Today about 27% of adults in the UK own a dog. We have over 10 million ‘best friends’ second per capita in Europe only to Germany. That’s an awful lot of hungry animals. UK spending on dry dog-food alone is estimated at over £0.5 billion a year.
The dog market boomed during COVID. You see more couples with three dogs when you would have thought two’s company. The top price paid to date, in 2021, for a Border Collie with exceptional shepherding skills is £28,000 – and prices have risen with inflation. But what price the unalloyed love and affection of a pet dog?
Crufts showcases dogs at their healthy glossy best. This year’s Best of Show was a perfectly groomed Lagotto Romagnolo, not a football coach from North Italy but a former ‘duck hunter’ now employed to find truffles, a fine example of canine labour flexibility. On a more mundane note, I was pleased to discover that the dog-show judges score dachshunds for ‘good ground clearance’. It is surely time to create a class of Professional Pets judged on their ‘petting performance’, an opportunity for great family dogs. My own contenders would be two Hackney residents, Solly a curly haired, gentle and cuddly Wheaten Terrier- Poodle Cross and Charlie, a Cavalier King Charles-American Cocker Spaniel cross whose love is measured by the number of excited circles performed to greet visitors and reproachful looks when he’s washed.
But Solly and Charlie’s social skills pale when set against the abilities of working dogs, from guide dogs, an integral part of their blind owners’ lives, to trained sniffer dogs. Police German shepherds and Belgian Malinois find mobile phone by detecting the TPPO, triphenylphosphine oxide, which stops the microchip in the sim card overheating. When after much running around tail-wagging and sniffing, a police dog sits down next to your suitcase, it is time to get worried. More difficult to pinpoint are explosive residues, there can be false positives. And then there’s trained dogs’ ability to smell out diseases. These dogs are public servants working in the canine public sector.
It seems extraordinary that animals so acutely attuned to human feelings, or so defined by human relationships, are descended from wolves. But you don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to appreciate that this is where, with considerable help from selective breeding, our plethora of dog breeds began, from chihuahuas to greyhounds and Great Danes. Our current canine economy, how dogs fit into ways of making a living today, not least dogged devotion for sale, is a good starting point for understanding evolutionary dynamics.
How did wolves and our ancestral hunter-gatherers get together? Who made the first moves? Shared hunting is thought to have developed between 32,000 and 18,000 years ago. The first undisputed domesticated dog found with human remains was buried some 14,000 years ago. By the beginning of the Neolithic – the agricultural revolution – 12, 000 years ago, dogs were moving from a purely economic relationship with people to becoming companions.
One theory is that smarter, more enterprising, - more Thatcherite - wolves took the initiative, moved into hunter-gatherer settlements and became domesticated. Right now, there are foxes in London progressing from nervously raiding bins to entering kitchens in search of something to eat, and even one in Hackney who apparently without fear follows people walking home.
An alternative plausible domestication theory is that the hunter-gatherers initiated the relationship. Like wolves, hunting was central to their lives. Both wolves and men travelled in search of prey. Though sharing the hunt, taking advantage of wolves’ sense of smell to find prey and rewarding kills with cast off portions of the meat, could only have worked if the prey was no larger than reindeer. Wolves were a highly successful species but could not cope with the main prize for human hunters, the mammoth.
The canine economy is much more complex today. Fox hunting hounds baying under government restrictions retain the old skills whilst still generating a few jobs - not to mention class hatred. Greyhound racing for the working class has almost disappeared. But dog-walkers by the thousands have entered the service sector alongside child-care for busy professional households. There are grooming salons with dog accessories, dog educators and dog psychiatrists. A beloved pet should be both beautiful, fit, well behaved and well balanced. With so much reported loneliness the demand for a dog’s devotion is unlikely to diminish.
But the price of this unalloyed love can be high. Veterinary care is expensive. Anecdotal evidence suggests, contrary to good practice in human medicine, that too often pet diagnosis begins with costly testing such as MRI and CT scans only then moving on to simpler therapeutic trials with inexpensive medication. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons does have a code of ethical conduct, professional misconduct includes taking “advantage of your age and inexperience”. But, unschooled in diagnosis, who is capable of resisting the authority of the veterinarian and denying their beloved dog the suggested treatment? And how many people realise after hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds spent on preventing the unpreventable, and far too late, that the kindest way forward would have been to ‘let their pet go’.
Wolves by contrast are still unloved. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t help their bad press. But there is something chillingly grand about them. They have not been subjected to ever more bizarre selective breeding. We don’t run after them with poo-bags. They don’t roll over to have their tummy tickled. They don’t sneak up to sleep on your bed or cover the sofa with hairs - at least not yet. “The Eurasian Wolf”, Rewilding Britain tells us, is “a vital top predator that can have a major influence on the landscape through influencing the behaviour of herbivores”. Quite so.
The canine economy has proved productive, innovative and adaptive. Dogs both as workers and pets have established themselves amidst economic and home life. Their emotional ties to families look likely to defeat the future capacity of AI. And on the whole, canine evolution hasn’t turned out all that badly - apart, that is, from those dogs facing the hazards of poor ground clearance.