Dog Tales: The Making of Man’s Best Friend review – are they just in it for the treats?

The dog television market is a busy one. Whether your canine broadcast preference is in the genre of “emotional rescue”, or you prefer fix-em-up behavioural stuff, or you’re a hardcore “who knew dogs could do that?” fan, there are plenty of options in the schedule. What BBC Four might bring to the mix was anyone’s guess, though I had suspected art history and maybe a story of a composer whose greatest work was inspired by a puppy. Instead, Dog Tales: The Making of Man’s Best Friend is a sensible scientific documentary that comes to a surprisingly moving and satisfying conclusion.

If you are not a dog person, this is unlikely to convert you to the cause. If your preference is feline, don’t worry, there is a companion film next, about cats. At the outset, Dog Tales promises to investigate the “revolution” happening in the world of dog science, and even suggests that we may be able to read our pets’ minds. At the outset, I wasn’t sure I wanted to – what if a dog’s inner thoughts are “I find ‘good boy’ patronising, actually” or worse, they truly hate us, and humour us only for our ability to provide biscuits and warmth?

Scientists who specialise in dog behaviour have been asking this very question for a long time. There is a well-established theory that dogs are essentially cute, furry scam artists who con their way into our affections. Unlike their evolutionary ancestor, the wolf, domestic dogs have even developed particular facial muscles that pull the eyelid up, so they can make their eyes bigger. Some think it makes them look like babies, so we can’t help but care for them; others that it makes their sad face all the more sympathetic, so we give them whatever they need. Any dog owner knows the immense power of that dolorous look.

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Another deviation from their lupine lineage is a dog’s immense and seemingly innate sociability, which sees them described here as “almost indiscriminately affectionate”. In one of the more fascinating segments, the film-makers meet a young woman called Callie Truelove, who has Williams syndrome. Callie is “hyper-sociable”; as she bakes doughnuts, she explains that she loves every person on the planet, and would like to hug them all if she could. As with her dog, Doodle Dandy, scientists believe there is a genetic cause for this so-called hyper-sociability. “That is so cool,” she says, when she hears news of their connection.
Dogs were once used for hunting, herding and protection, but now their purpose has become more widespread. In Atlanta, in the US, scientists are pioneering the Fido Project (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations). They are working on teaching dogs how to use technology, which is remarkable, and has extraordinary potential: if a dog can alert a passerby to its owner’s collapse, say, by pressing a button on the tiny little vest it is wearing, it could be Lassie by way of the Terminator. “None of this would be possible without the dog’s amazing brain,” says one scientist, though judging by the amount of treats handed out, it may not be possible without their love of snacks, either.

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Sadly brief is a visit to a dog show in North Carolina, which is used to show how varied dog breeds have become over the past 200 years thanks to human intervention. There is no exploration whatsoever of the problems we are seeing in short-muzzled breeds bred for “cuteness” despite the health issues, for example, but it does at least tantalisingly tip into Best in Show land. One woman sings the favours of her anatolian shepherd dog. “She’s killed three coyotes, numerous fox and bobcat; she wants to get that fly over there at the moment,” she says, before a poodle appears to remind viewers of the similarities between dog and owner.
Eager-eared viewers may recognise Dr Clive Wynne’s voice from the podcast Radiolab. He is unsentimental about dogs’ cognitive abilities, but only to a degree. He explains that one of dogs’ most extraordinary traits is a seemingly ordinary one – their ability to follow a human’s pointing finger. Even chimpanzees struggle with this. Wynne believes we have cracked the puzzle of domestication and the past 15,000 years of human-canine companionship, and it is all down to their genuine desire to be with us.

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Dog ownership has rocketed during lockdown, so this is a timely and decent dig into canine science and psychology. And, ultimately, it has rather a lovely message to it. If you have ever wanted to see a dog getting an MRI to discover if it prefers treats or praise, then you are in luck. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it turns out that even sausages are no match for the dopamine felt when an owner tells a dog how good it is. Essentially, this is a highbrow way of saying that very good boys are very good boys, and it’s a message backed up by science.