Canis lupus familiaris (recently reclassified from canis familiaris)
The human race probably could have managed without the dog. After all, we are perfectly able to stalk, kill and retrieve animals ourselves, as well as staying awake every night to guard our homes.
Similarly, the dog could have made it without the help of man. Wild dogs can be found throughout the world - from the fanged pack of wolves, running through northern winters, to the dingo, cunningly prowling the Australian desert.
Our ways could easily have been separate, and yet, they weren't. The dog has been an honourary member of the human family for at least 15,000 years, graduating from the servant role as guard and hunting companion to the additional roles of spoiled child substitute and career dog with its own labour union and pension fund. The dog has made it to the highest pinnacles of our mythology and to the basest of our insults. It has changed into whatever we wanted it to be, from blood-thirsty man-killer to bouncy, friendly pet. The man-dog relationship seems a match made in heaven, with no intentions of going sour anytime soon.
The oldest archeological indications of dogs living with man are from the Middle East, and for a long time, this was thought to be where the dog was domesticated. Recent genetic research, however, shows that the place where the first wolves became tame was East Asia(1). Because of its invaluable usefulness to man, the dog gained popularity and spread rapidly throughout the world, becoming the only domesticated animal to do so before colonization.
Tamed wolves may have possessed many instincts that were already helpful to stone-age humanity, but man desired more. Without knowing it, he made himself master of evolution by chosing which dogs should breed and which puppies survive. The first types of dog were developed in this way. Different usage bred five rough classes of canines: wolf-like dogs which could pull a sleigh and hunt in a pack; herding dogs that would develop amazing abilities to control herds, pointing dogs with an instinct to find prey and retrieve it for their master, agile greyhounds that hunted swift game, and mastiffs, great, imposing watchdogs.
Later times brought more specialized use, and yet more diversification. Several armies of the antiquity fought with dogs of war; European peasants defended themselves from rats using small, valiant canines. For every type of hunting there was one highly refined type of dog, and in the higher circles, in China as well as in Europe, dogs were bred to be ornaments. The 19th century in particular saw a lot of aim-oriented breeding; a range of new, well-described breeds; and the first dog show. Unfortunately, this race for a perfect dog carried with it a dark shadow. Purebred dogs by definition come from a small gene pool. This leads to an increased chance of inherited diseases, which today is the curse of many breeds.
It's hard to say something about the average dog of today. Even Plato would have had difficulties coming up with an ideal dog pattern that could describe them all. For while all dogs wag their tail to show their friendly attitude, these tails can be shaggy or hairless, straight or curled, long and elegant or comically tiny. Their sensitive ears can stand up attentively like those of the German Shepherd or droop like those of a Basset Hound. A dog can weigh anything from 150 kg to less than one, and it can vary in size from the size of a pony to being able to fit into a teacup.
Dogs do, however, have a few things in common. They run on four toes, which are padded to protect their bones and to make their steps more quiet. Their claws are non-retractable. Some dogs have a fifth dew claw, which never touches the ground, on the inside of the leg.
The dental set-up of dogs is like that of wolves: They have four large canine teeth at the front of the mouth and large gnawing molars, including two carnassial teeth, further in. However, unlike the carnivorous wolves, dogs can eat everything, and can even survive on a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Their nasal structures are complex and highly functional. While eye-sight is usually not spectacular, sighthounds rely on their enhanced vision to hunt.
Although dogs have many similarities with wolves both in looks and behaviour, there are also many differences. Dogs may display many traits not seen in wolves, such as curly tails, floppy ears, and piebald coats(2). They form stronger social bonds than wolves, and have more frequent breeding seasons. Above all, dogs are tame, and will bond with humans and know how to read us from an early age.
Despite the startling changes we have imposed on them, all dogs are (theoretically) able to mate with each other, as well as with wolves, coyotes, dingos, and jackals.
With the dog being such an important part of the world of man, it's not surprising that is also shows up in his mythology. Dogs often fulfill the same roles in the otherworld as they do in real life: as helpers and guardians.
In the case of the Aztecs, one of their gods, Xolotl, was said to take the shape of a dog when visiting earth. In this form he would guide souls to Mictlan after death. The god is also often depicted with a dog head. Because of this connection, dogs were viewed as holy, and would often end up in graves, in the form of sculptures, images, or sacrifices.
Dogs conducted souls to the underworld in many religions. In Welsh mythology, the Cwn Annwn were said to roam at night, searching for corpses and souls. They are described as small, speckled and greyish-red, and seeing them was considered an omen of death. This belief has survived in Britain for centuries, giving rise to numerous legends about ghastly black dogs which frighten or bring death.
Of course, gods being so much more powerful than mortals, their dogs would tend to be slightly more impressive as well. Thus we get Cerberus, the watchdog of Hades, who possesses three heads, the claws of a lion, the tail of a serpent, and a mane of snakes.
Yama, god of the death in Hindu, Buddhist and Zoroastrian traditions, was said to have two dogs which both had four eyes. In Hindu scriptures these are called Shama (black) and Shabala (dotted), and are the daughters of Sarama, the first dog, which belonged to Lord Indra. In Indian Zoroastrianism, a dog with an extra pair of eyes painted on it is still required at funeral rites.
Dogs have frequently been used as guardians of holy places in our world. In China, a carved dog known as the foo dog is often seen at the entrance of a temple or another spiritual place, placed there to keep evil spirits out and the good ones in. The shishi dogs have the same function in Japan.
Real, barking dogs have played a role in earthly worship as well. In East Asia, many Buddhist monasteries would keep dogs to protect their temple from unwelcome intruders, such as rats or nasty strangers. This gave rise to the characteristic "lion dogs", such as the Lhasa Apso and the Tibetan Spaniel.
In Thailand, stray dogs often find refuge close to temples, where monks will give them food. These dogs are tolerated, but rarely approached. This is because they are commonly believed to be the reincarnations of bad people, who may have kept their nasty ways in their dog form as well. In parts of the Himalayas, the dogs are considered to be former monks who broke their vows by giving in to earthly desires.
To the Zoroastrians, however, the dog is truly sacred. It has the same rank as humanity, and is able to protect it both from wild animals, evil spirits and illness. The Avesta speaks at length about dog breeding, and proclaims that all food should be shared with them, and those who mistreated dogs would be punished.
The ancient Greeks held dogs to have healing powers, and the god Asclepius was often accompanied by one. In addition, dogs were routinely sacrificed in Greek temples, as they were in Celtic, Roman, Chinese, Indonesian, and South American cultures.
Humanity has also placed dogs among the stars, in more ways than one. Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, is also known as the dog star and was said to be responsible for the sultry dog days in summer, and even to be the source of canine madness. The Chinese called Sirius T'ien-k'uan, The Celestial Dog, and thought he was responsible for thunder and lightning.
Sirius is part of the greater dog constellation, placed at the heels of the great hunter Orion, and is usually said to be his hunting dog. The smaller dog constellation is either his other dog, or Maera, the faithful dog of Icarus.
In modern times, dogs were turned into astronauts before humans, but this was no happy honour for them.
Led by the famous Laika, the Russians sent several dogs into space before they dared try it with a human. If dogs ever become astronauts again, it will probably be to follow human settlement, the way they always have.
The story of dogs would have been incomplete if we concentrated only on their glory and didn't take into account the various ways in which we have hounded them. Indeed, despite their help and friendship for us, man has not hesitated in slaughtering and preparing dogs for his meal.
Although today eating dog meat is seen by many as akin to cannibalism, it's supposed to be very tasty, and is still enjoyed in East Asia. People have eaten dog for ritual purposes, as medicine, and because they had nothing else. While dog-eating is looked down upon in Indonesia and the Philipines, it is still current
practice in China and Korea.
The story of Cu Chulainn shows the dilemma of considering the dog a tasty dish and a hero at the same time.
The prefix 'Cu', meaning hound of, was frequently used to denote hero status in ancient Ireland. In Cu Chulainn's case, it had a second meaning, as he had taken the name in penance for killing the dog of Culann, the smith. After living up to his heroic appellation, Cu Chulainn broke his geas (taboo) by eating dog meat, thereby sealing his own doom.
Despite the dog heroes and dog soldiers of history, being called a 'dog' is usually not considered to be a good thing. There are several reasons for this, most arising from normal dog behaviour.
As previously mentioned, dogs willingly take the lowest rank in their human community. They show this by grovelling and desperate attempts to please. Despite their ferocity as guards, then, doglike behaviour becomes associated with servility and cowardliness.
They also have a fondness for filth which has long upset humans. Dogs use dirt to get information, to get nourishment, and to mask their scent. As a consequence, they are able to get incredibly dirty and to transmit disease. In Muslim tradition, dogs are condemned as being ritually unclean, and this is one of the reasons often given.
Dogs also don't have any taboos about having sex in the open, unlike most humans. Their sex life is persistent, vocal, and visible. The one to suffer under this is the bitch, who has had her name dragged into the dirt, first as a name for a promiscuous woman, later for any despised female. Even their way of coupling, the 'doggy style', is somehow seen as more dirty than others.
With all these negative connotations gathered up together, the dog's better qualities somehow disregarded completely, 'dog' in various forms has come to be a well-known, much used, general or specific term of abuse in many languages.
While our science has established that dogs are descended from wolves, it has yet to determine how this happened. A wolf is a wild animal, even when raised by humans from a pup. Dogs are devoted to us from birth, to the extent that they can read our emotions.
Some mythologies, trying to explain dogs, put their emphasis on the similarity between our races, and make the dog a mutilated human. This is the case in Maori belief, where the trickster-hero Maui made the first dog by half-killing his own brother(3).
One rather likely theory is that dogs gradually domesticated themselves by approaching human settlements, living off scraps, like dogs still do in many parts of the world. Dogs and humans would gradually get used to one another, until they eventually began their current symbiosis. The fact that dog bones suddenly crop up in human settlements from the agricultural revolution onwards, while there are no finds of wolfdog intermediaries before that, suggest that the dogs made themselves, and then man saw their usability.
Another theory, more acceptable to the romantically inclined, is that some woman rescued a wolf pup, breastfeeding it like she would a human baby. There is an affinity between our two types of packs that have attracted us to each other, perhaps making the creation of the dog inevitable. Who knows, maybe it could even have happened the other way around. Humans have been raised by wolves, after all.
- This is so recent research that we don't quite know what to make of it. An investigation led by Charles Vila indicated that dogs may have been diverged from wolves as long as 135,000 year ago. Later on, Peter Savolainen determined that five different female wolves were the foremothers of our domestic dogs, suggesting that wolves had been domesticated more than once. Based on this research, it's likely that dogs diverged from wolves quite some time ago. However, since wolves and dogs are still able to interbreed, the species may have been seriously mixed.
- Many of our pets are paedeomorphic, that is, they retain juvenile characteristics even as adults. This is the case with both the hanging ears, the patterned coat, and the curved tail of dogs - they are all found in young wolves, but not in adults.
- Another highly interesting story is an Aztec legend, related by Juan Suárez de Cepeda in his Relaciones de los indios Colimas de la Nueva España from 1581. In this legend the gods, annoyed with humanity, pull off people's heads and stick them up their asses (!), thus creating the Mexican hairless dog. Not a glorious genesis, perhaps, but an interesting one.