Dogs are artifacts.
They are the products of the cultural, economic, and sociopolitical systems in which they were bred.
The dog is very much the product of the people with whom he lives. If a dog population evolves in a devout Muslim country, where dogs are viewed as unclean and unworthy of human respect, then those dogs will be very different from a dog population where dogs are viewed as creatures that are viewed as something akin to family members.
Changes in human society ultimately beget changes in dogs. The forces that shape our history ultimately affect their development as a type, as a strain, as as a species. Dogs can change dramatically in terms of form and behavior in just a few short generations, so these changes can become very easy to observe in the historical record.
The original dogs were bred for function only. Their forms reflected their utility. Dogs that could not perform their work were culled.
Although it has always been true that people would choose dogs that they found aesthetically pleasing or perhaps possessed a novel trait, for most of human and canine history, the dog evolved along these lines.
It is true that the nobility and upper classes throughout history have always been able to breed dogs that were of no functional utility. The toy spaniels and bichon-types that were so common in royal courts in Europe and the brachycephalic toys of the Chinese palaces were the exceptions to the rule. Most dogs had to adhere to function or be able to survive as a pariah.
Both of those forces meant that dogs were relatively conservative in their shape and behavior– at least when we compare them to the modern dog.
In eighteenth century England, conditions began to change. Economic and social conditions allowed the dog to attain a new position in society. The dog became a symbol on which the mass of society could use.
When dogs become symbolic, they become something very different. The economist Thorstein Veblen termed use of possession to reflect one’s place in society as “conspicuous consumption.” Dogs have often been objects of conspicuous consumption. One merely needs to look to Ancient Babylonian or Egyptian artifacts to see that people in the upper classes used their dogs to reflect their status.
Most people who have had dogs have not had this luxury. It was true for most English people as it has been true for other people.
But as economic, cultural, and sociopolitical conditions changed, the “useless dog” became something that large numbers of people could keep and use as symbols for their up and coming status.
The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions forever changed the British countryside. They also fundamentally changed the class structure of that society. The rise of nationalism and Romanticism also deeply affected the way the British people viewed themselves and their relationship to their state and its growing empire.
These forces created a need for symbols, which were partly found in dogs.
In particular, two breeds became such mass symbols of these forces that they fundamentally changed from their original form. They came to symbolize different aspects of the British experience and that nation’s identity as it emerged as as a super power.
The bulldog was the original cattle dog. In the old days of the open field system, a bulldog was about the only creature that could control the half wild cattle that roamed the forests and pastures. The bulldog became a fixture at stockyards, where butchers kept the cattle they were about to slaughter. Cattle that had spent their whole lives roaming the countryside needed a tough dog to handle them. The same goes for the swine, which once wandered the forests in search of pannage.
And the bulldog fit the bill. It could work livestock that other dogs simply couldn’t control. Bull dogs were catch dogs. They held the stock by the ears (in the case of pigs) or by the nose (in the case of cattle). Holding the animals gave humans an opportunity to put a rope on them or humanely dispatch them.
As the open fields were enclosed, the bulldog’s job changed, but only slightly. The dog was still used to control stock. However, it became famous for fighting bulls and bears. Such spectacles were widely attended, and nearly everyone saw virtue in a do that would tangle with a great beast. These contests had always been in existence, but they became very popular in the seventeenth century.
English nobles were known for their beef consumption. It became part of their national custom during the sixteenth century. It was only in the eighteenth century that beef came to symbolize Britain. Union with Scotland had open up new avenues for beef cattle to marketed in England, and the development of specialized beef cattle, such as Bakewell’s strain of the English longhorn, meant that beef was finally available to the majority. Before that, beef was consumed, but one must keep in mind that cattle were useful as draft animals and for milk. To kill one was to possibly cut off an economic asset that was far more valuable than the taste of its own flesh.
The growing middle class could afford to buy cheap beef, and butchers became celebrated in English culture. The stereotypical English John Bull is a beef eating man, tough, stout, independent. The butcher was seen as a pillar of society, for he provided society with the meat they so loved.
Because cattle are valuable in other ways besides as meat producers, it is a definite sign of the technological advancement and relative affluence of a society to have cattle that are raised solely to be eaten. The English and British national character seem to have caught onto that symbol by middle to the late eighteenth century.
In this sort of national myth, the butcher is a hero, for he feeds the sturdy, independent nation of beef-eaters.
And he can’t feed that nation without the help of his sturdy butcher’s dog, which was, of course, the bulldog.
The earliest depictions of John Bull had him as anthropomorphic bull, but later versions of him depicted a stout man with broad shoulders, a large rounded head, and a jowly face.
It is possible that the modern dog we call a bulldog might actually be a conscious or subconscious effort to turn the butcher’s dog into the canine version of John Bull, for as John Bull became a symbol of the English people so, too, did the bulldog. It is also possible that the two terms are etymologically linked, but I have found no evidence of such a linkage.
Now, it is very obvious to anyone who has seen a modern bulldog that is quite different from the depiction by Reinagle. It has a much more shortened jaw, a much more massive head, and the shoulders are far broader. The creature has developed from a practical animal that was used for controlling half wild swine into a symbol– a symbol British affluence, technological advancement, sturdiness, and independence. It is a place where the yeoman can become a noble, where everyone eats beef, and no one fears an oppressive state.
The bulldog is a symbol of what it means to be English, and as a symbol, it is very hard to get people to think of it in any other way. It must always look as it does, for if it doesn’t, it no longer resembles John Bull.
As the bulldog’s association with the beef industry and English-British nationalism raised its stature in the popular imagination, another dog came to symbolize other parts of Britishness.
The Newfoundland dog of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a fixture in nearly every affluent British home. Indeed, such dogs were quite common in the cities and towns of Britain’s North American colonies.
These dogs were marketed as the perfect family pets, as the best working dogs a person could find, and as animals whose intelligence exceeded that of all other dogs. And as we shall see, it came to symbolize other parts of what it meant to be British.
The animals were derived from two cur-type dogs that had evolved in Newfoundland. The larger of the two was most often black and white and was long-haired. It was used for hauling carts and sleds, and for hauling larger nets out of the water. Because Newfoundland was mainly used as a land base in which ships could access the Grand Banks, the needs was for stout curs to work on both the land and the water.
The smaller of the two curs is the St. John’s water dog. It is the partial ancestor of the retrievers, although the larger dog may have also played some role. It worked almost exclusively on ships, hauling in lines and nets during the fishing season. However, it also worked as a traditional gun dog during the off season. They were known for retrieving shot geese, ducks, and seals from the sea, as well as working as flushing retrievers on ptarmigan hunts. When these dogs were brought to England, they were used as retrievers on estate shoots. They were so good at this that all modern retrievers descend from the St. John’s water dog.
We actually have a very poor idea of what these dogs looked like when they were in regular use on Newfoundland. One of the best ways to start an argument is to ask someone what the original Newfoundland dogs looked like. Not only will people disagree with what the main difference between the two types was, but they will disagree about what the original colors and sizes were.
Part of the reason for this disagreement is the two Newfoundlands were curs. They varied in appearance because no one cared what they looked like at all when they were being bred on Newfoundland. If they could do the work and survive the conditions on Newfoundland, they managed to pass on their genes to the next generation.
British ships carried tons of cod back England. On their ships, they took some of the Newfoundland dogs with them. It wasn’t long before the dogs found themselves on British naval ships as mascots.
And then, the dogs developed another reputation. It was known that Newfoundland dogs were more than capable of rescuing a person who had fallen overboard. There are countless stories of these dogs jumping into the ocean to save someone who fell overboard, including one about how a fisherman’s Newfoundland saved Napoleon from rough seas as he escaped exile in Elba.
An heroic dog from the North American colonies that loves children and is very easily trained. It is also a dog of the Royal Navy’s ships, which protect Britain’s growing empire. It is also a dog of the merchant ships, which bring in wears from the farthest reaches of the planet and export the wool, textiles, and iron that the British worker now produces.
Ships protect Britain from other European powers. They also make Britain wealthy as it trades with its colonies. Ships are very powerful in the consciousness of the British at this time. Anything associated with ships is going to be an important national symbol.
Newfoundland dogs were also tied up in a kind of romance about the North American wilderness. Newfoundland dogs seem to accompany every expedition into the wilds of North America. Fur traders and prospectors always have at least one. Britain’s wealth is augmented by the riches of North America and its ships are made from its timbers. Its pines provide the tar and pitch for the vessels.
The Newfoundland dogs represented the prestige of the North American possessions, which have been fully wrested from the hands of the French at the Battle of the Plain of Abraham during the Seven Years’ War (“French and Indian War”). Wolfe’s defeat of Montcalm played heavily in conscience of the British nation. It is a story that is repeated over and over to school children. I remember the story from my high school history class, and I am an American. Possession over North America represents something different to the British people than possession over the Caribbean. While the Caribbean will produce sugar, British subjects can more easily move to North America in hopes of becoming something else.
In the late eighteenth century, North America is a symbol of even more upward mobility in the British consciousness. It is a symbol of even more liberty, for the crown grants its subjects there all the rights they have in Britain. However, it also provides them with even greater liberty to govern themselves.
An animal that came from such a place would have some bearing on how people viewed it, and the Newfoundland dog became a sort of romantic symbol of the wild hopes that can be found across the Atlantic.
The fact that these dogs were also great family dogs also created a symbol. Every middle class British family wanted to own a home with a yard, where they could raise their children in peace and tranquility. For a nanny, they’d have big Newfoundland dog to watch over their children.
It is kind of the way we view retrievers today. Retrievers represent the ideal of a happy, well-adjusted middle class family. It is the dog that can greet the kids as they come home from school. It is the dog that can be the babysitter. It is the dog that can go on long outings with the family and always listen to commands and always be good.
Such animals don’t exist, of course.
However, such symbolism is very potent. Collies and German shepherds have also played this role in other nations and at other times. The insanely intelligent hero dog who loves children is a character that keeps popping up, but it is obvious that the Newfoundland dog was the first breed to really be promoted on this reputation.
Such a reputation is just as dangerous to a dog breed as the reputation that they are all maneaters, for no breed can ever live up to the expectation in the symbol. There will always be variation within a breed, and if a breed becomes popular, there is always a likelihood that more than a few people will get a dog that lacks the characteristics one typically expects in a particular breed.
And that’s one reason why the Newfoundland is no longer expected to be such an animal. It is no longer this super popular pet dog.
Like the bulldog, its form has changed from its earliest days. The earliest depictions of the big Newfoundland in Europe suggest that virtually all of them were Landseers– that is black and white parti-colors. Today, most Newfoundlands are solid black or bronze. A few are gray. In some English speaking countries (including the US and Canada), the black and white Landseers are seen as a color variety of Newfoundland. In the FCI countries, the Landseer is a separate breed, which is more lightly built, just as the dogs in the Landseer paintings were.
Becoming symbols that reflected a national character changed the Newfoundland and the bulldog forever. Although Newfoundlands still do water rescue trials and tests and some work as life guards on the Italian Riviera, neither animal is much like its ancestors. Bulldogs no longer manhandle have wild cattle or pigs, although their relations that evolved in North America and Australia are proving to be decent catch dogs.
In the West, we no longer rely upon dogs to do work for us. Virtually none of us rely on them to provide us with an income and even fewer of us rely upon our dogs for transportation or to hunt food. Some of us may need dogs to help us with our ranching enterprises. But in the real world as it exists now, we really don’t need working dogs as much we think we do.
We are all conscious of this reality to a certain degree. No matter how much we like to pretend that we are all about preserving working breeds, we know that deep down, technology has largely replaced any utility that a dog might have. Of course, there are exceptions, but most dogs, even those of working breeds, don’t live solely because their owners need them for survival. It is a reality we must accept, and if we actually believe in preserving working breeds, it is a reality we must understand.
And when dogs no longer are needed at that base level, they all become symbols. Our dogs are symbols of who we are. We choose them, maybe without even realizing it, to reflect parts of ourselves.
These symbols can be positive aspects of our character.
If one rescues dogs, then one is showing how important social justice and compassion one has toward other living things.
One can also see how these symbols might help certain maligned breeds of dog. If taking in a pit bull is a symbol of one’s desire to stand up to prejudice and take in a truly vilified creature, then this symbolism could have positive results. It might change how our society views these dogs.
I certainly hope so.
Peter Steinhart, author of The Company of Wolves, began his final remarks in that book with these thoughts:
The wolf was once widely seen as a symbol of the depravity of wildness; it is now to many a symbol of the nobility of nature. Largely by the use of symhols, we nearly eradicated the wolf. Largely by manipulating symbols, we may yet save it.
Dogs are certainly symbolic. In this society, dogs are at least partially objects of conspicuous consumption. I am not saying that is the totality of the relationship, but to deny its existence doesn’t really help us.
We have to think long and hard about what dogs mean to us. What parts of our dogs are really them and what parts of them are tinctured by our own ego?
When we can put dogs in the proper symbolic place, then we can truly understand them as they are and work toward a better future for them. I do not know where that proper symbolic place is, but I think appreciating them as remarkable organisms is a pretty good place to start. They are a modified form of Canis lupus. This is the only large predator that we have been able to domesticate and with which we can live in relative safety.
That’s where I start.
But maybe you need another place.
We need to get our symbols right. Otherwise, our tendency to make symbols will continue to distort dogs into dangerous cartoon versions of their former selves. The John Bull bulldog is perhaps the worst example of what happens when we allow symbolic imagery to shape how we see an ideal specimen of a certain breed.
Symbols can destroy and distort.
But symbols can also redeem.
Those are the ones we need.
Dogs are artifacts, but they are also organisms.
Let’s not forget that.