Dogs were our first friends and our first assistants, positions at which they still excel after thousands of years
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
A Labrador retriever saves a drowning boy. A bloodhound finds a missing Alzheimer’s patient. A beagle survives acid burns and becomes a therapy dog. A German shepherd guides a blind person through city streets. A Boykin spaniel tracks threatened box turtles for researchers. An Australian shepherd herds a flock of sheep. A mixed-breed dog alerts a deaf person to important sounds. Anatolian shepherds protect flocks from cheetahs, in turn saving the cheetahs from being shot by farmers. A Belgian Malinois patrols a military encampment.
How did a single species develop such wide-ranging talents and become our partners in life? The answer lies not only in the plasticity of dogs -- their amazing range of size, shape and skills -- but also in human ingenuity. Dogs are designer animals, cut from the fabric of our needs and fashioned to suit almost any purpose short of neurosurgery or spaceflight -- no, wait, they've done spaceflight.
The fossil record tells us that human association with dogs began approximately 16,000 to 20,000 years ago, but molecular dating -- a measure of evolutionary change over time based on the rate of change in specific DNA sequences -- suggests that domestication may have begun as long ago as 32,000 years.
Those proto-dogs probably first performed off-site security and waste management jobs, living on the outskirts of human settlements. As they became used to the presence of dogs, humans, although lacking knowledge of genetics or heritable traits, began selecting for dogs with a prime watchdog characteristic: a loud and insistent bark, the better to alert them to the presence of predators or strangers.
That bark is one of the distinguishing characteristics between wild and domesticated dogs. Among wild dogs, barking is a puppy behavior. Other puppylike behaviors retained by adult dogs (known as neoteny) that humans began to select for include chasing prey but not going in for the kill -- a practice that evolved into herding -- and looking to humans for direction, a quintessential characteristic of some hunting dogs such as spaniels and retrievers.
That’s how dogs began to change from biological burglar alarms to the variety of hunting, herding, working and companion dogs we have today. And it happened because humans were able to observe the potential of dogs and figure out how to harness it, systematically inventing and reinventing dogs to meet different needs based on their technology and circumstances at the time.
They needed dogs to find and kill game? They developed hounds. Those dogs were further refined into scenthounds to track game and sighthounds to chase and bring down game. As hunting implements changed from clubs to spears to bow and arrows to firearms, dogs changed, too. Humans invented pointers, setters, spaniels and retrievers, each with a particular function that improved hunting success.
They didn’t stop with hunting. It was likely their relationship with dogs that allowed humans to develop animal husbandry. With dogs, they could control more sheep than they could working alone. And as with hunting dogs, herding dogs were gradually modified to work with different types of livestock in different terrain.
From hunting and herding, it was a short step to flock protection by large mastiff-type dogs. Attentive and trustworthy flock-guardian dogs are large enough to deter most predators, but they have other tricks up their sleeves, using barking and body language to escort unwanted intruders away from their charges.
Dogs were among the first draft animals, especially in the Americas, before Europeans arrived with horses. Where people had wheels, they pulled carts; in cold northern climes or the Great Plains, they pulled sleds or travois.
Now, in the 21st century, dogs aid us in different jobs: search and rescue, drug and explosive detection, and assistance and therapy work, to name just a few.
But best of all, they remain our companions. It’s a position they’ve held for thousands of years but now is recognized as vital to our well-being. We’re lucky to have them.
How to ease
Q: My senior dog and cat both have arthritis. Do you have any suggestions for helping to manage their stiffness and pain?
A: Degenerative joint disease is a common problem in pets, old and young. Recognizing it early on is one of the keys to managing it and helping pets stay comfortable.
The approach we use today combines multiple methods for managing pain. The current gold standard is NSAIDs or other prescription medications that target joint pain, but other pain management approaches are important, too. They include weight loss to decrease pressure on joints, rehab techniques such as acupressure and cold laser, and nutraceuticals (a word that combines “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”) that may help protect joint cartilage.
The word nutraceutical refers to products, supplements and dietary ingredients known or believed to have some kind of specific medical benefit. They include PSGAGs -- short for polysulfated glycosaminoglycans -- which work to reduce inflammation in joints; omega-3 fatty acids; glucosamine-chondroitin supplements, which are added to some pet foods; and antioxidants. There’s a lack of strong scientific evidence for their benefits in pets, but they are generally not known to have serious side effects. Your veterinarian can help you determine the best combination of approaches for your pets and help you find the best practitioners and most appropriate products.
It’s important as well to make changes at home. Make sure your pets have comfortable bedding that’s easy for them to get on and off of. As fall and winter approach, they may appreciate a heated bed. If you have hard flooring, put down throw rugs to ensure good traction. Steps up to the sofa or bed can help to prevent injuries from jumping on or off furniture. Last but not least, make time for light daily exercise such as a walk for dogs or gentle play for cats.-- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Mobile vet clinic
helps pets, people
-- A pair of Northern California veterinarians turned an ambulance into a free mobile pet clinic. They park it outside shelters to provide care for animals of domestic violence survivors seeking refuge and people experiencing homelessness. Pets entering shelters with their people must be vaccinated and healthy, so Drs. Kate Kuzminski and Sarah Reidenbach founded Ruthless Kindness to provide vaccinations, exams and other care so animals can accompany their family into safety. The volunteer organization is supported by donations, and Kuzminski and Reidenbach have day jobs as well: Kuzminski is medical director of Guide Dogs for the Blind and Reidenbach is executive director of Sonoma CART, an animal disaster response team.
-- Crate training is important for more than just housetraining. It also helps to prevent growing puppies from gnawing on things they shouldn’t, from your designer shoes to a carelessly stored container of a toxic substance: blood pressure medication, sugar-free gum or detergent pods, for example. A crate also provides a safe place for a dog to ride in a vehicle, teaches him to be more relaxed when confined at the veterinary clinic and -- as many people learned during last month’s Hurricane Ida and the West Coast wildfires -- provides him a safe, secure place to be when evacuated during a disaster.
-- Not all cats like catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hard-wired preferences aren't immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of 3 months don't react to catnip at all. Among those cats who do like catnip, you'll find two kinds of reactions: Your cat may seem to become a lazy drunk, or a wired-up crazy. Credit a substance called "nepetalactone," which is found in leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.