Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Worth a watch: PBS’ Dogs Decoded

Did you know that 99.8 percent of a dog’s genetic make-up is identical to that of a gray wolf?
Or that scientists have mapped the Boxer’s genome, found the marker that makes Boxer’s prone to cardiomyopathy and expect the research will help cure human diseases?
Perhaps most interesting of all, do you know there are studies going on proving that dogs read our facial expressions to help them communicate emotionally with us, and that humans are rather adept at figuring out what different dog barks mean?
Considering wolves rarely bark, except as a warning, the fact that our dogs have such variety in their vocal cords really speaks to the changes that have occurred during our co-evolution (most refer to this as ‘domestication.’ I take issue with that term. Read why here and here.)
All this information and lots more was presented in last night’s airing of Nova: Dogs Decoded on PBS.
I encourage all dog owners to check out the program. The DVD costs about $25 (order here) or you can check out the program posted on the website (click here).
It takes a look at where dogs came from, when their partnership with us formed, how the process of evolution changed wolves into dogs and had a heavy emphasis on showcasing all sorts of really cool research being done around the world.
For instance, there’s a study going on in Russia that’s been taking place for about 50 years now. The study is whether silver foxes can be ‘domesticated.’ What the researchers have found is that the answer is yes, but it’s purely a genetic thing — nature, not nurture.
By selecting the foxes with the most tame temperaments and only letting those foxes breed, they noticed in three generations a difference in the behavior of the foxes — they began showing affection toward humans, giving more eye contact, etc.
And those same foxes also began showing some very unexpected physical changes — as the generations of foxes became tamer, they also began having different colorings, curled tails and even floppy ears.
So if you’re wondering how we got from a Gray Wolf to a Chihuahua, there’s a big hint. Breed for behavior and physical changes shall follow.
I don’t know what was more interesting to me — the ‘domestication’ piece, or the piece on research being done that proves humans and dogs can communicate with eachother.
Don’t think you know what your dog’s bark means? Well, don’t sell yourself short. Most people can read a dog’s emotions in its bark — anxiety, playfulness, fear, etc. You can test yourself by clicking here.
The show also features a border collie who is incredibly smart. The dog can actually look at the picture of a toy and understand she is supposed to go get the actual toy and bring it to the person holding the picture. How amazing is that?
It warms my heart to see shows like this being produced because it presents our dogs as wonderful, interesting, smart creatures in their own right, as dogs. Our society needs more shows like this and less shows that present the dog as little humans in furry suits.
The more we can respect and enjoy our dogs for being dogs, and the more we understand what makes them a dog, the more we’ll be able to truly enjoy one anothers' companionship.

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