The Genetic Wonder of the Canine: A Look at Geek’s Best Friend

My dear departed Callie. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0

My dear departed Callie. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0

It’s true. I lasted approximately 48 hours before we ended up with another dog after our pooch of 8 years was tragically hit and killed by a car. But I am a dog person, and I’d like to think that it’s in my DNA. After all, dogs may be one of the most fascinating creatures on earth. In fact, they could be considered one of the first geeky genetic experiments put together by human kind. (And my dear friend, Seth, who recently passed away far, far too young, was an avid dog lover and rescue advocate. In his memory, I’m helping support Random Acts of Sethness, and this is first: to convince you to share some love with a slobbery mutt who will give you 1000% ROI.)

I’m a huge supporter of dog adoption from shelters. Sure, purebred dogs serve a certain purpose. If you really want to know a dog’s pedigree and are looking to compete or something, go ahead and find a reputable breeder. But the fact of the matter is that every year between 5 to 9 million pets end up in shelters in the US, and at least half that are euthanized every year. And even if you do want a purebred dog, know that at least a quarter of dogs in shelters are just that. You can put your name on wait lists and get notified when a dog meets your criteria. Some put the stray dog population as high as 70 million in this country, so animal overpopulation is a really huge problem.

Our first dog, Callie, was a scrawny little black mutt when we found her at a local shelter, about twelve weeks old. She was a lab and maybe pointer, or something else. It’s hard to tell with mutts. But I’ll tell you, she was the best dog I’ve ever known. It took a lot of work (training is a must, as my whining puppy Bentley reminds me) but she was a friend to everyone. I don’t know many dogs who made so many fans as Callie. I miss her every day. She was, for lack of a better term, my familiar. She curled up on my feet when I wrote, nuzzled her muzzle on my lap when I was sad, and pretended she was the size of a Cocker Spaniel and crawled up on my lap if I let her. Not to mention, she was practically a PC around the D&D table.

But while trolling the web for adoptable pets after she died (therapy, I told myself) I was astonished by just how many dogs there are out there (to say nothing of cats). The truth is, people don’t spay and neuter their animals. They’re careless. I found our current puppy, a Basset/Beagle mix named Bently, at a local animal rescue. He and his mother and litter were scheduled to be euthanized at barely a week old! I can’t even wrap my head around that.

Bently, our new puppy. Rambunctious and trouble-making. Also adorable. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0

Bently, our new puppy. Rambunctious and trouble-making. Also adorable. Image by Natania Barron, CC BY SA 3.0

I’ve always known that dogs are special. But after watching a feature on NOVA a while back, I came to realize why: we made them that way (at least, that’s one of the working theories). Dogs, descended from wolves, are innately attuned to human expression. They follow our commands¬†and read our body language. They see us as their pack. They are loyal because we’ve encouraged them to do just that. We’ve bred them within an inch of their lives, from mammoth Great Danes to tiny teacup Malteses. We’ve decoded their DNA and used it to help us make advances in medicine. Some even speculate that it’s dogs, not chimps, that are most like us in the animal kingdom.

In fact, some researchers go so far as to suggest that we weren’t responsible for domesticating dogs, rather they domesticated us. From an opinion piece at NatGeo, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods of Duke University:

Most likely, it was wolves that approached us, not the other way around, probably while they were scavenging around garbage dumps on the edge of human settlements. The wolves that were bold but aggressive would have been killed by humans, and so only the ones that were bold and friendly would have been tolerated.

Friendliness caused strange things to happen in the wolves. They started to look different. Domestication gave them splotchy coats, floppy ears, wagging tails. In only several generations, these friendly wolves would have become very distinctive from their more aggressive relatives. But the changes did not just affect their looks. Changes also happened to their psychology. These protodogs evolved the ability to read human gestures.

Regardless of what came first, the puppy or the master, it’s cold out there. And dangerous for a dog in the streets. There are literally millions of these amazing creatures in need of a home, a hearth, and a helping hand. If you have the space and the time, take a trip to your local shelter or rescue. If you don’t have the space, just visit and play, donate food and toys, or make monetary contributions. After all, there’s nothing that a dog loves more than to feel like part of the pack. You may be out a few chewed slippers, but you’ll never lose on love and loyalty.

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