What Is It About Us Humans and Our Dogs?
The first dog I ever remember having was a yappy little black-and-white terrier named Snoopy. He wore a red collar and had long, floppy ears.
I loved Snoopy, named for his innate puppy curiosity. And at age 5 or so, I guess I just assumed somehow that he would always be around and we would grow old together. But Snoopy never even had a chance to get out of his canine adolescence. We were playing under a sweetgum tree in the side yard of our house in Carthage, Mo., when he chased a squirrel out into Chestnut Avenue. A truck came along. The squirrel made it across, but Snoopy didn’t.
He was badly injured but still alive when my father bundled him off to the office of the local veterinarian, Dr. Millenbruck. I cried the whole time Dad was gone. Then he came back empty-handed.
“Where’s Snoopy?” I asked through my tears.
“Well, son,” my father said, sitting me down and attempting a gentle smile, “it’s a funny thing. But Dr. Millenbruck always liked Snoopy. In fact, he liked him so much that he asked if he could just take him home till he got better, and then keep him for his dog. So I let him.”
I was a naïve kid, so I bought that explanation. I must have been in my teens when I was talking to a high school friend about that childhood memory and stopped in mid-sentence. “Wait a minute,” I said, suddenly wising up. “That’s not what happened to Snoopy!” I felt like crying again, and I never put quite the same trust in my father from that day on.
I can hardly remember or count all the dogs that have come into and out of my life and the lives of family members since then. There was Susie. And Tex and Dobie. And Eliza and Murphy and Arnold and Buffy and Jobie. More recently there have been the late and lamented Colonel (named after Colonel Sanders, since I found him as a pup in a KFC parking lot) and Toto and the-still-alive-but-rapidly-aging Kelci and our stout, black, affectionate Emma — whose unexpected death a couple of months ago is the subject of a column by my wife, Brenda, which is to appear soon in PineStraw magazine.
These random memories and others were prompted by an intriguing new book that I perused the other day at The Country Bookshop but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Written by science reporter Jon Franklin, it has a great title — “The Wolf in the Parlor: The Eternal Connection Between Humans and Dogs.”
Franklin’s thesis, apparently, is that humans and domesticated wolves underwent some kind of mutually dependent “mind meld” 20,000 years ago. The dog supposedly lost 20 percent of its brain mass because humans started doing most of its thinking for it. In turn, we humans lost 10 percent of our brain mass because dogs had become our “beast of emotional burden.”
I don’t know about that, but there is a mysterious something there. We love our dogs as inseparable companions, while at the same time recognizing that they must be regarded as interchangeable parts. They come and they go serially, leaving us distraught each time — and, in the process, reminding us of our own mortality.
Like the author of “The Wolf in the Parlor,” I have always been mystified by this unlikely but universal relationship between two species that would seem to have hardly anything in common. A few months ago, I heard a report on NPR about scientific experiments showing that dogs run circles around chimpanzees when it comes to identifying with people and sensing their wishes, though the clueless chimps are chromosomically something like 98 percent identical to Homo sapiens.
A friend once theorized that the reason we — at least some of us — tend to like and trust our dogs more than our cats is that a dog looks you in the eye, just as our fellow humans do, while cats kind of flip you off and go their haughty way.
That’s true, but there’s more to it than that. Dogs are pack animals, hard-wired to go along with whatever the alpha male or female wants. Cats are annoyingly inscrutable loners. In fact, I have a theory of my own that cats aren’t really true mammals at all but are more like reptiles with fur. How else do you explain those weird slit eyes, the same kind you see on poisonous snakes?
Then again, maybe there’s one other reason, besides that primal mind meld, that I’ve always identified so closely with dogs: I’ve had to endure a lifetime of Bowser jokes.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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