tue 21/11/2017

Horizon - The Secret Life of the Dog, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Horizon - The Secret Life of the Dog, BBC Two

Horizon - The Secret Life of the Dog, BBC Two

Scientists find that dogs are surprisingly intelligent and a vital evolutionary link

Betsy the Border Collie, man's very clever best friend

For Horizon's fascinating investigation into the ancestral relationship between man and dog, a record-breaking number of illustrious boffins had been compressed into 60 minutes of television. We met Dr Anna Kukekova from Cornell University, who has been conducting research into which gene makes silver foxes (dogs by any other name) either tame or wild. I'm sure other viewers were as thrilled as I was to make the acquaintance of Dr Adam Miklos, from an unprounceable university in Budapest, who delivered shards of insight into the way humans instinctively understand the shades of meaning inherent in dogs' various barking sounds.

Professor Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg, from Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, proffered extraordinary evidence of the way the hormone oxytocin, which bonds breast-feeding mothers with their babies, also cements the touchy-feely relationship between dogs and their owners. Dr Juliane Kaminski has been comparing the relative intelligence of dogs and chimps, and seems to have found proof that our canine companions are a bloody sight smarter than we thought they were.

Yet, remarkable as much of this stuff was, no dog-lover will have been surprised to learn that their favourite pet is able to empathise with human emotions, can tell when their owner is angry, sad or about to go on holiday, and has no difficulty in making it perfectly clear that he wants food or would like to go for a run on the beach. I must confess I'm a cat person myself, and our household's pair of Siameses rather pointedly left the room while this programme was on the TV, but many of the doggy conclusions aired by Horizon translate comfortably to our chums of the feline persuasion.

small_dogThe bit about the way dogs have developed barking sounds they never used in the wild in order to communicate with humans, for instance, has been said about cats by other researchers (you have to replace barking with miaowing, obviously), while the notion that dog owners enjoy lowered heart-rates and blood pressure and suffer fewer heart attacks than their fatally dog-deprived contemporaries has previously been said of pet ownership in general. It's a favourite theme with our vet, in fact.

But where Horizon went the extra mile was in constructing a genetic timeline which teased out a link between man and canine stretching back to the hunter-gatherer era, perhaps 15,000 years ago. According to Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy from Durham University, if primitive man had not been able to form a mutually supportive partnership with dogs, he would never have been able to progress from mere scavenging to an organised agricultural society where he was able to exert control over his environment and start building the civilisation which we see falling to bits around us today.

Even Horizon's massed academic gigawattage couldn't reach a settled conclusion about the origins of the dog-man interface, but the fact that today's domesticated dogs share virtually all their DNA with the grey wolf strongly suggests that wolves and humans managed to reach an accommodation fairly early in the evolutionary piece. Both, after all, are "social carnivores that hunt in daylight", though how the humans persuaded the wolves to collaborate with them instead of eating them wasn't quite spelled out.

Not the least interesting fact revealed in the film was that scientists have only recently become interested in the study of dogs, having previously considered them somewhat unworthy specimens. That view has now undergone a 180-degree revision, not least because of animals like Betsy, a Border Collie who can identify a wide range of items by their human titles and locate a physical object after being shown a picture of it. It seems to be part of a wider trend in which all kinds of animals, from parrots to pigs to octopuses, are being revealed as possessing far higher degrees of intelligence than anyone suspected, largely because nobody previously gave it any thought. The days when we could blithely talk about "dumb animals" are surely coming to an end, and eating meat could yet become the next social taboo.

 

Explore topics

Share this article

Comments

Okay, admittedly those dogs did appear smater than first thought. I have seven who seem dube as hell, but im gonna be entirly honest those studies had serious floors!!!!! Espetially when compairing chimps and dogs with pointing! They were rewarded each time with food trapped under bowls, but the fact is that dogs have a better sentence of smell than chimps it would be like putting a human and a dog in amaze and tring to instruct each how to get the reward in which the dog would simply sniff out the food rather than following the instructions, the human without the sniffing ability of the dog would take longer to get the reward!!!! (the chimps with a less powerfull nose admittedly didn't follow the pointing to get the reward, but the dogs I noticed went straight for the food and the puppy went for the reasearcher rather than the food!!)

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters