Dogs: History, Myth, Art
Catherine Johns
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Buy *Dogs: History, Myth, Art* by Catherine Johns online

Dogs: History, Myth, Art
Catherine Johns
Harvard University Press
208 pages
December 2008
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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This book was assembled and authored by a retired curator of Romano-British collections at the British Museum. That explains how beautifully the book is ordered and the rare luster of its contents. Catherine Johns must also, one assumes, be an animal lover: she has written a similar work about horses.

There is a mystery as old as mankind about the origin of our relationship with dogs who once were, after all, wild creatures. The simplest explanation is that, having been thrown a bone or two, the animals began to follow tribes of people and quickly to adapt to ways that pleased people, including, perhaps foremost, assisting in their hunts for food. Dogs were experts at hunting and became experts at charming their human hosts. As the author puts it, it was “a plan of mutual benefit.” But only dogs, among many species of creature, were so suited to get with the plan.

The result has been, over centuries, the complete domestication of all dogs except wolves or jackals in the wild, and their evolution to everything from tiny teacup-sized companions to sleek runners, wooly herders, and sturdy fighters: “At a biological and species level, rather than on a conscious individual one, domesticated animals are complicit in the long and subtle process of domestication.” Dogs like to live in packs, as people do; they organize themselves to performs the necessary tasks of hunting and baby-rearing; and they establish male hierarchies to deal with dominance issues.

Statues and drawings of dogs appear in human history as early as 2000 BC. The ancient Egyptians venerated the dog as a protector for the dead. Dogs have been utilized in art for everything from vases to doorstops to broaches to amulets – even as a casing for a watch. From earliest times, dogs are depicted not merely formally but at work and play with human companions, as in the charming sketch of “St Roch in the desert, receiving bread from a dog” by Paolo Farinati (1539-1606) or the glazed stoneware statue of a hunter and his dog from England, c. 1680. In more recent times, dogs were well-established as pets and were seen in art accompanied by children. Two tots carved in ivory play together, a dog at their feet, in a Japanese offering, and from England we see a painting of two chubby bonneted toddlers getting a little spaniel, perhaps also a youngster, to stand up on its hind legs.

Dogs: History, Myth, Art is a large coffeetable-style creation with a color illustration on every slick page. It ends, most satisfyingly, with a tomb marker (AD) for a Roman dog named Margarita, whose declaration states that “I used to lie in my master’s and mistress’s soft laps, and curl up on their bed when I was tired. I used to talk more than I should…but no one feared my barking. But alas, misfortune befell me when whelping, and now this little marble slab marks where the earth enfolds me.” What finer tribute can a person pay to a beloved pet than to construct such a “human” gravestone?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2009

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