Ancients believed that during the so-called “dog days of summer,” dogs actually went mad. These days, however, it’s we who are mad about dogs. Even during this interminable recession.
The latest Labor Department figures demonstrate that Americans forked out a record $55.7 billion last year on our hairiest family members — about $10 billion more than Germany’s entire defense budget. That little factoid should give you pause (or maybe paws), but I digress.
So why are we so crazy about dogs?
While scientists admit that a dog is as intelligent as the average 2-year-old (in terms of understood vocabulary, response to nonverbal cues and the predisposition to seek assistance), most “Which Animal Is the Smartest” surveys rank the great ape, dolphin, elephant or whale — miles ahead of the dog. What could they have been thinking? They certainly didn’t consider the fact that none of these brainy creatures fits into a designer pet tote.
So how did dogs get their start? According to mitochondrial DNA studies, the common ancestor for all domestic dogs (400 breeds and counting) is the gray wolf. Perhaps dogs should adopt the motto “E Unum Pluribus” (out of one, many). OK, I know canines don’t really possess a currency — not unless you count wet, sloppy kisses, that is.
So how long have wolf/dogs been hanging out with humans? In 2009, the Journal of Archaeological Science reported that Canis familiaris (based on fossil evidence from Belgium, Ukraine and Russia) might date back a staggering 14,000 to 31,700 years.
Still, the first domesticated wolves weren’t tossed leftovers for merely providing warmth on a “three dog night.” It was their keen sense of smell, acute hearing and superior speed while in pursuit mode that proved invaluable in regard to the quest for calories by early mankind.
But it was the Victorian Age and the Industrial Revolution that dramatically changed the station of the dog. The nouveau riche merchant class, desiring in all ways to emulate the pet-crazy aristocrats, made the coddled canine into a status symbol — even employing them as props in formal photographs to impress the rest of the world.
They also generated scores of new breeds based on aesthetic considerations rather than behavioral traits. For example, King Charles spaniels got out of the hunting business, Pomeranians were shrunk down to lap size and Yorkshire terriers started thumbing their noses at rats.
Did you know that 80 percent of today’s breeds did not exist 137 years ago? “It was,” according to “The Science of Dogs” (National Geographic) “as if a massive leap in evolution occurred in a small period of time.” One new breed, however, has yet to be invited to the Westminster Dog Show but should he show up, he should win, paws down, “best in show.”
About two decades ago, Klim Sulimov developed a jackal-dog hybrid to conduct security sweeps exclusively for the Russian airline Aeroflot. “My dogs combine the qualities of Arctic reindeer herding dogs,” he told the BBC News, “which can work in temperatures as low as -70°C, and jackals which enjoy the heat up to +40°C. They’re perfect for our country.”
Trained from puppyhood to recognize 12 components of explosives, they outperform all other sniffing dogs because they take the initiative — not waiting, as Sulimov boasts, for a command from a human with an inferior sense of smell.
During the mid-19th century, workers in Yorkshire cotton or wool mills bred a diminutive terrier to hunt down cloth-chewing vermin. In the interest of full disclosure, I own a Yorkie, or rather a Yorkie owns me. And while I’ve never spied a rodent in our condo, I don’t think Chloe should get all the credit. She is, however, more than just a pretty face.
Chloe is a certified therapy dog and her special gift is the ability to read the emotional needs of the person on whose lap she is happily ensconced. Numerous studies confirm that not only do many dogs share this ability, but the human practice of petting them can lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety and stimulate production of oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone” that presently shows promise in the treatment of autism.
Dogs are just beginning to assist human beings in the world of medicine. With special training, the canine nose can detect impending seizures in epileptics, rises in blood sugar in diabetics and early forms of cancer. Dogs from a study presented at the 2014 American Urological Association Conference were able to detect prostate cancer from urine samples — with 98 percent accuracy.
So as we bid adieu to the dog days of summer, just think, the mutt who hogs your bed and perfumes the air with his intestinal gases might one day save your life. No wonder we’re so mad about them.
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