Jon Franklin. Henry Holt and Co. $25
Bookend Standard Poodles Charlie and Sam literally bring Franklin to his senses and provide plenty of insight, too, as he probes the historic and much-debated triangle of wolf, dog and man. Ironically, he might not have owned either dog had it not been for his future wife Lynn’s insistence when he proposed: You get me, you get a puppy, hence the “Wolf in the Parlor” in their home.
As Franklin, a former newspaper science writer, seeks to pinpoint the initial bond between the wolf and man, he is confronted with a myriad of scientific data ranging from 8,000 years to 150,000 years. “I knew that dog evolution was among the most stagnant of scientific backwaters,” he admits, after a decade of researching.
Franklin traverses considerable ground in this rambling study, sometimes veering off course and serving up a bit too much information.
Franklin emphasizes, “Every time we say they are like us, we must also say they are not. Wolves forever remain wolves, not humans in wolf’s clothing,” but he does construct plenty of behavioral parallels between the two.
While blasting unscrupulous breeders and “health-threatening” breed standards for appearance, Franklin says many breeds manage to retain a “kernel of their original behaviors,” adding, of all the things he learned about dog, the one that struck him the most profoundly was that personality and intelligence are genetically determined.
The richest nugget, however, is Franklin’s contention that follower wolves were the most likely ones early humans interacted with. These were injured, old or orphaned young animals that followed the source of food pitched out by humans rather than remain with a pack and get little if any from prey kills.
Because wolf packs are tightly embedded, outsiders are viewed with disdain and subject to attack when then they cross pack boundaries. Consequently, the follower wolves, Franklin believes, formed their own packs and remained in close proximity to humans.
While bonding tightly with Charlie, the Standard Poodle, amidst his research, Franklin says, “ . . . as Charlie wallowed in the joys of life, I slogged through the deep mud of time long past. The more I studied the dog, the slipperier the ground seemed to get.”
The deeper he digs the more Franklin is convinced humans did not domesticate the wolf, adding “To domesticate the wolf would have simply taken too many generations to be maintained as a conscious process. Even to produce the follower wolf may have taken between 50,000 and 100,000 years.”
Nature, the author says, probably did it, “slamming the wolf and the human together with such force that they were fused for all time.” In that respect, he argues the dog was not a “domesticated animal” in the truest sense.
While their distant history remains subject to debate, dogs today represent “our only touchstone to an emotional past we have forever lost, and yet desperately need,” the author emphasizes.
Franklin’s unvarnished portrayal is both exhilarating and exasperating as it traverses a steep historical path strewn with daunting challenges. With insightful detail and a decade of the author’s commitment, “The Wolf in the Parlor” is an earthy narrative with a surprise socko ending you won’t soon forget.