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13May

Wonderdog by Jules Howard review – are we taming dogs, or are they taming us?

The zoolologist, presenter and author surveys centuries of human-canine relations

While you doubtless don’t need to be reminded of the aeons we’ve known dogs and loved them, zoology has had a tendency to neglect them. “For decades in the 20th century,” Howard writes, “dogs were considered unworthy of rigorous study,” since focusing on them for insights into the animal kingdom was “like trying to understand the adaptations of a chicken’s egg by studying the crumbs of a wet cake”. Dogs were somehow rendered inauthentic, almost processed, by their emotional and physical proximity to us.

In fact, counters the author, not only do dogs warrant close study – “nothing else on Earth has such a wide range of variations within the same species category” – but every time we’ve done so, we’ve unearthed incomparable wisdom about ourselves. Except when we’ve been wrong: Rudolph Schenkel’s 1947 paper on wolves, hypothesising alpha behaviour and its attendant hierarchies, was applied for years in the fields of both dog and human behaviour, to produce everything from training doctrines (never let your dog enter a house ahead of you) to political theory (what happens when a Donald Trump meets a Kim Jong-un?). But the original study used the wrong kind of wolves (those in captivity behave differently, unsurprisingly), and besides, dogs and wolves are nothing like as similar as they’d have to be to make those kind of extrapolations.

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