Saturday, 7 September 2013

Korea - Is Man a Dog's Best Friend?

When I was researching for my blog post on Korea - the Google Instant Test, I noticed a lot of interest from Western readers, as to whether or not Koreans eat dog meat.  It got me thinking, in a much broader sense about the human-dog relationship, probably one of the most important inter-species relationships/partnerships on our planet and how this key relationship matters to us, even when we are assessing our relationship with humans from another culture. 

My experience of dogs

I've always liked dogs.  Being Irish, I grew up in a society where dogs were everywhere.  We had a Jack Russell for many years and she produced several litters of pups, some of which became household pets.  I now live in England, where people seem to be obsessed with dogs.  People allow dogs to sleep in the same bed as them - people take their dogs to groomers, costing up to £50 a session!  Just take a walk through an English park in early summer and you'll begin to understand the important place dogs occupy in English society.

When I was growing up in Ireland, dogs were mostly kept outside, as yard pets.  This now seems to be changing and I sense a general evolution in people's attitude towards dogs - they are no longer animals, but part of the family, companions, man's best friend . . . Dogs may be a man's best friend, but I'm beginning to wonder whether the opposite statement is also true - ie. Is Man a Dog's best friend?

Just another consumer product?

Dalmatian on Cable Beach, WA
In a way, dogs are evolving, or being shaped, to meet the demands of human consumerism - we're breeding them smaller and cuter into all kinds of freaky shapes and sizes, some of which are physically debilitating, even unnatural.  It's as though dogs are replacing a human need for control that has long since been blurred by the fast pace of modern living.  They've become another symbol of our desire to be a master over the natural world - to see unconditional love reflected in the eyes of another creature.

A new way of thinking about dogs

One of the things I love about doing this blog is that I read things and learn things which change my perspective on the world.  Like many people reading this post, I've previously just accepted man's relationship with dogs and never really had a reason to question it.  Now, just as many people wonder why Koreans would want to eat dog - I'm beginning to wonder why people would want to own a dog, to keep it in their house, feed it, groom it, entertain it, exercise it and pay expensive veterinary bills when the dog gets ill?

As part of my research, I've read an eye-opening book called Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution (The University of Chicago Press, 2002) by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger.  For anyone interested in dog behaviour and the origin of dogs as a species (and they are a relatively new species), then I would highly recommend getting a copy of this book (although I had to order it from the United States).  Raymond and Lorna are biologists and champion sled-dog trainers and I think their explanation of the role dogs play in human society makes a lot of sense. 

Dawn of the Dog

The Gamekeeper by Richard Ansdell
One of the main arguments they make is that man didn't somehow tame wolves and therefore produce dogs.  Wolves are wild animals and are not tameable - even after several generations, they are genetically programmed to behave in a certain way.  It's more likely that dogs tamed themselves, by modifying their behaviour and, ultimately, losing their fear of the human race.  Modern dogs are descendants of wild dogs (or perhaps wolves) who saw an opportunity in the new ecological niche that was created when humans first changed their nomadic lifestyles, turning to agricultural and settling in small villages based on clans. 

With agriculture and the first human settlements came food surplus and the first village dumps.  The Coppingers argue that the ancestors of dogs were scavengers at these village dumps (not only dogs, but also rats, domestic cats and other animals).  They became attracted to the constant source of food at these 'new' settlements and evolved their behaviour in a way that brought them ever closer to the ultimate source of food, humankind!  Over the years, dogs have become man's true companions and, as a species, they are flourishing with an estimated 400 million dogs worldwide, compared to 400 thousand wolves. 

Ways of interpreting the human-dog relationship

We've taught dogs to care for other animals, to guard our properties, guide blind people, rescue human beings trapped in the snow, pull sleds . . . you name it!  But what is the true relationship between humans and dogs?  The Coppingers' posit several different ways of understanding this relationship:

Dogs learn to respond to human needs from an early age
Commensualism: ie. where one species benefits (dogs), but the other doesn't (humans).  This would fit the mould for dogs scavenging at the village dump.  Whilst, in the West, we tend to think of dogs as pets, the reality is that most of the world's dogs are village dogs, belonging to no-one in particular and scavenging off the leftovers of human meals. 

Mutualism: ie. where both species benefit from each other.  Most people would assume that this is the proper interpretation of the human-pet dog relationship - ie. we feed them, they love us!

Parasitism: ie. where one species benefits at the expense of the other.  This is probably a truer reflection of the human-pet dog relationship.  In Western society, pet dogs cost a lot of money, giving us, arguably, very little in return.  The reality is that pet dogs are needy, expensive to feed and live short lives, often beset with health problems because we've bred them into unnatural forms!

Dogs as modern-day slaves?

Think about how we treat dogs - is it really love, care and loyalty?  Or consumerism, degradation and enslavement?  The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that man is not dog's best friend, but that we are somehow locked in a parasitic relationship that is degrading to both species! 

Dogs have evolved because of changes in the way humans live - they are a species that mostly owe their existence to us - if humans suddenly disappeared off the planet, most household dogs wouldn't survive.  Conversely, humans would survive without dogs, although I imagine the loss of dogs would have a great impact on our collective cultural psyche

I find the human-dog relationship endlessly fascinating and I'm sure I'll come back to it in future blog posts!

Image credits:

Both photos were taken by me - the first in Australia, the second in Russia. 

The painting is by Richard Ansdell and depicts a typical scene from the human-dog relationship.  It's in the public domain and therefore copyright-free. 

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