Lilly has lymphoblastic leukemia. It looks as if she will not be with us much longer. We will certainly miss her. She has always been loyal to a fault, and her love for the family is obvious as she is not one to hide her feelings. As a matter of fact she likes people with few exceptions, and is never happier than when there is company. She likes being with the family, is always sad to see us leave and gloriously happy when we return. She is very protective, and I am sure she would give her life to prevent any of her family from suffering at the hands of others. She likes to please and feels ashamed on the rare occasions that she has violated our trust. In other words, she is a supplier of that rare phenomenon called unconditional love. Is it any wonder that I count her among my very best of friends?
I am sure that by now you have surmised that Lilly is not a person, for it would be extremely rare for any human being to be that virtuous. Yes, Lilly is as the saying goes “just a dog” (a phrase that always makes me angry). To my mind, that is no more appropriate than describing a member of my own species as “just a human.”
It is difficult for me to imagine a better companion than a dog. If you don’t believe this, just observe a therapy dog and see eyes light up among the demented in a nursing home or the psychotic in a psychiatric unit. A better example occurred during a therapy session with one of my patients several years ago.
She had recently gone through her third divorce, and was quite depressed. She confessed that she was not good at choosing men, but had difficulty with loneliness when not involved with one. It had been a hard day for me, and without much forethought, I sarcastically suggested she should get a dog, because they are good companions, and loyal to boot. At her next visit, she arrived beaming and thanking me for the wonderful advice. She had gone to the animal shelter, purchased a dog who she was convinced adored her, and said she was happier than she had been in years. I never saw her again.
The History of Relationship with Dogs
Archeologists have found evidence of the dog- human connection in almost all cultures studied going back to the Paleolithic era (archeologese for stone age, I can use terms like that now that I have completed my archeology course). One discovery in Siberia suggests that dogs had been domesticated as long as 33,000 years ago. That man has long had a personal relationship with dogs is evidenced by the discovery of dogs entombed alongside humans in many cultures including Peru, Egypt, and Rome. In one case such a dog was found with a bone in his mouth, apparently so that he would have sustenance in the afterlife. Scenarios such as these indicate that the ancients were very likely as fond of their dogs as are we.
DNA has confirmed that all dogs have the wolf as a common ancestor regardless of size shape or form. Indeed, no other species exists in such variety. It has always intrigued me that that the chihuahua and the mastiff in spite of their vast differences seem to realize they are both dogs. For hundreds, maybe even thousands of years humans have done genetic engineering the old fashioned way, by selective breeding.
The relatively new field of epigenetics may help explain why some breeds seem instinctively more disposed to certain activities than others. For example Lilly will show no interest when a ball is thrown while her cousin (a Chesapeake Bay Retriever) will chase it all day, and cheerfully jump intoa freezing lake to retrieve it even though she has had no training and was not with her mother long enough to learn to mimic her behaviors.
What was the genesis of the dog/human relationship?
There is some disagreement as to how dogs came to be domesticated. One researcher with only partial tongue in cheek suggested that dogs may have domesticated us instead of the other way around. There seems to be little doubt that we needed dogs more than they needed us, but they must have realized early on that a partnership with these strange animals who walked on two legs would offer them some advantages. However; in my opinion, we humans got the best end of the deal by far. For a few paltry scraps of food and the privilege of sleeping close to the fire we gained much more than companionship. Their contributions were essential to our survival and some have posited that without dogs, homo-sapiens might have become extinct in the manner of the Neanderthals.
The fact that the talents of the two species were complementary undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of the relationship. Our large brain with its superior ability to plan and reason along with our upright stance and manual dexterity were qualities lacking in dogs. Dogs on the other hand like most mammals could run much faster and for greater distances than humans. Their special senses were vastly superior to ours. Their remarkably acute sense of smell was and continues to be a major asset, and has saved countless lives through the years. It has been enlisted in searches for people who are lost and for those buried in earthquakes and avalanches etc. Their built in GPS systems could also be lifesaving. Dogs’ noses continue to be our most effective tool in finding explosives and caches of drugs.
These same qualities were undoubtedly also found to be very useful to prehistoric man. The fact that dogs were pack animals probably predisposed them to develop a sense of loyalty to their masters, and to be subservient to the human whom the dog saw as the pack leader. In short, we were made for each other.
It probably all began a few thousand years ago when some hunter-gatherer tossed a bone which he had finished to one of the less shy of the wolf pack who was hanging around the campsite. This particular wolf, we will call him Ralph, would not have been averse to a handout, and must have thought this certainly beat his usual mode of obtaining nourishment which was hazardous to say the least, and also quite tiring. It was not as if Ralph was lazy or cowardly, but since he was a little bit smarter than the rest of the pack members he was able to recognize a good deal when he saw it.
Ralph was reared in a well organized pack and was early on taught to respect authority; consequently he would soon learn who was the leader of this pack of two legged creatures. It was not long until he realized that pleasing him would result in a more copious supply of bones and other goodies. He learned that people were very picky about their food, and threw meat away after it had ripened. This brought all manner of scavenging critters who would take Ralph’s cache given the opportunity, and he found that he must be on constant guard to protect it. His exceptional sense of smell and hearing allowed him to become aware of the approach of threats long before his new human friends could, and he could sound the alarm with his bark. If they persisted in their approach the curling of his lip to show off those long canine teeth well adapted to ripping off large chunks of flesh along with a menacing growl were enough to discourage most.
It would not take long for the people to recognize the value of this behavior and Ralph would be encouraged to sleep at the mouth of their cave, and would soon become a highly valued sentinel and protector. Ralph found himself spending more and more time with his adopted family and was becoming less involved with his pack. As his relationship with humans deepened it became obvious that Ralph’s hunting and tracking skills could be of great value in the group’s life and death struggle to avoid starvation. He joined in their hunts, proved his value, and found hunting with his new found family was much more efficient than with his fellow wolves. Ralph was beginning to feel as if he was a member of the family rather than an uninvited guest. He was a passionate young wolf and it was not surprising that he would return to the cave one day with a family of his own.
The pups would bond almost immediately to their human hosts. Succeeding generations would lose sight of their wolfly heritage and be totally assimilated into the human culture. Their appearance would change and they would look less like wolves. Taxonomists now agree that these changes were sufficient to label Ralph’s descendants as a new species which were called canines. They would prove to be capable of learning new skills, and delight in the approval of their masters upon learning them. As subsequent generations of hunter-gatherers transitioned to agriculture, dogs would guard the crops from marauders, both animal and human. With the domestication of other animals they learned to herd and protect them from animals of prey including wolves.
As time went on the training of dogs and selective breeding designed to produce certain physical or behavioral characteristics became much more sophisticated. Over the millennia Ralph’s descendants became less recognizable, and more diverse. Hunting dogs became more specialized. The hound breeds were trackers, and varied in size, and conformation depending on the game to be pursued. The retrievers would as their name implies find downed game and return it to their master with some of them specially equipped for swimming when the hunt was for birds shot over water. Pointers would use their nose to find birds and point in their direction while standing motionless until the master directed him to flush them out. Some packs learned to pursue large carnivorous animals, corner and attack them until the boss man arrived employing the same tactics used by their ancestor wolves. Eventually the age of specialization would invade the dog kingdom. One such example was the dachshund who was developed to have a long slender body, and short legs which allowed him to gain entrance into a badger’s burrow, and chase him out, no mean feat as badgers were tough cookies.
Some large breeds were developed as guard dogs, others as beasts of burden. There were the sled dogs of the arctic whose feats are legendary, and I recall as a child a large German Shepard who worked in a coal mine near our home. Such mines were called dog mines because the ceiling was too low for a mule or even a donkey and the coal cars were pulled out by a dog. The miners would spend much of the work day on their knees. I have vivid memories of Mr. Davis with his dog by his side going past our house and up the hill to his mine every morning, then back home in the evening. I felt sorry for that dog, but he seemed contented with his life at least showed no resistance towards going to work.
Perhaps the most loyal and dedicated of all are those dogs who are trained to serve the disabled. To me of these the so called seeing-eye dogs are the most remarkable not only for their skill and remarkable intelligence, but for their loyalty and dedication. They are never distracted from their duty, and their loyalty is absolute. I see them as a canine version of the members of a monastic order in which the member has given up all worldly pleasures in order to serve.
I think it is safe to say that most people like dogs; although there are some who do not, usually due to a bad experience or to some phobic reaction. As a matter of fact of the approximately 400 known breeds of dogs throughout the world probably most are valued for their companionship. Some simply offer comfort as in the case of the Australian aborigines who shunned clothing and depended on dogs to keep them warm on cold nights, the severity of which was gauged by how many dogs were needed as in the band moniker “Three Dog Night.”
There are said to be some cultures in which dogs are used as food, and for most of us that practice is right up there with cannibalism on the abhorrence scale. Some people criticize the American Kennel Club and its members for the excessive inbreeding used to enhance certain features. They feel this policy has resulted in the propagation of certain diseases and structural abnormalities due to the known effect of inbreeding on recessive genetic conditions.
Our Life with Canines
We have enjoyed ten different dogs of various breeds and mixes, not including a few litters of puppies during our marriage, and I suppose I could tell hundreds of dog stories. I recently commented that I thought Lilly was probably the best dog we ever had, but Barb reminded me that I have said that about every dog as they were ending their lives. Lilly was a birthday gift from my children shortly after the death of our springer spaniel Maddie. In the midst of our grief we had decided we would not get another dog, but the kids insisted that Lilly would keep us young. Although well intentioned, that promise would not be realized and their grand plan was a miserable failure in that regard, for I feel I have aged at least ten years since we took Lilly into our home four and one half years ago. Lilly was a rescue dog, and as part of the sell job we were fed a story about her having been found in a cornfield with a litter of dead puppies.In spite of our initial reticence and the con job, Lilly has turned out to be a joy for us.
She has given us thousands of laughs and her affection is boundless. Lilly’s adoption was complicated by some bazaar situations, which as the saying goes were stranger than fiction. I shan’t relate them here, but those of you who know us have heard the story. Ninety nine percent of the time Lilly’s behavior was exemplary, but she demonstrated a violent temper on two occasions. The first was when she was left with a house and dog sitter while we were away on vacation. The sitter left her overnight, and Lilly must have felt she was abandoned for she took her anger out on a leather couch ripping it apart. This was our first indication of her good taste as she chose to unleash her fury on the most expensive piece of furniture in the house.
Now, I am sure that Lilly would flunk the Mcnaughten rule as her ability to distinguish between right and wrong is undoubtedly solely determined by her family’s judgments. She consequently never shows any signs of remorse or shame unless her violations are discovered, but this type response is certainly not unique to dogs (witness recent revelations about some politicians). Likewise there are never any signs of lingering guilt, and I suspect her behaviors are only limited by what she doesn’t think she can get away with.
The second behavioral crisis occurred during one of the family’s annual vacations. We had chosen to rent a house which was pet friendly, and we all brought our dogs. This proved to be a problem for although the kids and grandkids seemed to enjoy each other’s company, Lilly and Maggie’s dog, Delaney were not getting along. The two had some unresolved issues from a previous visit, and clearly did not like each other. True to her heritage (did I mention that she is a pit bull?) Lilly decided to settle the issue by attacking Delainey. This proved to be a formidable task as Delney is a very large and strong Chesapeake Bay retriever. In the process of breaking up the fight son-in-law Jim sustained a large gash on his forearm requiring a visit to the local ER.
Pit Bulls such as Lilly face a great deal of discrimination. They are seen by many as the homicidal maniacs of the dog world. There is some value to this perception in that Lilly’s presence in out front yard is probably a much more effective deterrent to would be intruders than the small sign on our front door warning that we have a burglar alarm. The down side has to do with Lilly’s perceptions. Lilly is a very friendly dog, and a kind word with a pat on the head will encourage her to get to know you better. A few sniffs and she will remember your scent and welcome you on subsequent visits. Her world is interpreted by her sense of smell.
On the other hand if you are fearful, and many are, she will know it from the odor of the pheromones your body secretes. Of course these smells are undetectable to us mere humans much as we are unable to hear the high frequency sounds of the silent dog whistles which are audible to all dogs. Although limited in her ability to communicate, she is not stupid, and must reason that if he is afraid he must have done something bad or is planning something bad. We have instructed her to never launch any full-fledged frontal assaults on people without our order, but she has on a few occasions nipped at some heels. Lilly has shown herself to be a good judge of character, and I suspect that some of those folks deserved to be encouraged to move on.
Since beginning to write this note a few days ago, Lilly has been referred to the oncology department of a hoity toity veterinary clinic. That visit brought that good news bad news thing into play. The bad news is that Lilly’s leukemia is a lymphoblastic type with a very poor prognosis. The other bad news is that the treatment if we choose to pursue it is ridiculously expensive, and even more bad news is that Barb felt we must do all we can even though the chances of remission are slim. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I want to blame the decision on her in order to spare myself the embarrassment of admitting that I was spending all that money for “just a dog”. Oh well, bankruptcy lawyers must make a living too.
Now comes the good news. Lilly is eating as if to fend off starvation, her head is up and that sad look is gone. Although not up to full speed she is much stronger and even brought her toy to me once. This in no way signals a cure, and the remission may be short-lived. Meanwhile, we will do for her as we would for any member of the family.