Friday, January 30, 2009

Snow Dog


So....I'm still daydreaming about the subject of evolution. Or more to the point: Human/Dog coevolution. My web surfing today led me to this interesting post from The Sensuous Curmudgeon. The post describes a theory in which one plausibly important factor leading to the extinction of Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago, and the survival Homo sapiens who lived at that time, was the social partnership that humans formed with dogs (or with wolf ancestors of dogs). In this theory, dogs and humans shared cooperative survival strategies in which Neanderthals did not, or could not, participate, and this gave modern humans a competitive advantage. So, we may well have dogs to thank for the very survival of our species. I think that I'll go take a walk with my pooch now .....

Of all creatures the one nearest to man in the fineness of its perceptions and in its capacity to render true friendship is a bitch.
- Konrad Lorenz (1903 - 1989), ethologist and Nobel Prize winner

Monday, January 26, 2009

Canine Incidents in U.S. Presidential History

After the Chirac Attack by Sumo the Poodle noted in my last post, and not so long after W's Barney nipped a reporter, I got to wondering about other presidential pooch incidents. I list some of the more interesting (sometimes tragic) ones that I found:

Washington.... He was astonished at how well trained his slaves' dogs were. He also suspected that slaves were using their dogs to round up and steal his sheep at night. So Washington ordered his plantation manager to destroy a number of the slaves' dogs.

Jefferson.... Also to protect his sheep, he ordered the destruction of all dogs belonging to his slaves. One dog was hanged as a disciplinary warning to the slaves.

Lincoln.... His dog Fido, a mongrel, suffered a violent death when stabbed in the street by a drunk man who was angered at having his clothes soiled by the dog's dirty paws.

T. Roosevelt.... His bull terrier Pete ripped off the French ambassador's pants during a White House function.

Harding.... His Airedale had his own chair to sit on in cabinet meetings.

FDR.... His Scottie Fala became famous. His other Scottie Meggie bit a senator.

Nixon.... The story of his cocker spaniel Checkers, told in dramatic fashion in "The Checkers Speech," saved Nixon's early political career.

Johnson.... Yuki, his beagle, soiled the Oval Office floor in the presence of the Shah of Iran, and bit a White House police officer in the groin.

Reagan.... Lucky, his Bouvier des Flandres, dragged Reagan across the White House lawn in the presence of Margaret Thatcher. The event was photographed and publicized, and was considered unpresidential. Lucky was sent to live in California.

Clinton.... Buddy, his chocolate Labrador, relieved himself on the carpet as television cameras rolled.

W.... Barney, his Scottie, bit the finger of a reporter.

Obama... During his victory speech, he announced his intention to adopt a dog for his children. Later discussing possible breed options, Obama speculated that the dog to be chosen may be "a mutt like me."

* The above list was abstracted from here, here, and here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Watch This, Barney

Former French President Jacques Chirac was taken to the hospital this week after being attacked by Sumo the Poodle. The nature and extent of Mr. Chirac's injuries are not publicly known (Mr. Chirac's wife Bernadette would not reveal the anatomical location of the injuries), although it is reported that Mr. Chirac has been released from the hospital. Sumo is undergoing treatment with antidepressant medication. This is all true. Click here.

Plus je vois l'homme, plus j'aimie mon chien.
- Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) dog lover, mathematician & philosopher


One of the dogs mentioned in the Nat Geo article was Rico. His abilities have been demonstrated and analyzed in a number of forums, including prestigious scientific journals (here is one article). By following German or English commands to fetch objects, Rico showed that he knew over 200 object names. When asked to fetch a new object with an unfamiliar name, he would use a process of elimination, or "fast mapping," to correctly choose the new object from among others that he had already learned. This is similar to the cognitive process that underlies the rapid vocabulary growth in human toddlers at 2-3 years of age. And after only one trial of fetching an unfamiliar object and learning it's name, Rico could recall the new object/name association four weeks later.

Rico the Bilingual Border Collie
If you could speak what would you say
Would you tell us to stop making you fetch stuff
Or would you say that it's okay

- gutty74gutty

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Nat Geo and Animal Minds

Those of us who work in hospitals and other institutions can often get so caught up in the least person-centered tasks (like committee meetings with administrators...they're usually thrilling) that we fail to even notice that patients have interests other than therapy. So I felt awakened today when I saw one patient's copy of the March 2008 National Geographic with the cover picture of a border collie's gorgeous face. I had missed that issue before today.

Here is the article. It's a worthy read.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

First Dog

I've loved dogs since I was a little boy, when a skinny stray collie with matted hair walked into our village in search of care and comfort. We cleaned her up, fed her, and gave her a home. Her tri-color coat thickened and grew beautiful. We named her "Princess" - I think that my elder sister came up with the name - and Princess became a loving companion. She was generally very playful and easygoing, but we lived near a potato farm, and she would put on a badass display of let-me-tear-his-flesh-off whenever a farm worker would approach us as we took our walk past where the woods adjoined the farm. We wondered whether this reaction was a reflection of any traumatic experiences she may have had with people before she joined our family, as we never knew...never asked, really... who had been keeping her before she left her previous home to join ours. Maybe her previous people, maybe the farm workers, had abused her. Or maybe her defensive display was simply triggered automatically in a part of her primal dog brain which told her to guard us against the advances of unfamiliar grownups. Anyway, we kept her away from the farm workers, and she stayed with us for a few years until she developed some type of serious illness, and my parents decided that she should be put down. Of course, that decision was carried out over the tearful objections of my sister and me. Princess was a good dog who served, or tried to serve, an important function in our family.

Lately I've been reading some of the contemporary literature on the evolution, cognition, and behavior of the domestic dog. The way that ethologists think about dogs has been changing in interesting ways in recent years (see, for example, the work of Ádám Miklósi, whose textbook on the subject was given to me by my wife this past Christmas). The prevailing view among naturalists, from Darwin to the current generations, once held that domestic dogs could be of little interest to students of natural history, because their descent from wolves some tens of thousands of years ago theoretically occurred by an artificial, human-deliberated, unnatural process. According to the orthodox view, wolf and dog look and behave differently from each other because breeding them through artificial selection produced a domesticated variety of the wolf that is weaker, less intelligent, and more dependent. One is to imagine that the process began with humans capturing wolf pups from their dens during the Stone Age, and then breeding these domesticated wolves in a relatively sheltered environment, thus thwarting the mechanism by which natural selection would otherwise prevent unfit animals from spreading their genes through successive generations. In this view, the domestic dog is a weak and passive prisoner of human intentions, and her adaptation to human society is a byproduct of unnatural forces.

A less orthodox theory is gaining support in the field today. In this newer view, it is believed that wolves who were the early ancestors of today's dogs, who likely had already developed natural capacities for taking part in complex cooperative social systems, played an active role in connecting with humans by interacting with them in ways that promoted their survival (e.g., scavenging for food scraps at the outskirts of human villages, monitoring humans' actions to anticipate the best feeding opportunities, defending their human/canine turf against competing wolf packs, etc.). To the degree that human-friendliness and responsiveness to human cues are heritable traits in dogs (as current research findings suggest that they are), then natural selection would have favored increasingly domestic traits in dogs who lived near humans, and the domestic dog's natural history therefore would not depend upon humans raiding their dens and snatching their pups. The dog's evolutionary course is increasingly seen as having converged with ours, not having been derailed as claimed in the orthodox view. We can think of the origin of the dog even in spiritual terms, in a story of our ancestors forming a partnership in survival that endured through generations. It is a story that Princess reenacted when she walked into our neighborhood and became part of our family.

Hey! Nice Inaugural!

Someone pinch me. It seems too unreal to be watching a national celebration of a new leader who brings authenticity, compassion, and hope. What a truly great thing.