Working Like a Dog: The Story of Working Dogs through History

Working Like a Dog: The Story of Working Dogs through History

by Gena K. Gorrell

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Winner of The 2003 ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award

Included on VOYA’s ninth annual Nonfiction Honor List

Since the first hungry wolf bravely approached an ancient cooking fire and was rewarded with a scrap of meat, our lives and the lives of dogs have been interwoven. Dogs have worked for us as warriors with ammunition strapped to their bodies. Dogs have gone through snow, icy seas, and into the dangerous rubble of collapsed buildings to rescue us. Dogs, with their spectacular ability to detect odors, keep us safe by finding drugs and explosives. They lead us if we cannot see and react for us when we cannot hear. Most of all, they love us – and we love them.

This fascinating book by Norma Fleck Award-winner, Gena K. Gorrell, describes the dogs of history, the evolution of breeds for different purposes, and the training involved in preparing the modern-day heroes who find lost children, nab criminals, and point out contraband – heroes who just happen to be dogs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781770490314
Publisher: Tundra
Publication date: 05/08/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 160
File size: 8 MB
Age Range: 10 Years

About the Author

Gena K. Gorrell is a book editor and an award-winning writer of non-fiction for young people. Her third book, Heart and Soul: The Story of Florence Nightingale, won the Norma Fleck Award for Non-Fiction. In her spare time she is a first-aid instructor and a volunteer officer in the Toronto Police Marine Unit. She lives in Toronto with her husband and her dog.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


From high on a hillside, brother and sister watch the valley below. The Tall Ones are down there, doing strange things, as usual. The youngsters are fearful of the Tall Ones, but they are hollow with hunger, and their mouths water at the smell of food wafting up from the valley.

“I’m going down there,” says the brother. “Come on.”

“But what if they…?” His sister sniffs the air once more and relents. Together the two wolf cubs pad warily down the hill, toward the cooking­fire of the Stone Age family below.


How long have dogs been part of our lives? How many centuries ago did the first dog sneak off with the family’s dinner (Who, me?) or snuggle into the family bedding (Aw, please. It’s cold out there)? We really ­don’t know.

The dog family is part of a larger animal family known as canids. The Latin name for the dog is Canis familiaris: “common canid” or – more appropriately – “household canid.” Most experts on canine paleontology – the study of how the canid family developed – agree that dogs are descended from early wolves, and that wolves first appeared at least a million years ago. At some point – perhaps twenty or thirty thousand years ago – some wolves began to live with people, and the extraordinary partnership of humans and canids began.

Maybe it all started as we fought over fresh meat. Or maybe motherless cubs were adopted by a kind­hearted family. Or maybe, in times of hardship, we worked out some kind of cooperation that helped us both. We’ll never be sure how wolves and humans overcame their mutual suspicion, but we can guess this much: we came together partly because of the similarities between us.

Like people, wolves are social animals: they live in groups, with leaders and followers, and they help each other find food and raise families. Like our early ancestors, they often hunt animals much larger than themselves, using teamwork and persistence. Like us, they are constantly communicating with each other, by voice and body language. A wolf that made its way into a human community would soon understand the status of the various family members – who was senior, who was junior – and would learn the meanings of many human sounds, signals, and postures.

While our similarities may have helped bring us together, our differences have made our partnership even more valuable. We humans have sharp eyesight and excellent color vision, and the way our eyes are positioned on our head gives us a good sense of distance; wolves have keen night vision, and phenomenal powers of hearing and smell. We have the brains for imaginative long­range planning; the wolf has the muscles for speed and power. We have agile hands that are free to make and brandish weapons; the wolf grows fearsome weapons on jaws and feet. Together, what a team we make!


From Wolf to Dog

How did those early wolves turn into the immense range of dogs we have today, from miniature poodle to Great Dane? The process probably started when people were first settling into permanent communities. It’s likely that some wolves learned to hang around these settlements, stealing meat and scavenging scraps of garbage. As one litter after another was born on the edge of human society, probably only a few wolves were fearless enough to be comfortable so close to people, while the others retreated to the wild.

Did humans capture some of the wolf cubs and make them part of the family? Did a few wolves become so confident around people that they moved into the settlement of their own free will? However it happened, a number of these wolves who didn’t mind people eventually started living inside the community and raising cubs there. Year after year, as generations of cubs grew up, the young wolves who were shy of people left the settlement and moved to the wild. The ones who were aggressive toward people were killed or driven away. Only a handful of the animals – those who were not too timid and not too aggressive – remained.

As these few wolves interbred among themselves, and passed their genes on to cubs and grandcubs, the generations came to look less and less like their cousins in the wild. Before long – perhaps within one human lifetime – these animals had an appearance and behavior that we today would recognize as doglike.

Why did they change so much? Many explanations have been suggested for how each separate change – in size, color, teeth, and so on – may have helped them fit better into human society. But the answer may be even simpler. When genetic information (DNA) is passed from parents to children, certain characteristics that appear to be unrelated are in fact linked together – that is, a child who inherits one characteristic is likely to inherit the linked ones as well. (For example, some breeds of dog have a genetic link between deafness and white hair; the white puppies in a litter are more likely to be deaf.) It’s possible that when the temperament of the village wolves was evolving to be more domesticated, a number of other characteristics (size, color, teeth, etc.) were evolving too, because they happened to be genetically linked to temperament.


The Wolf That Wasn’t

Meanwhile, in the isolated continent of Australia, marsupials were evolving. Marsupials are a kind of mammal, but unlike most mammals, they are born very tiny and they develop further in the mother’s pouch. (Kangaroos and koalas are marsupials.) In time, Australia’s marsupials had much the same variety as the mammals elsewhere – there were big ones, small ones, grazing ones, preying ones – so it’s not surprising that one of them, the thylacine, looked and acted very much like a wolf.

Thylacines seem to have been successful hunters until a few thousand years ago, when disaster struck: some primitive dogs arrived in Australia, probably brought by seafarers trading with the Aboriginals who lived there. The dogs multiplied and many became feral (wild), competing for the same prey as the thylacines. The dogs won the contest, and their descendants in Australia today are the wolflike canids known as dingoes.

Some dingoes live with Aboriginal families, but many remain feral; they nest in burrows or hollow tree trunks, and tend to howl rather than bark. Like wolves, they have only one litter of pups a year, while most breeds of dog can have two. Even the dingoes who live around people stay fairly independent, and it’s almost impossible to train them. Did the dingo never quite become domesticated? Or did it evolve into a dog and then, in Australia’s barren outback, start turning wolflike again?

As for the thylacine, it became extinct in Australia. A small population survived for a while in Tasmania, an island south of Australia that remained dog­free for many years. Indeed, there are still rumors of a few wild thylacines lurking in the Tasmanian wilderness. But the last known thylacine died in a zoo in 1936.


Settling the Great Dog Fight

There is still a lot of argument about the origins of today’s dogs. Since different kinds of wolves lived in different parts of the world, some people think that a number of human communities developed partnerships with whatever wolves happened to be nearby, and that those various wolves evolved into dogs of one sort or another. Others believe that certain breeds developed not from wolves but from jackals (who are smaller than wolves and live in hotter countries) or other canids. Yet others are convinced that the dog species evolved without human influence, and that it was early dogs – not their wolf or jackal ancestors – who gave up their freedom to sit by our cooking­fires.

In those days the continents of our planet were connected more than they are now, so it was easier for people to trek from one land mass to another – from Asia to the Americas, for example. When they went, they took their animals with them. When they traded pots and tools with neighboring tribes, they must sometimes have used pups for trading as well. All this travel and trading made it hard for researchers to trace the change from wolf (or wolves) to different kinds of dog. Until recently, they could only look at the bones and teeth and hair of ancient canids, and compare them to those of modern dogs and wolves.

Now studies using the latest DNA technology are comparing the genetic material of various dogs and wolves and early canine remains. These studies seem to suggest that all the dogs in the world developed from just one species, a kind of wolf who lived in East Asia. Further research should give us a “map” of all the chromosomes in dogs, to help scientists pinpoint the genes responsible for a dog’s looks and behavior, and for certain diseases. We may also be able to settle, for once and for all, the argument about where and when our two species came together.

For now, though, we have good evidence that dogs – no longer wolves – were living in human camps at least fifteen thousand years ago. They probably acted as sentries, warning the families if an intruder appeared. They cleaned up food garbage lying around camp, which might have attracted dangerous animals, and they were playmates for small children. When we began raising domestic animals, dogs may have tended the flocks and herds. When we learned to make possessions like pottery and jewelry, the dogs may have scared away thieves.


Cities and Kingdoms

Century by century, our societies became more complex. We learned to build permanent homes, and to grow crops. We clustered our homes into towns, and towns grew into cities, and cities grew into states ruled by powerful leaders. More and more crafts developed: people learned to be shoemakers and sculptors, brewers and bakers, scribes and doctors, stonemasons and goldsmiths. The more complex life became, the more help we needed from our dogs – and the more kinds of dogs we needed.


The Days of the Pharaohs

By the time of ancient Egypt, about five thousand years ago, dogs were precious members of many families, especially rich ones. Wall paintings show household dogs wearing elegant collars, and when pet dogs died they were sometimes buried with great ceremony, even preserved as mummies, while their owners shaved their heads to show their grief.

Egyptian dogs seem to have come in a number of shapes and sizes. There were tall, thin hunting hounds who lived in kennels and were trained and managed by hired dog­handlers. Large, muscular, square­headed dogs – rather like today’s mastiff – were bred and trained for warfare, and released on the battlefield to savage the enemy with teeth and claws. As shrewd merchants added dogs to the list of foreign goods they imported, Egypt also gained a variety of small, short­legged dogs that snoozed under – or on – the furniture.

Because of their obedience and loyalty, and their devoted service, dogs were held up as an example of what every good servant owed his master – and what every good Egyptian owed the pharaoh, who was not only a king but a god as well. After all, the classic dog name, Fido, is Latin for “faithful.”

But dogs were more than just servants; they had their link to godship too. The Egyptians had an extremely complex view of death and the afterlife, involving elaborate rituals. One of the main characters in this part of their mythology was the god Anubis, a black dog or jackal who was said to supervise the process of turning corpses into mummies, and to guard the land of the dead. When you died, it was Anubis who led your soul away and weighed your heart in a scale, against the feather of truth. If your heart weighed the same as the feather, you entered the eternal afterlife. If not, another god – part lion, part crocodile – gobbled up the heart.

Understandably people wanted to be on good terms with Anubis. Some of them crossbred their dogs with jackals, producing a jackal­dog in honor of Anubis. People would use a small dog­amulet of clay or metal as an offering to the god. They might even make a pilgrimage to the City of Dogs, to buy dog souvenirs, pay tribute at the dog­temples, and leave offerings to feed the priests and the city’s huge canine population. Sometimes they bought a mummified dog and left it at the temple as an offering. (Unfortunately, this created a large demand for dog mummies. It seems that some temples ran a grisly business on the side, raising puppies and slaughtering them just to make mummies.)



In the later days of ancient Egypt, the Assyrian Empire rose in the Middle East. The Assyrians were a warlike people. When the king was not away on a military campaign, he often went out with his nobles and servants and horses and dogs, to hunt lions and other wild animals. The royal hunt was not just an amusement. It was also a way to remind people that the king would be fierce and powerful in defending them if they were loyal – and in punishing them if they were not.



After the days of the Assyrian Empire came the time of ancient Greece. The conqueror Alexander the Great spread Greek ideas and beliefs across Europe and Asia, and even as far as India. Like the early Egyptians, the Greeks believed in a host of gods and goddesses. Once again, dogs both profited and suffered from religion. During the festival of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, cattle, goats, and sheep were sacrificed, and wealthy hunters and their dogs feasted together on roast meat. But less valuable dogs were sacrificed by the thousands, to win some favor or other from the fickle gods.

Dogs played other roles in Greece, as well. On rocky hillsides, big, shaggy dogs stood guard over herds and flocks, wearing spiked leather collars to protect them from wolf attacks. If a wild animal was threatening flocks, strong nets were set up in a line, and dogs were sent to track the beast down and chase it into the nets, where it could be speared to death. Some towns kept dozens of night watchdogs to patrol the walls while the citizens slept. Tracking dogs pursued criminals and other fugitives. And many dogs lived in Greek homes as members of the family; they appear often in Greek art, not just as symbols of power or obedience but as realistic individuals with personality and emotion – in short, as friends.



Just before the dawn of the Christian era, the legions of the Roman army marched across Greece and the rest of Europe, invading the Middle East and North Africa, even crossing the English Channel to conquer the British Isles. The Romans were practical, acquisitive people, with an eye for international trade and technology. As their empire flourished, wealthy merchants and landowners competed for the grandest estates, the most lavish dinners, the most exquisite ornaments – and, of course, the most fashionable dogs. All across the empire, unusual dogs were interbred to create exotic new pets.

But Rome had working dogs too. As elsewhere, they served as bodyguards and watchdogs. They patrolled the long, straight roads that the Romans built across their spreading empire, and escorted the caravans traveling those roads. In conquered territories they guarded storehouses and weapons arsenals against rebellious locals. There were herding dogs, and draft dogs to carry or pull loads, and, as always, there were hunting dogs – not only hounds, but pointers to show where the prey was, and retrievers to bring it back. There were also fearless little dogs who chased small prey to earth wherever it tried to hide – perhaps the ancestors of the terriers we have today.

One dog especially valued was the Molossus, who could weigh more than 250 pounds (110 kg), and was strong enough and fast enough to knock an enemy off his horse and rip him to pieces. Whole battalions of these dogs were trained by the army, and sent into battle wearing collars with long, sharp spikes to slash the legs of enemy horses, and sometimes padded armor as well. (Early war dogs were often turned into killing machines. Some had lances mounted on their backs, to spear any horses and soldiers who got in their way. Others had firepots of smoke and flame strapped to their backs, to panic the enemy’s horses and scorch their bellies.) A Roman military writer named Blondus said that such a dog should be so ferocious that “he will not allow himself to be stroked even by those he knows best, but threatens everybody alike with the fulminations of his teeth, and always looks at everybody as though he is burning with anger.” Molossus dogs were even released in arenas to fight wild animals (or each other) to the death, or to slaughter helpless prisoners in the bloody executions that served as public entertainment.


The Dogs of Death

Egypt was by no means the only place where a dog controlled the path to the afterlife. According to the ancient Greeks, Cerberus, a monstrous many­headed dog, guarded the far shore of the River Styx, boundary of the underworld. Some natives of North America said that dogs guarded the bridge over the river of death, deciding whether or not the deceased deserved eternal life. In South America, the Aztecs told of a dog­headed god named Xolotl who helped the dead across a similar river. The Chukchi people of Siberia believed that the demon of death hunted people down with a hound. Welsh stories said that when someone was dying, the hounds of hell would scratch and whine at the door until the soul came away with them. The myths of Iceland said that the barking of a dog named Garm would herald the end of the entire world.

Why did so many cultures believe that when a soul set off on its last journey, a dog would be involved somewhere along the way? Maybe it was because dogs faithfully accompany us in life, or because they often guard doorways, or maybe it had to do with dogs’ uncanny ability to find their way home.

But dogs were associated with death for other, darker reasons. In the days before medical science, disease was a mysterious curse, and deadly epidemics seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Naturally, people looked for someone to blame. The pets and hunting dogs of the upper classes might be above suspicion, but there were plenty of homeless dogs – pariah dogs – in the streets. (Pariahs are outcasts shunned by society.) These dogs lived on the rotting garbage discarded by people, as their ancestors had done for thousands of years. But they also ate dead or dying animals. Many people claimed that when the dreaded plague swept through town and unburied corpses piled up in the streets, the pariah dogs ate those too. If dogs could be so gruesomely involved in the tragedy, it was all too easy to believe that, somehow, they had caused it.

To make matters worse, people knew even then that dogs – like many other animals – could carry rabies. One bite from a nervous pet was enough to spread the disease, and rabies victims died a slow and horrible death. Numerous cures were suggested through the ages, using such medications as dog hairs, puppy livers, salt and vinegar, or olive oil and garlic. One French writer suggested in the 1300s that the victim find a rooster, “pluck its backside … and to the bite wound or wounds apply the anus of the bird which will suck out the poison.”

Rabies vaccination would not be invented until the late 1800s. Until then, when one dog became rabid, thousands of others might be killed to prevent the spread of the disease. Sometimes the dogs were massacred on a mistaken suspicion that one of them had rabies. Sometimes the extermination was carried out because someone in power just didn’t like dogs.


Godless Dogs

While many church leaders adored their own pet dogs, the official religious view of dogs was confusing and even contradictory. In the Jewish tradition dogs were thought to be unclean – perhaps because the corpses sometimes thrown to them were considered unclean – but they were tolerated because it wasn’t their fault; they were as God had made them.

Similarly, the Islamic religion recognized dogs as Allah’s creatures, yet saw them as so tainted that any strict Muslim who touched one needed a ritual cleansing. But since high-ranking Muslims enjoyed the hunt as much as their Christian peers, their favorite hunting dogs, Salukis, were reclassified as – well, not really dogs.

The official Christian view was equally muddled. On one hand, dogs were sometimes abhorred as brutish and unclean, and it was seen as sinful to “waste” love on a dog instead of saving it for God and family. Some dogs were accused of being demons in disguise, serving as witches’ “familiars” (assistants). On the other hand, a number of saints – including Hubert, the patron saint of hunters – are usually portrayed with a dog. The symbol of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux is a white dog. Saint Dominic de Guzman, founder of the Dominican religious order, is shown with a dog and a globe; indeed, Dominican friars are sometimes called Domini canem: “dogs of God,” faithful to their Master’s will.

Celebrated as deities, slaughtered as pestilent vermin, condemned as devil­spawn, cherished as man’s best friend – when those first wolves ventured into the circle of human company so many thousands of years ago, who could have imagined what they were getting themselves into?

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