At the behest of their human companions dogs have served heroically in war; in fact, prior to the invention of firearms, they were a lethal part of any arsenal. But war dogs have also been turned to torture and brutality—against Native Americans during the Spanish conquest, for example, or runaway slaves or innocent civilians and protestors in many nations. Once popular sports, bull and bear baiting and dog fighting are now generally considered cruel spectacles, although they persist as illegal blood sports.
The dog’s attributes, including its sagacity, so highly praised in the 19th century, have helped it remain the chief, enduring animal companion and helper for humans. Whether pulling sleds; tracking endangered Florida panthers; assisting disabled people as their eyes, ears, stabilizers and guardians; protecting flocks and property; locating disaster victims or explosives; playing Frisbee; appearing in a show; or bringing joy to someone’s life, dogs continue to figure prominently in human society. They also continue to serve as a vital physical and spiritual link between the tame and the wild, human society and nature.
As scientific advisors of the exhibit by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, we have attempted to present a full portrait of the rich history of human’s best friend and the rich, natural family of canids from which it came. We recognize that it is a story without end as scientists, veterinarians, historians, archaeologists and anthropologists continue to fill in the often significant missing details and as humans continue to shape dogs to new purposes through breeding and training. We have a responsibility to dogs and their wild cousins that we cannot ignore, for in ways nearly too numerous to count, they have helped us get where we are. They bring balance to our lives and to the natural world, and they provide an insight into the mechanisms of evolution itself.
Visit “Dogs: Wolf, Myth, Hero & Friend” online.