A consummate and loving tribute to canines as well as a comprehensive history, seamlessly blending facts, anecdotes, and ideas.
Though rigorously unsentimental, Derr (Dog’s Best Friend, 1997, etc.) infuses his text with loving concern and quiet outrage at how dogs were, and still are, treated. Since the first dogs crossed the Bering Strait with their human companions between 35,000 and 12,000 years ago, dogs have participated in the settlement of the continent. They helped hunt, were a food source (even Lewis and Clark ate dogs), guarded settlements, and did humans’ dirty work. 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 tread mills. The Enlightenment changed attitudes—dogs began to be valued for their character, loyalty, and company—but abuses continued, ameliorated somewhat by the activism of newly established humane societies. In the wake of Darwinism and a growing social obsession with pure blood, pedigree dogs were declared superior, despite mongrels’ proven record of accomplishment. Derr includes stories of heroic dogs like Satan, who in WWI dodged bullets to take a message that saved a garrison under fire; the Alaskan sled team whose 1920s “serum run” saved a town from diphtheria; and dogs in the Pacific who detected hidden Japanese snipers in WWII. Though physical cruelty to dogs is less socially acceptable today, Derr warns that they still endure abusive treatment. He also deplores the health consequences of inbreeding, the lack of space in cities where dogs can run, and the inept training of working dogs.
A humbling reminder of the dog’s remarkable spirit and intelligence in the face, even, of human cruelty.