Humans and dogs have formed a firm bond dating back as long as 40,000 years
Dog's Best Friend Simon Garfield William Morrow
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.” Funny. And true.
During the pandemic, we have reached for consolations from both. Sales of printed books are at an eight-year high and puppies have doubled in price over the past 12 months. So journalist Simon Garfield is clearly on to a winner with this charming and erudite — if slightly shambolic — little book on the mutually rewarding relationship between dogs and humans.
Writing with his 12-year-old Labrador (Ludo) at his feet, Garfield romps through chapters on dogs in art and literature, dogs on the stage and dogs on the internet. He pays tribute to Odysseus's faithful hound, Argos; sniffs out the skinny on the painter Cassius Marcellus Coolidge's 1894 kitsch classic Dogs Playing Poker and ruminates on the wisdom of Snoopy.
But he starts with the science. It's believed humans first began to domesticate dogs somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. The earliest rock carvings of people hunting with dogs (leashed and tied to their owners' waists to leave the arms free for bows and arrows) were discovered in Saudi Arabia in 2017 and date back to between 8,000 and 6,000 BC. The Victorians believed the process began when primitive men captured wolves. But in 1895, Harvard scientist Nathaniel Shaler argued wolves are not easy to domesticate.
It seems likely that, instead of being caught, some bold or hungry individuals were drawn to the food around human camps and those who learnt to please their two-legged benefactors earned more food. Over time, these dogs began to diverge in appearance from wolves. Snouts shortened, ears flopped and became rounded. In 2019, the cognitive psychologist Dr. Juliane Kaminski discovered an important difference in the facial muscle structure of dogs and wolves. Over thousands of years, it seems, dogs learned to raise their inner eyebrow to mimic a sad, human expression, triggering a nurturing response in us. In recent years we have bred dogs to look increasingly like “fluffy emojis,” favouring big eyes and flattened faces. These features make them prettier but less functional. Plate-faced pugs and French bulldogs often suffer from breathing problems, while our quest to make the cavalier King Charles more doll-like has landed the majority of them with brains too big for the skulls.
“Increasingly,” a trainer tells Garfield, “dogs are treated as a possession rather than a companion.” When a new client arrives with one of the latest designer dogs tucked into a handbag, she'll say: “Get that bow out of its hair and we'll talk ...”
Garfield reminds us that Donald Trump was the first U.S. president in more than a century not to own a dog.
President Joe Biden's German shepherd Major is the first rescue dog to live at the White House. (His other shepherd, Champ, has lived there before, when Biden was vice-president.) Hopefully Major will raise the profile of the lowly rescue dog, as it seems depressingly likely that many of our unethically farmed and hastily purchased lockdown puppies will end up in shelters when their owners return to work.
Those who stick with their wetnosed pals will enjoy a magical bond that reminds us how to cherish the basics of existence. As the poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote of his old, thick-coated Dandie Dinmont terrier in 1941: “What share we most — we two together?/ Smells, and awareness of the weather./ What is it makes us more than dust?/ My trust in him; in me his trust.”