The old claim that a dog is one’s best friend is validated through historical records, be it art, folklore or books. Yet it requires no proof to anyone lucky enough to enjoy the company of a dog in modern day’s society. The stories and the inspiration behind art such as this is what fuels my writing.
I invite you to travel with me through a fast-paced, awe-inspiring journey from the past’s “once upon a time” to the 20th century illustrating the human-dog bond.
More to come in the following weeks on the astounding role dogs, these silent heroes, played during the Great War, World War II, the Vietnam Wat, and the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as what it takes to become a Military Working Dog.
How dogs helped the human brain to evolve
There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that, at some stage during their passing on this planet, humans decided to domesticate wolves (the grey wolf). Why they did it, choosing a breed they will have to compete against for food, is mysterious enough to feed the imagination of many writers.
Perhaps domesticating the cunning foxes failed or it was the super-olfactory ability of dogs that triggered the human determination. Or was it all a coincidence? Theories speak of more than one time when human attempted to domesticate dogs, starting as far as 20 000 – 32 000 years ago.
What is certain is that the canines evolutionary journey from wolves to dogs happened simultaneously with the human’s development of speech (about 150 000 years ago). The time when our ancestors’ acute olfactory capabilities began to diminish, their brain accommodating the extra neural synapses and cortex area dedicated to verbal communication.No wonder that dogs , with their super-olfactory ability, looked, all of a sudden, so much more appealing to have as companions. Not mentioning the cuteness of their puppies.
Footprints in the Chauvet Cave: a child and his dog
Chauvet Cave located in the southern France is renowned as the site of some of the world’s oldest mural paintings, and not only.
At the back of the cave the soil and rock have preserved the footprints of a small child (estimated at about 1,4 m height and 8-10 years old) walking beside a dog. The trace is 45 meters long, enough for scientists to analyze and conclude that the child was walking and not running. What is amazing is that the prints he left show that at some stage the child slipped in the soft clay and that at some stage he stopped to clean his torch (proven by the stain of charcoal left behind).
Alongside the child’s footprints are those of a large dog or a wolf friend.
Dogs in Mesopotamia: The Epic of Gilgamesh
I still remember learning n school about oldest piece of epic world literature, written c. 2150 – 1400 BCE – that is 1500 years before Homer even put pen on paper.
It explores a theme as old as humankind, he quest for the meaning of life.
Dogs are mentioned and shown their importance in everyday life: they are the companions of one of the most popular goddesses of the region, the goddess Innana (Ishtar). She travels with seven prized hunting dogs in collar and leash.
Dogs in Mahabharata, the longest epic poem ever written
Also from school (who would have thought?) I remember the Mahabharata as being one of the most important texts of ancient Indian and world literature.
Written 400 BCE the Mahabharata features a dog that might have been an Indian Pariah Dog.
“The dog must come with me,” said YudhisthiraMahabharata
“That is not possible,” said Indra. “All cannot attain heaven. The dog is old and thin and has no value.”
“In that case, I do not seek heaven, “replied Yudhisthira. “The dog was my faithful companion and I cannot abandon it. It sought my help and gave me unconditional love. The pleasures of heaven will mean nothing to me in comparison to its grief. It has done nothing to deserve abandonment and had none of the weaknesses of my wife and brothers. If it does not deserve to go to heaven, then neither do I.”
More proof that dogs have been part of human life before they were even mentioned in written is depicted by art. Plenty of canines decorations are found in temples, mosaics, artifacts, paintings from all over the world.
The Colima Dog
One of the first tangible proofs of human-dog interaction is the Colima Dog, West Mexico, dating to the Late Formative Period (300 BC-300 AD).
Art often represented themes important to the culture: weddings, children’s births, and royal feasts.
Made of terracotta (earth) clay burned in an oven, the Colima Dog shows a hairless dogs symbolizing both life and death themes, through its association with the places where he was found, near food (grains) remains and graves.
Dogs in antiquity: China
I feel I should mention dogs in ancient China because modern dog’s DNA analysis shows that all present dog breeds stem from the grey wolf in China that was tamed around 16 000 years ago. At the same time wild rice was used extensively, agriculture developed and first villages appeared.
Furthermore, the Chinese honored the dogs for thousands of years. Remember that Dog is one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. People born under this sign are said to be loyal, trustworthy, and kind, qualities often associated with the dog.
There is a lovely Chinese saying translating in:
‘a dog would not mind if its master is poor, a son would not mind if his mother is ugly.’Chinese proverb
Let’s skip past sacrifices and dogs as a food source.
The Dog from Pompeii
Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern-day Naples, in Campania, Southern Italy. It became renowned after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying the city and its inhabitants in 4 to 6m of ash and pumice. Today Pompeii is a precious, well-preserved archeological site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A dog mosaic was found in “The House of the Tragic Poet” – proof of the Pompeian love and appreciation for canines.
“CAVE CANEM” = BEWARE OF THE DOG
A Roman dog footprint, a Greek pot and a dog cameo
I particularly love this dog footprint on a Roman terracotta, next to a statuette of a dog displayed in Vidy Roman Museum, Lausanne, Switzerland. I think it depicts the human’s affection and longing towards his departed dog.
This typical Leagros Group artwork of the 6th century Greek art is striking. And it depicts the close relationship between men, dogs and horses. So much is said with the use of only a few colors.
In the Georgian National Museum there is this Roman cameo of a dog. It looks like it is carved in stone with an oval frame hand made out of ceramic and, perhaps, sealed with gold. I love the dog’s playful pose. It tells of his comfortable life. Romans appreciated the dogs for their fidelity. I wonder if the woman wearing this cameo led a happy life.
Did you know that the Greeks were the first to carve stone in relief, in fifth century B.C., the antecedents of cameos? The carving principles they implemented are still in use today.
Dogs frolicking in The Wedding Feast at Cana
Fast forward to the 16th century and I want to mention The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563), by the Italian artist Paolo Veronese because I got to see it with my own eyes.
Don’t be out off by its size (70 m², taking Veronese 15 months to paint it – and not alone). It tells a beautiful biblical story of the Marriage at Cana, at which Jesus converts water to wine. Plus there are dogs painted right in the center (it is said the painter himself is the one in white, holding the viola)
and one other dog is in the left.
Notice how Jesus is placed in the center of the wedding feast? The bride and groom are at the left end of the table. Jesus performed his first miracle at Cana, turning water into wine.
Finally, a 16th century book on dogs!
“Lawes of the Forrest” by John Manwood is a book with a full 141 words title. The book was first published for private circulation in 1592. The 1598 edition is the oldest book in the library of London’s Kennel Club—the “biggest library of books about dogs” in Europe.
Apparently during the 16th century was easier to keep “little dogs”. For greyhounds or mastiffs one needed special hunting license issued by the king! Talk about bureaucracy.
Gaugan’s puppies and Dogs Playing Poker
We’ll sail past the 19th century “Life with Three Puppies” by Paul Gauguin, inspired by Japanese prints and children’s book illustrations. Just look at those tails!
I hope you will have a good laugh at this American artwork that came shortly after Gaugain’s: “Dogs Playing Poker” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, 19th to 20th century. Dogs do observe human faces and often copy us – any dog lover knows.
While other pets and animals have undergone substantial changes in the way they are perceived throughout history dogs have endured the marks of wars and joys alongside humans, as constant companions, protectors and, of course, friends, as we have seen portrayed by the art of various cultures around the world.
I hope you will return to find out more about the way dogs and humans have faced together the many wars of the 20th and the 21st century.
My latest book is ‘Silent Heroes’, a highly emotional read, action-packed, a vivid story of enormous sacrifice and bravery that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is a book extremely well researched, with authentic details and an epic sense of the place. The war and the military involved, Marines and dogs, are described with reverence, as are the civilians caught in the middle of the fire.