BOOKS: Canine Courage: The Heroism of Dogs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2004:

Canine Courage: The Heroism of Dogs by Tiffin Shewmake
PageFree Publishing, Inc. (109 S. Farmer St., Otsego, MI 49078),
2002. 199 pages, paperback. $15.00.

Since the January/February 1999 introduction of the Lewyt
Award for Heroic & Compassionate Animals, sponsored by the North
Shore Animal League America, the inside back covers of ANIMAL PEOPLE
editions announcing the awards have become the pages probably most
often clipped and posted on the walls of humane societies.
Although the awards occasionally honor heroic cats, most of
the winners are dogs.
But is there really such a thing as canine heroism,
involving dogs who consciously choose to go “above and beyond the
call of duty,” or are heroic dog incidents explicable by ordinary
canine behavior such as instinct, pack cohesion, or a desire for a
person’s approval?
Tiffin Shewmake seeks traits to explain the origin of canine
heroism, and speculates that although the extent of heroic potential
may vary from one dog to another and one breed to another, it
probably grew out of a number of allied traits such as altruism,
empathy and helpfulness, all traits selected through long
interaction with humans. As people favored the puppies of dogs who
were loyal, helpful, selfless, or brave, over time the traits
producing these qualities came to become in effect a genetic
predisposition toward heroism.

Shewmake points to a Russian study of wild-caught foxes who
for many generations were raised for fur. The study asserts that
docility, tameness, and affection for people can be bred into a
species– but the reported findings are disputed by people who have
observed that foxes on U.S. and Canadian fur farms do not become less
nervous around humans than those straight from the woods. Unlike
captive-bred mink, North American foxes who escape or are released
from fur farms tend to revert quickly and successfully to a fully
wild existence.
Shewmake recognizes that dogs (or other species) may commonly
display altruism and heroism toward their own young and other pack
mates. It is cross-species heroism that interests her. Why do dogs
save people’s lives? How do they know what to do, and why has this
behavior developed?
Part science, part investigative journalism, Canine Heroism
includes many wonderful stories about dogs who perform rescues,
guide the blind and deaf, and use all of their senses–perhaps
including senses that we do not have–for the benefit of humans.
Each account is first related, then analysed.
The altruism and heroism of dogs is to be admired and cherished,
along with the altruism and heroism that Shewmake discovers in
wolves, their closest fully wild kin.

–Chris Mercer & Bev Pervan
(Mercer and Pervan have observed canine altruism and heroism among
domestic dogs, foxes, and jackals, through their work at the
Kalahari Raptor Centre in northern South Africa.)

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