Ancient Dogs – The History of Man’s Best Friend
The relationship between man and dog has existed since prehistory. Dogs have provided work, entertainment, comfort and companionship, and sometimes clothing and food to humans since ancient times. From the earliest caveman who befriended a feral dog as a hunting partner to modern movies in which dogs have the starring role, the two species have had a mutually beneficial alliance.
All modern dog breeds are descendants of ancient wolf species. As man began to desire dogs with specific characteristics hundreds of breeds were developed. Stone age man domesticated early dogs and trained them to assist in the hunt for game, so it’s no surprise that most of the documented ancient dog breeds still in existence are in the hunting group. Greyhound-type breeds, such as the Saluki, Afghan hound, and the Basenji have been around for thousands of years.
The Saluki is probably the oldest known domesticated breed and originated in Persia. The breed was highly valued by the Bedouins for hunting gazelle and hare. These nomadic tribes brought the Saluki into many regions. Also known as the “Royal Dog of Egypt,” the Saluki appears on Egyptian tombs that date to 2100 B.C. and was often mummified. A reserved and usually quiet breed, the name saluki is from the Arabic word for “noble one.”
The Basenji originated in Africa, where locals prized the breed for its hunting ability, courage and speed. The Basenji is still a valuable asset in Africa where it may warn against approaching danger, serve as a guide through the jungles and aid in the hunt for small game.
Man also took advantage of dogs’ natural prey instinct to train them to herd sheep and cattle, allowing farmers and ranchers to control a large number of animals with less manpower. Dogs were, and still are, also used to guard livestock from predators.
During the reign of the ancient Greeks, and later during the Roman empire, dogs were valued not only for the work of hunting, herding and guarding they provided, but as beloved companions. Not all dogs during this era were so lucky, however, as ancient Romans began collecting dogs and other animals from all over the world to provide gruesome entertainment at the Coliseum.
In the Far East, the type of life a dog led was determined by the breed. The Shar-pei was used as a fighting dog, and accompanied Mongolian armies as they invaded China and other neighboring countries in the 12th century. Buddhist temples employed them as guard dogs. The versatile and sturdy Shar-pei also was a valuable hunting, herding and freighting dog.
The ancient Chinese revered the Pekingese. The breed was considered a guardian spirit because it resembled the Chinese lion. Highly prized house pets in the Imperial Court, Pekingese were bred to be companions to the Emperor, his eunuchs and his ladies. These pampered dogs even had their own royal servants! The breed has hardly changed in 2000 years, although modern breeders prefer the long-haired variety to the traditional curly coat. Today’s Pekingese owners can testify to the breed’s “royal” personality!
The Akita Inu originated in Japan. Used as a guard dog for the Imperial Palace, then later for hunting deer and bear, the Akita was also used as a fighting dog. The Akita was often crossed with other breeds and at one time very few of the original breed remained. The Japanese Akita Inu has been revived and today reputable breeders will not breed for aggressive traits. The Akita is an excellent house dog, quiet, very clean and easy to house train. The first Akita was brought to the U.S. by Helen Keller and later by U.S. servicemen returning from Japan
In Europe during the Middle Ages, lap dogs became common among the ladies of the court, probably for the warmth they provided! By now, dogs were everywhere, even in church where parishioners used them as foot warmers.
The Alaskan Malamute descends from dogs domesticated by tribal groups above the Arctic circle. During the frigid arctic nights dogs would sleep with their owners; the coldest nights were a literal “three dog night.” The relationship between man and dog in the inhospitable climate allowed both to flourish. During the Klondike Gold Rush, Malamutes were valuable as sled dogs used to freight supplies to settlers in the villages and camps. The breed also accompanied Admiral Richard Byrd to the South Pole.
Dogs still assist man in hunting, herding, freighting, search and rescue, police and military work, and serve sight- and hearing-impaired individuals. They enjoy our company as companions and eager playmates. The dog’s desire for our love and attention even allows those with gentle temperaments to provide comfort to hospitalized and institutionalized patients. All states now have laws allowing “therapy dogs” in such environments.
Families who own a companion dog often consider it a member of the family. All over the country more public places are welcoming dogs. Motels, pet stores, campgrounds, parks and even restaurants that cater especially to dogs and their owners are springing up rapidly. Doggy apparel, toys, gourmet diets and other products for dogs are a booming industry. Our love affair with dogs who love and serve us only grows deeper.