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The Special Providence of Interspecies Relationships

Is it domestication that brings us together, or mutual adaptation?

       “A dog,” Mark Twain wrote, “can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence.” His case in point was Prov’dence’s failure to depend on Uncle Lem’s dog — appointing Uncle Lem instead — to soften the three-story fall of an Irish hod carrier. The Irishman lived, but Uncle Lem’s back was broken in two places. “Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog?” Twain’s storyteller asked. “Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted.” (Find Twain’s story My Grandfather’s Old Ram in Roughing It, chapter 53.)
      Clearly neither Twain nor his circuitous storyteller, the legendary Jim Blaine, had ever met a Canine Companion for Independence. Prov’dence had them born a couple of centuries too early to meet this lineage of dogs trained to stand in for humans in the most remarkable ways.
       You’re right on time, however, and this issue of Bay Weekly makes this introduction. In the pages of this year’s annual Dog Days of Summer Pet Tales special, you’ll get to know Nitro, who — if his independence can be redirected — will join a fellowship of some 5,000 Labs, goldens and their mixes on whom Prov’dence and their human companions can rely.
       Standing in the way of accelerated descents is not on their training agenda, but breaking falls may well be. Definitely — summer intern Keri Luise tells us in her capstone story — they can open doors, pick up fallen objects, pull wheelchairs and help with laundry. 
       The willing partnerships of these skillful dogs and their humans are the result of breeding, socialization, reward and training, Luise tells us. I suspect that’s how, over the centuries, humans have persuaded dogs to evolve from wolves. The just-released movie Alpha, previewed this week by Bay Weekly Moviegoer Diana Beechener, promises us a thrilling glimpse of those early days of — what? Is it domestication? Or mutual adaptation? 
       Domestication, from the human perspective, puts us in the driver’s seat, carrying out the Prov’dencial instruction to “have dominion over” the animals. In that line, I did pretty well at bossing my two Labrador retrievers, not so well with my beagle-German shepherd mix Slip Mahoney and far worse with cats.
       All together, my lifetime experience with these and many more dogs and even more cats suggests that mutual adaptation was the key to the flourishing of our mixed-species relationships. Neither dog nor cat could I ever convince to be other than what its nature dictated. 
       Some of the ways Slip Mahoney remained true to his nature are too embarrassing to mention, and even the best of my dogs and cats had the occasional flea and flaw. Some, like my best black cat BBC’s fondness for baked goods, were often charming. Others, not so, as when I find Puss, a feral cat I feed, licking her chops under my birdfeeder.
       Within the parameter of their nature and mine, I’ve had the best relationship with the creatures in whom I’ve invested the most time and attention. So now that I have no dog — and only feral cats Puss and the fickle Boots — I wish I’d spent more time working with my two oh-so-willing Labs, Max and Moe, to develop their latent talents. Every day, I miss the mutually adapted companionship of a creature, cat or dog, who gives me his best (for the last 40 years my best animal friends have been males) in return for me giving mine.
       Those are the kinds of relationships you’ll read about in this week’s well-stuffed Pet Tales issue. Most of these dogs, cats and rabbit are not so specifically trained as Nitro and his Canine Companion for Independence family. What you will find are wonderful stories of many ways we humans and our animal companions adapt so mutually well that it seems we’re blessed by special providence.