Helping man’s best friends | Sunday Observer

Helping man’s best friends

Many cats and dogs live together harmoniously. (Courtesy of iStock)
Many cats and dogs live together harmoniously. (Courtesy of iStock)

The killing of the ISIS Chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was the biggest news item from last week, but one line from US President Donald Trump’s press conference caught the attention of many. Trump said the terrorist leader was chased by US military dogs and one “beautiful and talented” dog was injured. This immediately generated a barrage of stories and tweets on the Internet, speculating on the breed of the dog and even its name.

Trump then declassified and released a picture of the K-9 dog, a beautiful Belgian Malinois, whose name was nevertheless kept secret for the time being. The dog, which was slightly injured, is now recovering in a veterinary hospital and is said to be out of danger.

This breed is known for its agility, ferocity and intelligence and along with Dobermans, is widely used by armed forces around the world for special operations and everyday tasks such as sniffing for explosives. The dogs are highly trained and prized, because they dare to go where humans are sometimes unable to go.

They also form a lasting bond with their trainers and handlers and are sometimes allowed to return to a ‘civilian’ life upon their retirement.

This is not the first time that a dog was featured in a mission to take down a wanted man. A dog called Cairo was used in the mission targeting Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011. There are many other instances where such dogs have been used prominently in military and police operations.

In Sri Lanka too, the military and the Police have K-9 units that engage in a variety of tasks from sniffing out narcotics and explosives to general patrol duties. The dogs are treated almost on par with humans when they retire and die (i.e. given a military funeral). Many countries, though not the US, award medals to dogs who undertake missions in conflict.

Dogs are called Man’s Best Friend for a reason and in cases such as the ones outlined above, they undertake a risk that can sometimes end in death. These dogs will not hesitate to put their lives at risk to save their handlers’ lives. But this is not a trait common only to highly trained military dogs. Even a garden variety non-breed dog will protect a person who shows him or her some love (and gives some food) to the best of its ability.

If you check YouTube, there are many videos of dogs coming to the defence of total strangers facing danger or difficulty. Then there are the service dogs such as those used by the blind and those suffering from mobility issues which render a yeoman and silent service.

There are also plenty of ‘emotional support’ dogs for the terminally ill and many others suffering from various ailments, though this category now extends to even exotic animals such as iguanas and ostriches.

Dogs have been with us for nearly 20,000 years – this story was explored in some detail in the hit film Alpha released around a year ago. There is no question that today’s dogs evolved from wolves, as depicted in this movie. Over time, dogs have integrated closely with humans, becoming fully subservient to our wishes and commands.

They say that a dog’s love is unconditional. Contrary to popular belief, food is not their primary motivation – it comes way down the line in their list of priorities (perhaps number 5 or 6), which begins with love.

But what about our other best friend – cats ? Before I go any further, I have a disclosure to make – I love cats and dogs in equal measure, having owned a couple of dogs and now, two cats. But the felines are much misunderstood, with dog lovers insisting that moggies are an ungrateful, aloof lot. Not really so, say experts who study cats for a living. We have been studying dogs for so long that we know a great deal about them.

But serious studies into cat behaviour and psychology are happening only now, shedding some light into the secret life of cats. There are studies taking place that compare cats and dogs in the real world and as well as laboratory conditions.

The earliest domesticated cats, whose common ancestor is the African wildcat Felis lybica started appearing in Neolithic villages in the Middle East around 10,000 years ago.

They did not even depend on their early human hosts for food – they were encouraged to fetch it themselves, keeping crops and food stores safe from rats and other vermin. Even today, domestic cats will still hunt for birds and rats as they have a wild streak which is not likely to disappear from their genes. They are much closer to their old selves than dogs. Our taming them has only partly removed their wild instincts.

New research suggests that many things we assume about cats could be wrong or way off the mark. If you have ever heard a cat’s purr, you know that it is their way of saying “look, I am happy”.

But there is more to it than meets the eye – literally, for cats can make some serious moves with their eyes that can grab your attention instantly (dogs are better at this because they have an additional muscle that raises the inner eyebrow, which the cats lack).

Instead, cats have learned to give a slow blinking stare when they look at humans. It is their way of expressing love. But just don’t expect your cat to wag its tail and jump into your arms when you return from a long overseas trip. That’s the dog’s job. Make no mistake, your cat loves you, but on its own terms.

Other tests have suggested that cats may be more intelligent than dogs in some situations and instances. But there is still a long way to go before we can fully understand cats, which are fiercely independent, if it can be done at all.

There is a saying that one never really owns a cat – they own you. Any cat owner would vouch for this phenomenon.

However, we must all ensure an end to cruelty against both cats and dogs that happens on a daily basis. Many puppies and kittens are abandoned on the roads (animal abandonment is a punishable offence in many countries and should be so here too), left to die. There are a few good Samaritan organisations that give them a new lease of life. If you still do not have a cat or a dog, adopt one right away from one of these organisations.

It will give you a new sense of joy and purpose. Better still, bring a puppy and a kitten and raise them together. Add a human baby to the mix if you can – children raised with canines and felines have better immunity and a better understanding of what it means to share things with others. They will be the best of friends and will add zest and life to your years.