A Dog's History of America
Mark Derr
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Buy *A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent* online

A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent
Mark Derr
North Point Press
400 pages
September 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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It's irresistible to say, "Every dog will have its day." Now the time has come, as author Mark Derr points out, for dogs to have their proper place in American history, from the earliest days to the present.

Once dogs landed here, they were used for hunting - sometimes for tracking down and attacking slaves. In times of acute starvation, our forefathers ate their dogs - not so the Indians, who nonetheless traded in dogs knowing that the strange white visitors might consume them. Native Americans had dogs known as "indian dogs" - smallish mixed-breed animals of any color who followed them, scavenging, hunting and generally co-existing happily with the tribes. The European newcomers were more selective, carrying with them the "purebred" animals needed for specific tasks - retrieving, herding, and attack.

The new Americans decried the lack of buffalo and other game often because it meant that their enjoyment of blood sports was limited. In the south, a slave might handle dogs and walk with his master's pack, but he could be arrested for strolling along with his own dog, the assumption being that he intended to poach. And he knew that if he tried to escape, the same dogs he tended would be turned on him.

As early as 1878 there were those who decried the killing of deer, and Charles Dudley Warner in his book In the Wilderness, describes "a dog separating a doe from her fawn...leaving the fawn orphaned." But it wasn't only for hunting that dogs came to America - there were the little, cute pugs who traveled on shipboard for entertainment, or as pets of the children of the indulgent rich. No-one objected to the use of sled dogs in the snowy northern climes, or to the working dogs who guarded sheep or helped herd cattle. These were a necessity.

General Custer had at least four favorite hounds with him on the battlefield and "it is possible that they were with him at Little Bighorn." Mark Twain and other San Francisco journalists wrote extensively of the "bar begging street dogs" Bummer and Lazarus. The symbiotic relationship between FDR and his pooch Fala was legendary.

"It is fair to say of the years following the Great War that although the majority of Americans still lived on farms or in small towns...dogs and cats were increasingly the primary connection to the animal world." Dog shows attracted thousands, and dog stories, in books and later in the movies, were enormously popular. Dogs were heroic, typified by the brave Lassie (actually a foreign literary invention but made immortal in the US through film and television). They fought in our wars overseas, and now fight in our drug wars. They lead the blind, listen for the deaf, rescue the lost, and comfort the mentally distressed and dying. And they became our pets, our surrogate children, so much a part of the American family that a politician dare not own at least one canine.

Yet we still have puppy mills, inbreeding, and dogs made vicious to attack and fight for someone's amusement. We keep running dogs confined and overfeed our "fluffy little poodle dogs" to the point of grotesque obesity. And then spend a fortune on vet care.

This book is serious history, not a light-hearted or inspirational survey book. The chronicle of dogs in our country parallels our development as a people. It's a must-read for history buffs and dog lovers alike.

© 2004 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for curledup.com.

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