What emotions does a dog stir in us? We met a man in the hospital carpark and exchanged pleasantries. He produced a beautiful ginger puppy, just eight weeks old. My son’s eyes lit up, there was no question we would not be taking him home. The sight of the puppy stirred something deep inside of me as well, a childlike feeling from the past. The man informed us that this was his grandfather’s pup, but now he was in hospital and unable to keep him. The grandfather had called him Beauty, but my son had already settled on the name Scruffles before we ever even seen the dog. It suited him, with shabby ginger hair bristling around his face. In truth, Scruffles would suit most dogs. The man told us his children played with him incessantly, pushing him and his sisters around in a pram all day long. It was for this reason he said, I must have the puppy sleep with a teddy, as he might miss their company, him being so young. Bless his cotton socks and Scruffles had two of them at the bottom of the rear legs. It took several weeks for Scruffles to settle in his new home, often wailing himself to sleep at night and terrified to go out the front door. My son said it was the best present he ever got, imagine a 21st century child surrounded by tablets, Xboxes and Nintendo DX’S, preferring a living breathing animals to all that technology.
But what of the emotions stirred deep inside of us? To think dogs have been our companions for perhaps 45,000 years. Scholars have long theorized what was the most important discovery in human evolution. Was it fire, discovered by Homo Erectus 1.7 million years ago and only used by species resembling modern humans less than 125,000 years ago. Perhaps, it was the wheel or the domestication of the horse, both first occurring 5,500 years ago, when humans began to grow crops and develop permanent settlements.
Dogs and Grey Wolves derived from a common ancestor, a now extinct wolf species. The dogs may have first been attracted to the domestic waste heaps left by humans. They made strange bedfellows as humans and dogs were in direct competition for prey at this time. What is equally strange, is the dog was the only animal hunter gathers domesticated, all other animals were not domesticated until Neolithic times. The origin of the modern-day dog is debated, current thinking suggests they were domesticated twice, on account of the discovery of fossilized dog remains dating back 40,000 years. However, recent analysis of mitochondrial DNA, that is genetic material from the female line, indicates that dogs were domesticated in Asia 14,000 years ago and their lineage split into two, East Asian and Eurasian dogs. The fossilized remains of dogs dating to 40,000 years ago found in Europe have not survived to enter today’s gene pool.
The earliest interred remains of a dog dates to 14,000 years ago and were discovered in Germany. It was common also to have a dog buried alongside a child in ancient Roman times. Indeed, the Native American tribes of the Mohawks and Montauk peoples, once centered around present-day New York, believed that a dog would deflect sickness and bad spirits from a child. They were often accompanied by a dog in life and buried alongside a dog it they succumbed to sickness. Even today, we train dogs to accompany children with epilepsy to warn them of a seizure, seemingly dogs recognize the aura that comes with a seizure before they do.
In Russia, fascinating research was conducted with Foxes, the researchers selected the more sociable foxes for breeding with unintended results. The foxes became more attractive to humans, displaying dog like characteristics. This research when measured against the evolution of dogs suggests that people didn’t domesticate dogs, dogs domesticated themselves. Another study suggests that while dogs have bonded with humans in a big way, working and cooperating closely together daily, they have become less effective at cooperating with each other.
My contention is the wolf which ventured close to the camp of humans that night 40,000 years ago allowed us to come down form the trees and have our first truly restful sleep. As we began to sleep sounder, we began to have more energy and for the first time perhaps, life appeared less threatening. knowing our trusty friends would sound the alarm if other predators were about. There is also the fact that their presence releases oxytocin in humans, producing a feeling equivalent to being hugged and cuddled. Imagine, your very own hug machine!
In Ireland, in the middle ages, it was stated in the old law texts that a strong farmer or Boaire should have two good hunting dogs (milcu) and his wife a lapdog (Oric or Messan) for company. The name for a fierce dog in old Gaelic was cu, while the name for a Wolf was a cu-allaigh (pronounced cooalle), which literarily translated meant, wild hound. The name we associate today with the now extinct wolf of course is the Mactire or The Son of the Land. One of our greatest tales is of young boy Setanta who arrived late one night at Cullen’s hostel, faced with Cullen’s ferocious guard dog, the boy slays the animal with a puck of a sliotar. To make amends, Setanta offers himself to be Cullen’s defender and the mythical superhero Cu Cuileann is born. We get a sense of what these wolfhounds may have been like from a 5th century description from Oisín son of Fingal…
“Eyes of sloe, with ears not low, a horses breast, with depth in chest, abreath of lion with curve of groin and nape set far behind the head: Such were the dog’s that Fingal bred”
There are accounts that from Oliver Goldsmith of Wolfhounds that stood 48 inches in height, a foot taller than the modern day shaggy eared version we see today. Other accounts to profess the skulls of such animals the size of donkeys! Perhaps their stature and ferocity that was bred out of the Irish Wolfhound was symbolic of how these traits were slowly bred out of the people who owned them and perhaps their faith was intwined with that of the nation.
Dogs have stirred our emotions and imaginations; we would be literally lost without them. When Archaeologists come to view what lies beneath the ground behind our houses in a thousand years from now, they will make a startling discovery. The remains of many dogs born roughly in the year 2020. One must wonder how they will ponder this discovery. Why so many skeletal remains of dogs and so few before? Why? Will they conclude that we needed these dogs for some reason? Will they put together the prevalence of puppies with the pandemic? Maybe we will have to leave them a clue!