How The Hen House Turns—Remembering Susie

How the Hen House Turns:
Remembering Susie
By Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

Two thousand years ago, a lady of the Chinese Imperial family designed a dog to look like a lion, as requested by Buddhist monks.

Breeding, she decided, should continue to select for small hairy dogs with black faces and low foreheads, large eyes and bent forelegs. When such a dog was presented to England’s Queen Victoria as a present, it became valued as a high class lap dog. Thereafter, the breed was called Pekinese.

My grandmother Ethel Almond Snyder had a Pekinese named Susie. She was a friendly middle-aged dog when I knew her, but a little high-strung. On occasion, in her dotage, when uncontrolled body noises escaped from her, she would whirl around, frightened, looking for what enemy was attacking from behind her. We thought it was hilarious.

Though probably a thoroughbred, Susie never went to dog shows, where such canines were judged by certain definitions of their body size, characteristics and color. Now there are about 400 breeds of dogs are “recognized,” and dogs have become the “most varied mammal in the world.”

Dogs’ flexible genes are capable of changing their bodily features to great extremes by selective breeding. Dogs now range from two to 170 pounds with face, skull shape, coloring, lengths of leg and tail, and varieties of fur extremely varied.

Some of these changes, such as the narrow hips of bulldogs, have made them less healthy; they require Caesarean sections to deliver pups. Certain breeds are known to have characteristic diseases. Hybrid vigor is forgotten as breeding selects for artificially prescribed standards and decorative traits.

Though dogs have been domesticated for at least 15,000 years, their genes are nearly identical to wolves. However their behavior is very different than wolves not selected for tameness—the ability to read and respond to human demands, happily. As a result, dog-wolf half-breeds are unreliable in their tameness and can be dangerously independent when commanded to do something not to their liking.

Dog-wolf hybrids may not inherit the tameness factor in that gene package. I saw one snap at a child while she was trying to take away a paper cupcake wrap the dog-wolf was devouring. Wolves don’t pass the simple pointing test that only dogs pass. Not even intelligent primates get it, when a human points to the one cup among several that hides a treat.

The historical selection of wolves that related to early humans and were therefore selected for breeding was duplicated in a 40-year Russian experiment in which foxes were selected for tameness before being bred. As a result, their fur color changed and their face shape changed, probably the same way dogs changed. It’s a fascinating sample of genetic action in a package, and researchers are busy trying to untangle the ongoing messages.