Every so often, it hits me that humans and dogs are completely different species, and yet we’re so in tune with one another. Many of us prefer the company of dogs to that of other people, and it appears that dogs feel the same way about us. It’s a relationship that, if you really analyzed it, probably shouldn’t work at all, and yet it does. Dogs have been in our lives since even before recorded history, probably sharing the fire with our cave dwelling ancestors.
Before the written word was devised, history was recorded in pictures – cave drawings to begin with, and later on in paintings and mosaics created by ancient civilizations. There is much evidence of dogs as companions throughout history. Perhaps the earliest evidence is the Natufian Grave in Ein Mallaha, Israel, which dates back to around 12,000 BC. In this grave lie the remains of an old man and a puppy. No one really knows for sure why they were buried together, but whatever the reason, it does speak to the importance of dogs in early human civilization. As we move throughout history, we see further evidence of dogs being regarded as part of family life.
Moving ahead, in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh (probably 2150-1400 BC), dogs are represented as companions to the Goddess, Ishtar. Even earlier, In the Descent of Innana (Ishtar), the tale is told of the goddess’s journey to the underworld, and references Dumuzi, her husband, having dogs in his royal household.
Other Mesopotamian stories tell of dogs roaming the cities, cleaning up carrion, and protecting livestock and dwellings. It is clear that these are not stray dogs – on the contrary, they are cared for by their humans and have homes to go to at the end of their work day.
At this point in recorded history, there appear to have been two basic types of dogs – a Greyhound-like breed that would have been mainly used for hunting, and heavy, solid dogs that were probably the ancestors of our modern mastiff-type dogs. Interestingly, in the ancient writings, “dog” was hardly ever used as a derogatory term.
In Mesopotamian art, dogs are often depicted as hunters, but also as pets who were cared for by loving families. There are depictions of shepherds with their dogs, and also numerous images of dogs accompanying the Goddess Gula, who was the guardian of health and healing.
The dog was also highly valued in ancient India. In fact, the Indian Pariah Dog (a breed that exists to this day), may have been one of the first dogs to actually live in the home with its human companions.
One of these dogs is featured in The Mahabharata (approximately 400 BC). This epic tells the tale of King Yudisthira’s pilgrimage to his final rest following the Battle of Kurukshetra, accompanied by members of his family, which included his beloved dog. Along the journey, his family members die, one by one. At the end of the journey, only his dog remains. Yudisthira dies, and is welcomed to Paradise, but informed that his dog cannot enter. Yudisthira tells the guardian at the gate that if that is the case, then he would prefer to wander the earth with his dog, or even go to Hell. The guardian then tells Yudisthira that he has passed a very important test – he is obviously a man of strong moral character and loyalty, and he and his dog are both welcome to enter.
A variation on this story has carried on into modern Christian lore. The author is unknown, and some of the details change in various versions, but basically, the story is that a man and his dog are walking along a road. Suddenly, the man realizes that he is dead, and he is with the dog he loved during his life and who pre-deceased him. Eventually, they come to a wall with an arch of pearl, leading to a street paved with gold. A guardian is standing by the gate, and the wanderer asks him where he is. The guardian tells him that he has arrived at the gate to Heaven. The man asks for a drink of water, and the guardian tells him that he can come inside and have all the water he wants, but the dog cannot enter. The man refuses to leave his dog, and continues down the road. He comes to a dirt path with a broken-down gate, and another guardian. Again, he asks for a drink of water for himself and his dog. The guardian points to a pump and tells him to help himself. The man asks if the dog can come in too, and is told that they are both welcome. He asks the guardian where he is, and the guardian says “This is Heaven.” Understandably confused, the man says, “But that other fellow down the road told me that Heaven was back there.” The guardian says “That was Hell, and you were talking to Satan. He gets all the people who are willing to leave their dogs behind.”
Other cultures also connect dogs with the gods, and explore their loyalty to humans. In ancient Egypt, dogs were linked to Anubis, the jackal god, who guided the dead to the god Osiris to be judged in the Hall of Truth. Domestic dogs were ceremonially buried in the Temple of Anubis, apparently with the goal of helping them pass to the Field of Reeds (the Egyptian afterlife). Family dogs were often mummified if the family could afford it, and then the family members would shave off their eyebrows as a mourning ritual.
Pharaohs were often buried along with the dogs they loved, in the belief that the dogs would provide companionship in the afterlife. Ancient leather collars have been found bearing names like “Reliable,” Brave One,” “Antelope,” and “North Wind.” The ancient Egyptians apparently also shared our modern penchant for naming dogs for physical characteristics – “Blackie,” for instance. One collar was found bearing the unfortunate name “Useless,” which is probably an ancient counterpoint to modern owners who think it’s funny to call a dog “A**hole.” Most names, though, convey love and respect.
Dogs appear early on in Greek literature. Probably the most notable instance is the reference to Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded the gates of the Underworld. A vase dating from 530-520 BC is displayed in the Louvre, depicting Cerberus with Heracles.
The ancient Greeks also associated dogs with deities, primarily female. The goddess Hecate is represented as keeping black Molossian dogs, and Artemis as having hunting dogs.
The Greek philosophy of Cynicism takes its name from the Greek word meaning “dog,” and followers of this philosophy were referred to as “Kynikos” (dog-like) because of their practice of loyally following one path of thought.
Dogs are also featured in Plato’s Republic, wherein Socrates asserts that dogs are philosophers because they “distinguish the face of a friend and of an enemy only by the criterion of knowing and not knowing.” Socrates also theorizes that dogs love to learn, because they decide what they like and dislike based on knowing the truth. Humans, on the other hand, are often blind to the truth, and so are easily tricked when it comes to knowing who their friends really are.
One of the most famous Greek dog stories is that of Argos, King Odysseus’s dog, as told in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus arrives home after a 20-year odyssey, and discovers that his enemies are trying to convince his wife, Penelope, that he is dead and are seeking her hand in marriage. The Goddess Athena helps Odysseus by blinding them to his presence. Argos recognizes him, though, and greets him enthusiastically. Odysseus must ignore him, or be identified. Argos, heartbroken that Odysseus does not acknowledge him, dies.
So much for happy endings – those ancient Greeks really know how to tell a sad story. The moral of the tale would seem to be that dogs are always devoted to their humans, whether or not that devotion is returned.
The ancient Romans had much in common with the Greeks, including their appreciation of dogs. A mosaic, Cave Canem (loosely translated as “Beware of Dog”) depicts dogs as protectors of hearth and home. The Roman writer, Varro, in De Re Rustica, suggested that every family should have at least two dogs – one for hunting, and another as a watch dog. He advised that dogs should be allowed to roam during the day, but kept safe at home come nightfall. He also offered the helpful suggestion that if given a choice between a white dog and a black one, the white dog would be the better option because one would be less likely to mistake it for a wolf in the dark.
The poet Virgil also speaks to the importance of dogs, saying in Georgics III, “Never, with dogs on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief.”
The Romans had many animals as pets – cats, of course, and even apes – but Roman art suggests that the dog was valued above all others. Roman reliefs show illustrations of children sharing their food with dogs, or playing with puppies.
The ancient Chines had an interesting perspective on dogs. Domesticated in China probably around 12,000 BC, dogs were not just companions – they were also a source of protein for humans, and sacrifices for the gods. The blood of dogs was considered to be sacred, and was used in swearing allegiances and sealing oaths. Their bones were also used to tell the future.
Dogs were also considered to be bringers of omens. Depending on where you saw a dog, and the circumstances in which the dog was seen, you could be in for good luck, or a world of grief. Dogs were also frequently killed, and then buried before the gates of a city, or in front of a home, to ward off illness or misfortune. Thankfully, in the fullness of time, this practice became less common, and instead of using actual dogs for the purpose, the ancient Chinese instead used dog effigies made of straw. Stone statues of dogs were also used as a means of protection from disease and bad luck.
Although the ancient Chinese revered dogs, believing that they were a gift from the gods, they were very much of the opinion that this gift had to serve a useful purpose. In other words, dogs were given to them for food, and as a source of blood for sacrifice.
Even today, dogs are raised for meat in China and other Asian countries. The practice, though, has earned global outrage, and is less common than it once was.
The Mayan people also used dogs as a food source, but also as pets, guardians and hunters. They also associated dogs with the gods, believing them to conduct the dead over the expanse of water that led to Xibalba (the afterlife). Dogs would guide the dead through the various challenges that the gods had set in place, which had to be met before the soul could enter Xibalba. We know this from graves that have been discovered, containing the bodies of people along with those of dogs. The concept is also illustrated in writings found on temple walls.
The Mayan codices also depict the dog as bringing fire to the Mayans, and in the Popol Vuh (the Mayan holy book), dogs are credited with destroying the first incarnation of humans, who did not properly respect their gods.
In an interesting parallel to the Christian story of Noah and the great flood, the Aztecs told the tale of the first humans being destroyed in a huge flood. In this story,one man and one woman survive the flood by hanging onto a log. When the water finally recedes, they find dry land, and make a fire to dry out. This irritates the god Tezcatlipoca, who decapitates them and then sews their heads onto their buttocks. This, supposedly, is how dogs were created. The lesson, oddly enough, that the Aztecs took from this tale, is that since dogs pre-dated the existing race of humans, they should be respected.
The Aztecs were also known to bury dogs along with humans, and depicted Xolotl, the god of death, as a large dog.
The Tarascans also kept dogs for food, hunting and companionship, and linked them with their gods and their concept of the afterlife. It was believed that if a person died and was not properly buried (perhaps due to a drowning, death in warfare, or lost while hunting), they would be found by dog spirits that would guide them safely into the afterlife, protecting them from malevolent ghosts that might seek to cause them harm.
Commonalities in the Ancient World
Throughout the ancient world, people were very much bound to their dogs. The ancient Greeks in particular valued dogs, seeing them as fellow learners and philosophers, and believing that there was much of value to emulate in the way dogs live their lives. Consistently, dogs have been seen as protectors, friends, and loyal companions, and this is revealed in ancient art and writings. Historically, the dog has always been seen as man’s best friend, and that has continued into modern times.
Today, the role of the dog in our culture is still to provide us with protection, and also to help us hunt, but overwhelmingly, the dog’s function is more in the nature of companionship. We love our dogs. In fact, you’ve probably often heard people say things like “My dog is my child.” While I would respectfully suggest that a dog is not a child substitute – in fact many people prefer dogs to children – I understand the sentiment.
Certainly, we treat our dogs in much the same way we would a child, making sure that they are properly nourished, teaching them good manners, ensuring that they are protected from excessive heat and cold, looking after their medical needs, playing with them, snuggling with them, and generally letting them know that they mean the world to us. They enhance our quality of life, and we enhance theirs. The following are some of the ways in which dogs are known to improve the lives of humans.
1. Stress Reduction
It has been proven that dogs can reduce human stress levels, which is why they are frequently employed as therapy animals in hospices, hospitals and nursing homes. Exercising with a dog can improve our overall health, too. Dogs have also been shown to help people with autism and other disorders that can increase stress function at a higher level than is possible without canine companionship.
2. Easing Loneliness
Often, people don’t get enough social interaction, and dogs can play a vital role in alleviating loneliness. People who live alone or don’t have many opportunities to socialize can derive a sense of purpose from caring for a dog. Often, too, the presence of a dog can help a person to get through the loss of a human companion, whether due to death or the deterioration of a relationship.
3. Helping the Disabled
Service animals can open up a whole new world for people with disabilities. Animal companions make it possible for disabled persons to work, and to live independently. They help with the routine daily tasks that most of us complete with little thought, but can be very frustrating for people who do not have full use of their body.
4. Search and Rescue
Thanks to their highly sensitive noses, search and rescue dogs can navigate even very challenging environments. Search and rescue dogs have a long history of finding lost and/or injured people where human efforts are less effective.
Most people find that they feel safer with their dogs. A large dog can be your best friend if you’re out walking at night, and can be protection against intruders in your home. Even a small dog can alert you to something that seems “off,” or to a stranger that is approaching.
Dogs are also used in public places by security personnel to ensure public safety. And of course, they are used in airports to detect explosives, keeping us safe when flying.
6. Teaching Respect and Responsibility
No one would ever discount the family dog’s role when it comes to teaching children how to be respectful and responsible. While I wouldn’t suggest getting a dog as a means of dealing with kids that are running wild, in most families, interacting with a dog does help children to learn valuable life skills. They learn through spending time with the dog, feeding, training, walking and grooming. Generally speaking, kids who are raised in the company of dogs become more empathetic and respectful of other living things.
So, given everything that dogs bring to our lives, is it any wonder that we love them? We want the best for them. And yet, in modern society, we sometimes do things that we shouldn’t in the name of love.
The Modern Dog and Breed “Improvement”
You’re wondering why I put “Improvement” in quotation marks, aren’t you? It’s because a lot of the time, so-called breed improvement is anything but.
I’ve had people call me a “dog snob” more than a few times, and it’s actually a title that I don’t mind wearing. I have nothing against mixed breed dogs. In fact, I’ve had mixed breeds that were outstanding dogs, and whom I loved to distraction. But I admit to a preference for the purebreds. As I suggested in Purebred or Mutt: Making the Right Decision, with a purebred animal, you always know what you’re getting – there are no surprises. Sometimes, though, with purebred animals, trouble starts when breeders decide that they want to make “improvements.”
Often, the goal is to exaggerate a certain characteristic – usually the trait that has made the breed attractive in the first place – and this is taken to extremes that would never occur if the breed were simply left to evolve in whatever way nature intended. This can result in serious health problems. Breeders are actually causing harm to the animals that they say they love. They are breeding for defects, and doing it on purpose. How in the world can this be considered a “breed improvement”?
Let’s talk about some of the dog breeds that have begun to suffer because of the efforts of misguided forays into genetic modifications.
1. The Basset Hound
If you looked at Basset Hounds from even a few decades ago, and compared them with today’s Basset, you would see that the dog is generally quite a bit shorter, and has weaker rear legs. Problems with the vertebrae are common. Basset hounds are also now much more prone to ectropion (a condition that causes the eyelid to turn outward) and entropion (a condition that causes the eyelid to turn inward). The breed also displays considerably more loose skin than it did previously, and that can lead to yeast infections.
2. The Dachshund
The modern Dachshund’s legs are so short that at times the chest is practically dragging on the floor. They often have difficulty walking, and are at very high risk for intervertebral disk disease – a higher risk, in fact, than with any other breed – which can lead to paralysis. They are also prone to achondroplasia, which is an ossification and abnormal shortening in the long bones, and PRA (progressive retinal atrophy), which is a deterioration of the retina that can lead to blindness.
3. The Bull Terrier
The Bull Terrier used to be an athletic dog with a pleasing appearance. Somewhere along the line, though, people began breeding for a distorted, anteater-like face and an abnormally thick abdomen. This has also led to supernumerary teeth, which often need to be extracted to allow the dog to chew properly, and which can lead to periodontal disease. This type of breeding also seems to have had an effect on the breed’s mental stability – many Bull Terriers are prone to obsessive-compulsive behaviors like constant tail-chasing.
4. The English Bulldog
This particular breed, which once symbolized much of what is good and noble in dogdom, has had all the good bred out of it. One of the biggest problems with this brachycephalic (short-nosed) breed is breathing difficulties, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. English Bulldogs are also prone to virtually any other disease a dog can possibly get. The breed in general is so unhealthy that they usually live to a median age of 6.25 years – most other breeds that have been identified as having more than their share of health issues get about 9 years. Because of the exaggerated proportions of today’s English Bulldog, bitches are hardly ever able to birth a litter without medical assistance.
5. The Pug
The Pug is another example of breeding taken to harmful extremes. The characteristic that makes the Pug so wonderfully cute (that short nose) leads to breathing difficulties, and other problems that go along with it. Pugs are very prone to heart problems, high blood pressure, difficulty cooling off in hot weather, and trouble chewing properly. Since they have also been bred for an even more wrinkly appearance, Pugs are now very prone to yeast infections and dermatitis. Even that cute, curly tail is actually a defect that has been bred into the Pug, and in some instances can cause paralysis.
6. The Boxer
The modern Boxer is yet another example of a brachycephalic dog that has been bred into poor health. Today’s boxer has a shorter muzzle than those of days gone by, and it is also somewhat upturned. This leads to breathing problems and difficulty cooling off. The boxer is also one of the breeds most likely to develop various forms of cancer, although to be fair, this may have little to do with breeding for specific physical traits.
7. The Saint Bernard
Yet again, we have an example of a dog that has been bred for a shorter snout and an abundance of wrinkles. Modern Saint Bernards are not working dogs, like their predecessors – they can’t work, because they overheat too quickly. They are prone to entropion and ectropion, hemophilia, Stockard’s paralysis, bone cancer, and other disorders that were once not at all common in the breed.
8. The German Shepherd
The German Shepherd was once a sizeable dog, usually weighing about 85 pounds, with a wide chest and a pleasingly sloped back. Today, the German Shepherd weighs on average 55 pounds, and has none of the athletic ability and strength that it once had. This is directly attributable to breeding for characteristics that are considered “fashionable” as opposed to breeding for the health and working ability of the dog. To say the least, this has taken its toll on a once proud breed. Today’s German Shepherd is not by any means a working dog, and often suffers from mental health and temperament issues.
I could go on and on. This is just a sampling of dog breeds that have had most (or even all) of the good bred out of them. Breeders will often tell you that they are “improving” the breed, but in what way is something that causes health problems an improvement?
No breed is ever going to be completely free of genetic problems, but breeding for traits that cause harm makes no sense. Why is a shorter snout better? Or a curlier tail? Or a flatter head? It’s fashion, pure and simple, and it has nothing to do with improving the breed.
Dogs have been our companions for eons, living with us, protecting us, and comforting us. They are represented in ancient art and literature, are part of our modern families, and will no doubt continue to enhance our lives well into the future. From just a couple of canine types, there are now many, many breeds, some of which are in danger from supposed breed improvements.
I love reading and learning about different dog breeds, and of course looking at pictures. Just recently, I treated myself to a beautiful poster showing 54 of the most popular dog breeds. It’s by 123 Posters, and it’s a huge 3x2 feet. The list price is $29.00, but I got it for just $6.15 at Amazon, and the shipping was free!Every day I smile when I think of how dogs have been with us throughout history, but it’s also a sobering reminder of where we need to stop when it comes to manipulating our best friends’ genetics.