Work companions, guards, sport stars and even lap warmers - man has long found uses for our favourite four legged friends. For millennia our human ancestors lived around and in harmony with wolves, lions and other large carnivores as though there were a simple understanding that there was plenty to go around, humans were after all top predators of their own accord. It is none-the-less incredible that dogs were first domesticated potentially tens of thousands of years before those animals that have since become our modern day farm livestock.
Ancient humans were outdoors-folk in the truest sense, hunting and gathering to survive, often moving across the land with the herds and the seasons. Wolves were living not dissimilarly, they too were in social groups, hunting and following the herds. The varying theories of the first successful human-dog interactions are based largely around this shared lifestyle and it essentially comes down to food - cynics would still suggest our relationship with the modern day dog is no different. Campfires, as they are to this day, were key centre pieces of great human interaction, and it is likely that the smells of roast meats and discarded bones were too tempting for nearby wolves. As the wolves became regular visitors, their growls would warn the humans of outsiders and help ward off unwanted guests, and for ancient man a few morsels left for the wolves was a small price to pay for a furred alarm system. The effect was compounded as the friendlier wolves were less likely to flee, therefore making better candidates for domestication and life amongst man. It was here the history of humanity and potentially the world changed for good.
Interesting though it may be, this was long ago and we have both come quite a long way since. For the outdoors person, dogs can change everything and we have been training breeds with special traits in them for centuries with some truly extraordinary results. There are many to choose from and further journal entries can be written but for now read on for a selection of three amazing breeds:
The adventurers' dog - brave, loyal, strong, calm and highly intelligent, the Newfoundland was originally bred by English and Irish fishermen in (you guessed it) Newfoundland. As strong swimmers, they worked alongside the fishermen pulling in nets full of fish and hauling carts. There have been many famous Newfoundlands, some brave, some strong, but there is perhaps none more intrepid than Seaman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their astonishing journey from Mississippi to the Pacific and back again. Seaman survived a severed artery (beaver bite), being captured by Native Americans, and numerous mosquito infestations, all the the while retrieving food for his masters and protecting them from bears and bison. This bravery and desire to look after human-kind has lead to the breeds training as rescue dogs of which an early beneficiary is believed to have been Napoleon who was saved after falling overboard in rough seas during his famous escape from exile on Elba.
Originating in the wilderness of the Siberian Arctic and bred by the Chukchi People for transport and company, huskies are tough, energetic and able to withstand extreme cold temperatures. They arrived in North America thanks to a Russian fur trader who introduced them to Alaska during the Nome gold rush where they were able to lead expeditions through otherwise impassable terrain. The winter of 1924-25 brought the Husky great fame as a potentially devastating diphtheria outbreak began in Nome, Alaska. With the delivery ships blocked by ice, 20 people and 150 huskies performed an extraordinary relay to transport an antitoxin 674 miles through the vast Alaskan interior and temperatures below -50ºC in 5 1/2 days. A dog by the name of Togo was the celebrated hero, leading his team over 260 miles through the most perilous stage of the relay. This herculean effort saved thousands of lives.
Today known for their brandy barrels and alpine photo opportunities, the St. Bernard was once the finest of rescue animals. Combining many of the characteristics of the previous two breeds, they were bred as early as 1690 by monks at the Great St Bernard Hospice in the Swiss Alps for avalanche and mountain rescue. It is said that the monks did no training but rather young dogs would learn from the older ones. The most famous of the breed was Barry, born in 1800, who saved over forty lives during his career. Amongst these was a young boy found asleep in an ice cavern after a devastating avalanche. Barry warmed the boy's body, licking him until warm enough to be moved onto his back and carried back to the hospice where on recovery the boy was reunited with his parents. Barry’s preserved body is now on display at the Natural History Museum of Bern.
Whether in the company of one of these great breeds or something a little more manageable, there is no doubt that time in the wild is a better place when alongside our dogs.