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The Story Behind Man's Best Friend

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There are around 400 million dogs in the world, the majority of which are pets. While the animals know a surprisingly large amount about their human companions, there’s plenty we still don’t know about them. In celebration of National Dog Week, here’s all kinds of information that you probably never knew about your best friend.

A Brief History of Inter-Species Love

While the exact time that humans and dogs started to socialize together is unknown, most researchers agree that the pairing occurred at least 15,000 years ago. There is evidence dogs were domesticated by 12,000 BC, as archaeologists have discovered an Israeli grave site from this time period where an old man had been buried with a puppy.


While early researchers argued whether dogs were most closely related to coyotes, dingoes or wolves, DNA evidence has proven conclusively that our four-legged friends are most closely related to gray wolves. The means that the animals became domesticated is contested, but one common theory says that wolves started to scavenge around human campsites where they could get meals with minimal effort and that wolves that were less frightened by humans soon saw an advantage in aligning themselves with paleolithic man.

Image courtesy of Sometimesong's Flickr stream.

In the beginning, both species would gain significant benefits from one another.

Dogs would be safer, have a more reliable food source and benefit from humans' ability to see predators and prey from a long distance. Humans would benefit as dogs increased sanitation by cleaning waste and food scraps; dogs also would have used their excellent hearing to warn humans of approaching animals. On the hunt, dogs would be able to use their strong sense of smell to track prey, as man used his tools to bring down large animals with less effort. Both species would also benefit from the increased body warmth during cold nights. It is very likely that humans not only shaped the future of dogs, but that dogs changed our evolutionary course as well.

As the years wore on, dogs continued to play an important role in human history. Many people believe that humans could not have successfully traveled across the Bering Straight without the help of sled dogs. After crossing, dogs continued to be important to Native Americans and served as their only domesticated animal until the Spanish introduced the horse. Many cultures even continued to use dogs as pack animals long after horses were introduced to the continent.


Selective breeding allowed certain dogs to excel at certain tasks, such as herding, ratting, hunting or carrying weight. The idea of pets solely for the sake of companionship wasn’t such a major part of the average person’s life until the suburbanization of Western culture after World War II. While dog training existed long before this, the idea of breaking the animals of their natural digging, barking and jumping instincts only really took off after this point and it seems we may be on the cusp of a new evolutionary mark for dogs as they are increasingly bred for companionship skills rather than working skills.

Image courtesy of nyominx's Flickr stream.

Cross-Species Benefits

Most people can immediately see the benefit modern dogs get from humans (food, shelter, water and affection), but the benefits our pets bring to us is equally impressive. Modern service dogs can be trained to not only help those with external physical disabilities, but also to help warn epileptics and diabetics about upcoming attacks while they still have time to do something about it. The animals can also be useful in treating anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.


Dogs can even be used to detect oncoming conditions such as cancer. When a control group of dogs were trained to smell out lung or breast cancer in the breath of test subjects, their accuracy stayed between 88 and 97 percent. It sure is a whole lot less invasive than a biopsy.


People who own pets, whether dogs or cats, have been shown to be healthier and happier than those who do not own an animal. In fact, one study showed pet owners had a major reduction in minor health problems during their first month of ownership and dog owners continued to show these improvements through the duration of the study.

Image courtesy of Martin Kuo's Flickr stream.

What’s Breed Got To Do With It?

Dogs have more variations in size, appearance and behavior than any other animal on earth because they have been targets of artificial selection through human interference, rather than natural selection. Scientists have even recognized 155 distinct genetic locations that account for all of these differences.

Dog sizes vary from the world’s smallest dog, a 2.5 inch tall Yorkshire Terrier that weighed 4 ounces, to the world’s tallest dog, a Great Dane that stands at 43 inches (that's him above), to the 343 pound English Mastif that was named the world’s largest dog. Similarly, dog lifespans, which are around 11 years on average, vary greatly by breed. In fact, the Dogue de Bordeaux has a notably short lifespan that averages just over five years. Many other breeds, including Toy Poodles, Japanese Spitz and others have an average lifespan of fourteen and a half years. Strikingly, the world’s oldest dog, an Australian Cattle Dog named Bluey, lived to be almost 30.

Breeding can also affect the level of energy and muscle a particular dog has. Some of the best athletic dogs are the Siberian Huskies used in the Iditarod sled race. Scientists fount that these animals burned 11,000 calories the day, which is eight times the proportional calories burned by a Tour de France cyclist. They also take in three times the oxygen of human athletes.

Another famed animal athlete is the Greyhound, which is one of the fastest accelerating animals in the world, second only to the cheetah. Greyhounds have an incredible heart, the same size as a human, but that beats at twice the speed of a human when exercising.

Startling K-9 Psychology


Image courtesy of PKMousie's Flickr stream.

While people like to think we have more in common with our primate ancestors than any other animal, when it comes to communication and social dynamics, we actually have more in common with dogs. Researchers have said that while dogs are only as smart as two-year old humans, they have the social skills of teenagers. In fact, dogs are the only animals that understand pointing. They understand human languages better than other primates and the average dog can be taught as many as 165 words, more than an ape can learn. Particularly smart dogs have even been taught over 300 words.

Dogs understand deception, which chimps cannot grasp as clearly. Researchers tested this by placing two covered buckets, one with a treat and one without, in front of the dog. Half of the dogs would be directed to the wrong bucket by a person in the room, while the others would be given correct signals. While all of the dogs would start out listening to the human, those that were being lied to soon started going to the opposite bucket.

Dogs also know how to deceive humans without getting caught. To test this, dogs were left in a room with two containers with bells, one of which was muted and one of which was not. Researchers observed that when the animals were being watched, they would go to either of the containers, but when the observer looked away, the animals would always go for the quiet container.

If you’ve ever had a dog get in trouble, you probably know that dogs can show guilt, but it is worth noting that researcher Frans de Waal has proven that their expression of guilt applies whenever the dog thinks he or she will get in trouble, regardless of whether or not he or she actually did something bad. So if you have more than one dog, you might not want to blame the one who looks guilty automatically; he or she might just be worried they’ll get in trouble for the actions of their co-habitant.

Image courtesy of srte's Flickr stream.

I learned my dog is the jealous type when I came home and greeted my roommate’s dog before him. He immediately tried to fight her. Apparently, I was on to something here, because Vienna researchers studied whether dogs can get jealous of one another a little while ago by rewarding one dog with a treat for doing a trick and then asking the other to do the trick without a reward. The unrewarded dog soon got annoyed and stopped performing the trick, which did not happen when the same animal went unrewarded without another dog around. Up until that time, primates were the only animals known to show signs of jealousy.

Do you have a dog? Share your favorite stories about his or her behavior in the comments.

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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Space
Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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