A Dogs Impact on Humanity

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Dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated by man. For well over 10,000 years, their bond has been unbroken. Dogs provided man with companionship, protection, and loyalty for centuries, staying by their side as they moved from being hunters to sedentary farmers, and as they explored the world around them. A Dog’s History of America by Mark Derr is a fascinating book that sweeps through the history of the North American continent from the first humans to arrive through the early 2000s, keeping a steady eye on dog’s role and place throughout. He occasionally jumps to Europe, during the World Wars to discuss American army dogs’ role, and the polar regions (both Arctic and Antarctic exploration relied heavily on dogs), but mainly confines himself to telling the history of dogs in what would eventually become the United States.

However, because they are such a big part of man's history, their historical significance is often overlooked. Historians may mention the presence of dogs, but few have made the effort to explore the contribution that dogs have made to the historical record. Mark Derr has taken a huge step toward correcting this in his book, A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent. He explores man's partnership with his canine companions by looking at the role dogs played in American history and in popular culture. In this essay, I will be covering chapters one and twelve.

In chapter one and two, Derr talks about when the Spanish brought dogs 'specifically bred and trained to hunt down and disembowel Indians.' In Puritan New England, dogs were used as guards and herd animals, and also to hound Indians. Before the Civil War, some dogs were trained to hunt runaway slaves, trained specifically to tree or corner a slave, and to maul him if he resisted. Dogs first came here around 20,000 years ago, following the humans crossing from Siberia to Alaska. Not much is known about the Indian dogs because of a lack of history. They were companions, but they were firstly guards and pack animals. Christopher Columbus did not have a single dog on his first trip to the Americas, but this was probably the last time boats of exploring or colonizing nations did not bring dogs from Europe. Columbus himself did not go without them for his second voyage, for the bishop who was in charge of outfitting the fleet added twenty greyhounds and mastiffs for the purpose of making war. Thus began a long and distressing history of dogs used as weapons, which will make difficult reading for modern Americans who romanticize their doggies. In a nutshell, the Spanish trained dogs to kill the enemy in battle, slave owners used them to hunt runaway slaves, and in pre-industrial times, dogs were beasts of burden who pulled heavy carts and worked treadmills.

Luckily, the Enlightenment changed attitudes. Dogs began to be valued for their character, loyalty, and company. Yet, abuses continued, improved somewhat by the activism of newly established humane societies. In the wake of Darwinism and a growing social obsession with pure blood, pedigree dogs (born from two dogs of the same breed) were declared superior, despite mongrels’ proven record of accomplishment.

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Derr not only chronicles the dogs' role in Native American life, and in the exploration and settlement of the country by Europeans, but he also illustrates the role dogs have continued to play in American history, especially during World War I and II, the Depression, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. In chapter twelve, Derr discusses how dogs were basically drafted into the military. One story told about the most celebrated canine hero of World War II named Chips, whose teeth slashing attacks brought him fame and glory in Morocco, Sicily, Naples, Rome, France, and Germany. One of his owners told The New York Times, “He doesn’t seem to wag his tail as much as before going to war, but I suppose he is suffering from battle fatigue.” The stories about dogs being shipped off to war are certainly depressing, however the majority of people today do not even realize the fact they were a major part of our wars, human wars. In the Soviet Union, they pulled half starved animals off city streets, strapped explosives to their backs, and sent them to wander along the German lines looking for food. 'In all, perhaps a quarter of a million dogs saw active service in World War II, in nearly every corner of the globe where there was fighting. The Germans reportedly had 200,000 dogs in service as casualty dogs, sentries, scouts, guards, and intimidators of civilians. The Japanese deployed some 25,000 dogs... The Soviet Union put 50,000 into service, including antitank suicide dogs.'

The dog embodies unconditional love and cold destruction, domesticity and wildness which are opposite forces in continual, dynamic equilibrium. Humanity is doing better by dogs in many ways, allowing them to be household friends rather than workers, improving their odds against disease, neutering more of them, and gradually reducing the number that have to be euthanized. Humans no longer round them up in the summers and shoot them to prevent rabies. However, people are not doing dogs a good service by continuing to employ puppy mills, or inbreeding dogs to get pure breeds. Insistence on breeding extremes have produced dogs that look right by the regulations, but which have serious genetic flaws underneath, including aggressive, nervous, or hyperactive temperaments. Taking in broad aspects of American social history, Derr has not succeeded in putting the dog in its place. But he has lovingly shown just how many places the dog has had, and through it all has not flinched from showing distinctly darker aspects of the humans who have owned them.

This book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of America, nor of its dogs. Rather it presents representative information from American history that illustrate the important role that dogs have played throughout history. In doing this, Derr has chosen to concentrate primarily on the explorers that traversed the land, and took dogs along on the trek, such as Lewis & Clark, Daniel Boone, Christopher Columbus and Alexander Mackenzie. He explores the contributions that dogs made as they accompanied the wagon trains that crossed the prairies, and in the goldfields of California and Alaska. He chronicles the role they have played in helping men explore inhospitable terrains such as during Richard Byrd's exploration of Antarctica, as well as their use as test subjects in early space missions. Derr also tackles such issues as the animal rights movement, vivisection, the health and mental instability that can be associated with purebred dogs, and dogs that have killed humans, as well as those heroes that have saved countless human lives.

Derr’s book is more than simply cobbled together historical dog related anecdotes. He also provides a valuable overview of America’s own history, commenting most explicitly on the poor treatment minority groups have consistently received from the first arrival of the Europeans and how those Europeans used dogs in contrast to the ways native peoples did. The book jumps between light stories of dog shenanigans to serious moments of heart breaking cruelty and discrimination, making Derr’s book more than just a dog book. From beginning to end, A Dog's History of America offers a fascinating glimpse into the role that dogs have played, and continue to play, in the lives of Americans, from the farm to the White House. While most modern dogs are pampered pets, there are still thousands of dogs who work for a living. From sheepdogs that still tends flocks and guide dogs who assist the visually impaired to search and rescue dogs and bomb sniffing dogs, our canine companions still serve a vital role in our society. 'Significantly in an age of terrorism, dogs have proven to be the most effective detector of explosives yet found, better than any machine.'

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A Dogs Impact on Humanity. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/a-dogs-impact-on-humanity/
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