The tale of a 'doggie'

Greater Kashmir

The sun had set and the temperature had dropped further. Deep there in the woods, the piddly few tents that were erected in the camp, were covered with hides & tied in place against wind. Between the tents, the snow was trampled. It’s the cave time for hunter-gatherers. The latter settled around the fire that blazed in the center of tents, to dine on the deer that they’d killed in the morning. After another hefty meal, mainly meat, the families started to settle down for the night in their tents. Fur coats, trousers, and boots were discarded in a great pile by the door. Children were tucked up under piles of goat-skins. In the nearby of the tents lay scant remains of what had been a deer. It had been butchered into pieces. As the skeins of the blue smoke grew thinner, and the murmur of conversation died down, the meager carcass on the edge of the camp drew scavengers out of the forest. Emerging like shadows, skulking and silent, the wolves made short work of the remains of the deer and then prowled around the tents and the central hearth, searching for other scraps, before disappearing back into the trees.

Usually wolves melted away in summers, as hunting became more profitable than scavenging from human hunters. In winter, however, these wild beasts were more of a constant presence than ever before. They’re in the camp every night. Earlier they occasionally came near during the hours of daylight, never within the circle of tents, but close enough. Perhaps driven by hunger, wolves became bolder over years, even generations. Mostly humans tolerated them. But stones, bones, and sticks were thrown at them if they come too nearer. More wolves ventured into the camp during daylight and they didn’t seem aggressive. It wasn’t long before that one wolf, a youngster, came nearer to the center of the camp padding a few steps closer. The wolf came right up to the preteen, seated near the tent, playing with pebbles. It licked his hand up and momentarily sat back on its haunches. The boy looked up into the blue eyes of the young wolf. An astonishing moment of connection, the wolf leaped up, spun around, and bounded away back into the shadows.  After a few more winters and summers, parents allowed children to play with the friendly wolf-pups. Some wolves started sleeping close to the camp. When the tents were dismantled and wrapped up and people moved on, the wolves moved with them. The wolves found themselves drawn to the side of the humans, even joining them with the hunts profited from the fallen prey. It’s kind of a nervous, fragile alliance.

Wolves are large, ferocious-looking animals—-formidable predators. Those among them that were erratic and aggressive preferred to live life in the wild. The self-selecting ones that looked nervous, rather than too bold, more and more, even if just picking over middens for scraps of food, seemed to have consciously trained the humans into accepting (taming) them.  As people grew less frightened and more tolerant of them, wolves started to hang out with humans. Their future changed and they changed.  Neoteny is a characteristic of domestic animals, especially dogs.  As the wolves changed coloring they grew short snouts, floppy ears, and the sort of behavior that wolf-pups show. There were changes to their skeletal structure, with shorter legs, muzzles, and a widened skull appearing. Traits like coat color, the curl of the tail, and the shape of the head were soon dragged as the characters of mellowness and nice personality.

It’s soon followed by a very low level of cortisol in their blood to mediate the body’s stress response, and higher serotonin level in their brains to inhibit aggression. The lack of aggression was followed by holding their tails up in the air and wagging them too. The full range of wolf-hunting and attacking behaviors plus long snouts and cocked ears were gone. After just a few generations the friendliest wolves started to whine and whimper to get attention. They sniffed and licked their keepers, paid attention to human gestures and direction of gaze that wolf would never do. Certain elements of exiting behavior were selected for or promoted and became more common, while others were selected against and pushed out. Those earliest ones made them useful by running with hunters—helping to track, hunt, and bring back the prey. Once farming began these beasts could fulfill a crucial role by protecting livestock from predators. They’re becoming doggies.

‘Domesticates’, in general, diverged from their wild ancestors in terms of size, in terms of wool retention and reduction of loss of hair, milk yield, and so on. Several ‘domesticates’ developed smaller brains and less developed sense organs because they no longer needed the bigger brains and more developed sense organs on which their ancestors depended on to escape from wild predators. In a world of 500 million dogs today, ‘domesticates (pets)’ now outnumber surviving wild relatives by more than 1500 to 1. Over time the decision of a handful of wolves, 20,000 or 30,000 years ago, to entrust the destiny of their species to humans, has been that descendants of these animals weaseled their way into the hearts and the fabric of human society. The upside was a steady food supply and a warm fire to curl up by. Maybe in some societies the fact that the dog’s bipedal benefactors cooked it seems a small price to pay for the security of home and hearth. But then came, the leash, the collar, the fighting pit, the animal shelter. Finally, there was the disgrace of the genetic sculpting in which humans transformed the basic canine form—-a model of grace and efficiency—into shapes, shades, and sizes never found in nature.

As the dog’s genome was tinkered into a bewildering array of animals that look magnificent, in the end, these canines are like modern tomatoes, a triumph of style over substance. While choosing the animal companions, humans use the same facile consumer psychology that we apply to choose the latest clothing styles. The transition from ‘function’ to ‘friend’ to ‘fashion’ statement is complete.