History of Dogs
The history of domestic dogs began 20,000 years ago, when Mesolithic Man first began to use dogs while hunting. When livestock became domesticated 7000 to 9000 years ago, dogs were important as protectors and guards. Skeletal remains indicate that five diverse types of dog existed in the Bronze Age (about 4500 BC) – mastiffs, wolf-type dogs, greyhounds, pointing dogs, and shepherding dogs, and cave paintings show dogs working alongside human hunters.
In the 5th century BC the Greeks utilized dogs as guards. Fifty dogs protected the fortress of Corinth and when attacked, saved the town. The sole canine survivor was given a pension for life and a silver collar. The Greeks also used them for hunting, some preferring Celtic dogs for that task. Doctors used dogs to determine whether a person was dead or in a coma – a wag of the dogs tail would indicate life, but a silent dog meant the person was indeed dead. In 350 BC Aristotle made a list of the known breeds, discussing the merits of some.
The Romans traveled Europe widely during their conquests, taking their dogs with them. These dogs in turn bred with local dogs, spreading bloodlines throughout Europe. Breeding and training dogs was an important matter, as much of the success of a hunt depended on the skill of the dog. In other regions, herding or guarding were more valued, and dogs were bred to accentuate the skills needed to perform different tasks for humans.
Asiatic breeds were introduced to Europe by invasion forces in about the 4th century, and they may have contributed the curly-coated traits found in many of the European breeds. For the most part, the breeds of central and eastern Asia may have developed with less of the cross-region interference than European and Mediterranean breeds were to experience.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, dog breeding and care was less important that eating and war. Packs of abandoned dogs formed and terrorized the towns and villages of the Dark Ages. Frightened, invaded and uneducated peasants blamed dogs for much of the horror around them and superstitions about dogs arose – werewolves, monsters with fangs and curled lips, and many other evil creatures were based on dogs.
What saved the dog was its continued skill at hunting, and feudal nobility began to reconstruct lost breeds. Monasteries recognized dog breeding as a good source of revenue, and turned to creating breeds to sell to wealthy nobles. From these breeds came the hunting dogs of France, notably Bloodhounds. So popular did these dogs become that nobles brought their dogs in to church. When the priests objected the nobles sat outside for services. The Blessing of the Animals on church steps is a custom that survives today.
Dogs soon became expensive, and hunting was reserved as the right of the rich. The random-bred dogs of the poor were required to wear large blocks around their necks to prevent them from mating with the prized breeds of the aristocracy. Meanwhile, specialty breeds thrived, with one even becoming King of Norway for three years when a deposed king returned to his country and gave his people a choice – if you won’t be ruled by me, pick this slave or this dog – the dog won. Sadly, the dog-king later picked a fight with a wolf, and lost.
During the Crusades, European knights took their dogs to the Holy Land, where they discovered different breeds. The resulting crossbreeding gave us the ancestors of today’s hounds and spaniels. Specialty breeds really took off in the Middle Ages. Different dogs were required to hunt a wide variety of animals, such as stags, gazelles and bear, and size and traits changed. The poor old peasants weren’t allowed to hunt, but they prized small, ferocious dogs that would hunt and kill the abundant rat population.
The Renaissance saw a further refining of breeds. A wealthy merchant class had both spare cash and spare time, and dogs bred strictly as companions became popular. Hunting dogs were further developed and the basis for today’s ‘griffon’ and ‘braques’ dogs were established in France. Wealthy monarchs in Europe developed passions for certain breeds – King Charles of England had his spaniels and Charles IX of France declared a royal day of mourning when his Griffon died. Royals gave other rulers dogs as gifts, so bloodlines developed in various European regions became mixed, producing yet more breeds.
Specialty breeds found themselves in trouble once again after the French Revolution. With their aristocratic owners mostly headless, many of these breeds went into decline. Although peasants could now hunt, their needs were different, and so different breeds emerged. Gundogs were now popular and by crossing greyhounds with braques, a variety of pointers were developed.
In the 19th century many new breeds were created. This was driven both by people recreating lost ancient breeds as well as requiring yet more specific traits for working dogs. Breeds once again were refined for hunting, ratting, coursing, retrieving and as companions. With the advent of the first dogshow in 1859, the continued success of the most popular breeds was assured.
There are still many breeds who are little known to even the most enthusiastic dog fancier. Air travel made formerly isolated areas more accessible and breeds from places like Tibet became more well known. There are still breeds who have specific regional followings, but are not recognized outside their own areas. There are other breeds whose work is no longer valued due to mechanization, and many of them have faced extinction.
Whatever the breed, or mix of breed, dogs continue to hold a special place in the hearts of humans, and their importance in our lives will continue.
The Life, History and Magic of the Dog by Fernand Mery, Madison Square Press