Dogs in the News

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“To his dog, every man is Napoleon, hence the constant popularity of dogs.”

Aldous Huxley

 

Near as we can figure it, Homo sapiens sapiens and Canis lupus familiaris have been bffs for about 35,000 years.

After sampling the genomes of wolves and dogs from hither and yon, scientists now believe the unique and intimate association between Man and Dog began at least 15,000 year earlier than previous supposed somewhere in Southeast Asia with the domestication of the Taimyr wolf. Given the long stretch of time since then, you’d think we’d have learned just about everything there is to know about our four-legged besties. In fact, until very recently our understanding of humankind’s closest animal companion has been remarkably superficial, a two-dimensional portrait more closely resembling ourselves than our pets.

True, humans quickly became adept at dog-handling. They used their animals to guard the camp and to bring down the mighty mammoth. They taught the doting beasts to watch the flock and fight by their side in battle. And they carefully and patiently bred their dogs to satisfy specific human needs and tastes, resulting in the more than 300 breeds that exist today. One thing people never did, though, is give any serious thought to what their dogs thought about it all.

“Dogs have been used as tools, and they’ve been kept as pets, but there’s been very little study of what makes them tick,” explains canine clinician Jean Weller. “We know a lot about what they do, but not why they do it. It’s only in the last 25 years that there’s been any real scientific research into the emotional and cognitive characteristics of dogs.”

Considering the bone-deep affinity that exists between peeps and pups, it’s hardly surprising that we tend to ascribe human motivations to our pets. For example, most dog-lovers assume that their beloved beagle wags its tail when it sees them because it loves them right back. Scientifically speaking, that’s taking a lot on faith. Is your dog really glad to see you? Or is it just excited because it’s almost supper time and you’re the only one who can operate the can opener?

dogAndToddlerWhile standard observation has softened the rigid “alpha” pecking order into a more flexible canine social hierarchy, neither has much to do with you and your dog. Behavioral research increasingly suggests that the relationship between person and pet is less leader-to-follower or peer-to-peer, and more akin to the bond between parent and toddler. To cite just one example, when frightened or distressed a dog will always and instantly run to its owner for reassurance. Dogs are also prone to jealousy. Studies indicate that when a dog’s owner showers undue attention on a third party, be they man or beast, more than 60 percent of the time the dog will find some quiet, sneaky way to disrupt that interaction and redirect its master’s interest back where it belongs.

smart-dogProbably the most intriguing discovery on the canine front is that dogs can infer. It’s a simple thing, inference, and incredibly useful. Merriam-Webster defines it as the ability to “deduce or conclude from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements.” Humans infer a thousand times a day without consciously thinking about it. And yet our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, can’t infer. Of all creatures, only people and dogs are able to predict an event or circumstance based purely on observation. It’s how your dog knows when the mailman is coming. It’s how it can tell you’re hiding a snack behind your back. And it’s why, even though you take your dog to the park every day at 2 o’clock, you can’t get it into the car for a 2 o’clock veterinarian appointment.

Curiously enough, dogs also have a well-developed sense of fairness. Austrian researchers devised a scenario whereby two dogs were made to perform the same trick, but only one was rewarded for it. The un-rewarded dog invariably began scratching and licking itself in frustration until the account was balanced. Interestingly, the quality of the belated reward didn’t appear to matter. Even if the first dog received sausage, the second was perfectly satisfied to be given bread. It was, it seems, the principle of the thing.

Three hundred and fifty centuries later and we’re only now finding out that our dogs know when they’re getting the shaft. There’s still a world of work to do, but early results paint a far richer, nuanced and loveable picture of Man’s Best Friend than the one we’ve been looking at since Paleolithic times. On the other hand, not every discovery has come as a surprise.

Neuro-imaging studies conducted by animal cognition researchers at Emory University have learned that the scent of its human master lights up the “reward center” of a dog’s brain, just as the appearance of a loved one does in ours. What’s more, canine MRI results suggest that, of all the complex universe of odors packed into their daily experience, dogs prioritize human scent above all others.

Those big floppy ears aren’t for nothing, either. Scientists at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest find that dogs are equally attuned to human vocal signals. Just as in people, “happy” sounds spark a pleasurable commotion in a dog’s auditory cortex, while negative noise tends to depress. And when your dog cocks its head to one side, it’s not doing it just to be cute. Dogs, we now know, are keenly sensitive to our every stance and movement. When in doubt of your emotional status, your pup will shift its head to remove its snout from its line of vision, allowing it to examine nonverbal cues from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. Taking these findings together, scientists conclude that dogs aren’t merely skilled at perceiving and responding to your every temper and emotion, they’re biologically hard-wired to do so.

In other words, your dog really is glad to see you.

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“I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.”

John Steinbeck

 

Son of Go Dog Go – Doggone

Without question, the world’s best-known dog sled race is Alaska’s grueling Iditarod, a 1,150-mile slog across the desolate center of the self-styled Last Frontier. While less epic, the Silver City Classic presents challenges enough for man and beast.

In preparation for last weekend’s races, organizers plowed a narrow lane reaching about 100 yards into the valley from Highway 24, a slim track that served as access, parking lot and staging area for 43 mushers competing in categories from 2-dog skijoring to 10-dog endurance races. Besides a rudimentary starting gate, it was the only feature of the venue not provided by nature.

To someone who’s never attended a sled dog race, the most fascinating aspect of the affair has got to be the dogs. Not because they’re cute and funny, which they are, and not because watching a team launch out of the chute like a string of furry rockets is thrilling, which it is. It’s because they’re plainly experiencing a level of fun that’s unattainable by human animals, and their raw excitement and manic enthusiasm is impossible to resist.

By 8 o’clock on Sunday morning, dozens of dog trucks had squeezed into the tight snowplowed corridor and hundreds of dogs – still snug in their cubbies – were already in full throat, filling the valley’s east end with noise and anticipation. Both Debra Su and Mark were entered in the seven and a half-mile 8-dog race, scheduled to start at 10:30. Back at the truck, under the watchful eye of their assistant, Nate Quinn of Evergreen, their huskies were busy working themselves into a fever pitch, yammering and yapping and snapping at one another, their competitive instincts in overdrive.

Dogs being what they are, and sled dogs somewhat more so, mushing is a fairly hands-on sport. Removed from their temporary quarters one at a time, dogs were immediately fastened to long chains strung along the running board of every vehicle, secured at every step from home to harness by human hands or stout tether. The reason for all that attention is simple – the dogs were there to run and, given the least opportunity, they were apt to do just that, with or without their master.

To make life easier on everybody, the dogs aren’t hooked to the sled – which is prudently attached to the dog truck – until minutes before launch because, once hooked to the gang-line, the animals simply go nuts, leaping wildly in the air, pressing furiously against the traces and barking madly at no one and everyone. That being the case, mushing is a necessarily cooperative sport, since no sled driver can easily restrain their team when its blood is up. Like hot air ballooning, dog sled racing is a team effort but, as few mushers travel with a retinue, sport etiquette requires any available mushers to assist in calming the dogs as much as possible and guiding them into the chute. It’s an important courtesy by which all racers abide, and typical of the sports friendly, familial character.

At about 10:45, Debra Su and her eight frantic Siberians pulled up in the chute. The mercury stood at about 8 degrees and a thick mantle of cloud pressed nearly to earth, the white sky and snow-covered ground blending seamlessly into a single colorless palette that hid the trail as effectively as a foot of new powder. In addition, the flurries that had been spitting fitfully all morning had organized themselves into a snowstorm – the high-altitude kind in which solid ranks of flakes seem to materialize in the frigid air just overhead, forming a dense, swirling wall that mutes sound and pulls visibility back to nothing.

The race official began counting down at 15 seconds, sending the team into renewed frenzies. At “go”, the pack of barking, fractious, distracted
huskies were instantly transformed into sleek, silent racing machines – stretched out long and low, utterly focused, all straining muscles and undiluted purpose. In moments, Debra Su was lost in the pallid gloom. A minute later, Mark and his eight pups followed.

While the course was relatively simple – a reasonably level route down the valley, around Camp Hale’s old artillery bunkers and back again – the flat-light conditions and heavy snowfall rendered the trail virtually invisible to even experienced sled racers like Debra Su and Mark. If that sounds like a problem, it isn’t. Even the dullest sled dog carries a detailed map in its head of every trail it’s ever run. While that kind of biological auto-pilot is a useful feature in poor weather, it can cause disagreement. “Occasionally, they’ll change the route,” Debra Su says, “and the dogs will fight you on it.”

It was all familiar territory on Sunday, though, and 30 minutes and 9 seconds after take-off, Debra Su and her team steamed back into view. It was a reasonably good time which, added to her Saturday performance, earned Debra Su the second-place spot in her category behind John Perry of Sterling, Colo., who’s team of husky/pointer crossbreeds has been known to average a blinding 22.7 miles per hour on the trail. “John’s got the fastest 8-dog team in the world,” Debra Su said, “but it took him four miles to catch me.”

Mark finished fourth in the class, a respectable finish considering the limitations of his young lead-dogs, Keeper and Montana. “They’re really fast,” Mark said, “but I can’t get ‘em to pass anybody because they like to stop and play with the first team they catch up with.” Well, dogs will be dogs, which is the whole point of mushing.

By 2 p.m., Colorado’s four-month dog sled racing season was over and, one by one, the dog trucks surrendered the high valley to the silently falling snow. Before long, the narrow plowed lane would be filled and all signs of the Silver City Sled Dog Classic would be obliterated.

Just because there aren’t any races during the warm months doesn’t mean mushers and huskies sit around playing Nintendo and filing their nails. Training, for example, is a year-round chore and, in summer, the Stephens take their huskies up to Kenosha Pass and let them pull a four-wheeler around.

Dog sled racing is nothing if not a social hobby, and local mushers attend frequent picnics, barbecues and husky-meet-and-greets held throughout the year, many of them sponsored by Colorado Mountain Mushers. In the end, though, it’s still about the dogs.

“Mushers are really just dog-lovers,” Debra Su said, “and mushing is just an excuse to spend quality-time with our pets.”