DALE SARGENT Columnist
A big weakness of mine is the addiction to snacks after dinner. Tonight is no different. I hear the ‘refrigerator calling’ and go to the kitchen for a piece of cheese. Back in my recliner, I settle in to watch TV and enjoy a bite to eat when I notice others have alternate plans. Griz and Seg, my shepherds, position themselves in front of me and start looking at me. Dogs usually beg and whimper, but this time there’s none of that, just a blank stare. Seg licks his lips.
I know you’re going to roll your eyes. These are pampered pets, but for just a split second, the fur on my neck stands up and I feel a little insecure. It’s almost like I can hear them thinking, “You can’t escape. We can have that cheese if we want. We used to be wolves, you know.
This got me thinking about the whole domestication and civilization thing. Dogs and wolves descend from a common ancestor (now extinct). The gray wolf is the dog’s closest cousin. Dogs were domesticated about 30,000 years ago when humans were still hunter-gatherers. It was another 10,000 years before we brought cattle and sheep into the fold and became farmers. Archaeologists surmise that wolves began roaming campsites to pick up scraps, and at some point, humans and wolves learned that coming together for protection, shelter, and hunting was mutually beneficial. One side note: the scientists also surmise that dogs could work effectively with modern humans because they could see the whites of our eyes and tell which way we were looking. I don’t know how they guess that the Neanderthal’s eyes didn’t have whites.
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Since then, the bond between humans and dogs has been deep and unbreakable. There is very early archaeological evidence of dogs being buried as honored members of the community. We have come to depend on them as helpers and companions, and the many tasks they have learned and been raised to do are amazing.
Dogs still have an instinctive memory of that time as hunters. Griz (age 10 months) often crawls like a wolf and stalks Seg even though she is “crawling” in the middle of a road and you can see him a mile away. Both dogs are also adept at shaking stuffed animals to death and then dismembering them; although, I am not aware of either of them having caught and dispatched a live animal, though not for lack of trying. If they are asked to survive in the wild, they will fail miserably. Instinctive memory does not equate to competence.
They also have strong herding instincts. They snap at our heels to “herd” us when we start a hike and are intent on banishing anything (birds, squirrels, deer, type of UPS) from territory they consider their turf. The ruckus can be annoying when we’re trying to sleep but living away from nearby neighbors, it’s also reassuring to get the notice.
There are still plenty of working dogs in the world, but my dogs are one example of what I suspect has become the majority. Although they still have hunting and herding instincts that they want (need?) to express, we don’t need them in any practical sense to do these jobs. I suspect the biggest practical benefit is that dogs need plenty of exercise, and if it weren’t for taking them for a walk every day, we might never get off the couch. We put up with a great deal of expense and inconvenience to have them around because of the emotional bond we form. They make our life better. They are trusted companions, family members, and when they pass away, we deeply mourn their loss.
I wonder if part of that bond is that we’re in the same boat. For as long as I can remember I have been drawn to the great outdoors to hunt, forage and fish and learn as much as possible about nature. Am I honoring my own instinctive memory? I can give you many reasons why I forage for food, but as long as there’s a Food City down the road, I DON’T NEED to eat wild stuff and, like my dogs, I wouldn’t survive long as a hunter gatherer. Civilization has advanced and my outdoor life could be seen as impractical and unnecessary. However, it is what makes me happy and makes me feel complete. Seg, Griz and I, domesticated hunters born late, but thankfully not too late. As long as there are places to be outdoors, even for a short time, we will honor that part of who we are.
Oh, in case you’re wondering. I gave them the cheese.
Dale and Joneen Sargent are managers of a mountainous tract of land, Demeter, in Bland County. Dale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.