Book Review: How the Dog Became the Dog

How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best FriendsHow the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends by Mark Derr

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Selective breeding.

Now that we got that out of the way: the chief message Derr was trying to send is that we shouldn’t think of primitive dogs like those shitty hyenas from the Lion King. They get a bad rap from the prevailing paleoanthropological perspective, painting them as skeevy little lurkers at the threshold, gnawing on the mammoth bones and indigestible gristle discarded by early sapiens.

Derr argues that, due to wolves’ capacity for strategic thinking and their hunting patterns that most likely looked just like ours (how we gonna know, though? We’re piecing that together by observation of modern hunter gatherers), it’s likely that dogs and humans co-domesticated one another, working in tandem for the common goal of overwhelming larger prey, minimizing pack casualties, and getting enough meat to go around.

I’m fervently pro-dog, and as much as I prefer to think of them as dignified, tactical li’l gargoyles rather than the unsavory “diaper cleaners” the fossil record’s translators tells us they are, it’s all conjecture. The bones tell us nothing, except for where the bones are buried.

I did like his rambling aside about neoteny, especially as concerns gargantuan, ineffective murder machines like mastiffs. Neoteny is the evolutionary tendency for some creatures (often the domesticated kind) to exhibit childlike characteristics increasingly late in life, often slowing their functional development. A water buffalo, who can walk a few minutes after birth, is not overly neotenous. A human being, who needs assistance to eat and move for the first two years of life, and might not get a productive job until their mid-thirties, is decidedly neotenous.

Dogs are neotenous wolves, which is why they’re dumber, and cuter, and usually smaller. A beefy breed like the mastiff and its many offshoots has become so neotenous that they can no longer function as wolves. If you release a labrador into the wild, it’s not going to thrive, but it has all the parts necessary to function as a D-tier wolf. It’s got the speed, stamina, and social acumen for predation. Mastiffs are so big and bulky that they are wholly incapable of bringing down prey. The capacity for hunting is gone.

Watching my cane corso mix try to chase a squirrel, it’s easy to see what they mean.

Big square-headed fellas like the English and Neapolitan mastiff were bred for short bursts of speed, and to overwhelm their targets with their lovable bulk. The instinct for the kill exists in there somewhere, but it’s buried under thousands of years of this bastardized “guarding” schema, a co-opted version of puppy dominance play.

These big guard dogs, bred to incapacitate and hold, are playing their quarry to death. Mauling is a wildly ineffective hunting strategy, wasteful and dangerous to dog and pack when a well-placed throat chomp could get the job done and dinner on the table right this second.

An interesting book, if wishful and inexpert in its execution.

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