Man’s best friend stars in anniversary Crufts

Paw show? Professor Gregory Berns says ‘we must reconsider’ treating dogs ‘as property’. © PA

The world’s biggest dog show has begun in Birmingham. Its contestants’ bonds with their owners draw on millennia of evolution. But is it healthy for humans to own such an obedient animal?

Almost 22,000 tails are wagging at Birmingham’s NEC Arena this weekend. Dogs from 47 countries, belonging to over 200 breeds, are dashing through tunnels, dancing to music and being paraded to cheers.

Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, started at the venue yesterday. The event is often controversial; as it began, an animal rights group held a protest outside the arena.

But as it celebrates its 125th anniversary, millions are watching competitions known as ‘friends for life’, ‘obedience’ and ‘flyball’. The contestants, who respond to instructions with impressive discipline, are from a species which has a unique bond with the human race.

Many humans treat dogs as companions. British people kept an estimated nine million dogs as pets in 2014. One study suggests 40% of dog owners see their pets as family members. And, since the research of Boris Levinson in the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists have recommended dogs as a means of therapy for troubled children.

Most dog breeds formed relationships with some of the earliest homo sapiens as they separated from wolves genetically, around 100,000 years ago. These were mutually beneficial: humans were better thinkers, but dogs had superior senses of smell and hearing. A strong alliance was created, and research suggests it has even changed the structure of our brains.

Dogs are now thought to see the human family as their ancestors saw the wolf packs which nurtured them. One expert says his experiments have shown a ‘striking similarity’ between dogs and humans in a brain region associated with positive emotions. He says this could mean ‘dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child’.

The human-canine partnership has been central to some of history’s most enduring stories. According to mythology, Romulus and Remus — who founded Rome — were raised by wolves after being abandoned. In Homer’s Odyssey, the dog Argos waited faithfully for his master, Odysseus, for 20 years, and was the only creature able to recognise him on his return.

Barking?

The relationship remains beneficial for both sides, say some. Humans give their dogs the food, shelter and love they need. In return, the pets show them unfailing loyalty. Dogs teach humans — particularly children — how to take care of something and develop a sense of empathy. This makes us better prepared to interact with others.

People exploit dogs, respond others. Dogs now largely exist to give us something: at Crufts, it is entertainment. And their obedience allows us to order them around. This is linked to an unhealthy view of human relationships; our ownership of dogs is a means of allaying our selfish frustration that we do not own other people.

You Decide

  1. Would having a pet dog make you a better person?
  2. Do humans have healthy relationships with dogs?

Activities

  1. Write a short story which starts with a dog becoming separated from its owner.
  2. Create an advert for a dog show of your own. How would you want viewers to see the relationship between humans and dogs?

Some People Say...

“Humans are the worst thing to happen to other animals.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this matter if I don’t own a dog?
Our bond with dogs has changed the structure of our brains, so even if you have never owned a dog, dogs have changed who you are. The way we interact with dogs also arguably reflects, and informs, the way we treat other living creatures — including other humans.
What can a dog do for me?
There is evidence that dogs can encourage us to live healthier lives — particularly because they need exercise — as well as provide companionship and make us happier. Psychologists cite three reasons why we have grown so close to dogs — because they have helped us to survive, because they have been a source of social support and because they make us feel stronger and better protected.
How can I watch Crufts?
It is being shown on Channel 4 and More 4 this weekend.

Word Watch

Protest
Animal rights groups claim Crufts promotes inbreeding — which can cause hereditary and congenital conditions — by using pure-bred dogs. The Kennel Club, which runs Crufts, says it supports dogs’ wellbeing.
125th
Crufts was founded in 1891 by British showman Charles Cruft.
Millions
In 2014, nearly 160,000 people attended Crufts; in the UK, 4.6 million watched it on TV.
Friends for life
This celebrates heroic dogs. Crufts also honours working dogs (such as police dogs) and rescue dogs.
Flyball
Like a relay race, with a ball.
Study
Conducted by John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire.
Levinson
Withdrawn, uncommunicative children responded positively to Levinson’s dog, Jingles. His discovery was largely accidental.
Homo sapiens
Our first ancestors to look roughly like us.
Smell and hearing
This allowed dogs to detect danger and prey.
Brains
Thanks to dogs, humans had less need for the parts of their brains associated with smell and hearing (the olfactory bulb and lateral geniculate body). These parts of the brain shrank.
Brain region
Called the caudate nucleus.

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