I lost my Pooch, Sadie, earlier this year. He was a loyal friend and a regal hound who was observant and expressive. At times, it appeared as though he anticipated my actions. I frequently caught myself holding my breath during his final days in the hopes that by doing so, I might be able to halt time and prevent him from passing away.
Saddie has been by my side for nine years, being devoted, attentive, and faithful. This intensely intimate contact between two people was, in many respects, a representation of the ties that people and poochs have had for a very long time. Poochs were by our side long before horses, cattle, swine, goats, or any other form of domesticated animal.
We do know that we have been roaming with canine companions for around the past 30,000 years, however, the precise moment when the wolf (Canis lupus) evolved into the dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is still up for discussion.
The bond started weak, moulded by our individual and shared needs and the harsh climate of the Late Pleistocene era, which included the last ice age when most of the earth was covered in glaciers. But by happenstance, the special connection that started so long ago has gotten stronger through the ages and is now imprinted in our DNA. Since studies have shown that hormones and neurological activity are specifically earmarked for human connection and communication, dogs today keep us grounded externally and comprehend us emotionally linked to nature in many tiny and huge ways.
Overcoming Neanderthal competition When proto-dogs first appeared on the scene, life was difficult for humans. Hominids, the forerunners of modern humans, have been making fire and utilizing tools for more than 2.5 million years. However, progress was quite sluggish for our species, Homo sapiens, which first appeared some 170,000 years before our canine colleagues. The number of Homo sapiens was drastically reduced between 90,000 and 70,000 years ago due to a prolonged drought and an unpredictable environment, and the remaining tribes had to fight with their Neanderthal contemporaries for resources.
Correlation does not prove causality is one of science’s catchphrases. Nevertheless, researchers haven’t ignored that, between 50,000 and 33,000 years ago, a period of rapid cultural development for humans—including the development of complex hunting strategies and ritualistic burial practices—coincided with the emergence of the first signs of intentional interactions between humans and poochs. Some have hypothesized that our species outcompeted the Neanderthals and eventually survived due to our new wolf-dog friends, most notably archaeologist Pat Shipman.
It’s not difficult to conceive that combining canine speed and tracking ability with human tools and weaponry resulted in a powerful alliance that benefitted both parties. At least one set of model experiments with contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures demonstrates that the presence of poochs increases hunting success by more than 50%. Dogs are then rewarded with consistent meals and secure homes.
Aside from Mutual Benefit
However, even in those early days, something beyond mutual benefit seemed to bind our two species together. The earliest domesticated animals were dogs, or more precisely, their forebears.
Notably, they are also the only canid and giant social carnivore that humans have integrated so deeply into our culture. Yet, although we can conjecture, we still don’t know for sure what motivated the two species to try cohabitation in the first place.
It is known that early canines were ritually buried by their proud, appreciative, or even troubled human partners as early as 33,000 years ago. So every time I see photos of the bones of a dog taken to the afterlife with a mammoth bone purposefully (dare I say fondly?) placed in his jaws, I’m filled with awe.
In the end, this interaction altered practically every aspect of human evolution. Hunting became more straightforward, and camp security improved thanks to dog domestication, paving the stage for developing more substantial communities. We started domesticating additional animals after we achieved this threshold of stability. Agrarian societies emerged between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, with predictable effects on human food, mobility (horse transportation! ), and social interactions. Living with poochs during this period allowed us to stay connected to the “natural order,” from which we quickly strayed.
All of this is to argue that we are what we are because of them, just as poochs are what they are because of us. Poochs are the domesticated animals we have the closest ties with now out of all of them. This may be partly because they have more quickly and successfully adapted to the social fabric of humans than any other animal. Therefore, dogs are accepted and present in the household and the larger human society, which they easily traverse.
In the United States, we have mostly moved away from a rural lifestyle where working and utility poochs were more frequent than human-canine companions, as is faithful in most modern countries. The average American spends almost $70 billion annually on their (often useless) pets, and many claims to spend more on their dog’s or cat’s medical costs than on their own.
Which begs the question: What use do poochs serve in our contemporary, technologically advanced human society if, after 15,000 years, they are no longer primarily used for hunting or farming?
I have a solid commitment to science since I study cognition. But at the risk of sounding entirely unscientific, I’d like to propose that it’s something close to a “spirit guide,” a species that both inhabits and expands our environment.
I lingered in lonesome alone during the long, scorching summer that followed Sadie’s passing. Although the languor is still present, it is now periodically offset by other activities, such as seeing how a day and a body’s rhythms are affected by disruptions, making them more noticeable.
I was surprised by what didn’t happen when I shut off my computer at the end of the day the first time I worked from home without Remy. Instead, Sadie walked up to press his nose against my arm while yawning loudly and begging me to get out of here without raising his head. I had to consider what I was meant to do next without his nagging. Observing how much time I spent outdoors—only moving—simply being. Avoid using a screen. Without Sadie by my side, I stroll along the forest route and sense my body getting smaller. Sadie consistently expanded my universe for me, even though he was mine in the first place.
In the middle of the observing, I consider some of the lessons Sadie taught me during our all-too-brief time together. Only a dog could do what Sadie did.
How to handle danger In the early spring evening, Sadie sprints forward, pausing sometimes to look into anything that takes his attention. I approach him and stoop to examine some peculiarly shaped moss when he lets out a yip and leaps backward, knocking me aside. Just as I was about to set foot on the walkway, a snake slithers over it.
One of the primary reasons early humans adapted to poochs so fast, besides their use as hunting companions, was their function as an alarm system. Poochgs still serve as our guards today, warning us of things we’ve lost the ability to notice. With their protection, we can take more chances and feel more at ease navigating human civilization and the wild environment, about which we know more but have much less physical contact.
How to return to reality. Sadie discovers something in a tall cluster of reeds as we amble casually toward Rock Creek Park’s forested entrance in Washington, DC. When I get close, he wraps his paw around his prize and proudly shows it to me: a three-point buck’s shed antler.
Even though I should be more adept at looking beyond what is immediately in front of me at this point, I would have completely missed Sadie’s proudly acquired totem on that particular day. How often did I witness him lift his head, pause, lift his nose, and then rush full-speed toward something that was completely invisible, every hair on his muzzle twitching to the fast in-out, in-out of air through his nostrils?
Early animals’ brain architecture mirrored how extensively they depended on their noses to acquire information. However, certain animal species (including primates and humans in particular) became more dependent on other senses, such as sight, as they developed and diverged. But, of course, there was a price for this, which helps to explain why we sometimes forget that we cannot see everything that we need to know about the world or our place in it.
Ways to get lost. I once whistled. Twice. I scream. Fear rapidly replaces the joy of seeing the city hound traverse the mountains. As panic creeps in, I can hear my heartbeat rising in my ears. I believed I would perish the first time I lost sight of Sadie. I feared he would pass away. He was just a year old and would always be lost to the mountain. Though it took him much too long to find me, he wasn’t lost; he knew where I was. While it was the first time, it was undoubtedly not the final time he decided to change the itinerary of an excursion. Over the years, I learned to let Sadie “go lost,” and his gift to me was to be able to do the same while remaining confident in his ability to locate me consistently. Dogs invite us to tolerate brief disorientation even when not in the wild. To achieve a level of tranquilly with present-moment seclusion, our hectic environment rarely affords.
Poochs undoubtedly perform various other crucial tasks in the lives of contemporary people. For example, they help the sick and disabled, discover illness, support conservation efforts, locate lost persons and medications, and so on. So, what’s the next step? What elements will shape the future of this particular connection, and how will it continue to develop?
Of course, poochs and people are social creatures. This means that humans must connect with others in person for them to learn, adapt, and flourish. So even though I can only provide anecdotal proof, I suspect that dogs will continue to be our only genuine connection to the senses and the places we’ve given up as our virtual existence grows. As a result, we become more estranged from one another and the vanishing nature around us.
It isn’t easy to imagine making a commitment that will last thirty thousand or more years in the modern world. Yet, it appears to be one we as humans are willing to respect despite all the beeps and bells competing for our attention. Yet, on the other hand, I would give anything to be absorbed in the present and caress Sadie’s silky ears.
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