In This Issue....
photo: Corinna Faith
Dogs That Changed the World
Reviewed by Sue Hamilton
The two-part documentary represents another ISDI collaboration, this time with Tigress Productions of London, England. Last April, they approached us seeking assistance with a film project. We were able to provide not only background information about the breed, but also a "primer" about travel in the North in advance of their trip to Baffin Island, arranged also with the advice and help of ISDI's network of contacts.
Our liaison at Tigress was so engaging, sincere and genuine in her quest to learn more about the ISD and Inuit culture, that we had a really good feeling about where this project was headed. The results did not disappoint. The satisfaction of being involved with this outstanding production rates a distant second, however, to the thrill of the subject matter and the exceptional way it all came together on screen.
Part One, "The Rise of the Dog", explores how the wolf likely evolved into the "proto-dog". The Darwinian theory that this took place very gradually was challenged, in part using as an example the simple yet elegant Belyaev fox experiments of the 1950s. The Russian geneticist bred unhandleable fur foxes with the least “flight distance” (from humans) and in a relatively short span of time, turned them into highly socialized animals whose appearance, in addition to their behaviour, changed radically. Belyaev proved that "selecting for the quality of tameness alone could set off a cascade of other changes" impacting the entire makeup of the animal (well worth remembering when ISDs outside of the Arctic are selected for breeding). Part One of Dogs That Changed the World also covers current research conducted on the origin of the dog. According to molecular biologist Peter Savolainen, they appear to come from a single source in East Asia. The ISDI has been working with Dr. Savolainen for several years and, thanks to many of our enthusiasts and supporters world wide, he has received scores of samples from ISDs, from more domestic northern breeds as well as DNA from wolves and coyotes, all contributing to his landmark research. (A report on his findings may be forthcoming in The Fan Hitch by the end of the year.)
Only six breeds or specific function dogs were featured as having made fundamental contributions to early human culture. These were: the Saluki of the desert dwelling Bedoins, the New Guinea Singing Dog, the Mexican Xoloitzcuintle, guarding dogs, the Border Collie as an example of herding dogs that helped transform hunter-gatherer societies into agrarian cultures, and the Inuit Sled Dog. The ISD being acknowledged as one of these elite six, and in such a public way, is a huge recognition. Of course, the breed's role in the survival of Inuit for 4,000 years is well known to most of us. It has been emphasized in Ken MacRury's master's thesis. The specific segment on Inuit Dogs is well done. Tigress was extremely fortunate to be able to make the trip from London to Clyde River on such short notice and at the tail end of the sledding season. The footage is beautiful and the script covering the history and role of the dogs is respectful, articulate and detailed, and the best part is that the Inuit guides had the opportunity to speak on their own behalf and not just have the entire segment told by a faceless narrator, even if it is the luxurious speaking voice of actor F. Murray Abraham. Levi Palituq says of the dogs, "They were transportation. They were protectors. They found food for us. They helped our people. Without them we would have never survived. Without them we wouldn't be here."
The second hour of this excellent offering, "Dogs by Design", describes the even shorter transition from a handful functional primitive working dogs to more than 400 recognized pure breeds in a mere 150 years. "All of a sudden the emphasis shifted from the kind of job the dog could perform to basically what it looked like. And this is an entirely new way, really, for humans to look at dogs…as objects of aesthetic appreciation." The highly subjective selection process of this human-assisted evolution began in Victorian England, when owning, breeding and showing dogs became a wildly popular past time. "It was also the driving force behind dog shows, an opportunity for the proud dog breeder to parade his latest creation." Many pre-Victorian era breeds actually devolved. There is a revealing segment contrasting a well-known current English Bulldog breeder-judge's detailed description of the "ideal specimen" with that of an historian lamenting the loss of functional phenotype and robust health of the true bulldog of the 1870s. "The Victorian passion for breeding didn't just result in dramatic physical changes on dogs. It fundamentally altered our relationship with them by turning working dogs into pets."
Part Two explores the reason for the development of largest variety in phenotype of any animal on the planet (Canis familiaris - the domestic dog) in such a short time - a function of "thyroxine rhythm". It is believed that this hormone's activity is specific to each breed and that is why a two-pound Chihuahua can mature to adulthood months ahead of the 150-pound Great Dane - an endocrine feature selected for better or worse, perhaps unwittingly, by breeders' subjective preferences.
Part Two also describes the changes made to dog breeds in less than positive terms, and this leads to a discussion of behavior issues and how many pet owners are incapable of managing dogs whose working ability has been bred out of them yet who have retained behaviors related to their former functional existence, often incompatible with the animals' living conditions.
Dogs That Changed the World does end on a positive note, however, assuring that some of the detrimental physical changes created by humans can be reversed by them as well. Also described is how some breeds (and mixed breeds, too) are working in service to man, helping to detect cancers and alert their owners to diabetic and epileptic seizures and natural disasters.
In keeping with the documentary's main theme, there are many snippets of arctic scenes throughout this second section, to help keep things in perspective.
Dogs That Changed the World is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York and Tigress Productions Limited. Part One will be aired in the United States on the PBS signature series Nature, on Sunday, April 22 and Part Two on Sunday, April 29. Be sure to check your local listings for exact times and other possible showings as well.
Everyone will be able to add this very worthy production to their personal collection. The two episodes will be offered as one DVD for $19.99 USD plus shipping. Go on-line to http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/ (click on "Shop Nature") to purchase your copy or write to: WNET Video Distribution, P.O. Box 2284, South Burlington, VT 05407 1-800-336-1917