A Day in a Dog's Life

How a Darwinian perspective can help us better understand our best friends.

Posted Jan 10, 2019

Angelina McDonald (used with permission)
Source: Angelina McDonald (used with permission)

This guest post was written primarily by SUNY New Paltz psychology student Angelina McDonald. Angelina is a senior and is currently matriculated in my class in Evolutionary Psychology.

For my evolutionary psychology class, I've started assigning a "creative project." For this assignment, students are charged with creating some kind of creative product (a song, a story, a video, a play, a painting, etc.) that explicates at least 10 specific concepts from the class. To help with the process, I created this list of concepts from the class, Darwin's Definitions, which has about 30 concepts that are foundational in the field of evolutionary psychology.

Angelina submitted her creative product today. It is an analysis of a dog's day from an evolutionary psychological perspective. I immediately thought that it was brilliant. Find that story, along with a picture of Nala, the protagonist, below.

Angelina McDonald (used with permission)
Nala!
Source: Angelina McDonald (used with permission)

Hi, my name is Nala!

My niche is a nice open space in Greenville, NY. My humans moved us here a couple years ago and I appreciate it a lot more since I now have 23 acres to run and play on. I love running around searching for all the different animals that have come into the yard and finding all the toys that I have buried. Thankfully my genotype has given me the ability to have an amazing sense of smell. My human mother even plays hide and seek with me. I’m always able to win the game and find her!

My ancestors came via Newfoundland and were then transported to England. Many of my ancestors' owners lived in cold and wet environments. They primarily used my kind to hunt, fish, and gather the fishing rope from the water. Because of this historical context, we developed a fitness toward that particular environment. My fur phenotype developed so that I can stay warm in cold climates while also repelling water from my coat. This allows me to have resistance to the cold and water. Our sense of smell came in handy when searching for prey. My birth parents even helped their humans hunt. Since most of my ancestors and family are fast and have a great sense of smell, it’s no wonder I have the same abilities.

I spend most of my days hanging with my family. They are dogs, so they are conspecifics, but  we all are different breeds. We have Hodor who is a pitbull, Gizmo who is a French bulldog, and Luke and Leia, who are Rottweilers. Luke and Leia are siblings and the newest members of our family. Right now, Leia and I are the only female dogs in the house. She’s still young so there isn’t any intra-sexual competition. When we first got Hodor, he and Gizmo use to get into fights every time I was in heat—without fail! It seemed that they were both fighting to see who would win and then be able to reproduce with me. Unfortunately, my humans got me fixed, so I won’t be reproducing. Boo!

Our life history strategy is fast compared to our humans. Depending on your breed, you may only live to be six years old while others may live to be 15 years old. Either way, it’s not a long time. According to the parental investment theory, we are different compared to our humans with regard to our investment in our offspring. The humans are a part of an altricial species, which require a lot of parental investment. We dogs, on the other hand, are a part of a precocial species and require very little parental investment. Don’t get me wrong, our mom took care of us. She rarely left us alone for the first week and was constantly available when we were hungry. Slowly though, she started leaving us for longer periods of time—always coming back when it was time to eat. I was finally able to start exploring after about three weeks, and when I was eight weeks old I got to meet my forever humans! My humans have been taking care of me ever since, but I think I would do alright out on my own because of how fast I am and my great sense of smell.

It’s funny, evolutionary psychologists always talk about kin-selected altruism, but I never really understood the concept until I met Luke and Leia. Luke and Leia are brother and sister from the same litter and they hate being separated. When they first got to our house, I thought for sure that Luke would try and compete with Hodor for my attention, but he seems more preoccupied with his sister and with keeping her safe. Whenever Leia is in a scary situation or is nervous, he always comes to her rescue. She’s gotten out of the fence once or twice and Luke has always rushed back inside to get our human's attention to go rescue her. It’s amazing to see how protective he is of her and how dedicated he is to making sure she is okay. I think this is because they share a high proportion of genes with one another and she can help their shared genes' reproductive success. It’s interesting to watch.

It was nice talking to you! My humans are calling us and want us to go play. Time to put my speed to the test! Woof!!!