Monday, May 24, 2010

Let’s all thank a dog today

Humans domesticated the dog a long, long time ago, right? Well, maybe not.
According to Temple Grandin, the idea that we domesticated the dog is really only half the story.
I recently finished reading Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning really awesome things about animals.
Grandin says there’s scientific evidence that dogs and humans came together at the point where humans had just barely evolved into homo sapiens — possibly before humans had language, definitely when we had only a few tools and at a point when we “weren’t any more socially complicated than a band of chimpanzees,” Grandin writes.
“This means that when wolves and people first started keeping company they were on a lot more equal footing than dogs and people are today,” she added.
To get the full effect of her argument, you’ll just have to order the book. But basically, she then explains that in all animals, domestication causes the brain to shrink, usually by about 10 percent.
Oddly enough, at just about the time wolves are considered to have been domesticated into dogs — this is about the time researchers found wolves buried with humans or under human settlements — both of our brains shrank.
The dog’s brain shrank about 10 percent and so did ours, Grandin said. We lost our brain capacity in different ways — humans holding on to the center for intelligence in our frontal lobes while that shrank in dogs, and dogs held on to more of the brain that handles sensory stuff and emotion than we did.
She also makes a compelling argument about primate species versus canines. Primates don’t generally have monogamous relationships, they don’t usually make same-sex friends outside of their family members and they don’t hunt together.
But humans do. Putting all the stuff about evolution aside, humans are a primate species. And we happen to be the only primate species with dog-like characteristics — monogamy, friendships, strong family bonds and a tendency to work together to get things done.
So Grandin concludes that idea that humans domesticated the dog isn’t entirely accurate.
Rather, humans and dogs co-evolved and each benefited from the arrangement. And, the saying “Dogs make us human” might be literally true, she adds.
After all, it’s our social nature that makes us human, right? Our compassion for others, our desire to be social, to help people who are down and to love and be loved — it’s all a part of what we consider to be our “humanity.” Maybe we should call it “doganity” instead.
Because, the argument is pretty compelling that being social is not actually our nature, but our dogs’ nature, and we adapted it into our own.
Let’s all thank a dog today for making us into better humans!

Learn more about Temple Grandin and her book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by clicking here. The book was published in 2005 and is co-authored by Catherine Johnson.
See a variety of prices for new and used editions on by clicking here.


  1. Jonathan SchechterMay 31, 2010 at 7:54 AM

    Karen, Just wanted to say I really enjoy your dog blog--especially this one - comments on domestication - which I first noted in the print editon of 'our' OP today. I used to have an Akbash Dog--and that sure stirred my interest in wolves, dogs and traits with humans and our behavior.

    Jonathan (Earth Almanac blogger)

  2. Thanks Jonathan, I love your blog and column too! The hubby and I are trying to get out to more parks & trails this year so you've been a great resource. Congrats on the baby buck, it must be wonderful to watch him. I've never heard of an Akbash dog before, can you send me an email with pictures? Oh, and as an animal lover yourself, I recommend Animals in Translation for some relaxing yet inspiring and eye opening reading this summer. The focus is not just on dogs, but a great variety of animals both wild & domestic.

  3. Jonathan SchechterJune 1, 2010 at 11:47 PM


    My Akabash died about five years ago (ll years old) and have only had digital camera for about 4 years. All prints are the old fashion way.
    But there are some pretty good images of Akbash Dogs (dogs are part of the name at They are very tall about, 33 at the shoulder, white, slighty slanted eyes and cross front legs when laying down. Live stock guardians. And snow is 'there thing' They are loved by emu farmers, alpaca owners, goat ranchers etc. Mine was so gentle he let my chickens eat out of his bowl. And in addition to the baby buck I now have a doe with two fawns hanging around.....will post a picture of them soon . Glad you like the column!