“Dogs Decoded”
PBS Nova series year 37 episode 14
produced and directed by Dan Child
premiered November 9, 2010

by Leslie Crane Rugg

Every so often, a television documentary comes along that is ostensibly about a particular species (other than ours) but ends up teaching us just as much if not more about ourselves. “Dogs Decoded,” the most recent episode in the long-running PBS Nova series, is one such example.

If you’re a dog lover, this program will more than satisfy, especially if you yearn to unearth the big bang moment that transformed the wild wolf into the domesticated dog, if you’re looking for greater evidence supporting the interdependence of dogs and people, and if you drool over the findings of research experiments that measure the various threads of the human/canine bond.

Even if you are a cat or horse or snake lover, convinced that these species also provide humans with a unique relationship, you’ll discover something about intelligence, communicative powers, responsiveness, and species adaptability. “Dogs Decoded” is a win/win program – brilliant, comprehensive, and enlightening and suitable for viewers of all ages. Did you miss the first broadcast? Look for a rerun, find it on line, or purchase the DVD (all information available at www.pbs.org).

Through filmed sequences of canine and corresponding human behavior, including the latest interviews and experiments as well as historical footage and documentation, “Dogs Decoded” supports many a dog lover’s long-held beliefs. The program provides evidence of the two species’ mutual social cooperation and compatible intelligent responsiveness. These bonds have always been recognized through archeology but now have undeniable proof through genetics. The elements of the canine/human bond are in our blood, bones, brain, heart and genome.

“Dogs Decoded” presents a sampling of research studies and experiments that investigate just how close our social relationship and genetic makeup are to dogs – and theirs to ours. On the health front, for example, mapping the canine genome has revealed striking similarities with our healthy and defective DNA. What we can learn about disease processes and genetic markers in dogs is having profound application to human health.

While those comparisons are fascinating, the television program really delivers on showing the depth of our intense social and interpersonal relationship with our dogs. “Dogs Decoded” delves into ancient history to note the symbiotic relationship between ancestral wolves and our hunter/gatherer ancestors, since both species were social carnivores who hunted by daylight. The program examines the evolution of human civilization from hunter/gatherer, making the case that our advancement to an agrarian society was due to the roles that dogs played in our lives.

“Dogs Decoded” also illuminates how canine intelligence has adapted forms of human intelligence. On camera experiments compare the ability of dogs with the ability of chimpanzees to maintain focus, accept human cues, and respond correctly in ways astoundingly similar to people. Dogs surpass chimps by leaps and bounds. How is that possible when the DNA separating humans from chimps is only a few percent different?

Dogs have apparently acquired the intelligence to read our faces – watching directionality of our eyes, expressions of our features, even copying the natural direction in which we read from left to right. Even more amazing, dogs only use these skills in their dealings with us, not with their own or any other species. This level of innate cooperative interaction is evident from early puppyhood; in essence, science has proven that dogs are hard-wired to respond to and communicate with us.

“Dogs Decoded” doesn’t just make its case of canine response to humans. Another interesting experiment examines humans decoding dog barks. We expect our dogs to learn our language and obey our commands. But what about the reverse? Six separate situational barks were recorded and played to humans who have dogs (the barks were not made by the subjects’ own pets). The human subjects were both male and female, young and adult. Their notions of what the dogs’ barks meant were generally right on the mark, whether anxious, playful, guarded, etc. We may not identify words from barks, but we surely comprehend meaning!

On a similar note, “Dogs Decoded” showcased an extraordinary Border Collie named Betsy who has learned to distinguish over 300 words. Not only can she retrieve the precise toys whose names she has been taught, but she can also extrapolate those names. If shown a small version of a toy ball or a toy carrot, she will retrieve its larger counterpart. Even more amazing, if shown a picture of the toy, she will retrieve the actual object. Betsy has mastered the intellectual skills necessary for a human child to learn to read!

“Dogs Decoded” doesn’t only portray an assortment of canine skills. The program also explores how these skills seem to be embedded in the very fiber of our dogs while so absent in their wolf forebears. The program suggests that the answer lies with the very nature of dogs and with the choice of traits selected by the earliest dog breeders.

One experiment tests the nature vs nurture proposition, exploring whether we can make wolf cub behavior more dog-like, if we raise them as we do our puppies. For a few weeks, the answer is yes. Cubs are as cuddly and responsive. But by a few months, the answer is an irrefutable no. The differences are clear. Puppies normally display inherent cooperation and interest in human activity; they want to interact with their people. In contrast, the wolf cubs in this experiment do not engage in eye contact. They exhibit independence and a distinct lack of civil behavior. If they see something they want, they go for it regardless of their human caretakers’ attempts to teach or redirect behavior. The wolf cubs simply don’t care to learn how to get along with us. Nurture alone does not turn a wolf into a dog.

How then do genes prevail? The program then looks at a remarkable ongoing genetic study, begun decades ago in Soviet Russia. The famous Belyaev/Siberian fox study is worthy of a program all by itself. For additional information, go to http://www.scribd.com/Trut-Fox-Study/d/249407.

In brief, wild grey foxes were selectively bred for tameness. Foxes who demonstrated minimal fear and aggression toward humans were chosen to breed. Within three generations, these instincts were greatly diminished, and by eight generations, the foxes were effectively tame, displaying behavior remarkably similar to the way dogs respond to humans. In a complementary experiment, the most aggressive foxes were bred over successive generations, producing animals with extreme bite reflexes.

Unexpected developments occurred during the course of this most amazing study: increasing tameness brought about corresponding external changes such as the emergence of  prominent white factoring in coat color and pattern. Tameness also proved to favor juvenile traits: fox tails modified from straight to curly; ears altered in shape and position, moving from upright to floppy; and eye size became larger and more expressive.

All those juvenile traits turn out to be what makes humans respond so strongly to puppies. We humans like babies, and “Dogs Decoded” tells us why. Yet another experiment shows the surging level of oxytocin (a neurotransmitter with hormone-like effects) that dramatically occurs when people look at and touch babies. The same surge takes place when we interact with dogs. 

Evolution, selective breeding, innate and conditioned responses all add up to make our dogs truly our best friends. “Dogs Decoded” concludes that the presence of dogs in our lives may be just what keeps us humans civilized. This program makes the convincing case that the canine/human bond exists for good reason and should never be sundered.