The Fascinating Design of Dogs

Growing up, we always had dogs for pets.

My dad’s last dog, Prince

My dad’s last dog, Prince

My dad’s first dog was a mongrel called Brownie. He died before I was born, but from the stories we were told, he was a smart dog and much-loved.

The first dogs I remember, who’d been with the family before I was born, were a German Shepherd (my dad’s favourite breed) called Prince, and a little Pomeranian, Fluffy. Years later, we also had a Dachshund; he’d been a gift for my dad, and we called him Rex.

After the original Prince, we had two more German Shepherds – King and another Prince.

That second Prince, my dad’s last dog, was the only one who had formal training. There were times he was a bit like a mischievous toddler at school, but, for the most part, he took to the training really well. My dad was the only one who took him through his paces and the only one Prince really paid attention to, the only one he obeyed without hesitation. Mind you, my dad not only had a commanding presence, he had a ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ voice to go with it.

My dad and Prince

My dad and Prince

I’ve always been interested in learning about animals, but never pursued it formally because I didn’t have good enough grades. Recently, I’ve come across more and more articles delving deeper into the canine physical structure.

The articles I’ve linked to are by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. A professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, he co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Dame Jane Goodall.

Professor Bekoff has written articles, published in Psychology Today, covering the dog’s 5 senses, starting with the sense of smell.

In ‘Dogs Should be “Unleashed” to Sniff to Their Noses’ Content’, he quotes Norwegian dog nose expert, Dr Frank Rosell:
With 300 million receptors to our mere 5 million, a dog’s nose is estimated to be between 100,000 and 100 million times more sensitive than a human’s.” (‘Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose’)

Not only is a dog’s sense of smell superior to ours, “the section of a dog’s brain related to processing smells is almost seven times larger than ours”!

The part where Professor Bekoff explains their amazing sense of smell – dogs don’t exhale when sniffing a faint scent! – makes for riveting reading.

In fact, reading about the dog’s sense of taste, touch, sight and hearing is so interesting. They are remarkably well-designed creatures.

To finish, here’s another eye-opening article, this time Professor Bekoff’s interview with Dr Gregory Berns who, in his book, ‘What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience’, shows the striking similarities in the way animals’ brains function, and that includes humans.

The Sunday Section: Africa's Small Cats - The Caracal

We all know Africa’s big cats – lions, cheetahs and leopards.  But Africa also has small cats, and the caracal is the largest of these.  

The name comes from the Turkish word, ‘karakulak’, which means ‘black ear’.  And that is the caracal’s most distinctive feature – the long black tufts on the back of the ears, similar to that found on the lynx.  Although the caracal is sometimes called the desert lynx, the African lynx, or Persian lynx, it is not a member of the Lynx genus.

There is evidence that the caracal was religiously significant to the Ancient Egyptians as they have been found in wall paintings, and as sculptures guarding tombs.  Some caracal bodies have also been found embalmed. 

Nowadays, the caracal can be found in Africa – most commonly in South Africa and Namibia – in the Middle East, Pakistan and India.  It inhabits woodlands, savannah, semi-deserts, and scrub forests, favouring arid habitats with lower rainfall.  It prefers open country with sufficient cover from which to ambush prey.

The caracal’s build is slender yet muscular, with long legs and a short tail.  Its hind legs are noticeably longer than its front.  The jaw is short but powerful.  Both sexes look the same, but, as with all animals, the males are heavier; an adult male can weigh between 29 to 40lb, while the female weighs about 24lb.  Its fur varies from tawny-brown to brick red, with white fur on the abdomen, chin and throat.  Young caracals have reddish spots on the underside, but once they reach adulthood, the only markings they sport are black spots above the eyes, and small white patches around the eyes and nose.  A narrow black line runs from the corner of the eye to the nose.  Unlike the pupils of other small cats that shrink to form slits, the pupils of a caracal’s eyes contract into circles.

Caracals produce the usual cat sounds, including purring, hissing, growling, snarling and calling.  Interestingly, they also make a barking sound, possibly as a warning.

Dwelling alone or, less commonly, in pairs, caracals are fiercely territorial.  The home range of the female is smaller, depending on the availability of prey, and she will actively defend it against other females.  Males, on the other hand, roam over larger areas with considerable overlap.  In keeping with cat behaviour, caracals scent mark their territory.

Caracals reach sexual maturity between 12 and 16 months, and breed throughout the year.  The gestation period is about 2½ months, and the females normally have one litter per year, with each litter producing between 1 to 4 kittens, 2 being the average.  The kittens are weaned at about 10 weeks, and remain with the mother for up to a year.

In the wild, the caracal’s life expectancy is 12 years, which lengthens in captivity to 17 years.  Remarkably, the caracal can survive long periods without drinking, its water demand being satisfied with the body fluids of its prey.

Like cheetahs, captive caracals were used as hunting tools, trained to hunt small game and birds for Indian royalty.  Primarily nocturnal, the speed and agility of these cats make them exceptional hunters.  They hunt by stalking their prey, approaching within about 16ft before breaking into a sprint and leaping.  Their powerful hind legs allow them to leap almost 10ft into the air, and they are believed to be able to knock down up to 12 birds at one time.  Their ears are controlled by about 20 muscles, which move the ears independently, helping them better determine their prey’s position.  By comparison, human ears have 6 muscles.  If there is no cover for it to conceal itself, the caracal may choose to flatten itself against the ground and remain motionless, the colour of its coat serving as excellent camouflage.

Although the caracal’s diet mainly consists of birds and small mammals, including rodents, hares and hyraxes, it is not averse to preying on the young of larger mammals, such as impala and antelope.  Given the opportunity, this small cat will not hesitate to take down larger prey, like adult springbok or juvenile kudu.  Smaller prey are dispatched with a bite to the nape of the neck, while larger animals are killed by a suffocating throat bite, and being raked by the caracal’s claws.  If the caracal does not consume the entire carcass of a larger prey in a single meal, it will conceal it and return to it later.

Sometimes, it will eat lizards, snakes and insects, and has been known to scavenge.  The caracal also attacks livestock, which has earned it the reputation of a problem animal.  Being abundant in number in Namibia and South Africa, caracals are killed without restriction by local landowners who are permitted to do so.  Although their primary threat is humans, they are also killed by leopards.  In conservation terms, the caracal seems to be doing well even where hunting it is permitted.

This clip from the Smithsonian Channel proves that a caracal on the hunt is poetry in motion:

Favourites on Friday - Human Behaviour: Disgrace and Salvation

This may seem a weird choice for something headed ‘Favourites…’ – I guess it’s not so much ‘happy-favourite’ but more of a ‘there’s hope-favourite’.

When I see or read what human beings are sometimes capable of inflicting, not just on each other, but on animals, it breaks my heart and makes me ashamed of the human race.  I have never been a supporter of animal testing, of animals being kept in laboratories purely to be tested on.  I know the arguments in favour of it, that, basically speaking, such testing is for the good of the human race, that it goes a long way in helping to establish cures and medication for life-threatening diseases.  But animals are living creatures, same as us …

Anyway, I’m not here to preach or bang my drum about it.  Instead I want to share this video I found about lab chimpanzees being released.  Over 100 were released, part of a large-scale retirement.  As one of the comments said, it is bizarre that it talks of the chimps being ‘retired’ – they were caught in the wild, taken somewhere ‘alien’ miles from their home where most of them have lived indoors, in cages, separated from their fellows, for years … some of the chimps are over 50 years old, which is old for a chimp.  They can’t be released back into the wild because they’ve been in captivity for so long.

I think the Humane Society does great work, and I’m glad that somewhere like the Chimp Haven exists.  In an ideal world, organisations like this wouldn’t be needed.  But this is the reality of our world … A word of warning, you may need tissues – there aren’t any horrific scenes, but I cried while watching this.

Favourites on Friday - Animal Quotes

‘Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened’ ~ Anatole France.

'Love Me, Love My Dog' ~ Frederick Morgan

‘The difference between friends and pets is that friends we allow into our company, pets we allow into our solitude’ ~ Robert Brault.

‘Animals are such agreeable friends – they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms’ ~ George Eliot.

'Cottage Girl with Dog and Pitcher' ~ Thomas Gainsborough

‘I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the ‘lower animals’ (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man.  I find the result humiliating to me’ ~ Mark Twain, ‘Letters from the Earth’ (1907).

'Whistlejacket' ~ George Stubbs

‘Animals speak more wisely with their eyes than people do with their mouths’ ~ Ludovic Halévy.

‘Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece’ ~ Leonardo da Vinci.

da Vinci's drawings of cats, dragons and other animals

‘I like pigs.  Dogs look up to us.  Cats look down on us.  Pigs treat us as equals’ ~ Winston Churchill.

‘Animals have these advantages over man; they never hear the clock strike, they die without any idea of death, they have no theologians to instruct them, their last moments are not disturbed by unwelcome and unpleasant ceremonies, their funerals cost them nothing, and no one starts lawsuits over their wills’ ~ Voltaire in a letter to Count Schomberg 1769.

'Bay horse and white dog' ~ George Stubbs

‘Man is rated the highest animal, at least among all animals who returned the questionnaire’ ~ Robert Brault.

‘I subscribe to the theory that Mankind never domesticated any animal.  They came in from the cold and looked cute until they were fed’ ~ David Beard.

'Miss Ann White's Kitten' ~ George Stubbs