What a fascinating show this was, and it proved – for me at least – that what I’ve known about dogs all my life is in fact true; they know what we’re feeling and/or thinking and communicate with us in their own way. And it’s a way that becomes a shorthand between pet and owner as familiarity grows into a long term friendship and mutual understanding.
Until the last two years, I’ve always had at least one dog around. It’s been so since infancy when my family and I lived in the back of beyond and everyone’s dogs and kids roamed free in a pack that formed a strong unit. All my friends had dogs too and they would accompany us on long summer days while we swam in the brook or had picnics in fields or just hung around our village’s telephone box – the good old big red ones that had a phonebook in them – trying to look cool…
And as was demonstrated last night, my friends and I always knew what our dogs’ barks meant, and every dog I’ve owned since has been the same. There’s a bark for “I need to pee”, a bark for “I’m bored” and a sigh and a sad look for, “I know you’re fed up but I’m here.”
And the purpose of this remarkable film was to show all of the above in scientific terms, and some amazing pooches were rolled out to prove the point. One, Betsy, has a ‘vocabulary’ of over 300 words. Her owner can show her a picture of an object, and Betsy will go and find it. And it wasn’t made easy for her either; the objects she was asked to locate and bring back were often very well hidden.
She was something of a genius in the doggy world without doubt, but whether dogs are the dumbest mutts in the world or prodigies like Betsy, all share a bond with humans that is in most ways, exclusive to them.
They understand the concept of pointing for instance and can “read” their owners facial expressions – as well as “follow” the direction of their eyes – and interpret these things accordingly in their subsequent behaviour.
But it wasn’t all cute tricks and clever doggies; there was serious scientific investigation into eugenics too. In Russia, we saw how scientists have been experimenting with domesticating silver foxes, and some fifty generations of foxes later, they’re now, remarkably, even resembling domestic dogs.
There was a study of wolves too and how their magnificent species has persistently resisted domestication, and good for them I say.
So if you love dogs – and not in any illegal way – you’d be well advised to watch this show if you missed it last night, and you can do so here, at BBC’s iPlayer.