It is the epic story of one of the most amazing evolutionary journeys ever taken by a species. Thousands of years ago, as humans began to settle in villages, the wolf emerged from the wild and made the startling leap to “man’s best friend.” Once domesticated, dogs would accompany human cultures down through the centuries and to the far corners of the world.
Much more recently, the Victorian Age transformed them into the most varied species, and one of the most common pets, on the planet. And at the dawn of the 21st century, dogs are once more changing our world by their use in cutting-edge scientific research and lifesaving medical care.
Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham narrates NATURE’s “Dogs That Changed the World,” available in high definition. Part one, “The Rise of the Dog,” airs Sunday at 7 p.m. April 22. Part two, “Dogs by Design,” airs Sunday, April 29, at 7 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.
“These programs are an ambitious, comprehensive natural history of the relationship between dogs and humans,” notes Fred Kaufman, executive producer of NATURE. “We start with the long-ago dramatic morphing of wolf to dog and arrive at dogs’ competitive breeding and use in medical research today. In between, we travel to the Papua New Guinea jungle, the frozen Arctic, the Mideast desert, rugged British countryside and ancient Mexican ruins to show dogs’ varied working roles in different cultures over the ages.”
“The Rise of the Dog” explores those roles — the dog as guard, hunter, herder, hauler and spiritual protector — as well as current theories about the wolf’s evolutionary leap. In spectacular location footage, NATURE shows how indispensable certain breeds have been to their people. These include the Arctic’s native Inuits and their sled dogs; desert dwelling Jordanians and the speedy saluki; British shepherds and the border collie; Mexicans (and their Aztec ancestors) and the hairless xolo; and aborigines of Papua New Guinea and the singing dog.
The dramatically diverse breeds serve distinct needs, but all are linked by Swedish geneticist Peter Savolainen’s pioneering “Adam and Eve” theory. His analysis of DNA from breeds around the world points to a single origin in East Asia thousands of years ago.
“Dogs by Design” details a much more recent phenomenon: the explosion of the basic working dog types into the roughly 400 breeds known today. In mid-19th-century England, a growing middle class saw in Queen Victoria’s exotic Pekinese a symbol of wealth, status and leisure. Pet keeping as we know it arose, and the modern kennel club was born.
The program explores concerns about today’s competitive breeding and its effect on dogs’ health and well-being, using sophisticated computer-generated graphics to show how it has dramatically altered the bulldog and other breeds. Along the way, “Dogs by Design” notes the original uses of such popular pets as terriers, bulldogs and others.
“Dogs by Design” also features evolutionary biologist Susan Crockford, who explains her revolutionary theory that links thyroxine, a hormone that controls dogs’ growth rate, to the differentiation of breeds.
Finally, the program visits scientists who are experimenting to see if dogs, with their acute sense of smell, can help sniff out cancer in humans and an ordinary family that has tapped a German shepherd to provide life-saving diabetes care.
NATURE’s “Dogs That Changed the World” airs in two parts Sundays, at 7 p.m., April 22 and 29 on KUED-Channel 7.
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