- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

FIRST FRIEND: A HISTORY OF DOGS AND HUMANS

By Katharine M. Rogers

St. Martin’s, $25.95, 280 pages, illus.

They’ve been with us a very long time, certainly from before the onset of recorded history. The earliest dog fossil — a jawbone found in Germany — dates from 12,000 BC. From a grave in northern Israel — dating 10,000 BC — comes the skeleton of an elderly woman whose hand touches the chest of a five-month-old pup: her pet, no doubt.

They’re also very American. Four out of five of our presidents have kept pet dogs. And one of them — the famously taciturn Calvin Coolidge — turned gushingly garrulous (for him) when he declared: “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about … does not deserve to be in the White House.”

Retired Brooklyn College English professor Katherine M. Rogers, now a resident of Maryland, takes up the subject of canines in her entertaining and very informative “First Friend: A History of Dogs and Humans.” Ms. Rogers is impressively thorough, covering dogs from earliest times until now and leaving very few sources, artistic, historical and literary (mostly British and American), untouched. She writes a clear, uncluttered prose that reflects the canine attributes dog lovers most admire: directness and lack of pretension, though her style is less frisky terrier than solid, slow-paced St. Bernard. Her book’s title, “First Friend,” is the name given dogs in a fable by Rudyard Kipling.

But best of all, the author knows and respects dogs. She has no use for those who regard them as just like us, seeing them as furry, four-legged people. Ms. Rogers argues that dogs are dogs and that it is best for both them and us if we understand them as animals and not as human. With admirable common sense, she explains, “people who like and respect their dogs as animal companions rather than idealizing or indulging them as privileged equals, are more apt to observe them precisely” and to see them for what they are, extraordinary creatures with virtues all their own.

Ms. Rogers notes that most scientists now agree that dogs evolved from wolves, taking on dog-like characteristics as they lived among humans. Ancient Egyptians called their canine pets such names as Grabber and Ebony — and mourned them deeply when they died, shaving off all their hair, the same as they did when human relatives died. The Ancient Greeks had their dogs, too: Who can forget Argus, Odysseus’ hound, who, in “The Odyssey” recognizes his master after nearly 20 years’ separation, then dies. In the Middle Ages, aristocrats placed enormous value on their hunting dogs which the lower classes were often forbidden by law to own.

Ms. Rogers describes a host of dogs she’s found in literature. Robinson Crusoe had a canine companion during his years of island solitude. Shock, Belinda’s pet dog in “The Rape of the Lock,” played an important part in that poem. Dogs have significant roles in works by Jane Austen, Dickens, the Bronte sisters and by many other writers. Lord Byron was deeply devoted to his Newfoundland, Boatswain. The author even brings up authors, such as Thorstein Veblen and H. P. Lovecraft, who despised everything canine, the latter, claiming that the wholesome values praised in dogs are those only stupid people could admire, the former calling dogs nothing more than contemptible “slaves.”

Queen Victoria thought just the opposite, finding great happiness among dogs her whole life long. No one in history has done more to advance the cause of canines than did she. As Ms. Rogers shows, the young queen founded a center to care for homeless and sick dogs, she also shored up the ailing Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had been founded in 1824, by making it the Royal SPCA in 1840. Victoria kept as many as 80 dogs of her own at Windsor, very often feeding them herself. For her own kennels, she forbade the cropping of ears and docking of tails (which she regarded as cruel), a practice that the American Kennel Club approves of to this day.

It was in the 19th century, too, that the modern concept of breeds came into its own. Dog breeders emphasized and developed certain canine traits — size, color, fur length and the like — they believed the public prized, and the public responded by purchasing breed dogs by the tens of thousands. A cartoon in Punch, “Dog Fashions for 1889,” satirized the trend, by depicting, in Ms. Rogers’ words, “a lady leading two crocodile-length dachshunds, accompanied by a Yorkshire terrier with huge ears and long hair body suggesting a caterpillar.” Also in the cartoon were a microsopic Chihuahua and a wolfhound the size of a pony.

That’s funny, but the admiration for breed dogs revealed one of the 19th century’s dark undersides: racism and ugly feelings of ethnic superiority. Dogs became emblems of deeply-held prejudice. A British writer, for example, claimed that “In England — a comparatively honest and justice-loving land” dogs give warning by barking at thieves, while Irish dogs bark to warn their owners when the police arrive. In America, an author wrote that white-owned dogs would thoroughly wash themselves after making contact with the filthy dogs owned by Indians.

By the 20th century, these attitudes were on the wane, the author believes. As evidence, she cites the Dick and Jane readers, which appeared in the 1930s and by the 1950s had 80 percent of the elementary school market. Dick’s and Jane’s cocker spaniel, Spot, appeared in more stories than the kids’ mother and father combined, but what Spot’s relationship with the family emphasized above all, according to Ms. Rogers, was “togetherness,” the happiness canines and humans can share.

The author praises such writers as Virginia Woolf, James Thurber and (somewhat surprisingly) Stephen King for accurately portraying dogs. Woolf did it in her novel, “Flush,” in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel is the eponymous doggie hero, Ms. Rogers claims. Thurber did it in his description of his black standard poodle Medve and Mr. King in his thriller featuring a Saint Bernard, “Cujo.”

In our own time, dogs have emerged as representatives, above all, of traditional values, according to the author. Why? “People increasingly need affirmations of the old-fashioned virtues, as these seem to be disappearing in the modern world,” Ms. Rogers writes, adding that it has always been more plausible to attribute these values to dogs than to any thing else.

“Dogs can set an example of traditional values for humans because they happily continue to play the role they always have,” Ms. Rogers explains, “their characters and attitudes do not change, they dislike innovation and accept authority, and they are untroubled by moral complexities.”

No doubt she’s right. But mostly we like dogs not for what they may symbolize but for the same reason our remote ancestors did: No other pet is so completely devoted to us. Ms. Rogers notes that a canine census of 2003 found that there were 61,278,000 “owned” dogs in America, 94 percent of “whom were kept as companions,” an impressive figure.

She rightly condemns contemporary “doggie mills” that turn out sickly breed dogs by the thousands for public purchase. She also describes the enormous number of businesses that provide lavish doggie products, including fancy, very expensive foods. But Ms. Rogers takes note of a test in which a fancy dog delicacy was placed beside a plate of Spam. The dogs chose the Spam, a choice that probably puts a smile on most human faces. We’d be disappointed if our First Friend had opted for the fancy fare over the nitty-gritty: It wouldn’t be in keeping with the way we expect them to behave.

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