Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Au Pair, or Else
by Lee Budar-Danoff

Frail World
by R.A. Conine

Electra Had a Daughter
by Juliana Rew

This Long Vigil
by Rhett C. Bruno

Old Clothes
by Eric Del Carlo

Good Behavior
by Genevieve Williams

Saving Time
by John Hegenberger

World Away
by Alan Garth

Shorter Stories

Dreams to Dust
by Jamie Lackey

Virtual Ghosts
by Adam Gaylord

Olympus Mons
by James E. Guin


Science of Dogs
by John McCormick

Lost in Space
by Eric M. Jones




Comic Strips



Science of Dogs

By John McCormick

CANIS LUPUS FAMILIARIS, the Key to Civilization.

That claim may seem a bit extreme, but the common dog has done many things for human tribes right from the beginning of real civilization; and I would argue that without the dog we might never have become civilized as a species or at least it would have taken much longer.

The ancient Egyptians worshiped cats, but did they choose the wrong animal to credit with human and even god-like characteristics?

For example, it is difficult to imagine how a Stone Age human (no barbed wire, remember, nor fences—nor tools) could possibly handle a herd of animals on foot. Hunting, yes—even single humans can hunt—but that’s a very different task from maintaining control over a herd or flock; so hunter gatherers didn’t need dogs.

But, without the help of a dog and without herds of tame milk and meat animals, man (and woman) could never have quit the nomadic life long enough to plant and wait in one place to harvest grains. Nor would they need to count heads of cattle or record who owns a field of wheat. And, would they have developed writing without the need to track debts and ownership when there was nothing to buy, and you might never never see a nomadic stranger again?

Dogs also permitted a small village of relatively defenseless humans to sleep soundly at night by giving both warning to the residents and instilling caution in any intruder. An elder could be assigned to keep watch at night but his or her hearing and smell would be a thousand times less sensitive than that of any mutt.

When some wolves discovered they were less fearful of humans than of hunger and began hanging around villages to live off the scraps, canines began to see man as potentially their best friend and took their first step toward, in turn, becoming man’s best friend.

Apparently, this giant step took only a few generations, possibly less than one human lifetime for those favored animals to breed often and, because of the abundant food supply, many pups survived, likely producing a “tame” wolf in a remarkably brief period.

Genetic mutations help account for this, but probably not as much as a canine’s remarkable intelligence. Recent experiments have shown that dogs are far, far more intelligent than people believed.

Controlled breeding has the ability to quickly change a species. In a primitive village, which is more likely to be playing with the kids and given extra food—the dog-like wolf, or the snarling animal that snaps at the hand which tries to feed it?

A Russian scientist, given the goal of producing less vicious silver foxes for domestication, was able to produce relatively tame animals in just a few generations.

Along with vast changes in temperament—from vicious aggression to whining, tail wagging, and licking in just a few generations—the domesticated fox developed a different coloring, head shape, and even went into heat twice a year like dogs, rather than once a year.

Horses also contributed a lot to our civilization. However, a village could do without a horse because there was no real place to go where anything was different. Horses were important to nomadic populations that had to move with changing seasons and food sources. Horses can’t herd animals, (people on horses do) but dogs do herd animals. Horses also don’t generally fight to protect their master, and they also consume vast amounts of resources compared to even a small pack of herding dogs.

Today, dogs continue to herd animals. (I once had a sheep ranch with Bouvier des Flandres herding dogs as described in my Kindle book, “Sheep in the Rafters.”) Dogs can also detect cancer and bombs by smell, calm PTSD sufferers, and much more that is beneficial to humans.

Dogs are such a presence in the lives of many households that there are actually more dogs than children in the U.S. People tend to anthropomorphize them beyond all reason, turning them into surrogate babies, full members of the family, and spend tens of thousands of dollars on their feeding and health over a brief decade-long lifespan.

Obviously, dogs fill a vast need in most humans who live beyond the starvation level.

But exactly how smart are dogs? Is it really an exaggeration to feel they seem to understand our every word or emotion?

Surprisingly enough, despite Ivan Pavlov’s early groundbreaking experiments, science has paid little attention to the social and intellectual aspects of canines.

But a recent experiment by a retired psychologist professor, John Pilley, and his Border Collie, Chaser, has resulted in a dog that understands more than one thousand different nouns, in addition to various commands. A two-year-old human has a vocabulary one-half that size, and an estimated twenty percent of Americans are only marginally literate.

How do we know about Dr. Pilley’s dog and how intelligent he is?

Chaser has 800 cloth animals, 116 different balls, and more than a hundred plastic toys, each of which he can pick up based on a different namdiversitye and do so correctly about ninety-five percent of the time on the first try. I’m a physicist, have written a number of books, and have published about 20 million words but I seriously doubt I could remember individual names for even half that many similar objects.

One thousand words is enough to get along in many cultures and would be considered literate in some languages. (Except French, of course.)

[Black Labrador pup with older Basset Hound, right, may look completely different, but they share the same genetic makeup.]

My own service dogs have learned as many as thirty commands with very little effort. Abby, a Great Dane who was trained to help me walk, when wearing a harness and when given a command spontaneously learned to come and stand beside me whenever she saw me trying to stand up.

Don’t be upset if your dog doesn’t seem to learn words as well as Chaser. Other scientists have shown that, just like people, dogs are different; while some excel at language, others are good at math.

Other dogs simply don’t do well in training. A dog that easily learns “sit” and “stay” but then wanders off after a minute or so doesn’t do it because he is disobedient; he may just have a very poor short-term memory.

The most amazing discovery was that not only could Chaser understand the difference between a noun and a verb, he could actually make inferences, a kind of reasoning also formerly believed to be limited to humans. Doing so clearly demonstrates that he isn’t only trained to associate an object with its name, as remarkable as that may be.

Dogs go with people, having been bred to be our companions and helpers for upwards of 15,000 years.

This close human-dog bond is even recognized by the government—only dogs are recognized as service animals under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Initially this was left open, but people were claiming that any animal from a cat to an iguana was a service animal, so the Justice Department had to alter the rule to limit this highly privileged group to dogs.

A Critical Point

The domestic canine is also the only animal other than humans that has been shown to respond to pointing. Many dogs will go where their master or mistress points, look at the floor where they dropped some food, go to the corner where a toy was tossed, or they will at least look in that direction rather than at your moving arm. That is very common and happens without any particular training.

But simple as understanding the pointing gesture seems, the great apes, our closest genetic relatives, don’t do it. They don’t understand we are telling them to look elsewhere or indicating to them where something they want is located. Cats don’t, but that’s hardly surprising; cats are very different kinds of animals. However, it isn’t just cats or gerbils or horses that don’t respond; no other animal seems to respond to human gestures.

A Size for All Reasons

Dogs are the creation of people and exhibit the widest difference of any species from Paris Hilton’s late Chihuahua purse puppy, Tinkerbell, to Hannah, my companion at Harvard and on my boat, a 220-pound Newfoundland bitch; if placed side by side they hardly seem like they could be from the same class (or even phylum, let alone genetically compatible for breeding)—although phylum is a bit of an exaggeration because that includes all animals with a spinal cord.

A Pekingese and a Great Dane should obviously never mate, but genetically they are cross-fertile as they are the same kind of animal.

Few of us use dogs to herd animals or even for protection, although having a dog is a powerful deterrent against burglars, so how do you account for the large number of city dwellers who own dogs and the fact that many more probably would if given the opportunity?

Puppy Love

Science has recently learned exactly how puppies bond with humans.

It turns out the way some people have insisted their dogs are like their children and really love them that way is absolutely true. They feel real love for their dogs, and vice versa.

The loving look a puppy gives you is actually true love in the very human sense that it releases oxytocin in the human—the same chemical that a mother feels coursing through her, causing her to bond to a newborn.

Interestingly enough, researchers who took blood samples from both humans and puppies found that the same hormone is released in the puppy as in the human, triggering the formation of a two-way bond very much like that between humans and their children.

This discovery is contrary to the silly notion you read on some web sites that you should never stare at a puppy because he will see it as a sign of aggression—now scientifically proven nonsense.

Born to be Wildly Diverse

And while science looks at dogs, dogs also have much to tell us about science, some of which should be obvious to the most obtuse observer.

Take evolution, for example. Anyone doubting Mother Nature’s capacity to evolve need only consider the extreme variation seen in various dog breeds from heavily coated, even double-coated, or in the most extreme case, the Komondor or the smaller Puli with their corded dreadlocks, to the hairless Chinese Crested, Peruvian Hairless Dog, and Mexican Hairless.

They range from purse-size one-pounders to the world’s largest dog, George, a recently deceased Great Dane that measured 43-inches tall on all fours (at the withers, as we dog people say) and more than seven feet when standing on his hind legs. His record should soon be exceeded by yet another Great Dane that is only 42-inches tall but is also still a growing puppy.

Canine personalities range from the herding instincts of Border Collies and gentle child protectors, such as Newfoundlands, to stag-hunting coursing hounds and the African Rhodesian Ridgebacks that are used to hunt lions and keep them at bay until a hunter can get there.

Dogs have more physical and behavioral variations that any other mammal on this planet. This is because their DNA is special, even exceptional. There is only a 0.2 percent difference in the genome responsible for all the variation in size, shape and personalities among all dog breeds. For example, a small variation in the IGF-1 gene determines a dog’s size—determining if it will be a 10-inch tall Chihuahua or a 43-inch tall Great Dane.

Recent genetic work has shown that canine DNA has long strings of repeating code, such as ACACACACAC, which are prone to mutation perhaps as much as 100,000 times greater than other portions of DNA chains.

These “tandem” repeats are found in every species’ genetic code but are far more prevalent in dogs than, say, wolves or coyotes. Although they are present in those animals as well as some species of foxes, the repeated sequences are rare and disappear completely when you look at other mammals, such as bears.

The 200-year-long eugenics program we call dog breeding has caused millions of people to breed hundreds of millions of dogs to certain “standards” of beauty or other characteristics. Because the breeding focused only on a few traits, such as the shape of the head, size, and coat color, many of the massively inbred dogs today have severe genetic problems due to this breeding of like-to-like.

And we’re developing new breeds all the time. In 1974, Tina M. Barber of New York began developing a new line of German Shepherd dog, the Shiloh Shepherd. This breed was created to address some of the skeletal and temperament shilohproblems found in so many of the “standard” breed German Shepherds. This new breed is growing in popularity. Some day we may see it added to the long, long list of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club as a purebred dog.

[This Shiloh Shepherd, left, is the sire of actor Ben Affleck’s dog.]

Selective breeding is one way to correct genetic problems; another is to have top breeding dogs genetically tested, although that is unlikely to have much impact with all the hobby breeders flooding the market with new puppies.

Dog lovers often get carried away by any media event, such as a hit movie, causing one breed or another to achieve meteoric popularity for a short period. Most recently this was seen in Asia, as the sale of a single one-year-old male Tibetan Mastiff puppy for two million dollars at a dog show last year in China demonstrates. That was in 2014; today pet lovers are fighting to save the breed. According to a recent “New York Times” article: Twenty unlucky mastiffs found themselves stuffed into chicken crates and packed onto a truck to be sold, at roughly five dollars a head, to a slaughterhouse in northeast China. Fortunately, they were rescued by a band of Beijing animal rights activists.

Dogs are a prolific species. Once a rare breed becomes popular, the market can be flooded in just a few years with tens of thousands dogs. Some bitches can have ten puppies at a time, twice a year in puppy mills, and those puppies will themselves be ready to breed when a year old.

Another way to address the special problems of some species (large-headed dogs, for example, can’t give birth naturally and routinely require surgery to whelp) is the creation of a “designer dog” such as the Saint Weiler, a cross-breed of Saint Bernard and Rottweiler, growing in popularity.

Unlike the often lovable and wonderful mutt or “Heinz 57” dogs that are a mix of many breeds, designer dogs are the offspring of two purebred dogs so the resulting size, shape, and even temperament is fairly predictable.

Saint Weilers will grow up to weigh about 120 to 130 pounds, be mature at about 29 months, will be protective but not aggressive, and usually get along with other animals, including cats. Unlike the saintweiler Saint Bernard, they will not be jowly or slobber, which can be a real annoyance with many mastiff-type dogs. Because the Rottweiler is a lot less aggressive than his dominating appearance suggests, this designer breed will not be dangerous if given reasonable socialization, and they should avoid some of the genetic problems of both standard breeds.

[At five months, this Saint Weiler pup, right, loves the barn cat and her kittens, is mildly suspicious of delivery men but not aggressively so, and weighs nearly sixty pounds—she will continue to grow for about another year.]

Cross-breeds are likely to be more healthy and live longer than either of their ancestor breeds—this is known as hybrid vigor. Mutts also show this and are often a great choice for a family, although most of the dogs in shelters these days seem to be closely related to pit bulls.

But popular breeds come and go, often to the detriment of the dogs bought by families who expect the lovable Marmaduke and instead get a dog that doesn’t like children because it wasn’t socialized and growls when you try to get it off your bed at night.

Border Collies are a prime example of a breed which, although healthy genetically, is far too popular with people who don’t own sheep and who can’t understand why their dog is hyper in a small apartment and tries to get the kids all in one place.

Science has proven that anyone can literally fall in love with a dog at first sight. However, I strongly caution anyone looking for a puppy to first determine what breed is most compatible with their life situation. Do not surf pet stores. Pet stores are the worst places to buy a dog. By definition, pet stores do not carry dogs from reputable breeders. Part of the standard for a reputable breeder is that he or she needs to know something about the home to which their puppy will go. If you can’t, or don’t want to seek out a reputable breeder, visit the local animal shelter, and give an unwanted dog a good home. END

John McCormick is a physicist, science/technology journalist, and author with more than 17,000 bylines to his credit. He is a member of The National Press Club and the AAAS. He recently launched the canine celebrating website, A to Z Dogs.