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'A Dog's History of America'

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 5, 2004; Page BW02


How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and

Settled a Continent

By Mark Derr. North Point. 380 pp. $25

Mark Derr, who writes intelligently and lucidly about the environment and animals, has set a daunting task for himself in A Dog's History of America: to show how dogs, who often "do not even appear in the indexes of early histories" of America, have contributed to the exploration, settlement and growth of the continent. Daunting, that is, because documentary evidence of dogs is nonexistent at worst, scanty at best. They were "ubiquitous, and invisible, taken for granted like beer and rotgut whiskey, cooking pots, the labor of women and children, the diseases that regularly ravished people and animals, even the lives of slaves and indentured servants."

Taken almost wholly for granted -- even when they were cherished companions rather than homeless curs -- they were almost never written about. They probably got to America somewhere between 12,000 to 35,000 years ago, perhaps crossing from Siberia to Alaska, which is to say they were well established long before the first white colonists got here, but no records were kept of their existence and only an occasional bone at an archaeological dig provides any clue to their existence. Thus for much of the time span this book covers -- from the 16th century until well into the 19th -- Derr is forced to rely on inference and speculation, and to tell the human story with dogs playing an almost invisible supporting role.

Considering the obstacles with which he is confronted, Derr does a remarkably good job of constructing a plausible account of the dog's first three centuries in the Americas. Though he touches occasionally on the Caribbean and Latin America -- primarily in his account of the Spanish Conquest -- and less so on Canada, his chief focus is on the British colonies and the United States. He begins by examining dogs' role as the "sole domesticated animal of many Native American groups," which "at the least" they served as "companions, fellow travelers and camp guards," sometimes as transport. They had a "wolfish appearance, although the dogs were somewhat smaller than the local wolves and had tails that tended to curve over the back, while those of wolves tended to hang straight."

Indians, like many others, ate dogs. So apparently did the Spanish -- as did many whites who became desperate for food as they worked their way to the West -- but they had a crueler use for dogs: They were "specifically bred and trained to hunt down and disembowel Indians," and the Spanish followed the "practice of bringing along on any campaign chained Indian slaves as food for the dogs." They were known as "war dogs," and they brought terror everywhere they went.

None of this makes for especially pleasant reading -- "In desperation, the men slit the throats of their dogs and drank their blood" -- but it appears to be historically accurate and, not incidentally, it provides a timely antidote to early-21st-century attitudes toward dogs, which tend toward the sentimental and romanticized. We tend to forget (if we ever knew) "that, on the whole, dogs have been poorly treated by humans, treated with such brutality, abuse, and contempt that even slaves and tortured Indians have found it degrading to be called a dog." Throughout history there have been people "who recognized that mistreatment of the dog was abuse of its loyalty," but this conviction took a long time to become widespread:

"During the eighteenth century, a shift occurred in people's perception of dogs and other animals and of human relationships to them, the ramifications of which are being felt to this day. . . . By the end of the eighteenth century, the 'sagacious,' loyal, adoring, faithful dog was becoming a fixture in popular articles; together with the horse, the dog was deemed far more reliable and devoted than servants or slaves. But unlike the horse, the dog made the transition into the bourgeois home. This transition was shaped by the same intellectual, social, and economic forces that were reshaping society itself."

Until this change in attitude, dogs had been used, if not always abused, far more than coddled. In the slaveholding South, they were used "for hunting, sport, and tracking runaway slaves." In Puritan New England, "settlers used dogs to guard their homes and manage their livestock, to kill wolves, to hound Indians." In the West, "cowmen used dogs on their ranches both to help round up cattle and to manage other livestock, especially sheep." All along the frontier, the "cur, or cur dog," played innumerable roles. Derr tells this story: "A young mother was gathering beans in front of a newly built log house when she turned to fuss at her little dog for its persistent barking and saw that it was holding at bay a cougar sitting on a stump just twenty feet from her baby. The woman hastily scooped up her child and ran into the house to wait for her husband. He soon returned with his big dog and immediately tracked and killed the cougar. He found in its stomach the remains of their brave little dog."

That took place in the 1830s. Now, nearly two centuries later, dogs and humans have a far different relationship, but dogs still work for us. Police dogs and firehouse dogs help protect us. Guide dogs serve as eyes for the blind. In wartime dogs have served "as messengers -- sometimes actually laying telephone cable -- casualty dogs, sentries, and scout dogs," sometimes with incredible skill. After September 2001 bomb-detector dogs -- which Derr argues are far more effective at nosing out explosives than any machines -- are now in "such high demand" that "a number of incompetent trainers entered the fray, producing poorly trained and vetted dogs, who at this writing have not yet failed spectacularly, though the risk is real. Experts worry that a failure could spur a backlash against relying on dogs that would feed into a long-standing bias among many officials who favor machines over dogs."

Dogs have become celebrities. "For defeating screen desperadoes, Rin Tin Tin received, at the height of his career with Warner Brothers, $1,000 a week and had his own chef and chauffeur." A few years later, Lassie enjoyed even greater celebrity. Both dogs greatly increased the popularity of their breeds -- German shepherds and collies, respectively -- with the result that each "quickly became a poster dog for what happens when too many animals are bred too quickly from a small gene pool." During the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Scottie whom he called "my little dog, Fala," assumed "particular and general significance" as a result of the genuinely close tie between dog and master:

"Despite people and establishments who refused to welcome dogs, they had made the transition, like America itself, from the country and the yard into the city and the home. They had become not just dogs but personages, and their masters and mistresses were 'companions.' Fala was an exceptional dog, of course, and the dog wars are not over to this day. People continue to abuse and abandon their animals and to breed dogs to satisfy their own vanity or to make profit. But a shift in perception, long under way, had become fixed in the collective psyche, as surely as America had changed from a predominantly rural society through the Depression to an urban and suburbanizing society after World War II."

The popularity of Fala had the perhaps inevitable effect that, while "Roosevelt and Fala formed an organic unit," the "deployment of subsequent White House dogs has too often appeared, and in fact been, staged for publicity, a political ploy designed to connect to the past and to dog lovers in the electorate." Similar motives appear behind the purchase of expensive, exotic breeds by self-regarding urbanites who see the dogs as useful to the "personalities" they want to project; sooner or later they discover the dogs are too much for them to handle and ship them off to animal-rescue shelters, expensive and pitiable victims of human vanity. These people are not significantly different from those whose dogs are "primped and preened" and overbred to win ribbons at shows -- ribbons that are meant to flatter the owners, not their dogs, a point beautifully made in that exquisite little film "Best in Show."

Fortunately, most people who own dogs -- or who are owned by dogs -- treat them as treasured companions, as members of their families. Like colonial New England, where "some dogs were mourned nearly as deeply as if they had been valued members of the community," we have reached a deeper and kinder understanding of the connection between us and these sublimely wonderful animals. We often say that a dog in a loving family is a lucky dog, but the really lucky party is the family. •

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company