Our Debt to the Dog:
How the Domestic Dog Helped Shape Human Societies
By Bryan Cummins
Reviewed for LiteraryDogs.com by Don Messerschmidt
Every so often a block-buster book, a big book, comes along takes the dog world by storm. I don’t know yet about the size of the storm, but I predict that when Bryan Cummins’ Our Debt to the Dog becomes more widely known, it will be classified as a major contribution to cynology, the science of dogs; and, more specifically, to the rich sub-field of ‘ethnocynology’ –the study of dogs in human culture and society from an anthropological perspective.
Our Debt to the Dog ranks up there alongside several other great dog books on my bookshelf (nonbreed-specific titles), including The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think (2013) by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods (recently reviewed on this blog; scroll down), Dog Sense (2011) by John Bradshaw (a review is in preparation), and Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s decade old Dog: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution (2002). And just for the pure enjoyment of reading about dogs for fun, there’s also The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (2012) edited by The New Yorker and Malcolm Gladwell. You’ve got to read something light, now and then, between the heavy tomes.
Cummins is an anthropologist, and much of his work has to do with dogs’ roles in human culture, and our way of treating them. And, as a Canadian anthropologist, Cummins also knows a lot about the native dogs of Canada and North America in general. But Our Debt to the Dog is about dogs in human culture the world around. It covers the globe, from prehistoric times to the present, and into the future.
Our Debt to the Dog is a whopping 439 pages long. There are over 360 references plus some three dozen website URLs. It also has 58 illustrations (mostly photographs of dogs, some of historic significance), in 13 chapters, plus the usual Preface, Acknowledgments, References and Index.
Those are the book’s statistics. The content is far more impressive. The 13 chapters cover a huge range of topics, in-depth. Chapter 1 deals with what Cummins calls ‘The Enduring Partnership: Canis lupus familiaris Meets Homo sapiens sapiens’, followed in order by chapters on · dogs of the chase (hunting dogs), · dogs in pastoral societies (guardians and herders), · dogs in harness (pulling sleds and wheeled vehicles), · dogs in religion and myth, · combat dogs (engaged in blood sports), · dogs of war and · police dogs, · dogs in high society, · vivisection and the animal rights movement, · dogs assisting the disabled, and · dogs both feral and stray. And finally, in Chapter 13, he delves ‘Into the Future’ with a discussion about where we and the dogs seem to be going – in medicine and science, in urban settings, in the military, and much more.
The book as a whole provides us with a comprehensive look both retrospectively (most of it) and futuristically about the place of dogs in our lives, delving deeply at times into many themes and characteristics of our canine friends and their human owners, handlers, ‘friends’ and foes.
I’m an anthropologist, and I thought I knew a lot about dogs in human culture and society. But, Cummins’ compendium has taken me much deeper into the subject, globally, than any other book I am aware of.
One aspect of Cummins writing that I especially enjoy is the insertion of his own personal accounts from studying Canis familiaris (dogs) and Homo sapiens (humans) together over many years. The book reflects a life-long attachment to, an abiding love of and respect for, and research about dogs.
Of his personal point of view and experience, here’s one example. In Chapter 9, ‘Commoners, Kings, and Colonials: Class, Status, and Canis familiaris’, he describes a type of hunting dog culture from Devon, in southwest England. In 1999 he and his wife visited Devon for some archival research. One day as they passed by The Barley Mow pub in Tiverton, they noticed two dogs lying attentively in the doorway. One was a Jack Russell Terrier and the other was a Jack Russell/Lakeland Terrier mix. When he inquired about them, he met Peter, their owner, an admitted game poacher. The dogs were his helpmates in the hunt.
Cummins description of that chance encounter provides the lead into a fascinatingly detailed history of the dangerous pursuit of poaching game birds and animals, using dogs.
There is nothing superficial about Cummins’ accounts. He delves deeply into the history of hunting dogs in many societies, as well as into the development of highly skilled military and police dogs, dogs as pets for society’s rich and beautiful, and so forth. His research is well grounded historically with reference to a large bibliography, and contemporaneously from on his own research and personal experience.
I am especially taken by his concern for the ruination of good working breeds that are being raised and groomed for their looks in the show ring. He strongly advocates, as do many other contemporary and critical writers, that working dogs, in particular, should be valued for what they do, not for how they look and how many ribbons they can win in the ring.
In his final chapter, he takes the argument further, pointing out that contrary to much of the hype about the high quality of breeds for show, the excessive inbreeding of dogs to maintain a high breed standard is at the root of some very serious medical/physical ailments. He points, for example, to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, the sixth most popular breed in England, categorizing it as one of most inbred dogs on the planet; hence, one of the breeds most plagued by disease due to narrow breeding policies.
He also reminds us, regarding contemporary culture, that “With the exception of computer electronics, the ‘pet industry’ is the fastest growing segment of the North American economy and… with the exception of the nutritional component, the items and services of this industry have been developed to gratify our desire to make our animals’ lives more like our own.” Pet dogs and their accoutrements make up a large part of this industry.
“But are our animals better off for it?” he asks. “Dogs living in heated and air-conditioned houses… do not need coats. Nor do they need hats or rhinestone collars or birthday parties.” He brands this sort of human behavior towards them “the infantilization of the dog” and, even more critically, as the uncalled for “extension of the dog as accessory” (reflecting our immense vanity, one presumes).
Cummins assiduously avoids romanticizing the dog, either historically or in the present. His accounts of dogs in many cultures, ancient and modern, the world around, and especially of the ill-treatment of dogs by some uncaring individuals who use them in blood sports and in vivisection-based science (for example) is well described. He warns us, however, that some of the description is uncomfortable to read. Indeed, it is!, but it is an essential part of his sweepingly comprehensive examination of canine/human co-existence.
Our Debt to the Dog is far more than any single review can reasonably cover. It is a treasure trove of sometimes fascinating/occasionally disgusting facts about our dogs and how we, as a human race, have treated them, good and bad, fare and foul, since their (and our) domestication.
It is a highly recommended read, and currently takes its place at the head of my bookshelf of great nonbreed-specific books about dogs. It’ll be hard to beat.
Our Debt to the Dog, by Bryan Cummins (2013), is published by Carolina Academic Press (Durham. N.C.); ISBN 978-1-59460-729-2. It’s available in fine bookstores and online from ABEbooks.com, Amazon.com, and other sources.
Bryan D. Cummins has taught Anthropology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He is the author of many books, including studies of aboriginal and other dogs in Native American/First Nations cultures, as well as books about Airedales and Pyrenean Mountain Dogs, all from a cultural-historical perspective.
And now, dear Reader, refer back to my all too short list of great nonbreed dog books at the beginning of this review. Please write and tell me what I have missed, what other classics you think should on the bookshelf, books about dogs and dog science ii the cynology of Canis lupus familiaris. Of course I have many other books in my collection, but I’m curious about what you, my readers, think should also be listed. Send your suggestions to me by email at LiteraryDogs@gmail.com. Be sure to give complete the reference(s) – at least the title, author(s) and date of publication – along with your reasoning why I should list it, or them (if you name more than one). It’ll be the start of a master list of Good Reads here online at LiteraryDogs.com.