We will never know for sure how it happened – the first coming together of man and dog. The original domesticated dogs were probably wolf-like scavengers, hunting the midden heaps round the dwelling of early Man somewhere in the Middle East. Perhaps Home sapiens preyed on the animal for food, perhaps he took puppies and brought them up as pets, quickly realizing their potential as helpers in a wide range of human endeavors. Whatever the origins of the unlikely partnership, the canid and the Great Ape quickly struck up relationship which, although perhaps not have the history-forging significance of the domestication of the horse, led to a symbiosis that was to have enduring and significant effects on human society and culture.
Dogs aren’t the most numerous of our pets, but they are arguably the most important. Apart from its practical uses, from seeing-eye to sheep herder to property guard, the dog has a positive, therapeutic psychological effect on the human beings around it. Stroking a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. The company of a faithful canine friend is known to aid convalescence in the sick. And, because of the dog’s need for regular exercise, it helps keep its master fit into the bargain.
Of course, there’s the other side of the coin – dogs can be dangerous and convey disease, and they do demand more care and attention than some owners are wiling to give. A cat or a budgerigar is simpler to maintain. But I doubt whether anyone can truly be complete, who has not at least at some time sometime in his or her life kept – and keep kept by – a dog. The dog comes in an amazing range of types and sizes. There is a breed for everyone, and the variety is far more exciting than in any other domestic animal.
The Canine Hunter
Both temperamentally and physically, dogs are built as carnivorous hunters and their predatory instinct is very strong. Dogs are courageous and persevere in the field, so early man relied on the hunting prowess of his dogs to provide him with food. Dogs have acted as hunting companions for their masters down the ages and still carry out this function today, working singly or in packs.
Depending on its breed, the well-trained hunting dog can spot its quarry in the distance or track it by scent, then indicate its position to its master, retrieving the game and bring it back in its mouth. This gift for retrieving means a dog will tirelessly play games of “fetch” for hours – if you’re prepared to throw a stick or ball for it.
The Best Nose in the Business
Dogs are endowed with a highly developed sense of smell, many times more efficient than our own. They make expert sniffers and trackers and, as well as locating hunting quarry, are used to sniff out criminals, drugs, explosives and even truffles. The most famous breed of tracker dog is the Bloodhound, but others are just as gifted and widely used by the police and the army.
A Fast Running
Several breeds are extremely fleet of foot, their fast running speed enabling them to capture their prey while hunting. The best-known of these is the sleek Greyhound which reaches incredible speeds of over 40 mph. the sport of Greyhound racing is popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Other “streamlined” breeds include the Saluki, Whippet, Afghan and Borzoi. Running at full stretch, these dogs display some of the marvels of canine “engineering”.
The Aquatic Dog
Many breeds love water and are good swimmers – chief among them the Golden Retriever, Labrador, Spaniels, poodles and the Newfoundland. Dogs seem to know how to swim inherently without river or by the sea is irresistible to many dogs and if allowed, they’ll be splashing in the water at the first opportunity.
The Canine Worker
Over the countries, man has learned to employ dogs in a rich variety of ways as guards, hunters, war-machines, seeing-eyes, rodent controllers, drought animals, foot warmers, providers of hair and meat and, most important of all, as good companions.
In many parts of the world, local necessity has created some interesting occupations. Carts pulled by dogs were used in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland until quite recently. Australian aborigines used dingoes for warmth on cold nights, sleeping with one clasped in their arms. Aborigine women, when not carrying young children, often “wore’ a dog draped across their lower back as a kidney warmer. The Aztecs, apart from using dog hair to make cloth, fattened a non-barking, hairless dog for eating.
Dogs were once used to harvest the most magical of plants. The mandrake was the source of a coveted narcotic and aphrodisiac extract. Primitive peoples believed that the plant, whose split root often presents the two-legged appearance of a manikin, couldn’t be pulled from the earth without producing fatal effects on the puller. So one end of a cord was attached to the root and the other was chased away, out would come the mandrake root (often it was said, with an awful shriek) and down would drop the poor dog.
Dogs of War
Mastiffs in light Armour carrying lethal spikes and cauldrons of flaming sulphur and resin on their backs were used in warfare by the Romans and in the Middle Ages, particularly against mounted knights. As a sad update of this, dogs were trained by the Russians in the last War to carry out suicide missions against German tanks. They would run between the tracks of the vehicles with mines strapped to their backs. The mine would explode as soon as a vertical antenna attached to it touched the metal tank.
As well as assisting man in his sport, dogs have always helped him in his work. A dog’s alertness, interest, exuberance and stamina fits it for a busy “career”. Some dogs are born to work and should be given the opportunity. A working sheepdog is a heartwarming sight, and one which you can see in action at Sheepdog Trials. Herding and droving dogs love their work and are used all over the world, working with cattle and sheep, often in remote areas. Their terrific strength and powers of endurance make dogs from snowy regions, such as Huskies, able to pull heavy loads on sledges.
There can be no friend more faithful than a guide-dog. These wonderful dogs – usually Labradors, Golden Retrievers or German Shepherds – are specially trained to act as “eyes” for blind people, and are complete professionals. A blind person relies so completely on his or her dog that the training must be rigorous and thorough. The assurance and security a guide-dog gives makes this possibly the most important and worthwhile canine “job”.
The Canine Companion
In every age across the glob, it seems that folk have in one way or another echoed the words of St Bernard (c.A.D.1150) – “Who loves me will love my dog also.” Today, well over a hundred different breeds are kept as pets in Britain and America. Although their appearances varies enormously, all dogs are essentially built to the same animal design, not far removed from their primitive ancestors. They are highly adaptable creatures and the process of evolution hasn’t found it necessary to alter them much. Dogs can give great enjoyment if treat with care and common sense.
The Perfect Protector
Protective instincts are naturally strong in a dog. The desire to guard and keep safe extends to the dog’s owner and family, the house and garden. A good watch-dog is one of the most reliable burglar alarms you can have. It doesn’t have to be a huge Great Dane or a Mastiff; smaller dogs will put up the alarm vocally just as well. A dog can be trained as an excellent security guard. Other assets such as its senses of smell and hearing help it to do the job well. And dogs are inquisitive – nothing if not curious when it comes to a stranger or an unfamiliar scent.
Men’s Best Friend
Dogs are sociable animals and love human company. In fact, dogs require company to be happy, and to deprive them of it is unfair. Children and the elderly – probably the people with the most free time – are likely to be the most constant companions to their dogs and able to build a special relationship with them.
The power of the pack is one of a dog’s strongest instincts. In the absence of a real pack of its own kind, a dog views the family as its “own” pack, with the head of the family as the “pack leader”. A friendly dog is interested in all the family activities and loves to be at the center of the things. Even a dog that appears to be in the deepest of slumbers in front of the fire will soon open an eye or twitch an ear if it senses anything going on.
Your dog is your greatest fan – its loyalty is unquestioning. If you respect your dog, it will respect you. By taking the trouble to train your pet, you’re doing both of you a good turn, and helping it to fit in more easily with your own lifestyle.
The saying “it’s a dog’s life” has a strong pejorative ring to it. After dipping into this and enjoying what it has, I trust the word will take on for you a more positive and delightful meaning.