Unnatural selection hurts oldest friends

THROUGH the course of my adult life, some of my best friends have been dogs.I have known years when my best company, my best support, came from dogs.

Aidan Semmens

THROUGH the course of my adult life, some of my best friends have been dogs.

I have known years when my best company, my best support, came from dogs.

One of the saddest moments of my life was when the staffie who'd been my best mate for a decade died in my arms.

As I sit at my desk now I have the comforting presence of a dog by my feet - the fifth I have been guardian to. He knows that once I've finished writing he and I will go for a nice walk by the river.

I wasn't brought up to this. My parents were never “doggy people”.

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But the comfort with which I took to canine company suggests what I think many people with dogs know in their bones.

That it's not only dogs whose breeding has been affected by centuries of living with people. It's ours too. We have literally evolved together.

The history of our two species, human and dog, has been so intertwined for so many generations that it is a genuine symbiosis. We need each other.

We surely started out, several millennia ago, hunting together to our mutual advantage. Then came mutual warmth, mutual protection. Our two species long ago became literal best friends.

Of course, we like the cats we brought in to keep down the rats and mice. And they like the reliable sources of food and warmth we provide.

But the relationship is much shallower, probably much more recent, than is the case with dogs. Cats are our temporary guests, dogs our partner species.

Some people no doubt sentimentalise and exaggerate the extent of understanding and emotional involvement between people and dogs. But people who live without dogs generally under-estimate these things too.

Anyone who says - as some serious people do - that we are the only species capable of empathy has surely never lived with a dog.

As for those scientific researchers who recently announced their “discovery” that dogs experience emotions such as jealousy… For them I have just three words. The first is “no” and the third is “Sherlock”.

So yes, I love my dog. That's “my” dog as in “my” friend, “my” family. I'm claiming a relationship of care, not of ownership.

You might have noticed I described myself as my dogs' “guardian”, not their “owner”.

It may be a subtle difference, but it's a nice distinction of attitude - one I've picked up from Peta.

I don't subscribe to all the views or campaigns promoted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

For example, I'm not a vegetarian (not any more) and I don't (totally) abhor zoos.

I think it's better to accept the vital aspects of keeping animals for food or other purposes and concentrate on doing it ethically. Which means caring for the well-being of all animals, including us.

But I share much of Peta's basic outlook. And I'm with them much of the way in their condemnation of the Kennel Club and its flagship show, Crufts.

I've been to the odd dog show, and enjoyed them - as I did TV coverage of Crufts before the BBC rightly pulled out of it.

But the deformities and indignities inflicted on some dogs by wilful breeding have always appalled me.

Bulldogs that can't give birth naturally. Pugs that can neither eat nor breathe easily. Prize-winning german shepherds whose sloping backs and weak legs would rule them out of police work. Spaniels with skulls too small for their brains. Other dogs with skins too big, ears too long, legs too short, a Pandora's box of congenital diseases.

I wouldn't want to accuse all dog-breeders of being uncaring - far from it. And of course breed characteristics, including to some extent aesthetic ones, come into consideration whenever anyone chooses a dog.

But humanity isn't always a very good guardian to its best friend. The co-evolution of our species is horribly imbalanced.

Dog-breeding provides a textbook illustration of how evolution works. Trouble is, it has long since ceased to revolve around “natural” selection.

And since we started selecting for looks, rather than suitability for work, our selections have had dire effects on some dogs' fitness for life.

TERRORISM has become one of the defining characteristics of our age. Wherever you lay the blame, that fact in itself is a sign of terrorists' success.

Their ultimate goals are various, often hard to determine, and probably often pretty vague. But one aim all terrorists have is to create public shock and fear out of all proportion to the actual threat they pose.

Their tools may include all sorts of weapons, but the most powerful, the one essential to their purpose, is publicity. The media. Press and TV.

Hundreds of people die every day in Lahore without us hearing anything about it. But an attack on an international cricket team, with a handful of deaths, is world news.

That simple fact makes Tuesday's outrage a result for the perpetrators.

Does it make those of us who report or comment on such things in some way accessories? I have an uncomfortable, queasy feeling that it does.

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