The History of Dogs in America
With over 300 breeds of dogs in the world, and with one third of American families claiming a dog in their household, it’s clear that dogs are a very prominent part of American culture. We love our furry friends and treat them as part of the family, but they have served very different roles for humans throughout American history.
Scientists are still trying to discover the origins of dogs in America, but many guess that they crossed over with early humans from Siberia to Alaska over the strip of land that used to be exposed in the Bering Straight. These dogs were essentially domesticated wolves, though not in a manner which our dogs are domesticated today. There were many groups of Native American people who found great importance in dogs, training them to be guards, hunters, pull carts, and sometimes companions. Some wrote dogs into their legends and stories. Some even believed dogs served as guides to the afterlife. Others had little to do with them, seeing them as vicious wolves that were unpredictable and dangerous. And still others sometimes hunted them and used them as food. The appearance of these dogs would be much similar to the wolves we know today.
In Europe, dogs were used for hunting and for sport. People had begun to breed dogs for specific qualities to make them faster, stronger, better trackers, or attentive protectors. These dogs looked much different than the wolf-dogs in the Americas from years of breeding and exposure to other dogs across the continent. When settlers came to the Americas, the dogs they brought with them were often used to hunt and guard as the Europeans claimed new territory.
Although the dogs of the colonial settlers were distant cousins to the dogs of the Native Americans, they would still appear strange to the dogs we have in our homes today, and they were certainly still treated differently. Farmers found use in dogs to keep their livestock in check, and the wealthy settlers delighted in dog breeding for the popular pastime of fox hunting. However, dogs still primarily served the purpose of being trainable hunters, slave drivers, and guards. Many people distrusted dogs, fearing their aggression and ability to spread rabies, and as such, they were far more often mistreated than they were loved. In fact, in 1772 anyone living within the city limits of Williamsburg was forbidden to own a dog by the Act to Prevent Mischief from Dogs.
But the interest in dogs continued. The wealthy continued to breed dogs for their purposes. George Washington took great pride in breeding the perfect foxhound (he is given credit for the American Foxhound breed), and as the 1800s progressed, dog shows grew in popularity to showcase these excellent breeds. Stafford Bull Terriers came to the United States in the mid-1800s and were bread for bull- or bear-baiting and also for dog fights (they would later come to be know as the Pit Bull Terrier). Dogs were still primarily used for usefulness, hunting, sport/show, and protectors, but they slowly made their way into literature and popular articles. By the end of the 18th century, these articles were describing dogs as faithful, loyal, and adoring. The perception of dogs was beginning to shift to allow them to be seen more and more as a source of companionship and they began to be further domesticated into the home as well as maintaining their “traditional” purposes. Keeping dogs as purely “pets” didn’t become mainstream until the mid-19th century.
Dogs eventually found their way into work with the police as well as with wars. Dogs were first used for military purposes in the United States during the Seminole Wars, and continued to be used for wars afterward for guarding, sending messages, and even as war propaganda on recruiting posters. After World War I, many soldiers returned from the field blinded by poisonous gases. Experimentation with training dogs to assist these blinded soldiers resulted in success, and dog training schools began to become established in Europe for such purposes. By the mid-1920s training schools for service dogs made their way to the United States. The United States military again used dogs in World War II as mine sniffers, trackers, and messengers.
During this time it became extremely popular for U.S. presidents to own dogs in the White House. These dogs were given celebrity status and the public demand for certain breeds grew based on dogs in show business and these presidential pups. After World War II, suburbanization and a better economy created a spike in dog ownership.
Today we continue to see a rise in dog popularity as a part of the American household. Today we still breed dogs for certain character traits and appealing appearances, but more emphasis is being placed on welcoming dogs into the home as part of the family.