The friendship between dogs and humans has very ancient origins and was born spontaneously when wolves approached our species in search of food resources with less energy expenditure. This millennial relationship continues until today and the relationship has become increasingly solid.
“The dog is man’s best friend”. We have always been accustomed to using this definition and think that it is “normal” to live with him and that he is part of our life. But how did this friendship start? How far back in time do we have to go to understand how far dogs and humans have traveled together throughout history?
In the last decades, theories about the domestication of dogs have evolved a lot and, in some cases, have completely revolutionized what was always believed. Indeed, the man was always considered the sole and absolute protagonist of this process, and a passive role was attributed to the dog. The most common theories were that some adult wolves had been captured and then reproduced in captivity, or that they had collected pups and raised them. Among the first researchers to challenge these, pointing out their flaws and critical points, were Lorna and Raymond Coppinger with their book “Dogs. A surprising new interpretation of the origin, evolution, and behavior of the dog”.
According to their thesis, the process of domestication is not based on a direct action towards the wolf but, more generally, on the environment: the abundance of food coming from human settlements in the form of leftovers, would in practice create a new ecological niche that could be occupied. In other words, some wolves would have spontaneously approached us for the possibility of finding food resources with less energy expenditure. These individuals would then begin to reproduce independently of each other, giving rise to a new subspecies that is different in both physical and behavioral traits. In particular, the most relevant characteristic was that of having a shorter “flight distance”. This means that the early dogs, although not yet properly domesticated, were more tolerant of human proximity, tended not to flee at the sight of humans, and took little time to get close.
The first great alliance
However, before talking about friendship, there is still a question we must ask ourselves. Why did we accept this presence? Having a diet partly similar to ours, the dog could have been considered as a competitor, hunted, or even be prey.
In reality, it did not behave this way and, on the contrary, it probably showed characteristics of some utility. But, although we have always thought above all of guarding and protecting activities, or helping in the hunt, in reality, the first great task that the dogs assumed and that proved to be important was probably related to their role of “scavengers”, who cleaned the waste in our settlements. In societies such as those of 15,000 years ago (or perhaps longer), where there were no sewers or other disposal facilities, the accumulation of waste and biological remains around settlements could be dangerous, both from a health point of view and in terms of attracting other potentially dangerous animal species. Companies that accepted the presence of dogs could therefore have a tangible health and safety advantage.
One of the primary reasons for this ancient friendship may therefore be based more on the feeding habits of this species than on other performative skills.
Work companions, but not only
Once the dog became a regular visitor to our villages, an accepted presence, not only could it show us all its qualities and intelligence, but it can be said that it helped change us and alter the course of our history. Indeed, between 15 and 40 thousand years ago, the dog was the first to make us understand that coexistence with different species was not only possible but even advantageous. All the others appeared thousands, even tens of thousands of years later.
In today’s technological age, where we have machines for any purpose, we tend to forget the importance of domestication. Yet, it would be enough to think that some species have speeded up transportation, promoted trade, and connected distant peoples; others have made it possible to cultivate large plots of land and feed entire populations; still, others have made it possible to cover up and keep warm in the coldest of climates. In short, much of our progress depends on domestication.
In this process, the dog not only played the role of precursor, approaching us spontaneously and showing us that it was not necessary to be dangerous, but he accompanied us by staying by our side and bringing us in many cases a precious help. He helped us to defend ourselves, to hunt, to lead the herds to the pasture, and to protect them. In short, he did not behave simply as a friend, but as a member of a group, in which we had to assume a role, tasks and for which we had to sacrifice ourselves if necessary.
This age-old relationship continues to this day, and although modern life is very different from that of our ancestors, the bond with dogs does not seem to have weakened. They have come to live in cities and our homes; they accompany us in many places and even on vacation; we devote part of our time to them by buying more and more targeted services: from the veterinarian to the educator, from sports to leisure. But how has our relationship with this species evolved? Even though the activities they have practiced for millennia are no longer as prevalent, dogs have adapted to our contemporary society in many ways and the role they have taken on is a testament to their friendship in ways we may never have understood before.
As we have refined our knowledge, we have learned to teach them extremely complex activities. These range from the social utility in relief to civil protection in rescue and search, or military and law enforcement. In these activities, our friends give us daily proof not only of their incredible intelligence and adaptability but also of knowing how to carry out their role as a real mission, showing self-sacrifice and capacity for the sacrifice that only those with a deep bond can prove.
One of the most important jobs that dogs can take on today is that of service dogs. There are many types of service dogs, but they all have the same purpose: to help and support people with physical or mental disabilities. Service dogs are trained to use their strong abilities to perform incredible tasks, such as detecting impending seizures and alerting their assistant or others who may be able to help, pushing or pulling wheelchairs, stopping self-destructive behaviors, helping discern reality from hallucinations, and the list could go on and on…
What is most amazing is that many types of service dogs can be trained directly at home by their owners, with the help of professional guidance. The bond between dog and handler contributes to the effectiveness and success of the training while training together helps to strengthen the bond and synergy.
Many professionals offer online and offline service dog training services, among them Service Dog Training School International, which offers online training courses for service dogs, psychiatric service dogs, therapy dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and other dog training courses that show us how lucky we are to have dogs in our lives as companions, and how much good the bond between our species has brought, is bringing and will bring.