Dogs explore and investigate

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The first dogs passively helped people in other ways too. Dogs are naturally inquisitive but their senses, particularly scent and hearing are better than ours. They are superb at following invisible scent trails.

My previous dog Macy is a good example of a dog with a particularly good nose. Because of a rare neurological condition, she lost most of the use of her eyes when she was still a robustly athletic five year old. Her eyes rotated and sank back in their sockets. Extensive surgery allowed her to continue to see out of the corner of one eye as long as she rotated her head hard left. That meant when she exercised she no longer found game by seeing it. After she’d lost most of her sight we might be casually walking on a path through a wheat field when she’d suddenly bristle and charge off through the crop. Inevitably I’d see a pheasant or partridge fly off from more than 15 metres away. She could smell its presence at that distance.

Dogs readily and intuitively follow the scent trails of other animals but that doesn’t mean that they helped us hunt. Not yet. That needs much more intervention on our part, more complicated breeding and then training to neither scare game away nor to compete with us for the right to eat it. The dog’s natural inclination to investigate and follow scent trails originally lead us to animal dens; they’d show us where animals lived and if there were young animals there we had the bonus of easy nutrition without wasting much energy. Dogs also probably lead us to sources of water and through difficult terrain to where herbivores seasonally moved. They certainly helped us find meat and survive.

Dogs guard their own

One of the characteristics of youth that’s perpetuated into adulthood in dogs is barking. Wolf pups bark but adults seldom do. Anthropologists who study regional cultures in which feral dogs live today say that although dogs are not owned, each has its own sleeping location, often on the grounds of someone’s home and when a stranger appears the dog barks an alarm. You don’t have to train a dog to do this. It just does it. The dog barks to guard its own territory and protect its own litter but, if it shares its territory with people its bark unwittingly protects them too. This is how dogs came to guard our homes and eventually to guard our livestock but to do the latter needed more of our intervention, our selectively breeding for impressive size, for the power to take on our livestock’s natural predators, and more.

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