The domestic dog, Canis familiaris, is the second most common pet in the U.K., after freshwater fish, and is the most widely abundant terrestrial carnivore in the World and therefore needs little introduction on these pages. The dog was the first species to be domesticated, from an extinct wolf species that gave rise both to dogs and modern wolves, and thus over myriads of years has truly earned the epithet man’s best friend.
Domestication has altered the morphology of the dog greater than another other animal and they have been selectively bred for millennia to hone various behaviours, sensory capabilities and physical attributes. Thus, various breeds are associated for their outstanding skills in herding, retrieving, hunting, rodent control, scent detection or guarding. Their coats can be short, long, coarse haired, wool-like, straight, curly or smooth and vary in colour from white, through blue, black, brown, red and chocolate with a wide variation of patterns. Skull, body and limb proportions vary significantly as indeed does their overall size and weight.
To highlight this variety, the smallest know adult dog was a Yorkshire Terrier called Sylvia that stood 6.3cm (2.5 inches) at the shoulder was 9.5 cm (3.7 inches) long and weighed only 113 grams (4 ounces). The largest dog on record was an English Mastiff called Aicama Zorba who weighed over 1,000 times more than Sylvia at 155.6 kg (343lbs – 24.5 stone) and was 250 cm (over 8 feet) long! A Great Dane named Zeus towered over Zorba though, standing 112 cm (44 inches) on all four feet.
In addition, to their traditional roles dogs are now trained as search and rescue assistants, to detect illegal drugs or chemical weapons and as assistance dogs, including guide dogs, hearing dogs, mobility assistance dogs and psychiatric service dogs. Some dogs owned by epileptics have been shown to alert them to an impending seizure, sometimes well in advance of onset, seemingly picking up on subtle signs allowing the owner to seek safety, medication or medical care.
To highlight this relationship and understanding between man and beast, a dog, Laika, a stray found wandering the streets of Moscow, was chosen to be the first animal to orbit the Earth aboard the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 in November 1957. Laika did not survive the journey as the technology to de-orbit safely had not been developed at the time, indeed the true cause and time of her death were not made public at the time but in 2002 is was revealed that Laika had died by her fourth orbit of the Earth from overheating. It took a further five months and 2,570 orbits before Laika’s remains were incinerated, along with Sputnik 2, during re-entry.
Dogs have never received the same level of reverence granted to them as cats and never quite occupied such exalted places in ancient cultures. Nevertheless, in Mesopotamia dogs were the symbol of Ninisina, the goddess of healing and medicine, while in Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian time dogs were used as emblems of magical protection. In Christianity, dogs represent faithfulness and are especially associated with Saint Dominic and, as a consequence, the Dominican order. However, in many mythological stories dogs served as watchdogs, especially of the underworld: from Cerebus the three headed dog who guards the gates of Hades in Greek mythology, to Gamr, the four-eyed dog that guards Helheim in Norse mythology. Persian mythology has two four-eyed dogs that guard the Chinvat Bridge and Yama the Hindu god of death also has two four-eyed dogs that watch over the gates of Naraka. That is not even mentioning the various Black Dog legends of this country that are often associated with ill-fortune, a premonition of death or hunt companions of the Devil himself.
Notwithstanding such negative portrayal in folklore and mythology the domestication of the dog (wolf) is proposed as an important role in the survival of early human populations and indeed a key force in human success. This is still evident today, although to a lesser extent. Dog owners exhibit better mental and physical health making fewer visits to the doctor and being less likely to be on medication than non-dog-owners. This is, in part due, to the requirement to take a dog for a walk. In addition to the physical benefits dog-ownership imparts, i.e. companionship and social support, they also act as facilitators of social interactions between humans due to the conversations with other dog owners on the daily walk. Indeed, social studies indicate that dog owners are more likely to know their neighbours than non-dog owners. Cats may rule the internet but dogs are still man’s best friend.