Deal With Dogs
to the latest scientific evidence, the deal between humans and dogs
was struck at least 14,000 years ago. That's the estimated age of
the discovered fossil remains of a dog who lived with humans in
a cave in what is now Iraq. In southern Europe, archaeologists found
the remains of a young Stone Age girl and four dogs in an excavated
grave thought to be more than 10,000 years old. The dogs were strategically
placed, each facing a different direction, perhaps left there to
guard the girl in the after life. Similar Stone Age dwellings shared
by dogs and humans have been found in China and in the United States,
suggesting that by 10,000 years ago the dog was already distributed
over most of the world. In Switzerland and Denmark 10,000 years
ago there were already two distinct types of dogs, one large, one
small, presumably a work dog and a house dog.
Most scientists studying the evolution of the dog believe that man's
best friend is a direct descendent of the wolf. Some say the dog
is no more than a domesticated wolf, a wolf in sheep's clothing.
From DNA analysis alone, scientists cannot distinguish between a
wolf and a dog. But from studies of the genes of various breeds
of dogs, some biologists now believe the divergence of wolf and
dog took place more than 100,000 years ago. If true, this finding
raises an intriguing possibility. Our prehuman ancestors, perhaps
Neanderthal man, may have kept dogs before we appeared on the scene.
How did it all begin? Perhaps some prehistoric human found a wolf
puppy and brought it home for the clan's dinner. Puppies being what
they are, if there were children around the camp the rest is obvious.
The clan must have settled for pizza that night. Or perhaps some
ancient band of hunter-gatherers, sitting around the campfire, decided
to throw scraps of food to the nearby wolves to stop them from howling.
If the feeding continued, the wolves may have started traveling
with the human pack, eventually considering it their own. At some
point the clan might encounter other clans and maybe present them
with a puppy or two, as barter for food or simply as a gesture of
friendship. Later on, the clans probably started interbreeding their
domesticated wolves, in hopes of producing animals even better suited
to their lifestyle.
California dog trainer Sapir Weiss puts a different spin on the
story: "Let's start from the beginning
who? Humans domesticated wolves or wolves domesticated humans? I
really believe that wolves domesticated humans. Without the wolf
we would not be as far advanced as we are today. It would have taken
us maybe another few thousand years to be where we are."
By the dawn of recorded history the dog was everywhere. Slim, elegant
greyhound-like sight hounds, the ancestors of today's Pharaoh, Saluki,
Ibizan, Basenji and Afghan hounds, were popular in ancient Egypt.
In fact, ancient Egyptians of all social levels kept dogs ranging
from large, ferocious guard dogs to small, short-legged, pot-bellied
dogs that were beloved household companions. The actual names of
some of these dogs - Blackie, Spot, Useless and Cookpot, to name
a few - are found inscribed on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs.
The ancient Greeks kept dogs and built the cult of the hunt around
them. Some of these dogs were so admired that at banquets they ate
at the table with the hunters and shared in the sacrifices to the
gods of the hunt. Many ancient Greek burial sites contain elaborate
inscriptions to the dogs owned by the deceased. The idea of the
dog's unparalleled loyalty dates back at least to the Greeks. After
all, when Odysseus returned from his epic journey only his faithful
dog Argus recognized him.
The Romans treasured dogs for their loyalty and their ferocity,
as did Atilla the Hun who used giant Molossian dogs, precursors
of the Mastiff, and Talbots, ancestors of the Bloodhound, in his
campaigns. The Romans pitted Irish Wolfhounds and Mastiffs against
human gladiators, lions, leopards, even elephants in the Coliseum.
The Romans also established a healing cult around dogs that lasted
more than a thousand years. The cult operated temples stocked with
sacred dogs. Says anthropologist and dog historian Mary Elizabeth
Thurston: "If you had something that ailed you, you went in
and saw a priest. He led you into a room full of dogs and you lay
on the floor and let the dogs diagnose you by sniffing you and licking
different body parts. People claimed miraculous cures by these dogs
and the temples were filled with written testimonials about people
being cured of blindness, all kinds of tumors
" And at
one Roman site near Pompeii, archaeologists unearthed the remains
of a dog buried with a child. The dog wore a silver collar that
said its name was Delta and that it belonged to Severinus whose
life the dog had saved from a wolf.
The ancient Chinese bred dogs for fighting (the Shar Pei) and hunting
(the Chow Chow) and as a supplemental food supply. They also created
one of the true canine masterpieces, the tiny Pekinese, as a royal
pet. Bred exclusively for the Imperial Family, for over a thousand
years the Pekinese was not seen outside the forbidden city where
some were so pampered they had their own human servants. The penalty
for stealing one was death. During the opium wars of the 19th Century,
French and British troops stormed the summer palace of the Dowager
Empress and found a pack of Pekinese which became the first of their
kind to travel from the Orient. One was presented to Queen Victoria
and soon Pekinese became the rage of Europe.
During the Middle Ages, purebred hounds were a status symbol not
only for nobility but for church officials as well, and many monasteries
specialized in dog breeding. The most famous of these was the Abbey
of St. Hubert, at Mouzon, in the Ardennes region of France, where
descendants of the favorite hounds of Saint Hubert, the 7th Century
patron saint of dogs and the hunt, were bred. From these so-called
St. Hubert Hounds came today's Bloodhounds, named because they were
purebred or "blooded" hounds rather than "blood-thirsty."
It was around this time that the notion of upper-class dogs (the
purebreds) and lower-class dogs (the mongrels) took hold. In parts
of Europe it was illegal to own certain purebred hunting dogs; if
you did, it was presumed you were poaching on royal lands. The idea
that dogs, like humans, are divided into bluebloods and peasants
unfortunately persists today.
Of course European peasants produced their own breeds to fit their
needs - terrier-like dogs bred to handle vermin, large dogs bred
to pull carts, and short-legged long-bodied dogs known as turnspits,
designed to run on treadmills powering such things as water wheels,
butter churns and roasting spits. The harsh treatment of cart dogs
and turnspits became a central issue in the humane movement in Europe
in the 19th Century and was one of the primary reasons a US diplomat
named Henry Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention
of Cruelty to Animals in 1866.
Throughout history dogs have played the role of hero - showing bravery
under fire, saving lives and bringing comfort to the injured and
infirm. On such hero was Stubby, a Connecticut mongrel thought to
have been part Boston terrier part Boxer, who served in France during
World War I. "He was a street dog that wandered onto the Yale
campus and was adopted by the troops in training there," says
Mary Elizabeth Thurston. "When they were deployed to France,
they smuggled him onto the steamer and took him with them."
Stubby took part in 19 battles during his 18 months at the front.
He warned the troops of mustard gas attacks and snipers and reputedly
even caught a German spy by the seat of the pants, just as the spy
was smuggling tactical maps and other documents out of camp. Twice
he was wounded, which is where his true service came into play.
"He was sent to a hospital in Paris to recuperate and wound
up being a therapy dog long before we ever heard of therapy dogs,"
says Thurston. "He would get out of his little bed and hobble
up and down the corridors, visiting the soldiers in their beds.
When he returned to the United States his picture was plastered
on the front-page of every newspaper and he led more parades than
any dog to date." During his service, Stubby became the first
animal ever promoted to Sergeant in the US Army. He was invited
to the White House by president Woodrow Wilson and was awarded a
gold medal by General Pershing. When Stubby died in 1926, his cremated
remains were placed in a plaster replica of his body which was then
covered by his skin. This monument to one of America's true war
heroes now resides at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
The history of dogs is now and has always been inexorably linked
to the history of man. When we go to war, they go to war. When we
treat each other more humanely we seem to treat them better as well.
Dogs take the bad with the good. The patent medicine shows of the
19th and early 20th Centuries not only sold snakeoil for people
but also a variety of 90-proof miracle concoctions touted to improve
your dog's behavior or calm dogs in heat. And in the 1950s, when
American's decided that cooking was bothersome and boring and invented
the fast food culture we live with today, we conjured up the concept
of commercial dogfood for our canine companions. "It's amazing
that in just two generations we now have a population that can't
remember ever feeding their dogs anything but canned dogfood or
bagged kibble," says Mary Elizabeth Thurston. "My father
grew up on a ranch in Texas in the 1920s and used to watch his grandfather
make dog bread from a recipe he had brought to this country from
Wales. In the 19th Century, the Welsh ground corn expressly for
this corn bread they baked, poured milk over and served to the ranch
dogs. That's all the dogs ever ate. That and watermelon in the summertime.
They had dogs that lived to be 17 and 18 years old."
What's next? There are reports that more and more of us, concerned
about cholesterol and preservatives and other nasty ingredients,
are starting to cook for our dogs again. There have even been programs
dedicated to canine cuisine on the Food Channel. History, as it
often does, appears to be repeating itself. A few fearless futurists
have even speculated that dogs may soon be using computers, although
the prevailing opinion of dog owners on the Internet seems to be
that dogs don't like computers. Among the reasons given: dogs find
it hard to look at a monitor with their head cocked to one side;
dogs can't stick their heads out of Windows 95; and, dogs are not
This piece was originally published as the first chapter of
Big Dogs, Little Dogs (GT Publishing, 1998), the companion volume
to the A&E tv special of the same name.