Kona’s tail bangs as I open my bedroom door. She reaches out for a pet with her head snug on my pillow despite the blanket I’ve put on the end of my bed for her. I sit down and scratch his ears which fall to the sides of his head.
Why do I love you so much? I wonder, watching the swirls of brown in his eyes catch the sunlight. She licks her chops and drops her eyelids without closing them completely. She exudes a kind of tired tranquility.
I just watched the 2018 movie “Alpha” which would have me believing that dogs and humans have always been so consistent. It’s a sweet story about two outsiders: an injured wolf who was abandoned by his pack and a young boy who was left for dead by a tribe of Cro-Magnons. Together, they form an adorable duo who must survive danger and hardship.
That’s a beautiful story. Even with a quick Google search, one can quickly find a similar, heartwarming story of ancient people sitting around a blazing fire, the smell of their cooking meat attracting a bony wolf with ruffled fur. These humans saw the animal needing food and offered their hard-earned meat to the animal. He approached gently and licked it directly from their hand, then poof, domesticated!
Cute, but let’s be real. These humans had to survive each day, not just live. They had no grocery store to go to, no plastic-covered meat racks of their choice of cattle under fluorescent lights. It makes no sense for them to hand over their food to a scavenger.
Like everything on Earth, the relationship had to evolve. It has become the loving bond between the modern dog and man for thousands of years. And the first domino to fall in this time chain started with a pattern on both sides.
As appealing as it may seem to believe stories selling Hollywood love and lies, I have taken it upon myself to delve into the many theories about the birth of dogs and humans, and why there is a dog that molt on my bed while I write. this. Well, I wasn’t surprised to find that these theories tended to be darker and less polished than the movie I had just watched.
The most similar theory that somewhat compares to the story of young Keda and his pet wolf that I encountered is one that suggests that prehistoric people hunted excessive amounts of food and had to leave some behind. Hungry wolves used their skills to scavenge and trail behind people’s camps, eating the remains they left behind. Eventually, the friendliest wolves merged with the hunter pack (Marshall). This theory goes on to say that wolves domesticated because affable ones would form bonds with humans, while hostile wolves would stay away, unable to bond at all. Wolves with more friendly traits would then breed, passing on the friendly traits which also happen to be related to traits such as curly tails, droopy ears, and even a different bone structure (Handwerk).
Now we explain why people wanted wolves on their side. The simple need for companionship comes deeper into the relationship between humans and dogs. The first thing on the minds of these Paleolithic people was the use they could make of it: hunting, tracking, later transport, and dozens of other things for the benefit of man. Human nature seeks conveniences and tools to make life easier, better and more efficient, which is why these ancient humans wanted wolves.
Now, with that in mind, this next, much darker theory makes a lot of sense. Humans had a good reason for bringing wolves into their tribes and using them as tools, so it would make sense for them to take a litter of pups. This theory says that early humans killed mother wolves, taking their cubs, so they could bond with them and train them as malleable puppies (Handwerk). I’m not entirely surprised that “Alpha” didn’t base its story on this theory.
Kona finally gets up with a grunt and trots out of my room. She needs to scan the house, but she’ll be back. She is a German Shepherd, so she was bred to have certain traits, as many breeds are. Some of the earliest signs of selective breeding in dogs date back 9,500 years. This is known because DNA experts discovered the DNA of an arctic sled dog with altered temperature sensitivity and oxygen utilization, different from wolves and other breeds of dogs (Gorman). A myriad of problems have arisen with selective breeding, such as hip dysplasia in German Shepherds, respiratory problems in French Bulldogs, and a trait in the mushing dog community known as AHE (a disorder neurological) found in certain lines of sled dogs. Logically, even if not ethically, the rise of selective breeding makes sense because, as I said, the original need for dogs was the need for a new tool.
As an Alaskan and the daughter of Brenda Mackey and Will Rhodes, owners of Mackey’s Alaskan Distance Dogs, I know dogs built for more than just being a pet. Sled dogs are bred for their stamina, hard feet, good eating habits, the way their bodies move when trotting and jumping, etc. 2020). The Athabascans used sled dogs to move their supplies in saddlebags, but as the post-contact period dawned, the basket sled was invented. With this better way of transporting goods, sled dogs became essential for moving goods to and from trading posts. It was not until the 1930s that their work was replaced by aircraft, although dog mushing did not stop there (Langdon 1993). It has become a sport that people participate in all over the world.
They are classified as a working dog rather than a companion animal, and due to this difference between dogs, they form different relationships with their owner. My mother, a musher since birth, describes the relationship as follows: “You are both very dependent on each other. You will have some of the toughest experiences imaginable with dogs, so you will have incredible trust and connection with them. The relationship between working dogs is similar to that of a pet, but there is a difference in that they look to their musher to lead them in circumstances where they really rely on them to take care of themselves. good decisions, because in some cases their survival depends on it.
Kona trots up the stairs with a mangled stuffed lemur hanging from her mouth. She sits down at my feet, chewing on the toy. The thing is, I personally don’t have Kona for her excellent herding or for a guard dog, nor do many other dog owners. It’s because humans and dogs have evolved into something else, something deeper than a symbiotic relationship.
Dogs and people have literally become so close that our minds are in sync. According to a study, the human maternal bonding system reacts when around dogs. Looking into our dogs eyes, the brain releases oxytocin, a hormone that trusts us and forms maternal bonds with them. Even petting or hugging a dog has shown results in lowering the stress hormone cortisol. A study showed that when veterans with PTSD were paired with dogs, 84% experienced fewer symptoms and 40% were able to stop some of their medications. Veteran Ann Danner describes her relationship with dogs and PTSD as follows: “Whatever PTSD takes away from you, those dogs give back.” (American Humane 2021). It’s amazing that dogs have the ability to heal such wounds. More shockingly, humans and dogs are the only species known to have these chemical effects on each other (Johns Hopkins Medicine).
The evolution of the human-dog relationship has been a remarkable journey. It’s a lie to say that it has always been beautiful and epic, as films like “Alpha” would like to present it. We have a difficult history from beginning to solidify with each other to specifically breeding dogs that were built for certain things, but what has formed is nothing short of amazing. From pets we decorate with sweaters and small plush toys to working dogs like sled dogs, we see them in a light more similar to that which has been described between young Keda and his wolf: a loving and deep.
Isabel Rhodes is a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This article was originally produced for a class taught by Eric Heyne.
• Marshall, Michael. “Humans may have domesticated dogs by accident by sharing excess meat.” New Scientist, New Scientist, January 13, 2021, bit.ly/3aGbC9Y.
• Gorman, James. “Dog Breeding in the Neolithic Age.” The New York Times, The New York Times, June 25, 2020, nyti.ms/3aK1zka.
• “The friend who keeps you young.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, bit.ly/2G2nf95.
• American Humane @AmericanHumane 2h 1518605505039683586 , et al. “Pups4Patriots: Service Dogs for Veterans App.” American Humane, April 26, 2021, bit.ly/3o4GmEH.
• Staff, AKC. “Sled Dog Breeds: From Arctic Exploration to Iditarod.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, November 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/3c6TEgX.
• Langdon, Steve J. “Athabascans.” The Native Peoples of Alaska, Greatland Graphics, Anchorage, AK, 1993, pp. 110–110.