The Wolf in the Parlor

It took me a few months to read The Wolf in the Parlor: How the dog came to share your brain by Jon Franklin. It was my ‘morning coffee’ book. Those always are read slowly. But I had trouble with this one. I considered not finishing it, but I’m glad I did.

Complementary brains

Amazon link for Wolf in the Parlor by Jon Franklin
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Franklin’s premise is that humans and dogs evolved together and, in fact, became parts of each other in terms of brain function. ‘Tame wolves’, he says, began to develop about 50,000 years ago when some wolves became essentially camp followers of humans. They realized putting up with human contact was an easy way of getting food. The humans realized that putting up with these less aggressive wolves was an easy way to have protection from wilder animals and to have a constant food supply if needed (wolf meat). Wolves evolved into dogs, humans evolved to a form more like us, and the interconnectedness between wolf/dog and human grew.

12,000 years ago, he says, human and dog brains got smaller. His argument is that the rational, thinking part of dogs’ brains decreased as did simultaneously the emotional and sensory part of humans’ brains. The dog handed the thinking over to humans and the humans handed emotional and sensory intuition over to dogs. Together, they have the full spectrum of intelligence and perception. Apart, they do not.

I know nothing about evolution or neurology, so I can’t comment on his scientific accuracy. However, like religion, his thesis seems as good a framework as any for thinking. It ‘feels’ right to me and, in thinking about my history with dogs, I can ‘see’ it.

My persistence in reading paid off in the final chapters. He discusses how humans too often now have forgotten the mutuality of the bond with dogs. There’s a horrible tale of a day he spent with an animal control officer. That story introduces his argument in favour of purebred dogs. In essence, he says that if you expect the dog to fit into your lifestyle and match your needs, get one where you can be pretty sure that the innate traits and needs of the dog will be that match. The best way is get a purebred from a breeder who knows his or her dogs and their lineage.

Persistence needed

Why I say my “persistence” is that I had some problems with the writing. First, the beginning of the first four chapters all read like introductions. It felt like he had several good openings and couldn’t decide on one so used them all. Second, no references. I was shocked. I’d seen he had no foot- or endnote numbers, but I thought he must be using chapter-by-chapter summary citation at the end. Then at a part about Standard Poodles running the Iditarod, I wanted to know more. I flipped to the back – nothing, not even a bibliography. Yes, I can google it but I think that, within a book, I should be able to find out where a fact came from. Isn’t lack of citation plagiarism?

So the scientific bases of his evolutionary, neurological and paleontology arguments are only sporadically backed up with sources in in-text form. This particularly surprised me because he’s a science journalist. Reference, reference, reference.

Anyway, you can read a Q & A with him about the book on his website. He says you’ll have to read it to find out how the story ends. For me, the ending did make reading it all worthwhile.

Here is a review of The Wolf in the Parlor’s first 60 pages in The Other End of the Leash, an interesting dog blog. I think the leash should have extended to the end of the book. (From my St. Thomas Dog Blog, May 20, 2011)

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  1. Part 2 of the documentary includes info about the process of canine domestication. An experiment in Siberia was started in 1959 to see how many generations it would take to domesticate silver foxes, which are closely related to wolves. The study is ongoing, but has had surprising results.

    1. Hi and thanks for telling me about this. I’ll check it out. Sounds, from your description, much like what Franklin is talking about with human-dog bond. A radio interview about dogs that Jim says is excellent aired a week or so ago on NPR WBUR’s Fresh Air – with John Bradshaw, a dog behaviourist and/or trainer. The link to the podcast will be on the main stdoa site if it isn’t already.

  2. Have you seen this documentary, “Dogs Decoded”? It looks like you can watch all 3 parts online.

    “Dogs Decoded” reveals the science behind the remarkable bond between humans and their dogs and investigates new discoveries in genetics that are illuminating the origin of dogs—with surprising implications for the evolution of human culture. Other research is proving what dog lovers have suspected all along: Dogs have an uncanny ability to read and respond to human emotions. Humans, in turn, respond to dogs with the same hormone responsible for bonding mothers to their babies. How did this incredible relationship between humans and dogs come to be? And how can dogs, so closely related to fearsome wild wolves, behave so differently?”

  3. I enjoyed this book and wrote a review of it a while back. While the science may not be as sound as it might be, I’m not really a science person.

    The book just made me feel good about myself and my Poodle wolves that are part of my life.

    1. Hi Jan, thanks for writing. I looked for your review but couldn’t find it on your blog. Yes, I enjoyed the book too. I felt like I got to know him and his wife and the dogs – and that was nice. My husband bought me the book after hearing Franklin interviewed on NPR. He said it was really interesting.

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