explanation of this understanding is that this is the result of our ever increasing proximity in society, where an adaptive behavioural response to our motions and body language was of great benefit to our four-legged friends. Dogs can also reciprocate these interactions and cue human attention if needed. For example, if food is hidden or placed out of reach, canines are able to alert us to the presence of said snack and their desire for it. Following on from this, there has been debate over whether dogs may possess “theory of mind”, in which they are able to adopt the perspective of humans and can acknowledge their attentional state. 3 Evidence supporting this is the increased likelihood of these pets to snack on forbidden food if they notice their owners focus is directed elsewhere (dog owners are currently nodding their heads in agreement).

Our love and appreciation of this family pet has also led to unexpective benefits. It has become increasingly common for drastic medical interventions, including chemotherapy and the fixation of prosthetic limbs, to aid in the health and well-being of dogs. Though such a concept is bewildering to many, there is great potential here for mutual benefit. Indeed, due to a more comparable physiology, immunology and genetic diversity in populations, studying such treatments at this level can yield insights benefiting our own medical technology. Cancer therapeutics may stand to gain a lot in this context. Between species, tumour initiation and progression are influenced by similar factors, resulting in homologous cancer histology, gene expression and behaviour to therapy.4 The current gold standard, in which we induce synthetic tumours in lab rats, falls short in all of these respects.5

Unsurprisingly, the effects of our increasingly processed and westernised diet has also trickled down to our canine companions. A recent genetic study demonstrated that dogs have yielded a number of genes, not possessed by wolves, relevant for the digestion of starches.6 This mirrors similar changes occurring across human populations with the cultivation of crops, such as wheat and barley. Such findings demonstrated the parallels to be found between our species, as well as remind us of how privy these animals are within our homes and families. By and large, we treat them as one of us. We share our snacks, and would likely share a beer if it was appropriate (it isn't, please don't). The haphazard comings and goings of cats speaks to their separatist, dare I say anti-social, nature, preventing us to ever develop a sense of trust and camaraderie. So dogs are pretty remarkable, and while I noted at the start that I would remain empirical, their best trait is they have so much love to give, and love receiving it in turn. They are deeply integrated into our family unit, often anticipating the first born as a means of training. They care and consider. Ever accepting of out hugs and upwardly inflected doggy talk. They may nip but rarely scratch, and never with malice or agency. Emotion is portrayed in their eyes and are one of few animals who share a common desire for play not survival, ever content to enjoy the simple pleasures of a belly rub. They are our best friend.

1. R. K. Wayne and E. A. Ostrander, Bioessays, 1999, 21, 247–257.
2. H. S. Terrace, L.A. Petitto, R. J. Sanders and T. G. Bever, Science, 1979, 206, 891–902.
3. M. A. . Udell and C. D. Wynne, J. Exp. Anal. Behav., 2008, 89, 247–261.
4. M. Paoloni and C. Khanna, Nat. Rev. Cancer, 2008, 8, 147–156.
5. T. F. Vandamme, J Pharm Bioallied Sci, 2014, 6, 2–9.
6. E. Axelsson, A. Ratnakumar, M. L. Arendt, K. Maqbool, M. T. Webster, M. Perloski, O. Liberg, J. M. Arnemo, A. Hedhammar and K. Lindblad-Toh, Nature, 2013, 495, 360–4.

Callum Lamont