by Steve Dale

Whether or not you like dogs, you can thank a canine for your very existence, according to Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Without the domestication of canines, early man might never have survived at all, Coren theorizes.

In his latest book, "The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live With Dogs Today" (Simon and Schuster, New York, NY, 2008; $26), Coren begins with how dogs became our best friends in the first place.

"We know early man was a bit of slob," he notes. "Body parts which weren't used for food, and other trash, were put outside the human settlement. The wolf-like ancestors of today's dogs hung around for scraps. Over time, they began to consider the fringes of human settlements as their territories, and defended them. They also warned one another of danger, and in doing so, people were warned who lived in these settlements."

Meanwhile, it seems Cro-Magnon Man began to associate with friendlier and less timid individual canines, and even began to selectively breed them. This began the domestication process. Coren continues, "As the Ice Age came, Cro-Magnons invented the bow and arrow. But the bow and arrow didn't usually kill, so to efficiently hunt, you had to pursue the prey. That's where dogs came in, as they helped to pursue the prey and to pull it down. Meanwhile, the Neanderthals were having difficulty even finding large prey, which was also dying out because of the Ice Age."

This scenario is fascinating, but how in the world do we know that's how it came down?

The "Ice Age" movies just don't cover canine domestication. Coren cheers, "That's the beauty of behavioral anthropology. We never found dog bones in association with Neanderthals, unless they had tooth marks on them, which suggests Neanderthal man may have hunted and eaten the wolf-like dog ancestors. Among Cro-Magnons, at burial sites people and these dog ancestors were found together. Not only did Cro-Magnons associate with dogs, they must have cared for them if they were buried with them."

Humans' relationship with dogs is really quite extraordinary when you think about it. Not many species voluntarily share their lives with a very different species. We share our lives, our homes, and even our beds with dogs. We trust them with our children, and they trust us with their puppies. Coren says all dogs born "hot-wired" to understand us in ways we still don't completely understand. Clearly, dogs understand us better than we understand them. And that's even after we've had the advantage of taking classes to study them, and read newspaper stories and books by experts to help understand them.

One recent study demonstrated that if you point at something, a wolf will just look at your hand, as will a chimpanzee, our closest relative. However, a dog will look in the direction you're pointing. Of course, a chimpanzee will learn quickly what it means when people point at something, but 9-week-old puppies innately know to follow the direction of the point.

"How can you explain that?" begins Coren, who offers an explanation: "We've bred dogs over the generations to benefit from associating with us in ways which please us - sometimes to work for people - herding or hunting, for example and sometimes to simply make us feel good."

Dogs more than make us feel good; they're good for us. Petting a familiar and friendly dog slows our heart rates, our breathing becomes more regular and our muscles relax. What's really interesting is that recent research demonstrates that comfort is a two-way street; dogs derive the same health benefits when we pet them. Shelters now ask volunteers to simply participate in petting sessions to benefit the dogs. And in the United Kingdom, doctors not only prescribe dogs, but the British health system pays a percentage of the cost for such purchases.

"Dogs are instant Prozac," Coren says. "Dogs also dissolve stress. That means a longer life, maybe. And a longer marriage."

Coren cites a study comparing couples with dogs to those who without dogs. Couples with a canine companion were more likely to stay married.

Like dogs, or not, their impact is undeniable.








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