The programme showed various professors from different institutions across the globe testing Fido's various abilities and comparing them with other animals, and it would appear that 'your friends are the family you choose' is true even in our choice of animal companion. Apparently, Rex is actually more intelligent than man's closest relative, the chimpanzee. Dr Juliana Kaminski of America's Max Planck Institute found that chimps at Leipzig zoo did not pick up on commands and subtle communication techniques that dogs responded to immediately.
Dr Adam Miklosi of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary, found that dog-owners could correctly identify the situation a dog had been in just by a recording of its bark. This led him to believe that, as wolves don't bark, dogs have developed more complex barking in order to communicate effectively with us.
Dr Kubinyi Eniko found that raising 5-day-old wolf cubs as domestic puppies had no impact on their behaviour as adults; they were still 'wolf-like'; leading her to believe that the "Dog is not a socialised wolf at all."
However, according to Dr Greger Larson of Durham University, comparisons of the DNA of wild and domestic dogs proved that genetically at least, dogs ARE just socialised wolves. Mitrochondrial DNA changes little over time and modern domestic dogs all have the same ancestral marker as the grey wolf.
An experiment with silver foxes in Siberia that began in 1959 seems to have the answer, though. Dr Lyudmila Trut and colleagues from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics found that 1% foxes they kept showed no fear or aggression. These 1% were selected to breed and the same method was used over the next three generations. Eventually all cubs were born as docile as a labrador puppy.
A parallel group was bred to retain aggressiveness. Aggressive cubs were then given to tame mothers and vice versa yet the mothers did not influence their adoptive cubs' behaviour. Next Dr Trut's team transplanted 'aggressive' embryos into docile mothers, and vice versa, again with no change in the offsprings' eventual behaviour to copy the 'mother.'
Also, the domesticated foxes, over just a couple of generations, began to vary greatly in the pattern and colour of their fur while the aggressive foxes retained the traditional silver coat. Some domestic foxes developed curlier tails and other 'appealing' or 'cute' attributes, exactly like domestic dogs seem to have done.Prof. Brian Hare of Duke University has reached the conclusion, therefore, that selecting for tameness means changes in appearance happen. Dogs are perpetually juvenile wolves. Selective breeding for domestication over thousands of years has infantilised a once wild creature. Just as the wolf cubs in Dr Eniko's experiment were cute and playful for the first few weeks of their domestic rearing, so are adult domestic dogs (in most cases), but for all of their lives.
The experts point out that this has made the dog a successful animal. Dogs are varied in appearance and ability, and have spread all over the world because on the whole, their 'childlike' appearance is appealing to humans. On the other hand, the adult/ wild wolves are endangered.
The programme was a real eye-opener. There has been a lot of talk recently about the implications of intense breeding for the health of pedigree dogs. One often-cited example is the English bulldog, which as a breed, has difficulty breathing because of a 'squashed-in' face the breed did not have just a couple of hundred years ago as a working dog, if paintings of the animal at work are accurate.
While allowing us an entry point into the mystery of where our relationship with dogs came from, the research this programme highlighted also reminded the viewer of such current concerns for our pets' welfare. Apparently the susceptibility of certain breeds towards particular ailments and diseases is soon to help scientists combat those same diseases in humans as, despite their wide-ranging physicalities, the canine gene pool is much narrower in variety than ours. While this can only be good news for many humans suffering with long-term conditions, one does worry that the Kennel Club's call for mongrels to become more acceptable pets to illiminate breed-specific health issues may well be completely ignored for the sake of our health.