Posted in Animals on Monday, 7 March 2011
This edited article about dogs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 913 published on 21 July 1979.
At the time when man was moving out of caves and into settlements, there was only one animal which had the courage to come near and scavenge for scraps of food. It was the dog.
As the ice retreated in the wake of the last Ice Age, the land became thickly forested. Man began to penetrate the trees in search of such prey as the elk and the aurochs – and with him went his dog.
Dogs cannot see as well as man, and are virtually colour-blind, but they have a particularly good ear. A whistle too high in the sound register to be heard by a man can be easily heard by a dog, and from a great distance as well. They also have an extremely keen sense of smell. The Swiss St Bernard, which is trained to find people lost on mountains, can locate a person buried under deep snow-drifts.
If you add intelligence, loyalty and an ability to be trained to these attributes, it is not surprising that the dog is still the most loved and respected of man’s domestic animals.
The dog, which is believed to originate from wolves and jackals, was first used for hunting purposes, to scent out the prey and flush it from the coverts. Then, as other creatures were domesticated, dogs were taught to keep them in herds and prevent them from straying. Tribes which kept reindeer found it impossible to control their herds without the help of dogs. On the edge of the Arctic Circle, the Lapps still have dogs for this purpose today.
The dog’s quickness of hearing, and its readiness to warn of the approach of strangers – which in reality is the dog’s way of defending its territory – was quickly recognised as a very useful asset. In Tibet, dogs were used for guarding property from a very early date.
By 3000 BC, four main types seem to have been in existence. The saluki, which came from Africa and Arabia, and which resembled a greyhound; the mastiff, which was bred in mountainous regions such as Greece and Tibet; the pointer, from all over Europe; and the spitz, a large, curly-haired dog found in the Arctic regions.
The Eygptians hunted in the desert, and they required speed rather than good scenting abilities from their dogs – consequently, they favoured the saluki, or greyhound type. These animals were so highly prized that they were sometimes killed, embalmed and entombed alongside their dead owners.
The Greeks were particularly fond of hunting lions, and they developed the mastiff. This was a heavy dog, which combined aggressiveness with great tenaciousness – once it has seized hold of its prey, it will not let go unless it is killed first. The Romans were also keen hunters, and when Britain became part of the Roman Empire, the excellent British hunting dog became an important export. Legend has it that St Patrick escaped from slavery in Ireland by offering his services as a handler of Irish wolfhounds to a captain taking some of these dogs to France.
The English were perhaps the most enthusiastic breeders of dogs, and they delighted in collecting dogs from all over the world. By the 1500s, they had also developed the bulldog, which, because of its tenacity, strength and courage, was used in the unpleasant sport of bull-baiting.
Today, there are over 100 officially recognised breeds of dogs, and many more which are not categorised. They can be roughly divided into groups.
Bird dogs are used in hunting game birds. Among these dogs are pointers, which smell out game, and then stiffen and silently “point” in the direction of the prey, as well as retrievers, which find birds after they have been brought down by guns.
Hounds are sporting dogs which hunt by sense of smell and sight. They are usually powerfully-built and fast runners, though some hounds, like the basset and fox hound, have shorter legs to enable them to enter a fox’s lair.
Terriers are very aggressive. They derive their names from the French word for ground – terre – because they were originally trained to go into an underground lair and fight the badgers and foxes as well as rats and vermin. They kill their prey by crushing it between their powerful jaws.
Finally, there are toy dogs. As their name suggests, these are small animals and most of them have been developed from larger dogs such as the pug, which is a type of mastiff. Sometimes these dogs are referred to as “lap dogs” – but all of them are descended from working dogs – even the poodle, which occasionally still functions in its original role as a retriever.
In fact, there seems to be no limit to the diversity found among the dog world. The smallest, the chihuahua, is about the size of a large pigeon, while the tallest, the Irish wolfhound, grows to about one metre high at the shoulder. The burly St Bernard weighs almost twice as much as a man.
Some dogs have thick, shaggy coats, and some, like the Mexican hairless, have no hair at all. Sometimes their hair is straight, sometimes it is tightly curled. But whatever their shape and colour, there is no doubt that the old saying holds true, and that the dog is still “Man’s best friend”.
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