WASHINGTON IS GOING to the dogs this summer.
Thanks to "Dogs: Wolf, Myth, Hero & Friend," an exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in downtown Washington, kids can learn about man's best friend through videos, dioramas and interactive displays that let them smell, hear and see like their canine companions.
"Dogs are in just about everyone's life, whether the dog lives with you, a neighbor or Grandma," said museum director Susan Norton about the exhibit's appeal to visitors of all ages. Developed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the exhibit is a companion of sorts to a crowd pleaser on cats mounted at National Geographic six years ago. "We kept hearing from dog lovers who wondered when it was going to be their turn," said Norton, laughing.
On the Saturday my family visited, kids were scampering through the exhibit's four sections like playful pups. Their excited cries mingled with the barks and yips of exhibit audios. "Here's Barney," a youngster called out, identifying a model of a St. Bernard not by breed but by the name of a doggy friend. Norton was right: The exhibit connects with kids on a personal level.
How did that bond between Homo sapiens and family Canidae develop? What factors first served to link these very different species? The exhibit addresses these questions throughout as it explores the history, biology and evolution of dogs.
Our barking buddies have long played an important role in human society. At the exhibit entrance, reproductions of South African cave art from 500 B.C. depict humans hunting with dogs. A woman kisses her large pup in a 5,000-year-old Mexican sculpture. Nearby, a wall screen flickers with constantly changing images of dogs through the ages: the slender hounds of ancient Egyptian stonework, an elegant creature on a medieval tapestry, friendly mutts at a modern nursing home, a parachuting rescue dog. A diorama reveals the theorized beginnings of the human-dog connection. By the far-off light of a small fire, wolves scavenge the remains of a cave-dwelling family's meal. Over time, a symbiotic relationship developed, with the wolf creeping closer for food and warmth and prehistoric humans relying on the increasingly domesticated animal for help with hunting and protection.
Especially since 1850, man has shaped the dog for improved performance (hunting, herding, racing) and appearance. Witness the hundreds of breeds, from the stocky English bulldog to the sleek South Asian Saluki to the tiny Mexican Chihuahua. But dog has also shaped man, as the exhibit makes clear. Signs throughout bear glowing tributes from William Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling, Groucho Marx and other luminaries. And everyday people are just as complimentary in "A.J.'s Dogumentary," a quirky video about dog lovers. The pooch has permeated poetry, prose and popular culture -- Lassie films, Scooby-Doo lunchboxes, children's classics such as "Harry the Dirty Dog." Think about the number of canine-related cliches that dominate our language: barking up the wrong tree, let sleeping dogs lie, dog days of summer.
The exhibit's many interactive components highlight similarities and differences between humans and domestic and wild canines. My 5-year-old daughter loved pressing buttons to hear communication via bark and whine, including the golden jackal's low-pitched "back off" growl and the gray wolf's "be my friend" whimper. She also enjoyed crawling up a synthetic snowy tunnel to be greeted by the life-size model of a dog sent to save avalanche victims. Around us, kids sniffed a small bacon-scented vent to experience the dog's heightened sense of smell and peered through a special lens at a world suddenly more visible in the dark but deficient in color. Two huge ears, modeled on those of the desert bat-eared fox, proved especially popular. Wearing them allowed youngsters to detect the delicate munching of the fox's favorite snack -- termites in a nearby mound.
Dogs certainly assist humans in many ways. A video, photos and text show various breeds herding sheep, training for shows, guiding the blind and disabled, and even teaching good manners to aggressive peers. Alexis Carrel won the Nobel prize in 1912 for his pioneering heart-transplant research on dogs. In 1960, two terriers from Russia safely orbited the Earth.
The exhibit concludes by emphasizing the need for humans to better assist dogs, especially wild canines endangered due to habitat loss. Establishing conservation programs, such as the one for the Ethiopian wolf, and carefully protecting the animals' natural environment are important steps toward ensuring their survival in the wild. Closer to home, kids can learn about responsible pet ownership by playing a game as they exit the exhibit. With a few deft moves, they learn how to banish fleas, supply food and water, set out a cozy bed -- and provide all the TLC deserved by their hound of choice.
DOGS: WOLF, MYTH, HERO & FRIEND -- Through Sept. 6 at National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, 17th and M streets NW (Metro: Farragut North). 202-857-7588. www.nationalgeographic.com/explorer. Open Monday through Saturday 9 to 5, Sunday 10 to 5. Free.