by Jacob Silkstone. The Browser on... is a weekly series of selections from our archives in conversation.
A quick google search will inform you that the phrase “a dog is a man’s best friend” originated with King Frederick the Great of Prussia, describing his beloved greyhound in 1789. This seems unlikely: for one thing, King Frederick the Great died in 1786. He did ask to be buried with his greyhounds, though, and he also founded Germany’s first veterinary school, and issued decrees to protect plants.
Writing in the TLS, David E. Cooper suggests that even in Palaeolithic tribes, dogs would almost certainly have been “companions first and workers second.”
The usual utilitarian view that dogs were first put to practical uses – hunting, guarding, pulling – and only later became inserted into family life as pets is implausible.... Konrad Lorenz was right to speculate that the appeal which playful puppies have for children, and indeed their parents, was crucial to their adoption into our ancestors’ communities. Nor should one ignore the emotional service that dogs – their geniality and affection increasingly selected for over the centuries – have rendered to humankind, in addition to their contributions as herders, hunters, guides and much else.
The value of those contributions has continued to increase. In History Today, Beatrice Johnston describes the later Middle Ages as “one of the most ‘doggy’ periods in history”:
Hunting and hawking were by far the most popular sports of the leisured classes, who also liked keeping dogs simply as pets; and the rest of the population used them for protection and herding. Performing dogs were much admired, and people loved to hear fabulous yarns of the extraordinary fidelity and intelligence of dogs.... A greyhound, the favoured gift of princes, was the usual hero of the medieval dog story... This paragon was the noble lord’s special pet, and his effigy was often placed on tombstones at his master’s feet.
There was even once a dog saint; near Lyon a greyhound was said to have killed a dangerous serpent attacking his master’s child and, like the mythical Gelert, was himself slain on suspicion when the child could not be found. Afterwards his remorseful master buried him honourably beneath a cairn of stones where trees were planted in his memory. Later the dog was revered as St Greyhound, or St Guinefort, and rites were held at the grave for sickly children suspected of being changelings.
By the Victorian Era, Colin Dickey (writing in LARB) records that dogs were viewed rather differently, noting the sinister undertones to high society’s obsession with breeding and bloodlines:
Dogs had ceased to be dogs and become commodities… things that could be quantified, sorted, shaped, and judged.... Victorians were in many ways obsessed with reimagining domestic spaces and who belonged in them — an obsession that was particularly acute in some of the most beloved literature of the time, from the Brontës to Dickens.... As breed culture developed, it soon borrowed from phrenology and eugenics, attempting to recreate class values in the world of the dog… The emphasis on cultivating aesthetic features through breeding and developing “pure” blood lines for the improvement of the breed had all the hallmarks of the burgeoning science of eugenics.
In the middle of the following century, dogs were very much part of the war effort, as Jason Daley explains in Truly Adventurous:
At the outbreak of World War II, the Germans had an estimated 200,000 highly trained dogs trotting at the heels of their armies. They even sent 25,000 trained sentries to the Japanese military. The usefulness of the German K-9 units had quickly convinced the British and French to establish their own war dog programs in the early 1940s.
Meanwhile, in the US, socialite Arlene Erlanger was the driving force behind ‘Dogs for Defense’:
She was one of the first people in the United States to breed the then-exotic poodle. In 1937, her black standard poodle, Rumpelstiltskin, won the American Kennel Club’s Best in Show… A who’s who of the dog world immediately joined the ranks of Dogs for Defense... Hollywood celebrity Greer Garson gave her prized poodle, Clicquot. Rudy Vallee, a popular singer and one of the first teen idols, enlisted his Doberman Pinscher, King. Ezio Pinza, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera, donated his two Dalmatians…
But, of course, not everyone agrees that dogs should play so large a role in our lives. Dormin presents an extended case against owning dogs at all:
Most dogs in the Western world have miserable existences. Their subservience to their owners may very well be a product of meaninglessness and boredom rather than organic appreciation.... I think of dog owners kind of the same way I think of people who have sex with furniture. Even if there isn’t something wrong with the act itself, being into the act indicates something very wrong with the actor.
Basically, dog owners seem to enjoy indulging in a feeling of unearned dominance over another being. They like the idea of having a fairly emotionally sophisticated animal being completely dependent upon them. And they especially enjoy the Stockholm Syndrome-esque sense of loyalty the animal develops to the entity upon which its continued survival entirely depends.… If you were a sociopathic businessman trying to create an industry to exploit people’s emotions for money, you could not possibly design a more perfect racket than dog ownership.
It seems safe to assume that Frederick the Great would have disagreed....
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David E. Cooper, The Ways of Dog to Mann
Beatrice Johnston, The World of Medieval Dogdom
Colin Dickey, Companion and Commodity: The Victorian Dog
Jason Daley, Dogs of War
Dormin, Against Dog Ownership