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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Scrutinizing Timmy and Lassie: A Behavioral Exploration of Man and Man's Best Friend

Ginger Kelly

"A dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to
turn around three times before lying down (1)."
-Robert Benchley

In United States homes, people do not dominate—pets do. Today, Americans own 377.8 million domesticated animals, 65 million of which are canines/dogs (2). When surveyed about why these families own pets, words like "companionship, love, company, and affection" frequently popped up (2). In recent times, as the above quotation demonstrates, pets, but more specifically dogs, have been bestowed with near humanity. They are parts of our families, our guardians, and our best friends. What causes humans to venerate dogs so? What is it in our nature that makes us compatible with such a different species? The answers to these queries lie in the behavioral common ground between man and dog.

Canine roommates are not recent phenomena. It has been estimated that dogs were domesticated as far as 15,000 years ago in East Asia (3). Dogs were a form of livestock. "People must have gained some advantage by having this domestic animal at that early time...Dogs may have been used as sentinels, for transport, and for herding in hunts (3)." The task of taming wolves required energy. This is energy that could have been used in some other venue of daily life, and therefore, makes domestication a costly process. However, the function performed by dogs made it a worthwhile cost. Why is this? "Humanity's first obligation is to ensure humanity's survival (4)." The use of canines afforded human beings a hereditary advantage.

Why did man form a partnership with canines despite all the other animals available? The origin of the dog/man attraction is rooted in similar lifestyles. The wolf/dog is a predatory creature, and therefore, naturally exists in packs. Its' home life is a result of its profession. The pack ensures safety for individuals as well as allows for more profitable hunts (5). In other words, the convention of a pack makes survival easier for the wolf. The pack social system is a hierarchy: consisting of an alpha male, an alpha female, and a pecking order of subordinates (6). The alphas (selected dogs are instinctually inclined to this) are extremely aggressive and have to be that way in order to defend their position. Their reward for their paranoia over being usurped is to eat first at kills. Does this all sound somewhat ominous? There's a reason for it; the wolf pack has a great deal in common with the human family. Families are too a hierarchy consisting of alpha(s) figures and the subordinate offspring. They provide protection and resources for the members of the family. As offspring mature, they in turn become alphas that reproduce and support their family. For Americans, this is the quintessential American Dream. For Canines, this cycle is life. Humanity shares its basic social system with canines (6).

How can these patterns be drawn out? Widespread behavioral patterns emerge across species due to the presence of instincts. An instinct "is a behavior that animals exhibit independent of the wide range of learning and experiences of different individuals (7)." Instincts are available to organisms from birth. For example, puppies know to knead on its mother's breast in order to release milk. They are blind and deaf at birth, so there is no way to learn that behavior. It must simply be part of their initial programming. Instinctual behaviors have evolved over evolutionary time to ensure the survival and reproduction of that species (7)." In addition to giving the organism basic survival skills, it serves as a control device. Nature does not favor those who are unhealthy. Instincts, being such primitive signals, can almost be directly translatable from one organism to another. The mounting of a submissive dog by a dominant dog (7) can be equivocated to a bully checking a smaller child into a wall. By urinating on a tree, a dog is doing little more than a human marking his property with a fence.

Instinct is the beginning and end of behavioral correlations between men and canines. Our anatomy, especially our neural structures, is vastly different from our dogs. The greatest contrast being sheer size as well as structural differences in brains. The human brain is roughly 18 x the size of a dog brain (10). The human brain has an exaggerated forebrain with numerous folds to increase surface area. This is a model better suited for memory. Although similar, the dog brain is more hindbrain focused; it is better adapted to certain sensory works (i.e. Smelling). Another difference created by the brains of organism, the "genes controlling brain-cell activity are very different between the species (4)."

Behavioral differences between humans and dogs are made clear through learned behaviors. "...Learned behaviors are shaped by experience (7)". For humans, learning how to walk or crawl would be a learned behavior. For dogs, learning how to hunt would be considered a learned behavior. However, the desire to hunt is an instinct. That's why, despite centuries of repression, even the smallest poodle loves to fetch toys. This ability to adapt behavior is necessary for survival (7). The domestication of wolves into dogs was reliant on adapting learned behavior. Certain behaviors, like barking still exist, due to adaptation on the dog's part. All dogs have a very strong territorial instinct to protect their den. When they became companion animals, the dynamic of their pack was shifted. Humans become the alphas, while the dogs were subordinates. As subordinates, their duty remained one of protection. "This explains why dogs often bark at intruders at home... This behavior is often reinforced since the intruder tends to go away, thus convincing the dogs that its protective, territorial behavior works (8)." Learned behaviors are very reflective of the environment and circumstances of the organism.

It has been demonstrated how man and dog are dissimilar. Common traits have also been pointed out on why human beings would want canines in their lives. However, a connection has yet to be established that shows why dogs are given a "soul" by humans. Somewhere in the 15,000 years together, dogs began to "converge on some of our thought processes (3)." The proximity of living space allowed humans to notice the airs and quirks of dogs. Canines had been forced to accept their owners as members of their pack. When dogs were seen as part of families, humans bestowed personalities upon them.

During World War II, British Sgt. Cyril Jones was helplessly caught by his parachute in a tree in the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia. A wild monkey, perhaps recognizing Sergeant Jones' hunger and vulnerability, gathered bananas and bamboo shoots, and fed them to the soldier for 12 days straight. Even after Jones finally managed to cute himself loose, the monkey stayed with him. The animal continued to provide fruit as Jones
searched for his regiment (9).

Morality within dogs/animals is a scientific worm hole at the moment. There is no way to communicate with animals (9), and therefore no way to prove or disprove the divinity of an animal. Do animals have true thoughts and true emotions? Did the monkey take pity upon Sergeant Jones? "Animals, like humans, are capable of experiencing really strong feelings. They can choose to express their emotions through behavior that is virtuous and moral (9)." Another circulating trend of thought is that animals ultimately look out for animals. If they act in an unselfish manner, it could be because: they're acting instinctually, they expect a favor, or are making sure their pack survives (9).

Dogs and Humans made a deal 15,000 years ago. In return for their freedom, humans have ensured the survival and dispersion of their species. Humans spend over $31 billion a year on their pets (2). They claim dogs bring forth numerous health benefits including: lower blood pressure, prevention of heart disease, reduction of stress, and even lower health care costs (2). There's something unique about the bond between man and dog. It forces us to face our primitive aspects, and that in itself is healthy. There is something raw, but true, in our differences, in our similarities, and in communicating with something outside our species. Even if dogs are just cute, fuzzy parasites, humanity will be arm in paw with them until the end.


1)Mridula Shankar, "Quotations about Dogs," 19 February 2004, forwarded email (19 February 2004).

2)APPMA Industry Statistics & Trends,from American Pet Products Manufactures Association

3)Stone Age Man Kept A Dog,written by Kendall Powell for Nature News Service

4)Animal-Based Research: Our Human Obligation,written by Dr. Adrian Morrison in BioOne database

5)Herd/Pack Behavior,written by Tom Rittenhouse

6) - Understanding Pack Behavior,from That Darn Dog. Com

7Basic Animal Behavior in Domesticated Animals,by Kimberly J. Workinger for Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute

8)Instinct & Behaviour,from the ACT Companion Dog Club

9)Unbeastly Behavior,by Sara Steindorf for Christian Science Monitor

10)Comparative Brain Anatomy

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