The saga of dogs is a long strange trip. Experts agree that all dogs are descendants of wild gray wolves. They don’t agree when dogs were domesticated, but most say around 14,000 years ago. Could it be a coincidence that this occurred around the time when humans were getting really good at killing really big animals with stone-tipped lances, and the countryside was dotted with mastodon corpses, and other dainty delicacies?
As humans emigrated from our African home, we moved into wolf country, and learned important skills from our new neighbors. Wolves were social creatures, like we were. We both lived in hierarchical groups. We both chased and ate the same critters. We both scavenged each other’s leftovers.
Wolves and humans coexisted for a long time before dogs emerged. Wolves learned to hang out on the fringe of human camps from time to time, because they were a source of food to scavenge. They found bones to gnaw and offal to wolf down. They slobbered whilst inhaling the intoxicating aroma of meat roasting on our campfires. They found human excrement to be indescribably delicious, an overwhelming passion that may be the prime reason for the creation of dogs.
This scavenging activity became a regular habit, and humans actively classified their canine visitors as naughty or nice. Aggressive nuisance wolves were killed, while the presence of more timid wolves was tolerated. By and by, over many generations, this selection process resulted in dogs. Dogs were smaller than wolves, and had smaller skulls and brains. We selected for dogs having juvenile characteristics, because they were less trouble to have around. Dogs helpfully announced the arrival of humans and beasts, and they drove away other predators.
Before going further, I must reveal my motives. I believe that the domestication of plants and animals played a major role in the process that got us into our current predicament, the Earth Crisis. Wild humans and wild wolves once lived in a manner that worked quite well, for a very long time. Today, both are endangered. Meanwhile, the population of domesticated humans and dogs has grown explosively, because of a temporary bubble of abundant energy. The family of life is temporarily out of balance.
Humans and dogs live in the highest density in poorer regions, where many are malnourished and unhealthy. In prosperous regions, humans and dogs are more likely to be over-nourished, neurotic, stressed out, and excessive consumers of resources (trendy $1,500 purebreds are not shit-eating dogs).
I am not here to judge or criticize dog owners, and I mean that sincerely. My goal is to explore the dark side of domestication, because there are many lessons to be learned — knowledge that may be important for any attempts to return to genuine sustainability.
Many assume that dogs have always been pets, since our days in the caves, but this is not true. Dogs had a semi-wild, pariah-like existence for thousands of years before being reduced to pets, and losing their freedom. Dozens of gray wolves were interviewed for this story, and they unanimously agreed that wolves never had any desire whatsoever to become dogs. In fact, they were grievously insulted by the mere suggestion of this.
In his book Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez told many wolf stories. Once upon a time, in
Alaska’s , wolves killed 42 dogs one winter. The Athbascan Indians took a vote, and by a landslide chose not to retaliate against the wolves. Why? Because everyone knew that wolves hated dogs. Case closed. Goldstream Valley
I was repeatedly surprised in my research to discover that hunter-gatherers had little respect for dogs. Dogs were uniquely second-class animals. Domestication had diminished them to the degree that they were no longer able to survive in the wild, outside the human sphere (similar to sheep, cattle, maize, and consumers). This serious abnormality was perfectly obvious to every illiterate, uneducated savage.
Wild hunting people recognized that wolves were beings that possessed immense spiritual power, according to Lopez. The Nunamiut understood that wolves had souls, but not their sled dogs. In the Sioux language, the term for wolf was shunkmanitu tanka, “the animal that looks like a dog (but) is a powerful spirit.” Dogs were banned from ceremonial lodges, except when they arrived in the stew kettle, as they often did.
In The Way of the Shaman, Michael Harner discussed the animals that shamans used as guardian spirits. Guardian spirits were almost always wild and untamed. Domesticated animals typically lacked the spiritual power required for shamanic purposes. (Cars are often named after powerful wild things, never pudgy barnyard riffraff.)
In The Forest People, Colin Turnbull described how Pygmies treated dogs: “And the hunting dogs, valuable as they are, get kicked around mercilessly from the day they are born to the day they die.”
In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff wrote that the Yequana people never imposed their will on others, but with dogs they used strict discipline, hitting them with fists, sticks, and stones.
Dogs inherited coprophilia from their wolf ancestors (an obsession for the smell and taste of excrement). In Book of the Eskimos, Peter Freuchen wrote that sled dogs were often a nuisance when someone attempted to take a crap. Sometimes a good buddy would drive the dogs away with a whip until you were finished. Dogs would sometimes have bloody fights over fresh turds.
Freuchen also mentioned that it was perfectly acceptable to copulate with a dog when she was in heat, as long as it was done outdoors, in the open. Brighter lads never attempted this with wolves.
In The Harmless People, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas discussed the dogs that lived with the Bushmen. They were typically skeletal and weak from hunger. Dogs were owned and named, but they were only fed excrement. When they tried to snatch human food, they were stoned or whipped. In return for regular hot meals, the grateful dogs drove away leopards, jackals, and hyenas.
In Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, John Lame Deer wrote, “There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote. You have made him into a freak — a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog…. That’s where you’ve fooled yourselves. You have not only altered, declawed, and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves.”
In Ojibway Heritage, Basil Johnston told some dog tales. In their creation stories, humans and other animals worked together in harmony. All animals served the family of life in some way — except for the lowly dog, which had nothing to offer. Dogs were dependent on humans for their survival, and the other animals had no sympathy: “He who allows himself to be servile deserves servitude.”
Other animals were outraged by the treachery of dogs, and considered killing them, but Bear objected. He told the dogs: “For your betrayal, you shall no longer be regarded as a brother among us. Instead of man, we shall attack you. Worse than this, from now on you shall eat only what man has left, sleep in the cold and rain, and receive kicks as a reward for your fidelity.”
To a devout Muslim, a dog is an unclean animal that drives away angels, annuls prayers, and limits their owner’s benefits in paradise. Muslims who touch a dog require ritual purification. In 2011, a journalist commented that in the
village of Novosasitli, Dagestan, dogs do not bark when the call to prayer beckons, because all unclean animals have been exterminated.
Likewise, their Jewish and Christian neighbors have been long-time hard-core dog haters. “Dog” appears in the Bible 41 times, always harshly scribbled with venomous ink, never fondness. For example:
“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” (Matthew 7:6)
“Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” (Revelations 22:14-15)
So, dogs have not been beloved pets since the beginning. They were the first offspring of domestication, and they were diminished by it. As many times has they click the Undo button, nothing happens — they remain dogs. Woof!
To be continued. Stay tuned.