When we think about dogs we imagine the most lovable, devoted, and loyal of all animals. Dogs, we all know, are always excited to see you and never judge you for forgetting their birthday. But in the millennia since dogs became domesticated by humans, they haven’t always been seen as “man’s best friend” and often played second–fiddle to nature’s most gorgeous sociopath, the cat.
When dogs were first domesticated, roughly 15,000 years ago and then, for a second time, roughly 12,500 years ago, it was for work purposes. They were used largely for hunting and protection. In the biblical book of Exodus, we are told that dogs do not growl at the Israelites as a sign of the divine distinction between the chosen people and the Egyptians, but the Israelites themselves do not seem to have any special affinity for the animal. The Bible repeatedly uses dogs as a symbol of stupidity, reminding readers that fools repeat their mistakes in the way that dogs return to their vomit.
The ancient Assyrians kept dogs (probably a forefather of the mastiff) for lion hunts. According to one source the seventh-century BCE governor of Babylon had so many dogs that four villages were charged with providing food for the dogs and were exempted from any other kind of taxation or state burden. Both the ancient Greeks and the Romans took dogs into battle, with considerable success. According to the Iliad, Patroclus, the lover of Achilles, had nine dogs that he allowed to eat next to his table. They were so important to Patroclus that Achilles nonchalantly slit the throats of two of them and tossed them on Patroclus’s funeral pyre. Alexander the Great supposedly named a city after his dog Peritas. There’s a pervasive internet myth that Peritas had saved Alexander’s life in battle, but there’s no ancient evidence for this story, and the fact that Alexander named a city after Peritas is not conclusive, as he also founded a city in the name of his horse, Bucephalus.
It was in the Roman period that aristocratic women began to collect attractive toy breed dogs as pets. A dog known as the “Maltese,” but probably more closely resembling the Pomeranian, was especially popular, but not exclusively for aesthetic reasons. The ancient Greek writer Callimachus (3rd century BCE) wrote that the Maltese could be placed on a person’s stomach to draw out their abdominal pain. As a result, it became fashionable to carry small dogs around close to one’s chest, a practice that exists to this day.
Even though the ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians kept dogs as pets, other Europeans were more skeptical. As useful as they were for hunting and keeping watch, dogs were not widely accepted as pets until the late Middle Ages. One reason for this was that canines had a bad reputation: they were unclean scavengers who ate food discarded or dropped by humans, but who were also known to eat corpses. Homer makes multiple references to dogs eating the bodies of the soldiers who died in the Trojan War, and in the Bible the body of famed seductress Jezebel met this fate when she was hurled out of a window.
Some Roman authorities liked to manipulate the dog’s proclivity for scavenging corpses by crucifying criminals low to the ground so that dogs could access the dead, or near dead, body. The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan has even argued that this was the eventual fate of the body of Jesus (which he does not think was properly buried, much less resurrected).
Even after they were brought inside the European home, in the twelfth century, dogs could be a problematic presence, especially in the delicate matters of politics. The rupture between church and state caused by Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was hastened by the misbehavior of one poorly trained dog. When Cardinal Woolsey, Henry VIII’s envoy, arrived in Rome to try and negotiate an annulment for the King with Pope Clement VII, his dog Urian bit Clement’s toe on their first meeting. When, as was customary, Clement extended his leg to Woolsey so that he could kiss it, the dog leapt forward and bit him. The incident apparently drove Clement into a rage, and negotiations got off on the wrong foot.
By the eighteenth century people, broadly speaking, had fallen in love with their dogs. Lord Byron wrote poetry for his dogs and people offered large sums of money for the safe return of missing pets. However, one of the driving forces behind the animal rights movement was animal experimentation. Eighteenth-century medical experiments often used dogs as subjects. Dr. John Hunter’s work on artificial respiration and resuscitation involved cutting open a dog’s chest while it was breathing to see how its lungs worked. It was experiments like this that led ethicists like Jeremy Bentham to start advocating for better treatment of animals. In a ground-breaking statement, Bentham made the case that horses and dogs are intellectually superior to newborns, and thus deserve respect: “A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month old.”
Some animal rights activists took this principle to its extremes. In Ireland, Protestant animal rights activist, politician, and famous dueler Richard “Hair-Trigger Dick” Martin once got into a duel in order to avenge the death of his friend’s wolfhound. Martin was rumored to have successfully fought in 100 duels, and during this duel the dog’s killer survived only because he was wearing the eighteenth-century equivalent of a bulletproof vest. Martin also survived (despite being struck in the chest) and went on to become the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
For others, love of their dogs extends even beyond the grave. Frederick the Great, the deliciously eccentric king of Prussia known for his military prowess and love of potatoes, requested to be buried next to his favorite dogs. His request was ignored by his successor, who buried him in Potsdam garrison church, and he was only returned to the palace, and the tombs of his dogs, at Sanssouci 205 years later. Frederick was neither the first nor the last to be buried with his dogs. The Roman historian Pliny the Younger tells us that children were sometimes buried with their pets, and the remains of Viking burials reveal that dogs followed their masters to Valhalla. Even though dog-human burials are fairly common in a variety of ancient cultures, it’s difficult to know if this was a sign of affection. In Viking burials, for examples, dogs seem to have been included as guides. Scholarly theories about other burial sites include the idea that dogs were buried with humans in order to provide protection, rather than affection, in the afterlife.
Arguably, however, no community has loved its dogs so much as the town of Neuville in the Dombes region of France. In the thirteenth century a Dominican friar traveling in the region ran across the story of Guinefort, a servant in the household of a local aristocratic family. One day the lord and lady of the manor went out, leaving their young infant in the charge of the servants. A serpent entered the child’s bedroom, headed towards the cradle. Guinefort, who was watching the child at the time, saw the serpent and tried to catch it, overturning the cradle and being injured in the process. When the family returned they found the bedroom in disarray, Guinefort injured on the ground, and blood splattered everywhere. A fellow servant accused Guinefort of attacking the child and the father quickly drew his sword and killed Guinefort. It was only later that the family found the child uninjured and realized what had happened.
After her death Guinefort was buried and local people began to venerate her grave. She became known as St. Guinefort and people used to bring their sick children to her grave in the hope that she could offer some protection to them. All of which would be a whole lot more intelligible if it weren’t for the fact that Guinefort was a greyhound.
In the sixteenth century church officials, bowing to the pressure of Protestant ridicule of the “greyhound saint,” tried to eliminate the practice and crush the cult of St. Guinefort. No such luck. Even after World War I people were still venerating Guinefort. The treatment of Guinefort is a testimony to how much people love dogs and saints, but it’s also representative of a period in which animals could sometimes be treated as people. Pigs in this period were regularly tried for murdering infants and small children. In one such case in 1386, a pig was dressed in human clothing before she was hung. Similarly in 1750, when a donkey was put on trial for an improper sexual relationship with a man called Jacques Ferron, a number of local people testified that the she-ass was an “honest creature” and she was acquitted (Ferron was hanged).
It’s easy to see why, as people began to regard animals in general as having human qualities, dogs would start to gain a reputation for loyalty and devotion. If pigs were seen as low-key killers, dogs began to gain a reputation for being “man’s best friend.” But if Games of Thrones and macabre news stories have taught us anything it’s that canine behavior is contextual. As long as they have food dogs are devoted companions; deprive them of it for long enough and we start to look good enough to eat.