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Doggone fascinating

Documentarians sniff out facts, myths involving man's best friend

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They can run, they can sniff and they can play. They love us, they annoy us and can even help us in an emergency.

There is, however, more to the ordinary dog than fetching a ball and hugging your leg. That's the basis of a new hour-long documentary on CBC's The Nature of Things, A Dog's Life, which premieres Thursday night at 8 p.m.

TV Review

A Dog's Life

The Nature of Things

  • Thursday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
  • CBC
  • 3/12 stars

Toronto-based documentary filmmakers Daniel and Donna Zuckerbrot of Reel Time Images literally put an adorable Jack Russell terrier -- he's got more personality than The Littlest Hobo ever had -- on the couch to give viewers a chance to find out what really makes dogs tick.

This is more than just a sniff test. All sorts of different dogs are put through a battery of tests that address topics such as a dog's senses, its problem-solving ability, time-recognition, social relations with other dogs and interaction with humans.

The tests expose dogs' strengths and weaknesses. Sniffer dogs assist biologists find at-risk ribbon snakes, which are about the size of a shoelace, in a Nova Scotia marsh that abounds with items that would stimulate a curious canine. Still, amid all the swampy smells, mud puddles and high grass, it's the humans who are mostly cheerleaders for the dogs, who in no time bark and point the tiny snakes out to their handlers.

"Dogs live in an olfactory world; it's a world of odours, and I think sometimes we deprive them of this," Simon Gadbois, a Dalhousie University professor, says during the documentary.

On the other hand, another dog struggles with a maze-memory test that narrator David Suzuki says would be easy-peasy for laboratory mice. Take the maze away, and the dog is still unsure which basket still has a treat in it and which one he's already checked out and scarfed down.

Naturally, the most fascinating parts are dogs' interactions with humans, and this is where the documentary -- and our four-legged friends -- shine.

A dog's power to imitate the behaviour of another species -- humans -- leaves supposedly smarter animals like monkeys in the back of the class.

"Their genius is when they can use us as a tool," Duke University scientist Brian Hare says during the documentary.

A dog's imitative skills are fantastic when teaching them how to fetch something; it's certainly a bad idea to let them watch you weed the garden, though.

The documentary also challenges the alpha-dog theory preached by some dog handlers, claiming all dogs show both dominant and submissive characteristics.

Another myth the show tackles is that dogs would rather hang out with other dogs rather than people. Sure, there are dogs who love playing with their own kind, but just like humans, canine relationships are an individual thing.

In that way, a dog's behaviour is completely different of the human-shunning wolf, which it evolved from.

"So the idea that dogs evolved into a species from wolves, where we have this really antagonistic relationship, that now sleeps in our bed, we feed them, pick up their poop," Hare, the Duke scientist says, "and not only that, dogs have an emotional contagion with us -- they actually will yawn in response to our yawn... That's just remarkable."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2013 C5

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