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Book review: What's a Dog For? by John Homans

I've never understood the whole cat people versus dog people thing. I know there are rabid (sorry) partisans on each side, but I've always lived with and loved both species — sometimes several of each — and can't imagine having to choose.

My theory of animal companionship is based on understanding that our dogs see us as minor divinities, while our cats consider us marginally acceptable servants. So you just figure out what you need — an animal that boosts your fragile self-esteem, or one that knocks your raging ego down a peg — and choose accordingly. My current team of one dog and two cats works for me; it's a matter of finding your own balance.

How we relate to our cats and dogs, and how we came to share our lives with them in the first place, are the subjects of two fascinating new books — one per species.

Colette Bancroft

No one understands you like your dog does. But just how much do you know about how that descendant of wolves came to be curled up in the best spot on your sofa?

In What's a Dog For? John Homans digs into our complex, millenniums-long relationship with canines — how it began, how it has changed both dogs and humans, and where it's going.

He sets out on this walk thanks to Stella, a mostly Lab shelter pup he and his family bring home to their Manhattan apartment. Stella gets him thinking about the dog-human interface, and we owe her a cookie for that.

Homans, the executive editor of New York magazine, writes insightfully about 21st century urban dogs as surrogate children, status symbols, confidants and wingmen. But he takes us much deeper, in the process traveling as far afield as the Canine Science Forum in Budapest and the Queensberry Estate in Scotland, one of the fonts of the Labrador retriever breed.

The scientific study of dogs has exploded in the last few decades, from the dog's origins to its emotional intelligence. Homans surveys the canine interests of many scientists, including Charles Darwin, who adored dogs and became interested in evolution in part because of the variety of dog breeds.

Modern genetics have revealed that the dog's DNA is only 0.2 percent different from the gray wolf's — some scientists argue they're one species. Homans surveys the differences between dog and wolf and looks at theories on dogs' domestication. Certainly humans changed dogs — they are so attuned to us, they will follow a person's pointing finger — but, they have changed us, too.

The history of dog breeding makes for a fascinating, and horrifying, chapter. Dogs were first bred for tasks: herding, hunting, guarding. But in the Victorian era, dog fanciers began breeding them to create a certain appearance. The result was many beautiful dogs — and a plague of inbreeding that produced everything from slope-backed German shepherds to Cavalier King Charles spaniels prone to syringomyelia, an excruciating condition in which the brain grows too large for the skull.

In another example of the unintended consequences of loving our dogs, the 1950s flight to the suburbs created an explosion of the canine population as free-range pets, rarely spayed or neutered, reproduced abundantly. "By 1973," Homans writes, "13.5 million cats and dogs — more than 20 percent of all cats and dogs in the United States — were killed in animal shelters." He traces the effects of the shelter movement that led the charge for spaying and neutering and for no-kill shelters, changing the canine environment.

The dog population is on the upswing, increasing by about 50 percent since 1994. Shelters often have puppy shortages but there is no shortage of the breed most often turned in to shelters — pit bulls. Almost 1 million were euthanized in 2010. "Some dogs get $10,000 cancer treatments," Homans writes, "and other dogs don't even get names."

As our dogs, and our relationships with them, continue to evolve, What's a Dog For? will surely give you a bone to chew on next time you're wondering just what your dog is thinking while gazing into your eyes.

What's a Dog For?

The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

By John Homans

Penguin Press, 258 pages, $25.95

Book review: What's a Dog For? by John Homans 12/08/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 7:34pm]

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