Dogs in History and Mythology

Dogs have been associated with humans throughout the ages, and played a significant role in the transition from hunter-gatherer to an agricultural way of life. Without the assistance of the dog, humans may have taken longer to hunt successfully. Later on, dogs were used to guard homesteads and livestock and have also been used to pull carts, run alongside carriages and rescue people from the sea and snow.
Existing archaeological evidence indicates that the dog was domesticated in the Nile Valley by 7500 BC. In Egypt, dogs were used to herd and protect flocks, guard temples, and were also kept just as "lapdogs". Although the Egyptians developed distinct breeds of dog, the most well known of these is almost identical to the modern day saluki. The ancient Egyptians believed that all animals, including dogs, possessed souls and thus proper funeral arrangements were made and animals were mummified with humans. One of the oldest portrayals of a dog in this society is the "Khufu Dog", appearing on the tomb of King Khufu (also known as King Cheops), who lived around 3730 BC. It was King Khufu who was responsible for the building of the Great Pyramid. Dog worship originated in part from Sirius, the Dog Star, which was highly significant to this ancient culture. Another reason for the dog being held in such high esteem originated around the story of Isis, who was assisted by a dog in her search for Osiris.

After the Greek conquest of Egypt, Anubis, the dog / jackal-headed Egyptian god, was combined with Hermes the Greek god of travellers and later became known as Hermanubis. Thereafter the cult of Anubis increased in popularity and the temple in Alexandria was one of the richest locations in the ancient world. The sacred dogs were kennelled in the temple and were ritually fed by priests. The city of Cynopolis (Dog City) was the centre of this cult and it was considered murder to kill a dog within its boundaries.

Hermanubis had to change names to gain acceptance into the mainstream Christian faith. In Greek Orthrodox and Byzantine churches he became St Christopher, the protector of travellers, and is depicted as a man with a dog's head.

Originally dogs were considered to be the companions of the Goddess, and Cybele, Artemis, Diana and Hecate, were all accompanied by dogs. In Egypt and Babylon, dogs also featured as feminine symbols. In Babylon, four towns were given exemption from taxes in return for breeding Mastiffs for the army.

Dogs were also venerated in Japan because of their connection with the god Omisoto. When dogs died, they were buried in a standing position, with their heads left above the ground so that for days afterwards, people would come and lay food offerings beside them.

In India, Vedic records refer to the moon as the gate of death, ruled by the goddess Sarama and her two dogs. The term "son of a bitch" was coined to refer to a follower of the Goddess, and became derogatory when male dominated religions surfaced. The association with the moon goddess led to the dog being viewed as unclean and evil in Semite cultures.

Although dogs are mentioned in the Old Testament, they tend to be regarded with scorn and hatred by the Hebrews, who generally held them in low esteem. In Islamic culture, women and dogs are not allowed to approach holy shrines. In cultures such as these (the same as in Western culture), the word dog is used as an extreme insult.

The Berbers of North Africa on the other hand, believe that it is a sin to kill a dog and whoever does so, remains unclean forever.

Australian aborigines wore few clothes and used their dogs to keep warm at night. The temperature was measured in terms of how many dogs one needed to keep warm on a particular night.

According to Credo Mutwa, in African legend it was not humans who first tamed dogs, but dogs that adopted humans. Traditional Africans have long considered the dog to be a protector and saviour and have cared for them accordingly. If your dog became ill and died as a result of your neglect or cruelty, you would experience ten years of bad luck. There is also an old Zulu belief that if a person has a wart on their nose, it meant they had been unkind to dogs.

Did you know? The Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) is one of Southern Africa's most endangered species.

Dogs and the Church

There is evidence to suggest that it has not always been considered irreverent to allow dogs in churches, and pews and doors were often adapted for their convenience. Several old English churches, still sporting their original pews, have special pews set aside for the squire's dogs, who were kept there whilst the service was in progress. Previously noble men who were not
allowed to attend the service with their greyhounds reacted by listening to mass from outside the church doors.

As time progressed, dogs became increasingly unwelcome in churches and altar rails were built to prevent them from squeezing in. By the 17th Century, "dog-drivers" or "dog-whippers" were employed to keep the animals out of the churches. The "dog-whipper" was usually paid a small sum and performed a dual function as his job was also to keep the congregation awake.

During this time, London's St. Paul's cathedral was home to a small pack of dogs for six and a half days of the week and as a result, was in a terrible mess when people arrived for worship on Sundays. Just before the service began, the "dog-whipper" would arrive and chase out all the resident dogs. There are reports of blind and lame dogs and entire litters of puppies being thrown out of the Cathedral onto the streets. Dog tongs, which often caused injury, were later developed to keep persistent dogs out of churches. It was not uncommon for the dogs to be gripped so tightly with the tongs that their skulls were fractured.

Some clergy however, were more kindly disposed toward dogs, and in Wales and Cornwall, dog doors were cut into the entrances so that the dogs could leave the churches to relieve themselves outside, thereby reducing the mess. In rural areas, sheepdogs frequently attended church services with their owners.

Most churches today refuse permission for dog owners to be buried with their pets in church grounds and many legal battles have been fought over this. Many private cemeteries have sprung up in response to this. For example, Ribble Valley Remembrance Park, a cemetery in Lancashire, England, allows pet owners to purchase a plot at the foot of their grave for
their pets.

The status and role of dogs today

In different cultures and during different periods of history, dogs have suffered greatly. In China for instance, dogs are killed for various purposes, including for use in medicinal preparations. Unfortunately, in many parts of the Far East, dogs are seen as food and are accorded low status. The cruel treatment of dogs in Korea, China and Taiwan is difficult for most westerners
to comprehend and continues today. Mao Tse Tsung viewed pet-keeping as bourgeois and did everything possible to outlaw this practice in China. Amongst other things, he instituted a heavy dog tax and later on employed "Dog-Squads" to round up and bludgeon people's dogs to death. Although the Chinese still have no animal welfare laws, the situation seems to be improving slowly as people become more urbanised and are increasingly exposed to global influences and practices, including pet-keeping.

In Thailand, some improvements have been made for the scores of stray dogs, and the government of this country recently initiated an innovative sterilisation drive for them. Unemployed people are paid a nominal amount to round up strays and bring them in for treatment. Buddhist monks also offer shelter and food to stray dogs in their temples. The King of Thailand recently wrote an inspirational book about his life with, and the lessons learned from, a once stray mongrel that was given to him as a puppy. Because the King is regarded in high esteem, this book has done much to increase the popularity and status of the dog in that country.

Throughout the Western world, dogs are generally well liked and remain popular as a pet of choice. They continue to be used as working animals and are used for service, rescue, sniffer and guide functions.

Did you know? The earliest recorded story of the dog's devotion to his master is that of Argus, who waited faithfully for some years for Ulysses to return.

Did you know? 2006 was the "Year of the Dog" in the Chinese astrological calendar.