Dogs have historically performed many roles for humans, such as herding, protection, assisting police, companionship, and aiding the handicapped. The tale of “man’s best friend” is a lengthy and intimate history that has lasted for thousands of years, and transcends modern cultural boundaries. Canines appear as poignant characters with symbolic meaning in mythological stories, famous works of art, and religious texts.
As you snuggle up to your own furry best friend, discover more about the cultural history of dogs via the ten facts below:
- It is likely that dogs were the first species of animal to be domesticated by humans. In North America, evidence suggests that dogs were present among the first human colonizers of the continent, and were used to assist with hunting as early as 10,000 BCE.
- Dogs are initially descended from the miacis, a mammal that inhabited tree tops 40 million years ago. A more recent and familiar ancestor is the wolf. Today, dogs exist in approximately 400 different breeds, both wild and domesticated.
- For over thirty centuries, dogs have been a significant figure in Celtic mythology across a variety of contrasting contexts. Their numerous roles can be generally summarized in terms of healing, hunting, or death.
- A dog’s own saliva has remarkable healing properties, and for this reason it is often helpful when they lick their own wounds.
- When they appear in Early Christian artwork, dogs are most often regarded as a friend of man or symbol of fidelity. One notable example of this symbolic role as applied to a marital bond may be found in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, today housed in London’s National Gallery.
- Domini canes – a pun involving the Latin name for the Dominican Order of Preachers, Dominicanes – is taken to mean watch-dogs of the Lord. They appear in various artworks as black and white dogs, parallel with the colors of the Dominican habit, often guarding a flock of sheep.
- In the Bible, dogs are generally seen as destructive and violent. The Jews in the New Testament saw them as unclean scavengers and thus used the term ‘dog’ as a derogatory word by which to reference the Gentiles.
- In traditional Islamic contexts, dogs are considered impure and unclean. A hadith even declares that anything or anyone to come in contact with a dog’s saliva must undergo a thorough ritual cleaning. However, the dog is referenced on five occasions in a positive manner within the Quran.
- According to English Folklore, dogs are able to sense eerie or unsettling circumstances and when they howl unprompted, it is an indicator of death or evil nearby.
- More dogs are named in the works of Shakespeare than any other kind of animal. These include the hunting dogs and the spirits that appear in the shape of a dog, as well as a few pets. The term ‘dog’ also appears frequently as an insult throughout many of his plays.
Featured image credit: Man’s best friend. Photo by HomeSpotHQ. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.