Dog Time

This morning I slept later than I usually do, and I’m in a little bit of a panic. My alarm clock is gone. I’ve always had a dog to get me up, and I’ve written this column on dog time every Monday. But a little over a week ago Toby’s cancer got the better of him. He was almost 13, and that’s a lot of dog years. Now he’s gone, our house is dogless, and I’m sleeping later.

Losing a dog makes you think a great deal about these remarkable creatures, and as luck would have it, after losing Toby we wandered into watching PBS’s “Dogs and More Dogs” the other night. The program’s been out for several years, but it was the perfect memorial to a remarkable relationship. The only thing missing as we watched was Toby curled at our feet.

“Dogs and More Dogs” explains the latest thinking on how dogs first came to live so intimately with human beings. I’d always heard that humans tamed wolf puppies, but the latest research shows that is not the case. It seems that wolves evolved quickly into this human-friendly species we call dogs through natural selection.

As the story goes, 15,000 years ago wolves were drawn to the garbage dumps of early human settlements. The wolves that were not scared off by our ancestors had the best chance of finding food around the dumps and surviving. The tamer wolves that stayed around when the humans approached and those individuals got the best shot at a quick and easy meal. They bred with other tamer wolves and passed these adaptive genes to their offspring.

According to Raymond Coppinger, the Hampshire College biologist who developed this theory in part by watching modern-day dogs at a Mexico dump, that’s how wolves evolved into the early dogs that traveled the globe with small bands of Stone Age human beings. The rest, as they say, is evolutionary history.

For thousands of years dogs have been a species separate from wolves, and we have taken over their evolution by breeding them to do things for us. We have altered their size and selected for everything from hair type to snout length. We have bred them to do our work, keep us company, herd our sheep, patrol our property, hunt, sniff out bombs or drugs.

In Toby’s case, I used his instincts to get up early to function as my alarm clock for the hard work of writing a column every Monday morning. I knew that he would wake up and I would hear him. It was better than an alarm because it would not disturb my mate Betsy, who did not need him for this particular task.
I’m by no means suggesting that his role as alarm clock was Toby’s finest moment. We always took a walk together after he woke me up. He got me out into the world early to hear the crows, see the deer, and note the level of the creek. He was a dog for all seasons. He was funny, affectionate, and loyal. But he was also a very good alarm clock.

I don’t know if anyone has written about the relationship between dogs and writers, but I know it’s deep and important. There have been dogs sleeping in the studies of writers for thousands of years-at least as long as our species has been writing. These dogs, hard to their tasks, have also helped to get those writers up.

We plan to get another dog, and it will probably be a beagle. They seem to make good alarm clocks. I’ll just have to do my best on my own until then. There’s a gap in my life where a dog used to stand and all the work I do suffers from that absence.

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