Published: January 2002
Our Bond With Dogs
A love story
By Angus Phillips

Roddy MacDiarmid, 57, lifelong shepherd and son of a shepherd, surveys the Scottish Highlands from a ridge overlooking Loch Fyne and the little valley town of Cairndow. On one hand lies the estate of John Noble, where MacDiarmid has worked much of his life, on the other the estate of the Duke of Argyll. Black-faced lambs and ewes by the hundreds dot the green hillsides below. His Border collies, Mirk and Dot, trot faithfully behind. It's familiar turf.

"Everywhere you see," says MacDiarmid, sweeping his shepherd's crook in an all-encompassing arc, "I have gathered sheep. And I can tell you this: You cannot gather sheep from these hills without dogs. Never could and never will; never, never, ever!"

That ringing endorsement is a comfort to those of us who keep dogs but sometimes wonder why. It's good to know that some-where dogs remain absolutely, undeniably essential to man's work while we happily wander about with our furry friends, feeding them, walking them, scooping their droppings, showering them with affection, taking them to the vet at the first glimmer of trouble. We occasionally get nipped or barked at in return, but more frequently we are rewarded with a lick on the hand or a wagging tail or a rapt willingness to listen to our most banal statements, as if they are something profound.

Dogs and people, people and dogs: It's a love story so old no one knows how it started. "The human beings who participated in the earliest domestic relationships [with dogs] thousands of years ago are all dead," says zooarchaeologist Darcy F. Morey with refreshing candor. "They cannot tell us what was in their minds or what they sought to accomplish."

And since no one had yet begun to write things down, we are left to speculate, as did the British writer Rudyard Kipling in 1912 when he offered this theory in Just So Stories:

"Then the Woman picked up a roasted mutton-bone and threw it to Wild Dog, and said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, taste and try.' Wild Dog gnawed the bone, and it was more delicious than anything he had ever tasted, and he said, ‘O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy, give me another.'

"The Woman said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night, and I will give you as many roast bones as you need.' "

That scenario (minus the talking dog, of course, of which there are none even today) would have played out about 14,000 years ago if you follow the archaeological trail to the origins of dogs, much further back if you favor DNA evidence suggesting dogs existed well before the earliest traces of their bones. Either way, this is clear: Dogs are not just our proverbial best friends in the animal world but probably our oldest. They evolved from wolves long ago, found a home alongside humans before history makes a record, and never left.

And why would they? Dogs profited handsomely from the association. As their closest kin, wolves, dwindled to scarcity, sociable, hardworking, malleable, adaptable, lovable dogs in myriad shapes and sizes proliferated alongside humans in the globe's every corner. Today there are about 68 million in the United States alone, one for every four people. And while a few still work for their daily cup of kibble, most get free rides. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of them do nothing but lie around the house, bark, and eat," says contemporary writer Stephen Budiansky, grossly overstating the case to make a point. His book The Truth About Dogs suggests dogs get a lot more from the relationship than humans get back.

Well, they certainly aren't chewing many leftover mutton bones anymore. In her Park Avenue apartment on New York's Upper East Side, Nancy Jane Loewy feeds Tiffy, her fluffy, eight-pound Maltese, twice a day from an enviable larder. Along with her dog food, says Loewy, "I'll give her a little chicken for breakfast, some steamed baby carrots, steamed broccoli, and some sweet potato—a balanced diet. For dinner I might add lamb or steak or poached salmon or tuna with steamed vegetables. And for dessert some low-fat yogurt with no sugar, maybe just a teaspoon of strawberry or apricot yogurt to sweeten it, and a couple of red grapes sliced in half. Then I'll give her one or two Teddy Grahams, she likes those, and maybe some Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers for snacks."

Loewy, whose husband is an investment adviser and whose two sons are away at school, has the time and wherewithal to treat Tiffy as she might royalty and delights in doing so. "I want to give her the healthiest, most wonderful life possible for as long as possible," says the slender New Yorker as the fluff-ball curls up alongside.

To that end Tiffy has a professional walker to take her to Central Park daily, is shampooed and groomed once every few weeks at Karen's, a pet emporium on Lexington Avenue, and belongs to a leashless and cageless indoor Manhattan dog club and day-care facility, Biscuits and Bath, where she can go for a few hours to exercise with peers under an attendant's eye.

Tiffy has a boyfriend, Bucky, who lives a few blocks away. "He's a handsome, fabulous male, and she's a beautiful, sensitive female," says Loewy of the happy canine couple. "We get together at least once a week for play days. Sometimes we go to the Stanhope Hotel for lunch," on a terrace where pets are permitted, "or we go to Bistro du Nord on 93rd Street and share a cheese-and-fruit plate with the dogs."

Not all today's dogs are as pampered, of course. Billy Dodson, huntsman for the Thornton Hill Hounds near Sperryville, Virginia, keeps a pack of 90 mostly Penn-Marydel foxhounds in an old cattle barn and fenced yard in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where the hounds sleep rough in unpainted wooden barracks and live on a spartan diet. Dodson, who has worked with hounds for 40 of his 55 years, assembled the pack over a two-year span and "never paid anything for any of them," instead accepting donations and trades from other huntsmen, as is the custom in the foxhunting world. He subsequently crossbred some Penn-Marydels with American foxhounds to create his own unique subtype.

Dodson has a name for each of his charges and can pick them all out on sight, though they look much alike to the unpracticed eye. He even can identify them by voice. As we stand outside the barn one bright spring morning, a dog barks. "Shut up, Sarge," shouts Dodson, adding in an aside, "I won't keep a mouthy hound." Sarge, wherever he is behind those walls, dutifully pipes down.

Dodson takes pride in feeding his dogs for just a dollar a week apiece, though in winter he sometimes has to boost rations and it gets costlier. Once a day the ravenous, 60-pound hounds devour a heap of fatty scraps from an abattoir that processes buffalo meat, and Dodson augments the scraps with dry food he buys wholesale in 50-gallon drums.

As doted on, by contrast, as Tiffy is, she seems no more content nor fit than any of the hounds. They get to chase after foxes through dappled woods and fields three times a week with horseback riders in keen pursuit during the hunting season from August to March and are exercised twice a week in the off-season. They are lean athletes that take confinement in stride, waiting for the next chance to run.

I tag along for an exercise session with Dodson, who brings whippers-in to keep the hounds in check. A walk with his pack is as much an exercise in discipline as a physical exercise. The whippers-in snap their leather at dawdlers to keep the pack tight and focused on the huntsman, who with his horn and bag of kibble looks every bit the Pied Piper in overalls.

The whippers-in are Dave Ingram, a retired banker from Culpeper, and Beth Opitz, a housewife, foxhunter, mother, and hound lover from Berryville, who drives a couple of hours round-trip twice a week to help Dodson. Ingram says listening to the hounds chase a fox along a ridgetop on an autumn day "makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck." Opitz, who grew up with a pack of hounds her veterinarian father still keeps in Pennsylvania, loves foxhunting so much, she says, "If I got a second life and could choose how to live it, I'd live it as a hound." Short of that she keeps a pack of 17 beagles in a pen behind her house and uses them to chase rabbits twice a week with her husband and two children.

If Loewy, Dodson, and Opitz seem extreme in their affection for dogs, they are hardly alone. Dogs are kept in 40 million U.S. homes these days, and Americans spend billions of dollars a year on dog food and dog health care. What then of this abiding affection of humans for dogs, and dogs of all stripes for humans? How and why did it start?

Genetic studies show that dogs evolved from wolves and remain as similar to the creatures from which they came as humans with different physical characteristics are to each other, which is to say not much different at all. "Even in the most changeable mitochondrial DNA markers [DNA handed down on the mother's side], dogs and wolves differ by not much more than one percent," says Robert Wayne, a geneticist at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Wolf-like species go back one to two million years, says Wayne, whose genetic work suggests dogs of some sort began breaking away about 100,000 years ago. Wolf and early human fossils have been found close together from as far back as 400,000 years ago, but dog and human fossils date back only about 14,000 years, all of which puts wolves and/or dogs in the company of man or his progenitors before the development of farming and permanent human settlements, at a time when both species survived on what they could scratch out hunting or scavenging.

Why would these competitors cooperate? The answer probably lies in the similar social structure and size of wolf packs and early human clans, the compatibility of their hunting objectives and range, and the willingness of humans to accept into camp the most suppliant wolves, the young or less threatening ones.

Speculators suspect, as Kipling did, that certain wolves or protodogs worked their way close to the fire ring after smelling something good to eat, then into early human gatherings by proving helpful or unthreatening. As packs of 25 or 30 wolves and clans of like-numbered nomadic humans roamed the landscape in tandem, hunting big game, the animals hung around campsites scavenging leftovers, and the humans might have keyed off the wolves, with their superior scenting ability and speed, to locate and track prospective kills. At night wolves with their keen senses could warn humans of danger approaching.

Times might not have been as hard back then as is commonly thought. In many instances food would have been plentiful, predators few, and the boundaries between humans and wildlife porous.

Through those pores and into our hearts slipped smaller or less threatening wolves, which from living in packs where alpha bosses reigned would know the tricks of subservience and could adapt to humans in charge. Puppies in particular would be hard to resist, as they are today. Thus was a union born and a process of domestication begun.

Over the millennia admission of certain wolves and protodogs into human camps and exclusion of larger, more threatening ones led to development of people-friendly breeds distinguishable from wolves by size, shape, coat, ears, and markings. Dogs were generally smaller than wolves, their snouts proportionally reduced. They would assist in the hunt, clean up camp by eating garbage, warn of danger, keep humans warm, and serve as food. Native Americans among others ate puppies, and in some societies it remains accepted practice.

By the fourth millennium b.c. Egyptian rock and pottery drawings show hounds hunting with men, driving game into nets. Then, as now, the relationship was not without drawbacks. Feral dogs roamed city streets, stealing food from people returning from market.

Thousands of years later dogs still can be trouble. From 1979 to 1998 more than 300 people in the United States were killed in dog attacks. Most were children. In 1994, the last year data were compiled, an estimated 4.7 million Americans were bitten, 6,000 of them hospitalized. Despite their penchant for misbehavior, and sometimes because of it, dogs keep turning up at all the important junctures in human history.

In ancient Greece, 350 years before Christ, Aristotle described three types of domesticated dogs, including speedy Laconians used by the rich to chase and kill rabbits and deer. Three hundred years later Roman warriors trained large dogs for battle. The brutes could knock an armed man from his horse and dismember him.

Dogs won few friends in the Dark Ages, when they scavenged corpses of plague victims, but they were much in favor by the second millennium, chasing rabbits and stags for British royalty. In 17th-century England dogs still worked, pulling carts, sleds, and plows, herding livestock or working as turnspits, powering wheels that turned beef and venison roasts over open fires. But working dogs were not much loved and were usually hanged or drowned when they got old.

"Unnecessary" dogs meanwhile gained status among royalty. King James I was said to love his dogs more than his subjects; Charles II was famous for playing with his dog at Council table, and his brother James had dogs at sea in 1682 when his ship was caught in a storm. As sailors drowned, he allegedly cried out, "Save the dogs and Colonel Churchill!"

By the late 19th century the passion for breeding led to creation of private registries to protect prized bloodlines. The Kennel Club was formed in England in 1873, and 11 years later the American Kennel Club (AKC) was founded across the Atlantic. Today the AKC registers 150 breeds, the Kennel Club lists 196, and the Europe-based F�d�ration Cynologique Internationale recognizes many more. Dog shows sprouted in the mid-1800s when unnecessary dogs began to vastly outnumber working ones, as they do to this day, unless you count companionship as a job.

Which many do. In a recent survey of U.S. dog owners 94 percent listed companionship as a key benefit while only 6 percent hunted with dogs and only 4 percent used them in farming.

People find ways to keep dogs even under the toughest conditions. In New York City almost 100,000 are registered, and officials believe unregistered dogs outnumber those three to one, putting the total at roughly 400,000. Caring for a dog in a city where apartments are tiny, streets and sidewalks are packed, and indoor and outdoor space is scarce is a challenge, but New Yorkers rise to it.

In Central Park regulations that require dogs to be leashed are unenforced from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., giving dogs and masters a chance to run free on dewy hillsides under tall trees. Patrice Bertin, who restores fine artwork for a living, takes his basenji named Filou (it means "naughty" in French) to a hillside behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art every morning, where Filou runs in a large and astonishingly varied crowd ranging from birdlike miniature Doberman pinschers to towering Great Danes.

How do you maintain a brace of Great Danes in New York? I shout the query to their owner, running along to keep up with them. "Separate apartment," he shouts back with a crooked grin. "Two saddles!"

Bertin, who likes having Filou underfoot during solitary working days, and his fellow owners chat amiably as the dogs romp. Most are women. "It's our breakfast social club," says Letitia Corcoran, a self-proclaimed "burned-out real estate agent" who once accumulated three dogs and twelve cats in her apartment, all rescued from shelters where they awaited euthanasia. She got in such trouble with her landlord that she was threatened with eviction. "I fought for them!" she says.

Some dog lovers worry that city life and preoccupation with pedigree lead to dogs' being bred for looks rather than talent and to a general decline in their health and usefulness. It may be true, but dogs have not lost their most remarkable natural sense, smell, boosted by as many as 220 million olfactory receptors. (Humans have five to ten million.) My own background is with bird-hunting dogs, which continue to amaze the initiated and uninitiated with their ability to find game or anything else with even the faintest odor.

For reassurance that this skill hasn't been lost, I stop by the tiny town of Goldvein, Virginia, to see Jack Jagoda, co-founder and president of the North American Hunting Retriever Association. His best dog, Elvis, a yellow Labrador, lives in the house and sleeps on the bed, but turn Elvis loose in the field and he is transformed to higher purpose.

Jagoda drives to a hillside behind his kennels and leaves Elvis in the truck while we hike down a rutted track to a wooded creek. We cross it, go up the far bank, and walk to where the creek opens into a pond. Jagoda treks uphill and tosses a plastic training dummy the shape of a cucumber into a pile of leaves.

We go back and fetch Elvis, who shakes the sleep from his eyes, relieves himself a few times, and comes to heel. Jagoda calms him, points a hand toward the training dummy some 250 yards away. The view is obscured, but when Jagoda barks "Elvis!" the dog is away.

Jagoda whistles him to a stop halfway down the hill, casts him right with a wave to circumvent a brush pile, then stops him at water's edge to reset the course. The Lab plows in, stops midway across to be redirected at an angle that puts him ashore downwind of the dummy. He romps out of the water, never stops to shake, runs by the dummy, comes back on command and catches its scent from several yards away, snuffles it from the shrubs, and races back to turn it over.

A half hour later he's collapsed across my feet in the living room as Jagoda sings his praises. "He doesn't conform to breed standards," says Jagoda. "He's too big." Keepers of pedigree registries "would say that technically he's not even a Lab and shouldn't be bred. Isn't that ridiculous! He's a grand master hunter and makes more money than most people do. I get $500 for stud fee and breed him twice a week!"

Pedigreed also-rans serve other worthy functions. I spent time with Lori O'Heron Rizzo, who lives in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., with her husband, two sons, and service dog, Banjo, a black Labrador donated to and trained by the nonprofit Fidos For Freedom. Rizzo, 43, is a freelance graphic artist whose severe rheumatoid arthritis led to removal of one hip, one knee, and a shoulder. She spent three years on morphine just to cope with the pain but is better now and gets around in an electric wheelchair.

Dogs have been trained to find land mines in war zones, sniff out survivors after earthquakes or bombings, and locate drowning victims underwater. They serve as eyes for the blind, ears for the deaf, and therapeutic companions to the unwell. They can detect signs of an epileptic fit before the sufferer knows it's coming. They find quail, ducks, grouse, and woodcock for sportsmen, and they defend the dwellings of worried urbanites in bad neighborhoods.

But truth be told, dogs that work today are a minority, awash in a sea of village scavengers and those that make their way through life just being bits of fluff or bundles of fur to cuddle. Nowhere is that more evident than at the world's biggest dog show, Crufts, in England.

With kids Eric and Patric in school and husband Tony at work, she found home a nerve-racking place. If she fell, she couldn't get up; if she dropped something, she couldn't pick it up. Now gentle Banjo follows her, sleeps at her feet, and rides with her in a specially equipped van. "He does a lot of picking up," she says. "Keys, tissues—whatever I drop. With his harness on I can get myself up and walk, using him for balance. I'm happier with him, more confident, and not so afraid of what's in the future."

Out at the U.S. Customs training center for drug- and currency-sniffing dogs in Front Royal, Virginia, handlers fine-tune the noses of 85 recruits a year, mostly retrievers rescued from shelters. "Any place you can hide drugs, smugglers will find a way to," says agent Jeff Gabel, a strapping Chicagoan who started working with German shepherds in the Army more than 20 years ago and has been a canine specialist since. "These dogs find drugs inside propane tanks, in false-sided suitcases covered with fiberglass and Bondo, inside the wheels on roller suitcases, in driveshafts and oil pans on cars."

But in these technological times, couldn't a machine detect the odors? "I'm a dog man," says Gabel. "To say a machine is ever going to catch up to a dog's nose, it's unlikely."

"A machine has to be calibrated, directed at a target," says Carl Newcombe, former director of the center. "A dog responds outside the parameters. He smells it wherever it is and responds. Half the time we're not even in search mode when the dog finds something."

Named for a 19th-century itinerant dog-food salesman and entrepreneur who never owned dogs himself, Crufts drew 20,780 dog entries and some 88,000 people to the 2001 show, which covered 250,000 square feet in five huge halls at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. Far from being a gathering of tony toffs in tweed, it's a convention that crosses every social barrier, with competitors like tattooed, earringed, crew-cut Marc Howard, who came to show Ice, his burly Chinese shar pei, and proper ladies like Sue Pinkerton of Exeter, who shows Tcheria Hot in the Shade, a towering borzoi descended from the darlings of Russian royalty.

"It's called competing in breed, but really it's a beauty show," says Caroline Kisko, a Crufts spokesperson who herself keeps 21 Siberian huskies and four German shepherds (she races the huskies from a wagon, sled dog style). "It's good fun, and the dogs love it," she says of Crufts. "Thousands of people are there all day petting them; the dogs go home exhausted because normally they sleep all day."

A roam around Crufts tires the feet as you make your way from showring to showring, navigating a seemingly endless trail of canine merchandise displays leading to green swaths of fake grass where Yorkshire terriers, English sheepdogs, puffy bichons frises, dark Gordon setters, feisty wirehaired dachshunds, rottweilers, hairless Chinese cresteds, and more than 150 other breeds strut and preen for the judges.

The trek starts me wondering how such an array of sizes and shapes, from Chihuahuas you can hold in your hand to hairy mastiffs two men can't budge, could evolve in the relatively short time since domestication began. If human beings mirrored the size range of dogs, the smallest of us might weigh 20 pounds and the largest a ton. How did dogs get so diverse?

Jeff Sampson, a molecular geneticist and the Kennel Club's genetics coordinator, reckons that since dogs have lots of chromosomes (78 to a human's 46), the opportunity to mix and match is enhanced. Man has been the great mixer and matcher. "Breeds haven't evolved; breeders have just selected for certain features. In the past 300 or 400 years they could ruthlessly select for features they wanted and very quickly get them," says Sampson.

By way of example he offers the work of a friend, Bruce Cattanach, a fellow geneticist who studies mice professionally but shows boxers for a hobby. "Boxers are supposed to have docked tails," says Sampson, "but veterinarians don't like to do that sort of cosmetic surgery anymore, so Bruce decided to try to breed a tailless boxer."

It didn't take long. To get his wish, Cattanach crossed a boxer with a tailless Welsh corgi, then took the tailless offspring that looked most like a boxer and mated it to other boxers. Eight years and four generations later he had natural tailless boxers in the showring winning competitions.

"The size difference in dogs is more variable than any other species," says Cattanach, "and people since the beginning of time have been working hard to select for certain types—big dogs as guards, speedy dogs for hunting, lapdogs for company. To go from a standard poodle to a toy, it's fairly easily done. But I don't know of any other species you'd want to do it with. I'm sure you couldn't do it with mice."

Such is the remarkable power dog breeders wield. All of which advances the belief that humans really are in charge, which brings us back to the original question: If we're so smart, why do we work so hard while dogs loll around? Could it be that humans aren't the cleverest half of this ageless duet after all?

After our long climb in the Scottish Highlands, Roddy MacDiarmid and I stop in a pasture in Glen Fyne so he can show off some of the maneuvers with Mirk and Dot that have won him prizes in sheepdog trials, including the Scottish and British national brace championships. He has the sheepdogs round up a small flock of ewes, hector them around a barrel and across obstacles, bring them to us, circle us, and take them away, all with just a toot here and there on his shepherd's whistle. It's quite a show, with the dogs under complete control all the time. Afterward we load Dot and Mirk into the trunk of the car, and I treat MacDiarmid to a soda at the local pub, where he talks glowingly of his exceptional dogs.

Then we part, he to walk around the corner to his house in Cairndow, I to go 35 miles down the road to Colintraive, where I'm staying with friends in a cottage overlooking the Isle of Bute. We're pouring a wee dram of Scotch when the phone rings.

"It's Roddy," says my host. "He needs you."

"Is this Angus?" asks the shepherd, sounding drained and concerned. I answer that it is.

"Would you kindly look in the boot of your car?" he asks sheepishly. "I believe I left my dogs there."