The dog and the human: a love story


The dog and the human: a love story

MAX DU PREEZ on his relationship with dogs and the role these animals have played in human development.


In a complex world full of doubt and mysteries, I am nearly certain about one thing: My life would have been much less joyful if I hadn't had dogs.

I have often pondered my strong affinity for and emotional dependence on Canis lupus familiaris of the Canidae family, order Carnivora. Let me immediately say that I know it's not because I am white or Afrikaans or male or middle class. My low emotional intelligence quotient, my introversion and my underdeveloped social skills probably play a role. The fact that dogs are unwaveringly loyal and never moody surely also contributes.

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But that is not the whole answer. The evolution of the dog species and Homo sapiens provides surprising insights into the relationship. I can be feeling down or troubled but when one of my dogs comes to greet me, I smile. Movies about dogs, especially when the dogs can talk, have been my favourites since childhood. I'm actually only on Twitter for the dog videos. When I go for a walk or visit people, I much prefer conversing with the dogs I encounter than the people.

Fortunately, dogs also instinctively like me. I have the habit of pulling up the lips of any dog I encounter and expressing my admiration for their teeth. I have not yet met a dog that doesn't appreciate this compliment. (And luckily, all dogs understand Afrikaans; I have experienced it with dogs all over Africa, Europe, Asia and the Americas.)

Perhaps I inherited something of it from my father. I was very proud of the story in my hometown that my father was the only elder on house visits who could open the front gate without even needing to ask if the dogs would attack him.

No, my dogs are not my “children", as many dog owners like to say. My children are my children. My dogs are my travel companions through a sometimes turbulent life.

I have had legendary dogs. Like Oscar, a magnificent, proud Dalmatian, and Lucinda (Lucy), an eccentric Staffordshire Terrier. Oscar was stolen from my yard by gangsters from Westbury in Johannesburg and died in one of their dog fights, 30 years ago, and I am still sad about it. Dear Lucy remained and passed away at the age of 22 due to old age.

Then there was Spacey, a slender stray dog with the most soulful eyes and a melancholic personality; actually my wife Angela's dog. Spacey spent the first year of his life chained up in a hut where a fire burned every day. Despite all the expensive veterinarians and surgeries, his lungs gave in. His photo still has a special place in our living room many years later. It's hard not to believe that Spacey had a soul.

No need to pretend

The thing with dogs is that you don't have to pretend, like you do with your children, that you love everyone equally.

At the moment, my family has four dogs, but one is much closer to me than the others. Her name is officially Buttercup but I call her Kweenie. She was a discarded dog that I picked up from the Animal Protection Society in Darling at four weeks old, 11 years ago. (Initially, I named her Heidi Klum because she was the supermodel of the Swartland.)

Buttercup, also known as Kweenie. Also known as Heidi Klum.
Buttercup, also known as Kweenie. Also known as Heidi Klum.

My bond with Kweenie is deep and strong. We look into each other's eyes, we talk to each other, we understand each other. About once every hour she comes into my office where I sit behind my computer, just to say hello. We walk together every day, in the mountains and along the seaside, and it's an adventure and a pleasure every time. More than that: a reassurance.

To scavenge is in Kweenie's genes. She is a very disciplined dog but she just can't help herself when there's a lamb shank or a chicken within reach on the kitchen table. I forgive her for it, just as she forgives me for my flaws. I respect her for resisting the temptation to chase the penguins, dassies and Cape foxes when they cross our path.

Kweenie doesn't have pedigree papers. There are tens of thousands of dogs with her body shape in townships and settlements in Africa south of the Sahara. She is a pure Africanis, the African dog. She looks the way a dog should look.

Natural selection

The Africanis is one of the only, if not the only, dog breeds that is the result of natural selection rather than human manipulation. It has evolved and adapted in our subcontinent over thousands of years. It resembles the dogs that were painted on walls and caves by Egyptians over 4,000 years ago.

It is an athletic, medium-sized, short-haired dog that can run very fast, is skilled at hunting and is extremely loyal to its owner and friendly towards towards humans. It can be white, brown, black, or have various patterns; only its body structure sets it apart.

When Jacob Zuma said in 2012 that keeping dogs, walking with them, and taking them to the veterinarian when they're sick is part of the white culture and foreign to Africa, he couldn't have been more wrong. The Africanis migrated south with Bantu-speaking pastoralists from Central Africa and became an integral part of communities and cultures. When the first European sailors came into contact with the Khoikhoi in Southern Africa in the 15th century, they documented that these people were accompanied by dogs. The Africanis.

This brings me to where dogs come from and how their relationship with humans developed. My research on this has provided me with more answers about my relationship with dogs than my self-psychoanalysis.


Origin of dogs

Many books, scholarly articles and doctoral theses have been written about the origin of dogs and there is still no consensus on everything. If you're interested, here are three accessible essays on the topic:

A new origin story for dogs

Britannica entry on dogs

The big search to find out where dogs come from

There is consensus, however, that the dog is a subspecies of the grey wolf, Canis lupus, and that it was the first animal to be tamed and domesticated by humans, long before sheep, cattle, goats and chickens. This happened somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago in Eurasia.

The most common theory is that the process developed over many centuries, with friendlier wolves gradually moving closer to the settlements of hunter-gatherer groups and starting to enjoy their leftover food. Eventually, the wolves began to move around with these groups, and dependent relationships between humans and animals began to form.

People began to realise that the olfactory sense of dog-wolves was infinitely better than that of humans and that their hearing was also superior — dogs can supposedly perceive 35,000 vibrations per second compared to humans' 20,000. They could also see better in the dark.

It wasn't long before people started using dogs to help them hunt and protect them from predators. Once livestock was domesticated, the dogs could protect the herds.

Years ago, I read a theory that dogs played a role in human brain development and the ability to think abstractly. The theory suggests that humans had more time and opportunity to converse, gossip, express themselves and philosophise because they no longer had to fear as much for their safety: the dogs were watching over them. They could also spend less energy on hunting.

Today, I find much more reassurance in knowing that my home and my family are safer because I have dogs than if I had a contract with a security company.


About sheep (and ducks)

I know a farmer in the Karoo who lets Anatolian shepherds roam with his sheep in the field, and it has been years since a lamb was lost to a jackal. Think also of the sheepdogs, Border collies, that are still used to herd sheep. (I once had a sheepdog named Skollie, a very sensitive guy who would round up ducks in groups, nibbling at them.)

But there is more to our relationship with dogs than protectors and service dogs that can detect drugs and explosives or guide the blind.

Two of our small dogs, Jurie and Stokkies (whose actual name is Coco), were acquired as companions for our late lamb who had anxiety attacks. Dogs are now successfully used as therapy animals in hospitals and nursing homes. Patients with dementia greatly benefit from the company of dogs. Dogs are the best medicine for loneliness and trauma. That's just how it is.

In ancient Egypt, dogs were seen as divine creatures. The royals and the wealthy pampered their dogs with the best food and adorned them with jewels, even providing them with their own servants. Rulers were buried with their dogs to protect them in the afterlife.

As humans' relationship with dogs evolved over millennia, we began breeding dogs for specific purposes, and today there are more than 400 recognised breeds. Lap dogs, hunters, herding dogs, retrievers, guard dogs, working dogs, draft animals, racing animals… all of them, from a Great Dane and a greyhound to a Chihuahua and a Dachshund, share the same genetic makeup with 78 chromosomes and a body temperature of 37.8°C to 39.2°C.

It was only with the Africanis that nobody laughed.

I am convinced  dogs have played a critical role in how humans have developed and interacted with their environment over the past 10,000 years.

My relationship with Kweenie and my other dogs is part of this process.

♦ VWB ♦

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