As we say goodbye to those "Dog Days' of Summer," let's also be reminded that this period of time between July and early September really has nothing to do with hot, sultry weather and its effect on lazy carnies. The term originally came into use in ancient Greece and a belief that a particular constellation of stars associated with a particular weather pattern looked like a dog chasing a rabbit. The phrase was originally translated from Latin to English about 500 years ago. The "dog days" thought came to me this past week as stories began to appear of a groundbreaking new scientific study revealing that dogs understand both the meaning of words and the intonation used to speak them.
What dog lovers and trainers have long believed has now been scientifically confirmed — man's best friend not only hears the meaning of human speech, but also perceives the emotion behind it. Dogs not only can separate what we say and how we say it, but they can also combine the two for a correct interpretation of what those words actually mean. Most significantly, the findings developed by researchers at the University of Budapest demonstrate that dogs are more like humans than we have believed. Dogs process language using the same regions of the brain as people.
Using the brain activity images, researchers saw that the dogs processed familiar words regardless of intonation and they did so using the left hemisphere of the brain, just as humans do in interpreting language. The tone or the emotion behind the word, on the other hand, was analyzed in the auditory regions of the right hemisphere, just as it is in people.
For the study, now published in Science magazine, researchers took 13 family dogs and trained them to sit totally still for seven minutes in an MRI scanner. They were able to test words and commands and corresponding brain activity to see, for the first time, how the inside of a canine brain works. Researchers also believe that it is highly unlikely that human selection of dogs during their domestication, which occurred at least 15,000 years ago, could have led to this sort of brain function. As for cats, they note that they were first domesticated thousands of years after dogs. No brain scan study on cats has been reported as yet. They first have to figure out how to get a dozen or so cats trained to sit totally still for seven minutes in an MRI scanner. Good luck with that.
What's indisputable is that, before humans milked cows, herded goats or raised hogs; before they invented agriculture, or written language, even before they had permanent homes, humans had dogs in their lives; or dogs had humans in theirs, the science on this point is rather murky. The bond that exists between man and dog is a fascinating and mysterious one, it seems. And scientists continue to debate exactly when and where this bond originated.
Researchers seem to agree that dogs evolved from ancient wolves, but that is about the extent of it. Scientists once hypothesized that some visionary hunter-gatherer must have taken wolf puppies from their dens and started raising tamer and tamer varieties. Yet modern dogs are quite different from modern wolves in many ways. Wolves mate for life and wolf dads help with the young, while dogs are completely promiscuous and the males pay no attention to their offspring. Wolves are also hard to tame, even as puppies, debunking the taming theory. Today, many researchers find it much more plausible that dogs, in effect, invented themselves.
As to the generally agreed upon scientific theory that dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago, some biologists now argue, based on DNA evidence and the shape of ancient skulls, that dog domestication first occurred well over 30,000 years ago. The origin of domesticated dogs and their bond with humans is today a hot topic in the scientific community with many competing theories. More scientific reports on the topic are expected this year. But, beyond people's obsession with their pets, why all the scientific attention?
The answer is that scientists believe that the emergence of dogs may be a watershed moment in the history of mankind.
"Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment," says Greger Larson, a biologist in the archaeology department at the University of Oxford.
"I don't think that's outlandish."
And when you think of it, dog stories — science aside — have always been a part of the news that captivates us and inspires our imagination.
Like the 2003 story of a 3-year-old girl who somehow wandered into a forest near her home in the village of Pierzwin, Poland at a time when temperatures were reaching below zero. More than 200 people searched for the girl before firefighters finally found her the following day, unharmed, protected the entire night by a stray dog that had stayed by her side. Or the story of a man from a small town in central Argentina, who in 2005 adopted a German shepherd as a gift for his teenage son. The man died suddenly one year later. When the family returned from his funeral, the family dog was gone. When they returned to the cemetery a few days later to visit the father's grave, the dog was there. They had never taken the dog to this site before. For his remaining days, the dog would never leave the cemetery and every day at 6 o'clock sharp would lie down on top of his owner's grave, which the dog had identified, and stay there, watching over him all night; or the countless stories of service dogs and their work enriching the lives of children and the disabled.
So who's not to say as the character Charlie Brown once said: "Life is better with a dog"; or as President Harry Truman once advised: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."
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