Dear Darwin: Table manners made dogs our best friends |

Dear Darwin: Table manners made dogs our best friends

Robert Valko
Dear Darwin

VAIL, Colorado –Nature created wolves, beautiful creatures that take only what they need from nature to survive.

Over the last 10,000 years, we’ve turned them into four-legged bowling balls that should be outfitted with orthodontic headgear (bulldogs), delusional, paranoid freaks that should be on a Thorazine drip and housed in quadruped straitjackets (beagles), and overweight bats that gnaw at your ankles when you go for the bag of Snausages in the pantry (French bulldogs).

And needless to say, had it been left its own devices, nature – evolution – would have halted the run-away, scientific experiment called Chihuahuas long ago. These ferocious predators, which live in purses and start shaking at the sight of Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet stuffed animals, might not have fared too well in the Australian outback or in the Siberian tundra.

Dogs can, however, excel at ultra-productive acts that would have helped them flourish in the wild and obtain the foodstuffs required for survival: chasing sticks and tennis balls – things that don’t move on their own.

Then there are dogs who get confused about whose body parts are whose.

One such K-9 was reasonably certain that he was being stalked by a runaway side of beef, which, after extensive investigation, turned out to be his own leg and paw. Instead of chasing his tail, his leg launched an assault on him, or so he believed.

In a video showcasing the attack appendage, the dog is resting on the sofa when his attention is diverted to the encroaching leg. It sneaks up on him and starts doing the things that a dog’s leg does when it is about to scratch an itch. This confuses him so he starts snapping and snarling at it violently, making sure that whoever is behind the assault knows exactly what they’re up against.

So why have dogs become man’s best friend? The two main theories explaining why humans and dogs became such good pals are: 1) Humans adopted wolf pups who were good at begging for food and who were not aggressive; 2) Wolves began to hang around human gathering places and eked out a living by scavenging through their refuse. Whichever is the case, successive generations of wolves became more and more tame.

Biologist Raymond Coppinger believes only one trait was necessary to begin the relationship between the two species – the wolf needed to be able to eat in close proximity to people. Once the wolves learned that humans are usually kind and often willing to toss scraps their way, the relationship snowballed to its present height.

As far as benefits to humans are concerned, ancestral men apparently learned early on that dogs could help them hunt. A tool that helped humans obtain food would have proven enormously beneficial to creatures whose prey often outran them.

Or maybe it was their sense of humor that attracted us to them. I know this was the case with Sinew, my last husky. He once ripped open a bag of potting soil and buried a fresh bone in it.

Robert Valko is a graduate of Northwestern University and currently is writing two books on evolutionary psychology. E-mail Robert with column ideas at

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