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The Deal With Dogs

According 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 domesticated 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 geeks.

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.