Guest Commentary

A recent article posits that dogs have gained from their relationship with humans--but could it be the other way around?

I was just reading an article about dogs in the dreaded The Economist magazine.

Brian Hare, a researcher at Harvard University, has figured out that dogs are a lot more sensitive to the nuances of human communication than we thought. Hare put food under one of two cups, then signaled its location to his test subjects by pointing or just looking at the right one. Chimpanzees, foxes, cats and other noncanines got it right a smidgen more often than chance. Dogs, on the other hand, got it right every time.

Anyone who's ever owned a dog will greet this revelation with a resounding, "duh!" If I even think about taking my dogs for a walk, they're all over me. And if I turn on the oven in the afternoon, the little bastards assume I'm going to bake cookies and immediately set up vigil waiting for the bowl to lick. Dogs, besides knowing how to knock over the garbage cans, eat turds out of the cat box and lick their balls in polite company, are absolutely boffo at reading human beings.

A lot of people, including the writer of The Economist article, think that what this means is that dogs are more intelligent than we used to think. But Professor Hare doesn't say this. All he says is that they are really good at anticipating what human beings want. Outside of academic papers, this is generally not called intelligence, but toadying up.

Of course, one could argue that being intelligent and toadying up are the same thing, but outside of climbing some corporate ladder and getting tenure or floor seats at a Spurs/Lakers game, this is patently false. Most of the time, toadying up is, well, icky. And OK, even if dogs are a little toady-ish, they have many other fine qualities. Why, just the other day, mine regurgitated an entire packrat onto the kitchen floor and stared at me with ears perked and tail-a-waggin,' anticipating my dining pleasure. He looked so hurt when I told him I'd already made tuna salad!

But compensatory arguments aside, I don't believe Hare's conclusion, let alone the dopey old Economist's. If you understand dogs' behavior sans the anthropomorphic premise, it's clear that although dogs have survived and even prospered by their special relationship with us, we've prospered more from our relationship with them. In short, dogs learning to read us is beside the point. We've learned to read them.

This makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms. Imagine early hominids, with our sloping foreheads and clock-stopping B.O., first coming down from the trees. Never mind that the average predator could probably smell us from 10 miles away; we had this cool, binocular color vision, and the more alert among us could see them before they ate us. We found a lot of neat stuff on the ground, things that didn't abound up there in the nice, safe trees, like bugs and leftover food from the kills of other animals. Maybe we got to thinking: Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to eat leftovers all the time? I mean, scavenging is very nice but produces wicked indigestion, and no one had invented Tums yet. Adding to the problem were our pathetic excuses for teeth and claws, and the fact that we were--and are--a damned cantankerous ape, and we can conclude only one thing: When we weren't scavenging, we were fighting among ourselves over who got the bits of carcass without the maggots in it. Suppose this scenario was played out over and over again until one day, with the lions full and the human population really small, somebody had an idea. Suppose the idea came from watching wolves, aka proto-dogs.

This thought first occurred to me watching a pack of coyotes hunt in the desert. They strung themselves out across the flat, executing a perfect pincer movement to corral their prey; and damned if it wasn't done quietly and efficiently, without argument.

I'll bet the idea of cooperation was pretty novel to early hominids, a pre-historic gestalt, a sort of, "Whoa, dude, if we can, like, stop fighting for a few hours, maybe we can avoid starving!"

I imagine this was the beginning of human ascendancy on Earth, as our ancestors figured they'd better work on getting next to these dog dudes. If they could teach us to bring down fresh meat, maybe they could teach us a bunch of other things.

I'll bet the truth is, we toadied up to them. Makes perfect sense to me. Sometimes the only way to tell about the past is to look at the present and make inferences. So, the question becomes not where would dogs be without us, but where would we be without dogs.

Screwed, probably.