The two altruists

A Shih Tzu Puppy. Photo by Jim Winstead, used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.


By Julia Runk Jones

Thousands of years ago a friend moved into our fire circle. He came as an equal — a skilled hunter, protector, and, most important, a loving companion for the long winter. He was of course the dog, and when he once sat by our fire, he never left. 

He is not, as many believe, descended from the wolf. That fellow has always kept his distance from humans. Wolf and dog both came from the same source, a large, shadowy wolf-like critter which existed more than 40,000 years ago. But for many thousands of years, Dog has been delighted to be just Dog, genetically changing very little from that first savvy hunter to the brave little Bichon in your lap.

Science has labeled them altruists: those who put others before themselves. It is a label also used to describe humans. Despite our sometimes terrible history, we humans have stubbornly maintained our own status as altruists. And once human and dog came together, it became a bond that has never been broken. As humans expanded their territory around the world, the dog came along. Even on long ocean voyages with flimsy rafts, we took along our dearest friends. There was nowhere we went that the dog didn’t go.

Slowly we changed to fit challenging environments, and the dog changed with us. They became big and imposing, to protect us from hungry animals and aggressive neighbors. They became small so they could go down burrows and flush out small game. They became cute so we could carry them about and endure long periods of loneliness. In the deserts they became fleet of foot to bring back rabbits for our meal. In the north, they developed heavy coats and strong shoulders to pull us through deadly snows. And through it all, through all the changing years, they have remained our most loyal friends.

Now we have dogs of almost dizzying variety. Are you allergic? There is a hairless dog. Living in a dangerous environment? There are dogs who will stand their ground and protect you with their lives. Like to hunt? There are dogs who would love to go along and retrieve your prey without putting one mark on it. And others who will follow a scent trail all day. Love water? There are sporting breeds with webbed feet and waterproof coats who love to swim. Not much for exercise? There are many dogs who would like nothing more than to doze in your lap. 

The wolf on the satin cushion

Many breeders and owners claim their dogs have wolf blood. Some, particularly the husky types, do in fact have more wolf genetics than the average dog. However, this has usually been recently and intentionally created. The Siberian Husky, which has the look of the ancestral dog, definitely has some ancient wolf genes, but not as much as one little dog who carries around a surprising amount of wolf.

Enter the Shih Tzu. Keep in mind that all dogs share nearly 90% of their DNA with their wolf cousins. But this brachycephalic 12-pound lap dog has even more, enough to make them equal to or surpassing the “wolf-like” breeds in their wolf genetics. Called the little lion dog, Shih Tzus were used for centuries as temple “guardians” in Tibet. Looking at photos of the giant guardian statues in monasteries, you can see that they are exaggerations of the Shih Tzu (or her close cousin the Lhasa Apso).

The breeder problem

Unfortunately dogs have become a big business in our money-hungry world. I have seen heartbreaking puppy mills with hundreds of breeding females chained their entire lives to small shelters, unable even to interact with one another. Some are “mini-mills” — basements containing nothing but crates stacked high with dogs who have never seen the light of day. These are usually advertised “raised in a loving home.” Well, they are in a home, but not loving. In a future column, I will discuss how to tell whether or not a kennel which looks caring and beautiful may in fact be a puppy mill. (The quick way to tell: go there, lay your hands on the dogs. Do they love to see you? Do they have a soft eye and relaxed manner? Do they flinch?)

Left to right: Red, Saoirse and Thor. Three of Julia Runk Jones’ five dogs. Photo by Julia Runk Jones.

The column will also cover training. How can you tell good trainers from bad?

Most use the same language when they talk to you. But listen to them carefully. Some are actually using subtle techniques that teach a dog to pay attention, and others use old-style harsher pain-based methods meant to get quick results. Let’s talk about how to tell them apart and when each might be just the right thing for the moment.

This will be a celebration of everything dog. The warm and happy history, the many variations, the laws, the rituals, the necessities, the extravagances, the cruelty, the pure fun and, most of all, the extraordinary love both for them and from them.

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