Dogs in the Family

When the last of our dogs died of natural causes a few years ago, we decided to take a break from dog ownership for a while. Aging parents and the potential need for spur-of-the-moment travel was the primary reason. I miss having a dog around and will someday invite one or two back into my home but, in the meantime, I have a marvelous substitute—a grand-dog. Our son in Atlanta acquired a golden retriever puppy in the spring and Libby has become part of the family. His girlfriend also has a dog, a 7-year-old English cocker spaniel named Alice. What a pair Alice and Libby make.

According to the American Kennel Club, the golden retriever is an exuberant gundog that was developed as a breed in Scotland in the mid-1800s. They are serious workers at hunting and field work, a breed built to find and retrieve waterfowl. The English cocker, on the other hand, is a compact sporting dog that is famous the world over for the ability to find, flush, and retrieve gamebirds. The contrasting characteristics of these two breeds became apparent to me on a recent walk. Libby, the retriever, walks with her head up and nose twitching as she carefully watches the world around her. Alice, on the other hand, keeps her nose to the ground, seemingly oblivious to anything that doesn’t smell.

Observing how these two dogs interact with the world around them helped me appreciate the diversity of dogs and how we have shaped and bred dogs to be much more than just pets and companions. Dogs are our partners at a variety of jobs, and I have a soft spot for working dogs.

I recently learned that we share our world with about a billion dogs. We have around seventy-five million in the United States, alone. Dogs evolved from an ancestor of the gray wolf, which has been around for three-hundred thousand years. But how did we get to the modern dog from this ruthless carnivore and apex predator with its bone-splintering bite?

The earliest dogs appeared about fifteen thousand years ago when humans began displacing Neanderthals in Northern Europe and Asia. But the explosion of diversity in shape and size only occurred about two hundred years ago with a breeding craze in Europe and the advent of kennel clubs in the 1800s. Dogs are great companions and have been bred to hunt, herd, and protect. But they can also learn an astonishing variety of tasks. They assist us in therapy, in search and rescue, in policing, and even in war.

Most surprising to me is the recent speculation that humans did not domesticate wolves. Wolves domesticated themselves. They accomplished this by staying in proximity to human settlements, scavenging our leftovers, and adapting to our ways over generations. Wolves evolved into dogs and became hunting companions that were a perfect complement to humans. Dogs were the chasers, and humans were the finishers. We both shared in the spoils of the hunt.

At this point, I should confess that Libby and Alice will probably never share in the spoils of any hunts. Both are house dogs. They are pets that provide companionship. But they also represent the diverse traits and abilities that we humans have shaped into working partnerships.

For thousands of years, humans have bred dogs for specific traits. As humans became more sophisticated, so did their dogs. Eventually, specific breeds of dogs emerged, custom-bred to suit the breeders’ local needs and circumstances. Huge mastiff types were bred as guard dogs and warriors. Sleek greyhound types were bred to chase fleet-footed prey and, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), they became the foundation type for the immense Irish wolfhound and the dainty Italian greyhound. All three have a distinct family resemblance, but you’d never mistake one for another.

So, then, when is a breed a breed and not just a type of dog? The simplest way to define a breed, according to the AKC, is to say it always “breeds true.” Breeding a purebred golden retriever to another purebred golden retriever will always produce golden retriever puppies.

The American Kennel Club recognizes two hundred of the more than three hundred breeds known around the world and classes them in eight or nine groups. These groups include working dogs, herding dogs, hounds, terriers, and more. Next week, we’ll take a look at a group that is special to me—the sporting dogs, like Libby and Alice.

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