Get Twitter buttons
Print-friendly version

A potted history of man's relationship with the dog

by Andi Godfrey

When the early hunter-gatherers formed the first bond between Man and Dog, they had no idea how important this link would be to their descendants, but the dog’s true value was not realised for many hundreds of years.  Until the 19th century the British had a totally utilitarian attitude towards dogs.  Their purpose was for hunting and guarding alone and any concept of keeping them as pets was frowned upon.  During the Middle Ages people found keeping pets were accused of witchcraft.  These so called ‘witches’ were often single women who were social outcasts and dogs and cats were their sole companions. 

The Ancient Greeks and Romans did not share the belief that dogs were merely work tools.  Surviving records show that they revered their dogs for their ability to show affection and provide amusement.  The pharaohs of Egypt kept a number of pets as are depicted in their murals.  The Chinese Emperors were thought to have owned companion dogs as early as the 12th Century, and by the 18th Century it was not unusual for puppies to have human wet nurses and a retinue of eunuchs to attend to their every need, however, it is unlikely that the poor population of China would have shared their enthusiasm and probably would have preferred to see the dog accompanied with a bowl of rice!

The Victorians made dogs acceptable as pets in Britain and, as a result, they are largely responsible for the degree of genetic disorders in dogs today. They bred dogs to achieve a fashionable look or to emphasise a cute, childlike appearance as seen in the pug, the King Charles spaniel and other lapdogs.  To our discredit, this taste for unnatural appearance continued and it was not until the horrific results of interbreeding were disclosed on a controversial BBC documentary in 2008 that the Kennel Club were forced to revise their breeding policies to improve dog health and welfare.

Pug 1850. B.A. Howe.        
From Dog Painting 1840 - 1940.
 A social history of the dog in art.  William Secord (1992)        
N.B The cropped ears, a practice that became illegal in the UK in 1895                        

In some ways we have to be grateful to the Victorians, for had dogs not become acceptable as companions, we might not have recognised their other enduring qualities and, specifically, their ability to enhance human health. It was Florence Nightingale in 1856 that noted ‘a small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick’ but it was not until recent decades that scientists actually proved their therapeutic worth. 

Dogs are a key factor to keeping fit in this modern world by exercising their humans, lowering their cardiovascular rate, reducing stress and facilitating communication with other humans.  They can also initiate a positive response in the elderly, infirm and mentally ill.  In 1976, freelance journalist and magistrate, Lesley Scott-Ordish was responsible for starting an organisation called, Pro Dogs Active Therapy (PAT) dogs, an organisation of volunteers who take their dogs to visit hospitals and residential homes.  It was a highly successful project and the PAT volunteers continue with the good work to this day.

The use of guide dogs for the blind was discovered during WWI when they were introduced to aid wounded service men.  Guide dogs are limited to certain breeds because of their physical attributes and abilities but it was not long before other breeds were being used as hearing dogs for the deaf, seizure alert dogs and dogs for the disabled.  These service dogs have changed the lives of many people not only by improving their quality of life but also by instilling confidence and improving self-esteem.

Over a relatively short time in recent history we have learnt that dogs provide us sport and entertainment, companionship, security and physical well being. They are highly efficient as service dogs to the disabled.  They serve the police and the military showing enormous courage in war zones.  They rescue people from mountains, earthquakes and from drowning.  They are educators to children and a comfort to the elderly.  They assist medical science with their ability to detect early signs of cancer and are used rehabilitate addicts and those suffering with AIDS.  We have come a long way since Descartes who in the 1500’s claimed that animals could not think or feel therefore were nothing more than machines, however despite our education and latter day knowledge some dogs are still the victims of horrific abuse.

NB:  This article has been taken and adapted from  ‘Human-animal interaction - the place of the companion animal in society’ by Andi Godfrey in The Complete Textbook of Veterinary Nursing Edited by Victoria Aspinall.  Published by Butterworth Heinemann Elsevier (2006). This book is much more than a comprehensive book for veterinary nurses it contains valuable and interesting information for all pet owners. 
     Find a friendly local sitter in your area