The Dog’s Sense Of Belonging To The House


She’s waiting at the threshold of the kitchen, just beyond underfoot. Somehow Loly knows precisely where “out of the kitchen” is. Here she sprawls, and when I bring food to the table, she ducks in to retrieve the kitchen fallings. At the table, she gets a little of everything—and she’ll at least entertain even the most unlikely offering, if only to loll it around in her mouth before unceremoniously depositing it on the ground. She does not like raisins. Nor tomatoes. She’ll suffer a grape, if she manages to split it into juicy halves with her side teeth—then deliberating, as though managing a very big or tough object, and masticating it. All carrot ends are for her. She takes the stems of broccoli and asparagus and holds them gently, gazing at me for a moment as if determining if anything else is coming before walking to the rug to settle down for a gnaw.

Dog training books often insist that “a dog is an animal”: this is true but is not the whole truth. The dog is an animal domesticated, a word that grew from a root form meaning “belonging to the house.” Dogs are animals who belong around houses. Domestication is a variation of the process of evolution, where the selector has been not just natural forces but human ones, eventually intent on bringing dogs inside their homes.

To understand what the dog is about we have to understand from where he came. As a member of the Canidae family—all of whose members are called canids—the domestic dog is distantly related to coyotes and jackals, dingoes and dholes, foxes and wild dogs.* But he arose from just one ancient Canidae line, animals most likely resembling the contemporary gray wolf. When I see Pumpernickel delicately spit out a raisin, though, I am not reminded of the stark images of wolves in Wyoming downing a moose and yanking it apart.† The existence of an animal who will patiently wait at the kitchen door, and then ponderously consider a carrot stick, seems at first glance irreconcilable with that of an animal whose primary allegiance is to himself, whose affiliations are fraught with tension and maintained by force.

Not on this list are hyenas. Dog-sized and -shaped, with erect German shepherd–like ears, and prone to howl and vocalize like many garrulous canids, hyenas are in some ways doglike, but are not in fact canids. They are carnivores more closely related to mongooses and cats than to dogs.

Raisins are now suspected of being toxic to some dogs, even in small amounts (though the mechanism of toxicity is unknown)—leading me to wonder whether Pump was instinctively averse to raisins.

Carrot-considerers arose out of moose killers through the second source: us. Where nature blindly, uncaringly “selects” traits that lead to the survival of their bearers, ancestral humans have also selected traits—physical features and behaviors—that have led not just to the survival, but to the omnipresence of the modern dog, Canis familiaris, among us. The animal’s appearance, behavior, preferences; his interest in us and attention to our attention: these are largely the result of domestication. Present-day dog is a well-designed creature. Only much of this design was utterly unintentional.

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