A linguistics scholar looks at how dogs adapted themselves to a man-made ecological niche and how humans benefited from the relationship.
Chaika, a professor emeritus of Linguistics and English at Providence College, uses her scientific background, extensive research and personal experience to examine how humans and dogs learned to communicate with each other. Together, she says, they created pastoralism—a necessary condition for civilization. The domestication of dogs, she writes, isn’t something that humans could have conceived of and accomplished alone, and she intelligently dismantles popularly accepted notions, such as that human women nursed wolf cubs in order to tame them. (Human nipples don’t work that way, she notes, among other objections.) Instead, dogs used their inborn herding, hunting and guarding talents, plus their evolved ability to read our faces and distinguish human words, to woo us into partnerships with them. Essential to this, Chaika writes, is dogs’ natural, genetic love of pleasing humans and doing their jobs well; in fact, she says that today’s pampered, jobless dogs are often frustrated and unhappy. She then looks at the fascinating, important implications: “Private property was an outcome of dogs herding for their chosen masters….Without dogs, we’d all still be hunter-gatherers.” Throughout, Chaika includes affecting, telling reminiscences of dogs she’s known in her own life. Her perspective offers some valuable insights; for example, she says that people take it for granted that dogs can understand some human speech, but “[a]s a linguistic scholar, I know how complex such an apparently simple task actually is.” In giving proper credit to canines, however, she sometimes overreaches: “Would people ever have learned to build fences without dogs?” Surely, a thorn-bush enclosure for a stray lamb wasn’t beyond human ingenuity. The book’s main flaw, however, is its repetition, as the author makes many of the same points several times over, but she does make them well. She also includes a useful list of referenced works.
Often persuasive and engaging and a must-read for anyone interested in the long partnership between dogs and people.