With Labor Day approaching, I thought about canine jobs

September 2, 2009 at 2:44 pm Leave a comment

herdThe history of people and dogs has long fascinated me, perhaps because there is so much we don’t know and may never know. In Jean Auel’s series of books, beginning with “Clan of the Cave Bear” and working through “Shelters of Stone” the heroine rescues a young foal and a wolf cub and raises them. In those historical novels the ideas seem to make perfect sense, but whether or not things ever happened that way we’ll never know.

We do know that 125,000 years ago, wolves held a special place in the hearts of people — whether domesticated at that point or not. In France, the La Grotte du Lazaret Paleolithic shelters had wolf skulls guarding the entrances. Were the skulls those of companions who had passed away or simply symbols in another way?

In Native American folklore, one fable said that at one point a rift developed that separated the first people from the animals. As this rift widened, the dog jumped the rift, preferring to remain with people rather than with the other animals.

It is just amazing to me how many jobs dogs were taught to do they became domesticated. Many of these jobs would probably be considered cruel today, but life was tough for people, too.

In Europe in the Middle Ages, small dogs ran circles day after day, turning the turnspits in the kitchen (or cooking area) or if they didn’t run in circles, they ran on the early version of a treadmill. This looked surprisingly like a large version of today’s hamster wheel. In either case, the idea was that the dog’s running would cause the meat to turn as it cooked so it wouldn’t burn. The small (usually under ten inches at the shoulder) but sturdy dogs even became known as Turnspits.

One of the first jobs given to dogs was that of bringing food to the table (or fire). Historians have had long debates over who took advantage of whom. Did wolves come to people to eat the scraps people threw away or did people follow wolves and steal some of their kills? In my mind’s eye, I can see both scenarios happening. But in any event, dogs were used to assist in hunting for food and many still do this today.

For centuries, carting dogs were commonly used in Europe and even in New York City because they were easier to keep than horses. Often only the rich could keep horses. Cart dogs pulled the butcher’s meat to market, the farmer’s harvests to town, and the tinker’s wares along his route. In Canada, as late as the early 1800’s, Newfoundland’s pulled fish from the docks to packing sheds and to market. They also pulled wagons for the postal service. The best carting dogs tended to be tall enough to balance a two wheeled cart and strong enough to control the cart and pull it.

Historians believe that as soon as mankind began to keep livestock — when wild sheep or goats were domesticated — dogs were developed to herd them. Today, dogs who assist farmers and shepherds are well known and still used often. It’s much easier to keep large herds of sheep, cattle, goats, ducks, geese, or other livestock if a herding dog (or two or three) is working alongside.  Herding dogs are found in all shapes and sizes, depending upon the terrain where they were developed and the animals they needed to work. Most tend to be of medium to light build so as to be strong enough to work all day but light enough to be agile.

Livestock protection dogs live with and bond to the flock or herd of livestock and protect them from predators. These dogs, of which the Great Pyrenees is probably the best known, tend to sleep during the day and patrol at night when predators are more active. Most livestock protection dogs are large; tall enough to intimidate predators and strong enough to fight the predators off if an attack continues.

As people stopped wandering and began building farms and cities, they began to stores food for future use. When food is stored, vermin quickly follow. Many different breeds, including many of the terriers developed in the British Isles and Europe, were excellent vermin hunters.

Throughout our long history together, dogs have performed many other jobs for us. They have fought in wars, followed us through the wilderness, guarded our property, lead us to safety in perilous times, and often given their lives for us.

On this Labor Day, as we give thanks to the people who work so hard for us, give thanks to that four legged friend by your side. He, and his ancestors, have worked hard for us, too.

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