Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor once mused, “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.” Americans seem to agree with Ms. Taylor as dogs are currently the most popular species of pet in our nation. However, all dog breeds now residing in American homes originated from the Old World. How our canine companions made the journey from initial domestication to modernity is perhaps one of the most interesting chronicles to date.

Many historians believe that dogs were domesticated before written histories were recorded. As early civilizations began to document the details of their existence, certain societies emphasized the importance of dogs in their culture. Archaeological evidence suggests that many dog owners in ancient Egypt were buried with their dogs so their friendship could continue in the afterlife. In Rome, the law formally declared that dogs were more valuable than other types of pets, and superstitious beliefs of the era held that dogs guarded their families against malicious supernatural forces. Likewise, the ancient Chinese believed dogs could protect them from disease and other forms of bad luck, so dog-shaped amulets were worn to ward off harm. Aside from guarding livestock and keeping humans company, dogs in ancient Sumer had a much more elevated role to fulfill: healer. Because the Sumerians believed that dog saliva held healing properties, dogs were highly esteemed in their society.

As civilizations advanced and humans mastered the art of selective breeding, specialized types of dogs appeared to fill specific niches across cultures. Hailing from the mountains of Japan, the Akita was born and bred to hunt. A thick coat allowed this breed to feel at home in the snow, and a naturally energetic disposition made it easy for the Akita to trail game without tiring, even over the roughest of terrain. The Alaskan Malamute breed was developed by the Mahlemuts tribe in Siberia before crossing the Bering Land Bridge. This hardy breed pulled sleds, carried packs, and hauled carts. With origins in ancient Israel, the Canaan dog is thought to be among the oldest dog breeds still in existence. This highly territorial breed excelled at guarding camps and protecting the Hebrews’ flocks and herds.

Today, dogs continue to serve as loyal friends and dedicated coworkers. According to a survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 38% of American households include at least one dog. While most of our four-legged friends specialize in casual companionship, others pursue careers outside of the home. The medical field frequently utilizes the sharpness of canine senses to assist in the treatment of a variety of conditions. In addition to seeing-eye dogs, hearing dogs, seizure detection dogs, and mobility-assistance dogs are specially trained to assist people with disabilities. Recent years have seen a rise in the popularity of therapy dogs. These patient pooches frequent hospitals and nursing homes, bringing comfort and joy to unwell individuals. Other canines find their calling in the military or law enforcement, trailing enemies and criminals and alerting their handlers to security threats.

Whatever the breed, occupation, or origin, all dogs hold common their unwavering love for their owners. If you’re in search of a BFF (that’s best furry friend), be sure to check out your local animal shelter!

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