For Better or for Worse, A Story About Man’s Best Friend

Published in The Royal Spaniels Magazine fall edition 2012. 

by Leila Grandemange

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, man and dog entered into a relationship, and it’s been a rocky road ever since . . .

Dogs in lapWhile many dogs today live in the laps of luxury enjoying a close bond with their human companions, this was not always the case. I know it’s hard to believe, but dog was not always considered “man’s best friend”! Actually, for much of history, our canine companions were misunderstood and mistreated. Being an avid dog lover, I was pierced to the heart by this news.

How could anyone dislike, distrust, or mistreat one of the most intelligent and loving creatures on earth?

Frustrated, too, at the unfortunate situations many dogs still live in, I decided to do a little research into the origins of the phrase, man’s best friend. What I discovered was a fascinating (yet not so pretty) story about man’s relationship with dog. Let’s turn back the pages of history and see how this complex relationship evolved. Who knows, maybe with a little digging we’ll find an old bone of wisdom buried there that might help us better appreciate dog–faithfully remaining by man’s side, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health . . . ultimately being dubbed with the elusive title of Man’s Best Friend!

But first, let’s read an excerpt from a dog’s diary to hear his point of view. After all, aren’t there two sides to a friendship?

Dear Diary, (1870)

My master has decided it’ll be a sad day . . . As I leaned close to offer a sympathetic snuggle, I saw him reading beautiful words about a faithful dog that passed away. Imagine that, someone writing  a Eulogy to a dog! Sadly, the dog was shot by an angry human, and his owner was left to mourn his death . . . I laid my head on his lap and felt his pain . . .

My kind has offered its friendship to “man” for centuries, but for the most part man has been too blind or maybe just too ignorant to see the treasure at his feet. Of course there are exceptions. I’m told the ancient Egyptians actually revered us and that there are portraits from the Renaissance throughout Europe that portrayed us as loyal companions. But word has it among the neighbor dogs that it was common for our kin to suffer untold misery at the hand of humans, and we’re still not sure why. I’m feeling a lump in my throat . . . imagine being rejected, scolded, betrayed, and even beaten—simply for doing what comes naturally. I still remember the stories mama told me of dogs getting beaten for chasing chickens! I never understood why we can’t chase chickens. Why would anyone carry on yelling and hitting such a faithful companion? Mama says I’m one of the lucky ones . . . most dogs lead a pretty miserable life. There’s a rumor going around though that things are looking up . . .

The history of man’s relationship with domestic dog is actually quite long and complex.

Man’s Best Friend is a phrase that is attributed to animals that perform a valuable service to humans. From the original domesticated dog some 12,000 years ago who helped man to hunt, to the myriad of present day services dogs do for man (i.e. search and rescue, seeing eye dogs, therapy), dogs have certainly proven to be of value. Performing a valuable service, however, did not necessarily involve friendship, nor the guarantee of being well-treated.

Friendship, simply defined, is a relationship between two individuals who have a mutual affection for each other.

While we can’t humanize dogs, it is interesting to note that many aspects of friendship do relate to our interaction with our pets. True friendship is “life-enhancing” and is often revealed by such qualities as mutual trust, respect, commitment, loyalty, and love. The popularity, affection, and “friendship” many dogs enjoy today is a fairly recent development. Prior to the 18th century, dogs were not kept as household pets, but were mostly used for hunting, guarding, and working. The exception to this rule was the lap-dog, a dog fit only for ladies, as recorded in the diary of John Evelyn (1684). Apart from this more affectionate term, author and historian Bernadette Paton explains that the oldest proverbs and phrases used in English to describe dogs in the 16th and 17th centuries rarely depicted them as faithful or man’s best friend. In early modern Britain they were often viewed as vicious, disease-ridden, and having little worth. This is reflected in the language used across the centuries to portray the dog and the world in which it lived:

To lead a dog’s life (1528) reflects a life of hardship and poverty. Hair of the dog that bit you (1546) was used with reference to rabies. To throw or cast someone to the dogs (1556) is to send someone to ruin. Some other similar phrases are: if you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas (1573); to go to the dogs (1619); the dogs of war (1601); not fit for a dog (1625); and as sick as a dog (1705).

Friend or foe?

With all the negative words and phrases used for dog, one must wonder, was dog considered a friend or a foe? Given the risks associated with dogs as carriers of rabies and other diseases, they were constantly seen as a threat. Those assigned to catch, tame, control, or exterminate dogs were known as dog rappers, dog breakers, dog catchers, dog gelders, dog floggers, dog drivers, dog skinners and dog whippers. Dog pelters had the unpopular job of killing strays in some parts of the United States. Wow! That doesn’t sound like a friendship in the making! The word dog seemed equivalent to anyone or anything worthless, treacherous, and debased—a coin of little value or anything of poor quality, a useless horse, or an unattractive girl. To die a dog’s death is a phrase that paints a particularly horrible picture and means one who suffers a disgraceful end. Sadly, dogs were often severely punished, even killed, for things they did naturally, like chasing sheep. Dog hangings were common, hence the phrase, give a dog a bad name and hang him (1705). It’s no wonder a dog’s life was often described as “miserable!”

A turning point in man’s attitude

PawzandPray.com Fortunately, in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the language used showed a clear turning point in man’s attitude towards his canine companions. Finally man began to consider dog as a favored pet, and demonstrated this by nurturing and caring for its every need. In 1768, we see the term dog basket, the first example of a piece of  comfortable furniture specifically used for dogs. Other terms popped up which reflected concern for a dog’s welfare—dog doctors (1771), dog biscuits (1823), dog hospitals (1829), dog food (1860), dog soap (1869). The first dog show (1859, England) beautifully demonstrated this fairly new respect for dog. Dogs were seen as well-fed, well-groomed, and the prized pets ( companions) of owners who were passionate about their welfare. With the industrialization of cities and the invention of the rabies vaccination in 1880’s, man no longer considered dog a threat. Hope was on the horizon!

The phrase “man’s best friend” first appeared in 1821 in a short poem about a faithful dog. But it was not until 50 years later, in Warrensburg, Missouri, that the phrase actually made its claim to fame. In 1870, a farmer shot a neighbor’s dog. The owner sued for damages and his lawyer, George Graham Vest, gave a tear-jerking speech, while pleading the case of Old Drum to the jury, that came to be known as the Eulogy to a Dog. Here is an excerpt:

Statue in honor of Old Drum the dog
Statue in honor of Old Drum the dog

“Gentlemen of the jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith . . .The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog . . .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.”

A noble statue of Old Drum the dog was erected outside the town’s courtroom. What a fitting tribute to our canine companions, who continue to demonstrate to the world the qualities of friendship we so often long to find in our own human relationships.

A dog’s life continued to improve in the English-speaking world in the early 20th century. According to historian Bernadette Paton, words such as dog sitter and dog napper suggest that many people came to value their dogs as much as their children and would even pay a significant amount of money to have them cared for or ransomed. Dogs began to be sentimentalized, having personalities, feelings, and even souls. Sadly, there are still derogatory slang words floating around today that cause me to pause and think—Underdog, she’s a real dog, to work like a dog, you dirty dog . . . Bitch, for example, is often used to express dislike for a person, when in fact, the word simply means a female dog. Why on earth would anyone compare one of the most loving creatures on earth to a person they dislike? The words and actions we use continue to reveal the state of our society and reflect our beliefs. We can’t change the way others think or act, but the life we live today can be a lesson to all future generations.

Well, there you have it. I’ve done my digging and learned that Man’s Best Friend did not have such a pretty past.

Am I less frustrated?

Well yes and no. Yes, because looking back I see that as man and society evolved, so did his concern for the welfare of dogs. Hopefully this trend will continue. On the other hand, I can’t forget that there’s so much more to be done.

I celebrate all the individuals who rescue, foster, educate, research, breed responsibly, and work to better the lives of our canine companions. Medical and scientific research about Canis lupus familiaris ( domestic dog) continues to play a huge role in the way man relates to dogs. Harsh training methods have been rejected by many who understand that dogs are highly intelligent, sensitive, and do not thrive in a negative environment. Ultimately, WE define the relationship we have with our dogs. Keep in mind that not all friendships look the same—like wildflowers in a field, each one is unique. Not every dog needs to share a bed with his owner friend, and that’s okay. The bottom line is to value their life.

Yes, dog is man’s best friend, there’s no doubt. But if the tables were turned, would he say the same about us?

Dear Diary, ( 2012)

My master’s call name is Johnny. Nothing makes me happier than to be near him and to figure out what makes him smile. Just for the record, he says I’m the best bird dog in the world! The coolest thing is that he calls me his BEST FRIEND! I’m one of the lucky ones, I suppose. Not every dog has the good fortune to be so spoiled. He especially loves when I snuggle close and quietly listen to all his troubles. Actually I’d love to tell him a thing or two, but I might lose my “best friend” status. I wish every dog had a friend like mine . . .

What I love most is that he respects me for who I am—a dog. He relates to me the way I understand, he listens when I speak, and he always tries to figure out what I’m saying even though I don’t speak his language. He makes learning fun and lets out funny noises now and then, humans call it laughing out loud! Oh sure, he’s not perfect, but I can tell he really loves me and I trust he’ll gently lead me along the path he calls “life.” Words don’t really do him justice, but if my tail were a paint brush, I’d swish it for joy, I’d use all the colors of the rainbow, and I’d call my painting: My Best Friend!

Today he brought home this plaque and placed it by his bed. It seems we have a mutual admiration . . .

“He is your friend, your partner, your defender, your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader. He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.” —Author unknown

. . . and they lived happily ever after.

Leila is the recipient of the AKC Responsible Dog Ownership Public Service Award. She writes to inspire love, care, and compassion for dogs. About the Author.

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6 thoughts on “For Better or for Worse, A Story About Man’s Best Friend

  1. Oh, Leila, I enjoyed this article SO much! You did quite a bit of research, my friend, and it was enjoyed immensely! Again, I thank you for enlightening us, your faithful readers, and for deepening my love and admiration for all dogs but my best friends, my own pupbabies especially.

    Hugs,

    Scotti

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  2. Thanks Scottie for the kind comments …. this has been one of my favorite articles to research and write. I learned so much, and it deepened my admiration for our dogs even more. We are so blessed to have them. Thank you again. Blessings, Leila

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  3. Such a magnificent article, Leila. It really makes you understand a dog and so beautifully written.. I am going upstairs to my bed and give my gorgeous Anthony from you and tracie another big hug and kiss. You are just amazing.. Thank you for sharing with everyone especially me.. Love you leila. Fondly, Bev

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    1. Hi Bev! Thank you so much for your kind words about the article. Sooooo blessed you came along…. what a perfectly amazing home you are for Anthony! Love you too 🙂 Blessings, Leila

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