Mark Twain observed: “Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
The dog is humanity’s oldest and most loyal friend and companion since the beginning of time. Changes during the course of Earth’s evolution, at least 32,000 years ago, resulted in nomadic tribes needing to seek an alliance with dogs. They would guard them against predators or other tribes intent on a violent encounter. They hunted together, the children played with puppies, and later on, when people acquired livestock, they would help the herdsmen. There are realistic drawings of dogs in caves dating from the 3rd-2nd millennium BC.
To ancient tribes all over the world, the dog would also represent a spiritual link with their forefathers who would take on the appearance of a dog. Those tribes were not connected in any way, living in different parts of the globe, yet their elders would tell similar stories about the legend that had humans and dogs closely related. The natives of Alaska believed that their ancestors had been huskies, others in Indonesia, China and Scythia, all believed that they descended from dogs.
The ancient Egyptians believed that when they died, they would be going to the Duat, the Kingdom of the Dead. The ruler of the Kingdom of the Dead was Anubis, a man with the head of a jackal or a dog. It was Anubis who would lead a dead Egyptian to a place of judgment. On the way, they would pass stone statues and columns entwined with living snakes. In the last chamber, the dead would have to undergo the judgment of their life’s deeds. On the one side of the scales, there would be a feather, on the other the dead man’s heart. If his heart wouldn’t outweigh the feather, he would be pronounced worthy of resurrection, of further life. His soul would be sent to paradise, and his body to be embalmed. Anubis was thought to have invented embalming himself and the priest who did the embalming would wear a dog’s mask during the procedure.
The hunting dogs of the pharaohs and nobility were highly respected and when they died, they were embalmed and buried in their own cemeteries. The first dog that we know of from those ancient times is the dog described on his sarcophagus as “The hound Abuwtiyuw, favourite of the Pharaoh”, found in the cemetery in Giza.
In ancient Greece, dogs were not given the status of deities but would accompany the gods in the same way as they did humans. Dogs were often depicted accompanying Hermes, the patron of travellers. He was also the guardian of secret knowledge and lead the dead soul to the next world, with which the dog was linked. The Greek goddess Artemis (Diana in Roman mythology), was always surrounded by dogs while hunting, as was the goddess of the night, Hecate, also seen hunting with dogs.
When an ancient Hindu died, his body would be cremated on a funeral pyre and the mourners in the procession were singing to Yama, the ruler of the underworld:
“We send him to you
under the protection of the two loyal hounds
The four-eyed guardians of the roads…”
The hounds were dogs of noble pedigree, their mother being a personal dog of the main deity of ancient Hindus, the goddess Indra.
In Iran, the Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Iranian religion, had an interesting way of obtaining the goodwill of the dog that guides the souls of the dead into the next world across the pernicious Chinvat bridge. A righteous man would cross easily and enter paradise, but a sinner would slip off into the abyss of hell. In the hope of help from the dog at that crucial moment, each Zoroastrian would try to feed some canine at least once a day in their lifetime.
In ancient times the calendar created thousands of years ago in South-East Asia, in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, and a few other countries, always included the dog. The eleventh year of each cycle is the Year of the Dog. It is believed that people who are born in these years are loyal, determined, responsive and dependable to fulfill their obligations, but also unsociable and not inclined to express their feelings openly.
The ancient Roman calendar was based on the movements of heavenly bodies. The Romans didn’t see just stars in the night sky, but whole scenes and pictures that included a pair of hounds straining on a huntsman’s leash, called the constellation Canes Venatici – the ‘hunting dogs’. Close by, a small dog is resting – Canis Minor. Over there a dog sitting down – Canis Major. The brightest star, Sirius, in summer made Rome so hot that the city’s institution would take a break from work – the ‘dog days’.
The ancient Sumerians called Sirius ‘the dog of the Sun’. The ancient Egyptians worshipped Sirius, and Greeks would follow suit making sacrifices in the hope that the blistering heat would not damage their crops.
The Chinese would not make any important decisions without consulting a calendar. For example, there could be no marriage of two people born under two incompatible signs, say – those born in the Year of the Dog and those born in the Year of the Rooster. The early Chinese calendar shows the rooster running away from the dog.
Medieval knights were often represented on their sarcophagi with their feet resting on a dog, in order to show the Christian promise to the Lord to follow faithfully as a dog follows his master.
In present times dogs are often present in our vocabulary, from the affectionate saying ‘you old dog’, and ‘dog-like devotion’, to ‘barking up under the wrong tree’ and ‘barking mad’, and ‘go see a man about a dog’ which suggests a desire to cover up one’s real actions. It is an excuse offered if one wishes to be discreet and avoid giving the true reason for leaving the room. The phrase originally referred to betting on dog racing. The commonly used phrase ‘every dog has its day’ originated from Shakespeare’s Hamlet –
‘Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew, and the dog will have his day.’
It means that everyone will have a chance one day; everyone will have a moment of success or of being important. Another phrase ‘the hair of the dog‘, refers to a remedy after a hangover. Another one is ‘dog-tired’.
The First Prime Minister of Great Britain, Robert Walpole coined the saying ‘Let sleeping dogs lie.’
Today’s PM Boris Johnson recently welcomed to Number 10, his new assistant, a puppy called Dilyn, that was rescued from a puppy farm. As it had a defect, he was going to be put down. Rescued, and now in perfect health after medical treatment, Dilyn is already a great presence on social media and has a massive following.
Dogs are included in the family lives of ordinary people and the lives of the greats. The Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC has a bronze of the President’s best-known companion, a Scottish terrier called Fala.
It is noted that about 1 million dogs in the United States are the beneficiaries of their owners’ wills. One epitaph on a dog’s gravestone in Maryland states:
“Major”, born a dog, died a gentleman.”
A few writers, dog lovers, wrote their thoughts about dogs:
Plato – ‘dog has the soul of a philosopher.’
James Thurber – “The dog has seldom been successful in pulling man up to his level of sagacity but man has frequently dragged the dog down to his.”
Aldous Huxley – “To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.”
Woodrow Wilson – “If a dog will not come to you having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience.”
Milan Kundera – “Dogs are our links to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace,”
Groucho Marx – “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend, inside a dog it’s too dark to read.”
Phil Pastoret – “If you think that dogs can’t count, try putting three biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two of them.”
Dean Koontz – “Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one, is a life diminished.”
John Steinbeck wrote about his travels with his dog, Charley in the book ‘My Travels with Charley’. It was his last written work before he died.
An interesting fact: during the sinking of the Titanic two dogs, a Pekingese and a Pomeranian, survived because they were lucky enough to find places with their owners in the very few lifeboats that left the ship early. A third dog, a big Newfoundland, had also survived by swimming by the side of another lifeboat to which it was instrumental in guiding eventual rescues.
The St Bernard dog was named after the Great Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps where the dogs were trained to seek out and rescue travellers caught in winter emergencies, like an avalanche. Some carry a miniature barrel of brandy to help revive the traveller.
In present times dogs are indispensable to us in so many ways. Firefighters rely on dogs’ help in tracing the cause of fires, border control officers rely on a dog’s superior (to human) sense of smell to find hidden caches of drugs, blind people can lead independent lives, guided safely by their dogs, deaf people can continue to work in places like schools, which would not be possible without their dogs, children with autism or people with a variety of mental health issues blossom when they have the close companionship of their dogs – and that is only a few examples of how much dogs do for us. There are many books that describe the profound effect that the love of a dog has on those bereaved or in turmoil. One of the best is a book by Bel Mooney “A small dog saved my life.” I wrote in a previous post about a Jack Russell terrier, called Popsie by his previous owner, who helped my daughter during her dark moments. Here is Popsie, the greatest stress-relieving therapist looking at you.
In a special category are the books describing the bravery of dogs of war. Many stated clearly that these dogs saved their lives not only on the battlegrounds of Iraq, Afghanistan or other warzones, but crucially after their return to civilian life, often severely disabled, but with their best friend, their dog, by their side. One such story is that of Lucca, a highly-skilled military dog, trained to sniff out deadly explosives on the battlefields, and putting her life on the line of duty. Her devotion to the soldiers who relied on her for survival earned her the Dickin Medal for bravery in war.
I must mention again ‘fabulous Finn’ who saved the life of police officer, Dave Wardell. The dog suffered incredible injuries but survived and is adored by Dave who regards Finn as a hero. They live now together in happy retirement and their actions brought the new law: Finn’s Law.
I would like to finish this post (I could go for much longer!), by showing how inspiring dogs are in providing us with much-needed entertainment. Photographer Dan Borris and his yoga teacher wife, Alejandra came with an ingenious idea of doing yoga with rescue dogs. With a little help of camera trickery, the dogs become pin-ups. Here is Dotty, a Dalmatian showing off the lotus position, while her friend is perfecting the hind leg twist.
Two ingenious New Yorkers, Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers, created a series of books about dogs that are made of fruits and vegetables. Here are some of their wonderful creations:
And finally, a great British eccentric at his inventive best – amateur photographer, Chris Porsz, a paramedic, has been taking quirky pictures of dogs for the past forty years. He travelled to many cities across the world and took hundreds of photographs for his book “Barking.” The picture below was taken in Union Square in New York of a dog leaping through the air to catch a ball. I particularly love his methods of encouraging the dogs to do crazy things – Chris says: ‘Most of my pictures are candid, but I often find some of the best have been when a dog sees me and reacts. I look for eye contact and sometimes even do a little bark or woof to encourage them.’ Priceless!
Recently I read this remark that I find most compelling: ‘I strive to be the man my dog thinks I am.’