This might seem like a strange question, but if you stop and think about it, you’ll see that the answer depends on who you are and where you’re standing.
A vet will be interested in the dog as a collection of physical parts and processes. Vets learn about dogs by looking at their bodies inside and out, taking samples, making x-rays, sometimes cutting a dog open. When a vet knows how a dog works as a physical system, s/he knows about dogs. Behaviorists want to know how a dog will behave. To them, a dog is what they call “a black box” — a behaving thing you can’t look inside of. You have to stand back and watch this thing behave, and eventually you will be able to say things like “dogs bark at men more than they bark at women,” or “if you give a dog a treat every time it sits, it will start to sit more often.” To a behaviorist, this is knowledge about dogs. A biologist is not interested in understanding individual dogs, but in whole species. They want to know how a species got to be what it is now, how its body grows, and what the natural limits of the species’ behavior are. Biologists try to observe dogs in some kind of natural surroundings, going to places where they can watch how dogs that don’t live with humans behave. When they can say something like, “dogs evolved from wolves,” “the primary socialization period lasts about 16 weeks,” or “dogs are territorial,” this is considered knowledge about dogs. Ecologists will be interested in how one species relates to another in the same ecological niche, and in the relative value of various survival tactics. These are the people who watch us feed our dogs and take them to the vet, try to figure out how the dog contributes to our own survival as a species, and then tell us, “the dog is a parasite.” To them, this is knowledge about dogs. To the kennel clubs and the pedigreed dog fans, a dog is a consumer product that has to look just so. Knowing exactly how the puppies will look when you breed a pair of dogs is knowledge about dogs. If the dog is your companion, then you’ll want to know what moves this particular dog. Knowledge about dogs means knowing how you can teach him to behave in a way that fits your life. Some of us also want to know how we can make our dog happy.
So the answer to our question depends on who you ask. People who live with dogs end up with a patchwork of fragments, and this can be bad for dogs, both as individuals and as a species. What we need to do is put it all together into a comprehensive picture. This will allow us to move up and down the ladder from the molecule to the ecological niche and back again, depending on which question we want to ask at any given moment. The thing we need to remember at all times is that all of these levels interlock and influence each other at all times. So even when we focus on one level, we will have to be considering things that play on other levels.
So our answer to the question, “what is a dog?” is: the dog is all of these things simultaneously. It is a collection of molecules, a collection of organs, a behaving whole, a part of a social system, and a member of a species that is only a part in an ecological niche. ……….. When you look at the dog in your living room, what you are seeing is one of many nested levels of organization. As he pants lovingly at you, things are going on inside him and outside him that will all affect his behavior. He is a product of biological processes like mating, gestation and birth, but also a product of his personal past and of evolution. He doesn’t stay the same all his life. Whatever is going on as you look at him is changing him. He is part of the future (so are you), participants in ongoing natural and artificial selection that will determine what the dogs of tomorrow will be. He is a collection of parts, an individual, and a thing that fits into a bigger picture.
In their race to be counted as the most important expert of all, a number of scientists have saddled us up with some very wrong ideas about what dogs are. In Part 2, we will talk about and correct some of these misconceptions. If you want to know why scientists made some of these mistakes, flip to Objectivity (under construction, to be added soon).