Friday, December 19, 2008


The first widely known American statue of an American Indian shows him alongside his hunting dog. The bronze is called “The Indian Hunter” and was created about 1860 by John Quincy Adams Ward. It shows a young man holding his bow and arrow in one hand while restraining his dog with the other. The man doesn’t have what we think of as an Indian face, though Ward traveled to the Sioux reservation to make studies and was praised for the “ethnic authenticity of the physiognomy.” A life-sized casting of it is in Central Park and also on Ward’s grave, paid for by his wife.

The Indian and his dog were a symbiotic pair long before the horse showed up in North America. In fact, most of them thought of a horse as a sort of super-dog. I cannot think of a single American Indian tribe that didn’t include dogs. In fact, dogs are a major characteristic of Indian communities and reservations today, though they are not dogs in terms that the Humane Society of the United States can grasp or approve. They are dogs as “people” with goals and ideas of their own.

In fact, I cannot think of any cultures until modern times that didn’t include dogs. (Iceland bans dogs.) But it is true that in some cultures the dog is a pariah, a “pye dog” that cleans up carrion and garbage and lives enmeshed but separate from humans. Then it is despised and feared as a carrier of disease, esp. rabies. American military are not above using the fear of dogs. Cops use dogs as enforcers. Meaner than a junkyard dog is a forceful expression. Dogs can be legally defined as weapons.

When dogs are reduced to pets and surrogate children, they are suppressed, regulated and shut up alone in houses. They are an expense rather than the contribution they once where when life depended on finding prey, being alert to enemies, herding animals, and even keeping rats and other busy little mammals out of human habitations, keeping woodchucks and rabbits out of the fields and gardens.

The popular conception of dogs is that they derive from wolves, which then reflexively causes some people to think of wolves as untamed dogs -- which they are not. But they are close enough to interbreed, as are coyotes. The kinds of canids seem more separated by social and ecological forces than by actual genetics.

Genetic research has suggested some new ways to see where dogs came from, but so far the suggestions have not been reconciled among themselves. A November 22, 2002, article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade describes three lines of inquiry. One idea is that dogs domesticated about 15,000 years ago some place in the Old World, maybe east Asia. An earlier study of mitochondrial DNA proposed the derivation as happening 135,00 years ago. But so far no one has found dog bones earlier than 14,000.

One thing is for sure, dogs and humans have been entwined for millennia. The most likely story so far is that the early tribal dogs on this continent came from Asia, the same as the people, WITH the people, but not necessarily walking across the Bering Straits. In boats, maybe. Coming across the Arctic ice cap maybe, maybe as sled dogs. But all those early American dog breeds or kinds seem to have disappeared. One rather ethno-centric idea is that European dogs were more desired by Indians and displaced the older kinds. I think it’s more likely that the dogs, like the people, had no immunity to the diseases of the Euro dogs.

When I was doing education for Portland, Oregon, animal control, I found that the earliest descriptions of dogs in the Pacific Northwest were about two kinds of dogs. One was the standard sort of coyotish camp and hunting dog. The other was a woolly dog like a Samoyed. When these dogs were in heat, the Indians took them out to islands and kept them isolated there so they would stay distinct, because their fur was made into yarn and knitted into sweaters. They were a version of “sheep.” This is close as I can find to the modern rather crazed dog-breeding that creates tiny pools of deliberately deformed animals described as “breeds.” Even in Europe in older times species evolved in response to their use: herding dogs, hunting dogs, guarding dogs, rescuing dogs, harness dogs, and so on. And the deficient versions were not sold for pets -- they were simply killed. Weeding -- not breeding.

The mutation that probably created dogs as we know them was pretty likely to have been one that no one could see. It was some kind of mutation in their brains that made them super-attentive to humans and able to interpret what those people want their dogs to do. (I’m sure this doesn’t apply to black labs whom I have observed totally ignoring any humans, but esp. ignoring those that are giving commands.) The doggest of the dogs study your face, feel what you feel, and respond accordingly. This is what makes them excellent guides, helpers and therapists. Not that it doesn’t take some training to teach them the right way to respond. But it wasn’t that people set out to create an attentive animal -- it was something in the dog that decided to attend to us. Those who did that the best were the ones who survived.

Many modern people get their first dog as children. Since their growing up takes just about as long as a dog’s lifespan, handling the dog’s death is often one of the first tasks of their early maturity. In old age, esp. in places where dogs are a part of life, the aging of pets presents the problem of whether the human has enough lifespan left to start a new puppy, esp. when nursing homes and so on might be involved. It is hard to get old with no dog, at least for people like me, though cats help.

In subtle ways dogs become symbolic of our sense of our own lives: places, times, occupations. The death of a dog involves far more than just the relationship with the animal, but is tied to the whole course of shared life and its circumstances: the place, the loves, the strength and health or lack thereof. People get mad and turn away or just get more interested in someone else. But dogs, in the best of cases, stay right there, always the same.

Art and literature about dogs range the whole span from botched to exquisite, from debased to transcendent. Just like people. Constancy in a world of change is hard to overestimate.


vanrijngo said...

Very good writer you are Prairiemary,.. I could read your writings for hours not to mention days.

dr. hypercube said...

I just finished A Dog's History of America - he mentions the Clallam dog (the wool-producer)and does a nice job mapping the dog's path from worker to dependent. If you haven't read it (I suspect you may have), I think you'd enjoy it.
Best of the season to you and yours - J