Dogs maintain local hygiene and control vermin


I exercise Bean in parks, fields and woods where rabbits live but one day I took her to a new location crisscrossed with bridle paths. On seeing horse manure for the first time, she picked up a bolus, ran back to me and said, “You have no idea how big the rabbits are around here!!” Then, in a flash, it was gone. Down her gullet.

Dogs eat poop. That’s wired into their brain circuitry. It’s part of a discreet “learning centre” in the brain that helps a dog learn what’s good and what’s not good to eat. (I’ll explain “learning centres in a minute.)

All dogs are hardwired to eat poop but in some the instinct is firmer than in others. Bean’s breeder warned us when we picked her up at eight weeks of age that she was a poop eater, the only one in the litter, and the breeder was absolutely right. As a pup, she’d dump and if we weren’t hovering to intervene, she’d simply turn around, scoop it up, run back inside, smile, swallow, and try to lick us. In the park she’d eat other dog’s poop (especially if it was still warm) but given the option she preferred Canada goose or swan droppings and especially rabbit droppings. Until she discovered deer droppings and horse manure.

This is another subject that books seem to shy away from but I think that the dog’s natural inclination to eat faeces is one of the reasons that our ancestors allowed them to hang around human settlements. They were the local sanitation engineers, vacuuming up human waste that otherwise would have accumulated in substantial quantities once people ceased to be nomadic and settled in permanent communities. This is evident today, not just in Bean’s inclination to eat faeces but in the role that dogs still play worldwide. (I hate to admit it but my daughter Tamara’s Labrador Lola, has a preference for dosser poo. During warm weather when men sleep overnight in the local parks, they use certain trees as their latrine sites. We didn’t know this until Lola explained that fact to us.)

Throughout the world there are two species that routinely feed in our latrines, pigs and dogs. In some cultures, we dump our faeces directly into pigstys but dogs are more inclined to search out our latrine sites. Anthropologists mention this when they write about cultures in Asia, Africa and South America although almost always in passing, as if it were a natural assumption that this is what dogs always do. The parasitologist Christopher Barnard says that amongst the livestock-raising Turkana people of dry, arid north Kenya, mothers of newborn babies are issued with a puppy as a substitute baby wipe. He says that dog faeces from their Basenji-like livestock dogs, mixed with charcoal, is used by the Turkana to treat wounds while women traditionally used dog faeces mixed with fat as a lubricant to prevent damage caused to their skin by their heavy necklaces. Barnard was interested in the Turkana’s interactions with dogs because these people have the world’s highest incidence of hydatid disease, a serious tapeworm illness transmitted through dog faeces. Raymond Coppinger says that in his studies of the dogs on Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania inhabited by a Muslim culture, the feral dogs – culturally disliked by the people – space themselves out in settlements aligning themselves to specific locations where they eat scraps and raid outdoor latrines.

Once our ancestors had settled in permanent habitations, and stored food, as well as acting as natural toilet cleaners, dogs also controlled local vermin such as mice and rats that were attracted to the food stores. It wasn’t until centuries later, when the North African Wildcat evolved into the domesticated cat, that the dog’s vermin-killing role came to be shared with our other favourite domesticated carnivore

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