Have Dogs Always Been “Man’s Best Friend”?

Have dogs always been man’s best friend? Sadly not, a look back over the last few centuries reveals that the attitude society has had toward dogs has made a dramatic turn in their favor…and in ours.

There is no doubt that dogs and man are currently sharing in a mutual symbiotic relationship. We provide for their physical needs and they provide us with companionship and unconditional love. According to the American Kennel Club, there are more pet dogs in the USA than there are people in Britain. However, it wasn’t always so. A look back over previous centuries gives some clues to the progression of dogs climbing the social ladder right into man’s lap.

 The name dog was first preceded by the Anglo-Saxon word ‘hound’, which was also used in other European languages. ‘Dog’, as well as several other animal names ending in ‘g’, like frog, hog, and pig, seems to have come into existence around the 13th century for reasons that no one is very sure about.

Dogs were kept for hunting and defense and not as pets up until the 18th century. There was one exception to that rule as John Evelyn recorded in his Diary, circa 1684, concerning ‘lap-dogs’ which he describes as a dog fit only for ladies:

Those Lap-dogs had so in delicijs [delight] by the Ladies – are a pigmie sort of Spaniels.

Lap-dogs apart, the phrases used to refer to dogs in the 16th and 17th centuries indicate their image as being vicious and disease-ridden:

Hair of the dog that bit you, first used in 1546 as a reference to rabies
Cast someone to the dogs, 1556
Dog in the manger , 1564
If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas, 1573
The dogs of war, 1601
Go to the dogs, 1619

Also, phrases that indicate the treatment of dogs show that they were considered to be of little worth:

Lead a dog’s life (1528)
Not fit for a dog (1625)
As sick as a dog (1705)

They were so looked down upon that dog hangings were a common occurrence as punishment for any ill behavior. The phrase ‘give a dog a bad name’, 1705, was originally ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’.

It is clear that things began to take a turn for the better later in the 18th century when the term ‘dog-basket’ appeared in the year 1768, suggesting the need for a special bed for the furry fellows as evidence of the growing acceptance and care that people began to provide. This shift in outlook continued steadily and in 1823 we first find ‘dog biscuits’, followed in 1852 by ‘dog show’. By the mid 20th century we find clear evidence that a dog was to be considered almost on the same plane as humanity – ‘dog-sitter’ (1942).

Finally, in 1821, we find the idea recorded for the first time in print suggesting that a dog is a man’s best friend. The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:

The faithful dog – why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man’s best friend
Does often at his heels attend.

In 1870, we hear the idea elaborated on in Warrensburg, Missouri, in a court room of all places, as though it is a fact of life. After a farmer shot a neighbor’s dog, in the subsequent court case where the owner sued for damages, the lawyer George Graham Vest gave a tear-jerking speech that became known as the Eulogy to a Dog:

“Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.” – And so on…

A statue of Old Drum, as the dog had been called, stands outside the town’s courtroom. And the phrase has been common place ever since.

Comments are closed.