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The History of Best Friends

I’m quite hopeful you, as you read this, have a best friend.

If you don’t, however, you can pick up a best friend from a shelter not too far away: you can get a dog.

Dogs, called “man’s best friend” in a cliché and somewhat sexist statement, hold that special status in our hearts for a reason. Whereas horses can understand and work with humans, and while cats can see us as food and attention sources, dogs are starved for love and want to dole it out in equal – well, let’s admit it, greater – measure. But how did we get to this point? And why the heck are there so many breeds?

Let’s find out by delving into a pre-history that, with modern technology, is only now being discovered.*

Domestication

This peer-reviewed gene analysis paper shows how researchers analyzed dog genomes of many breeds to determine that the well-beloved race all descended from gray wolves. Yes, that’s right, your beloved Butter Butt is 100%, genuine wolf.

“I know and accept this worthless fluff-bucket owns my house.” — Dr. Gorman

In fact, the genetic clades (clades represent similarities in genomes, and the closer the clade the more similar the genes) show how closely related dogs and wolves really are. In one of the article’s images, the one that describes the haplotypes (or genetic groups) of dogs and wolves, several groups of dogs and wolves are about equally related to one another. Dogs and wolves are also capable of interbreeding.

This interbreeding seems to have been important during the domestication of the dog, as analysis of the mitochondrial DNA indicates multiple back-breeding events (i.e., when domesticated dogs interbred with wolves) added genetic diversity. It may also indicate multiple domestication events. Multiple events makes it really hard to pin down when dogs were domesticated, and even where! The paper I linked above seems to indicate the primary event happening in east Asia, but others (as summarized in this The Atlantic article) claim with what seems to be equal validity, that the event occurred in any number of places. There is a lot of evidence, however, favoring east Asia over other places.

While genetics has shown us what changed to cause the wolf ancestor to split into wolves and dogs, scientists still argue as to how or why those changes were implemented.

What does it take for domestication occur? This review article from Cell (trust me, it’s a high-level scientific journal) says there’s nothing certain about what makes an animal domesticated, and studied traits vary by species, breed, and situation. The sheer number of dog breeds with highly varying traits also leave us wondering what were the things ancient humans did that changed a wolf into a dog.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of: we absolutely needed friends. Humans gave dogs protection, food, and comfort in a harsh and ancient world even before the first agricultural revolution.

And, as you dog owners know, they gave all of that back ten-fold.

Dog Breeds

Though dog domestication happened something on the order of 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, the divisions of dogs into breeds happened much later.

And it’s the biggest genetic experiment to have ever happened.

From Mastiffs to Chihuahuas, from Shiba Inu to Australian Shepherds, they’re all dogs. Most breeds also didn’t exist until about 150 years ago, when it became a popular hobby in England to breed the perfect pup.

In fact, look at this map where the landmasses are adjusted for size based on the number of breeds from the area:

CRAZY FRIKKIN’ ENGLAND IS BIGGER THAN AFRICA, AUSTRALIA, and ASIA COMBINED. Also, sorry the map’s not zoomed in to see things well, but I couldn’t find a better image (I saw it for the first time at my dog trainer’s place).

In the late 19th century, the English – and, later, much of Europe – got into the whole idea that dogs were pets and could be bred. Now, I don’t want to be too presumptive, but Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859, otherwise known as “pretty much at the beginning of the dog-breeding craze.” Was this scientific work influential in dog breeding? Did it inspire the middle-class hobbyists to begin creating dogs that had specific traits other than what were needed to do their jobs? There’s no proof, and it’s literally just something I’ve had in my head for a while, but I think it’s fairly coincidental that all of this happened at once.

But, as selective pressures brought about the differentiation between dog and wolf, human-enforced breeding measures brought about the breeds. We can see this still ongoing today as breed regulations change and new traits come into favor. For instance, when you look at the below picture of two chihuahuas, which one do you think is the correct by breed standard?

The answer is both are ok. Both the deer-headed (B) and apple-headed (A) Chihuahua are up to code, but the apple-headed dogs are more popular and more “desirable” (especially if you want more health problems). I take issue with this specific consumer choice due to those associated health issues, but whatever.

As dog breeding continues, issues associated with inbreeding have cropped up. If you choose to get a purebred dog, do your homework. Look up the lineages of the dog you’re considering, and maybe don’t get one descended from the top showdog (for AKC Pomeranians, it’s hard to get away from Prince Charming in your lineage, but I tried to keep greater diversity when I got my dog).

And, every time you pet your friend, remember that someone, thousands of years ago, was brave enough to pet a wolf.

About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. Dr. G has a vicious attack Pomeranian named Hector, who is a spoiled and dearly loved dog. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

*If you believe in the young earth theories or disbelieve evolution, I hope this article was interesting to you without being offensive. With or without evolution, it’s clear: dogs were designed to be our friends. 🙂

June 10: Flash Fiction Challenge

June 10It’s almost unfair that I sit in comfortable air conditioning, sipping a London Fog from a ceramic cup and savoring a lunch of pasta tossed in fresh olive oil, garlic, basil and pine nut pesto. My best friend can hardly hold her eyes open and dines intravenously. But my daughter chastised me to take care of myself. That I wasn’t going to be any good to her, or her daughter and grandchildren. So I’ve come to my Helena sanctuary, Lattes & Sundaes.

Ironically, their tagline reads, “where friends gather.”

This would certainly be a place where Kate and I would hang out. McLeod’s was our go-to tea shop back in the day. When I left Helena in 1998, I bought an English tea pot from there. It’s now closed and this place has opened in its stead. I miss my friend and hunger for her open eyes and clear mind.

Chemo is the devil’s booze. Once it takes hold, her white blood cell counts plummet and her fever spikes. She begged me, “Don’t let them lord the rings of me.” My God, what was I to do?  I feel like Samwise Gamgee when Frodo was near collapse from his heroic journey. I want to lash out at Gollum, and she’s resting her hand on my arm, whispering, “Peace.”

I want to rescue her and I can’t. I’m a failed white knight; a first-responder arrived too late to the scene of the accident. But Kate doesn’t fret over my inability or the ineffectiveness of modern medicine. Her last coherent thought was about the rescue of dogs. She told me with that grin and chuckle I love so well, “Just who rescues whom?”

My Grenny dog needs rescuing. As I type, he’s in surgery. It took four days to find a vet to help us. I’m in Helena, Montana and my wee family of the Hub, barn cat and two dogs is faltering in northern Idaho. Veterinarians have no compassion, I’m convinced. Who would deny a seriously injured dog care due to the owners’ lack of financial resources? Well, Sandpoint veterinarians, that’s who. One finally accepted a “credit care” card we have for medical emergencies. Bastards, is all I want to say, but I know it’s crass and unlike me to swear in my writing.

I know I’m emotionally off kilter. I go to my keyboard tapping for resolution, for clarity.

What happened to Grenny is among my worst nightmares. I wrote a humorous post almost two years ago about my fears. The Hub likes to call me the “Cowardly Cowgirl.” I’m afraid of mice. I startle easy and squeal if a flying insect darts in my face. I worry over what might lurk in the woods, as from this excerpt of The Big Bad Bears of Trout Creek:

Okay, this is fun, my mind decides until it then says, hey what’s that?

“Todd, is that bear hair?” I ask, standing up as if it might still be attached. Todd comes over to the clump of hair matted among the huckleberry plants and affirms my find.

Now my eyes are like super-sonic scanners as I scope every tree, fern and boulder for the bear missing a clump of fur. Is he full or did he leave these berries for a snack, or worse yet, a snare? Torn between fleeing the scene and not being able to move, I then hear a horrible cry.

The Irish believe that a banshee wails moments before death, and it sounds as if death is rampaging down the mountain slope. Bursting out of ferns and brush, Grendel, our male GSP, is galloping and baying like a banshee. He runs past us and I cringe, waiting to hear the crash-boom-bang of an angry grizzly.”

All I can say now, two years after this incident, is how grateful I am that I was not there when Grenny did find a bear.

The Hub took the dogs fishing up the Pack River on Saturday. Grenny galloped off and Bobo stayed at the river as the Hub tied a fly on his line. He didn’t hear a banshee wail, but he did hear Grenny growl and bark followed by distress cries and yelps. He needed rescuing.

The Hub transformed into Sgt. Mills and charged the forested hillside like a soldier charging Normandy Beach. He bellowed and scared off the bear, not able to discern if it was a grizzly, but the Pack River is marked with warning signs. It’s grizzly country. He reached Grenny to find him wounded but thankfully alive and intact. The bear swiped his back from shoulder to tail, but not too deeply. Then, the bear bit off his flank, the webbing between hind leg and stomach. It’s an awful wound that no veterinarian would touch without payment in full. I’ll say it again, bastards.

It takes a special person to feel compassion for a dog. It takes a resilient person to rescue one.

I’m proud of my daughters who both worked jointly to rescue a dog deemed unadoptable. The Radio Geek and her hub, the Geologist now have a family of two rescue dogs (the two goofs in my car trunk in the photo). Back when I was still drafting Miracle of Ducks, I started my first ever blog (I had no idea what I was doing!) and wrote, Felting Ilya. It’s a story of dog rescue.

And that is what Kate offered us for the prompt this week. She has the biggest heart for animals and even worked with rescued grizzlies. As she hallucinates, she tells me that animals are walking through her room. It seems appropriate. She expects to be greeted by her departed loved ones and the animals she rescued and said she’d be waiting for me beneath a big oak tree in heaven, reading Tolkien. It better be a massive tree. She has rescued many.

June 10, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an animal rescue. It can be a typical dog or cat rescue from the pound, or helping a critter less fortunate. Go where the prompt leads you.

Respond by June 16, 2015 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

Doc to the Rescue by Charli Mills

Ramona irrigated the dog’s wounds with hydrogen peroxide. He huddled on the bathroom floor, his brown eyes woeful. She’d called every vet in the phonebook and the answer was the same, “No. Payment due in full.” Only one man offered to come. She found the strange dog wounded in her barn. Those darn twins left the doors wide open, again. Never mind. She’d deal with those two truants later when they returned. A knock at the door, and Ramona rose to answer it.

“Thank you for coming,” she said to her new MD. At least he cared about animals.

###

The Twins Find a Dog by Charli Mills

The twins played among pines, leaping from one bough to another.

“Shh,” said one twin to the other.

A soft whimper rose from the base of a Ponderosa pine.

“A dog! Mama would love a dog!”

Gently, the twins prodded the dog to stand. He quivered, his nose detecting nothing, but feeling compelled, he walked until he came to a barn. Slowly, doors opened and he entered to find a blanket draped over hay. He collapsed in a heap.

The twins hung out in the lilac bush outside Mama’s window and sang her awake. “The barn, Mama, the barn.”