Florence Nightingale is best known for her tireless work in 1854 during the Crimean War when she organized a team of 38 nurses to tend to the wounds of soldiers.
What many people don’t know was that it was a life-changing moment where she tended to the wounds of a sheepdog named Cap, whom a poor neighbor thought he had to put down after children threw stones injuring the dog.
When the neighbor returned with a rope to hang Cap, Nightingale was determined to save him. She believed she could heal him and convinced her neighbor not to hang the dedicated dog. She nursed Cap back to health.
As Stanley Coren, expert on dogs, (and author of The Paw Prints of History) recounts the Florence Nightingale story in his book How Dogs Think: "The very next night, on February 7, 1837, Florence Nightingale had a dream -- or perhaps it was a vision -- which caused her to believe that she had heard the voice of God informing her that she had a mission. Perhaps it occurred simply because she was still bathed in the warm feeling from having saved Cap's life. Into her mind sprang the belief that this whole incident was a sign from God to tell her that she should devote her life to healing others.
Florence Nightingale’s life was surrounded by cats and other animals. She often carried a small owl in her pocket, and she believed completely in the power of animals to assist in the healing and recovery process. In her words: A small pet animal is often an excellent companion for the sick, for long chronic cases especially. A pet bird in a cage is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years to the same room.”
The Paw Prints on History
The term "Human-Animal Bond" may be new, but the concept -- and the reality are as old as time. Human history and dog history have evolved side-by-side, so much so that our evolutionary fates are inextricably intertwined. Would the human race have thrived without these partners?
Wildlife photographer Roger Caras, former president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, once said: “Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is, without a doubt, the best deal man has ever made.”
These cave artworks show that the history of the bond between humans and animals is as old as time. In a Wall Street Journal interview, “From the Cave to the Kennel,” dog historian Mark Derr discusses the Chauvet Cave drawings in Southern France, which show how important animals were to our developing consciousness.
Chauvet Cave has "…The oldest representational paintings ever discovered. Created some 32,000 years ago, the 400-plus images of large grazing animals and the predators who hunted them, form a multi-chambered Paleolithic bestiary. Many scholars believe that these paintings mark the emergence of a recognizably modern human consciousness. Our relationship with animals is intimately connected to our survival, our ability to thrive, and even our identity as humans."
Referring to the human species’ relationship to dogs, in particular, Derr states that “The relationship between dogs and humans has been so mutually beneficial and enduring that some scholars have suggested that we - dog and human - influenced each other's evolution.”
Further evidence of how important dogs were in ancient human civilization is demonstrated by burial sites from 15,000 years ago. Here is an example of a human and a dog which were buried together.
Perhaps the almost inexplicable bond humans have with dogs is because this relationship is very ancient. How ancient it is – has recently come to light. For some time, the oldest evidence of domesticated dogs bonding with humans for mutual benefit was about 15,000 years ago. One explanation for attributing the 15,000 year timeline for the relationship between dogs and humans was based on archeological evidence of dog burials around that time. According to Archeology Archive, an online publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, “The oldest convincing case is Bonn-Oberkassel, in Germany, (which is) about 14,000 years old. Not only was the dog buried, it was also part of a human-dog double grave.”
The ancient double burials of humans and dogs suggest how important animals were in the lives of early humans. Some of these gravesites show dogs and humans laid to rest shoulder to shoulder.
In ancient Egypt, both dogs and cats were treated with great respect. In her study on the Human-Animal Bond, Dr. Walsh states that “Cats were honored and even worshiped in association with the Egyptian goddess Bastet, who represented the protective powers of the sun. Dogs were considered such loyal companions during life that they were revered as guides in the afterlife.”
Egyptian dog burial grounds and several examples of joint graves have been found on various continents, which demonstrate how entwined our development was with our canine partners. According to the Archeology Archive, “Dog burials are documented from every major landmass in the world, except Antarctica.”
But the origin of the human-animal inter-connection is now considered to be much earlier than the previous dating of 14,000 years. According to an interview with Mark Derr :
"The first major challenge to the consensus came in 1997 when an international team of biologists published a paper in the journal Science placing the origin of the dog as early as 135,000 years ago. Their date was based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed onto offspring through females and is believed to change little from generation to generation; it allows scientists to calculate the time when populations or species separated genetically. This analysis suggested that wolves could have become dogs wherever in Eurasia, they associated closely with early humans and that even after the split was made, dogs and wolves continued to interbreed."
As the evolution of humans and dogs was interwoven, Dr. Mary Lou Randour believes that most ancient cultures also saw animals in a spiritual context, where they served a variety of functions. On her website, she explains that they have been linked with supernatural forces, acted as guardians and shamans, and appeared in the afterlife.
"(Animals) have even been worshiped as agents of gods and goddesses. Many ancient creation myths, for example, depict God with a dog. These stories do not explain the existence of the dog; like God, the dog is assumed to have existed from the beginning. In this assumption, these primordial people revealed their intense attachment to their animal companions."
Dr. Froma Walsh notes that in early Greek literature Homer wrote about the dog’s fidelity in The Odyssey, which shows a reverence for dogs and their role in our lives: “When Odysseus arrived home after an absence of many years, disguised as a beggar, the only one to recognize him was his aged dog, Argus, who wagged his tail at his master and then died.
The use of animals in healing is also very ancient. Different researchers point to various examples of the earliest use of therapeutic animals. For example, Jan Shubert reports references dating back to the ninth century. In her article in the Army Medical Department Journal on Canine-Assisted Therapy in Military Medicine, titled: “Animals and Human Health/Mental Health: From the Pleasure of their Company to the Benefits of their Assistance,” she states: “The first documented example of the therapeutic use of animals occurred in 9th Century Gheel, Belgium, where animals were part of the "therapie naturelle" provided for the handicapped members of the community.”
St. Francis of Assisi, often referred to as the Patron Saint of Animals (born in 1181), believed that animals were literally our brothers and sisters. He was known to preach to animals, for which he received much ridicule. He was perhaps one of the earliest to discuss the human-animal bond, and to imply that this was a deeply spiritual relationship that could lead us to greater wisdom and Divinity. St. Francis believed that the trust that animals show their humans is a form of guidance for how we can trust the Divine. According to The American Catholic Website, The Feast Day of St. Francis, in which the Blessings of the Animals are performed, contains the following words: “Give us, their human friends, new understanding of our responsibilities to these creatures of Yours. They have trust in us as we have in You; our souls and theirs are on this earth together to give one another friendship, affection and caring….”
In Asia, during the Middle Ages, according to Dr. Froma Walsh, “Some breeds were so valued that they had their own servants.” Throughout history, many notable leaders had pets by their side, including Queen Victoria, who had 90 different pets during her lifetime.
President Roosevelt took his Scottish terrier, Fala, to social events, meetings, and even peace negotiations. “Fala attended Roosevelt’s funeral, was buried near him, and is depicted at his side in the FDR Memorial sculpture on the capitol mall.”
Most US presidents had one or more pets in the Whitehouse. The Kennedy’s were given a pony for daughter Carolyn who she named Macaroni. It was headline news when President Obama got a new puppy, a Portuguese Water Dog. First Dogs, Sunny and Bo were important members of the family, who went for walks with them, and appeared prominently on their Whitehouse family Christmas card. On October 22, 2014, the New York Times reported it was the Whitehouse guard dogs, two Belgian Malinois, named Jordan and Hurricane who stopped an intruder who jumped the Whitehouse fence.
Looking at American Indian history, according to the International Indian Dog Owners and Breeders Association (IIDOBA), in the 1700s there were an estimated 300,000 domesticated common native dogs across the Great Plains that experienced a fate similar to the Native human population, as the IIDOBA explains:
All over the Americas from the far north to the distant south, similar medium-sized dogs were being bred for specific reasons and abilities. However, by the late 1800s, they were believed to be completely eliminated or assimilated by the onslaught of European immigrant culture.
The International Indian Dog Owners and Breeders Association is working to restore what they refer to as the original Spiritual Dogs. "Our breeding program's goals include maintaining the mystical appearance and excellent working temperament of the original "Spiritual Dogs" of the past, and emphasizing their loyal nurturing, and herding instincts that help them (and us) survive this fast-moving society…These dogs have always been our saviors, teachers, and companions, and they have something very important to teach each every one of us if we are willing to listen and learn. They are the connection with our past."
Confirming how important dogs were to American Indians, Dr. Walsh writes that “Native peoples valued the profound connections between humans and animals.” She quotes another researcher, Kevin Kling, in an NPR interview:
"Native people say that a long time ago on earth, a chasm opened up separating animals and humans. As the chasm got wider and wider, the dogs jumped across to be with the humans.
Today, when you hear wolves howling in the night, they’re crying out for the chasm to close."
Partly because of their superior senses allowing them to be protectors, and partly because of their role as companions, dogs played such an important role in human survival that our mutual progress as a species needs to be understood in its side-by-side development. It is possible that without each other, neither species may have thrived.
For example, according to the 2003 San Diego Natural History Museum Exhibit, our survival may have been tied to our reliance on dogs’ greater sensory ability. “Dogs can sense odors at concentrations of 100 million times lower than humans can. They can detect one drop of blood in five quarts of water.” This amazing ability makes them ideal hunting partners.
In the PBS Nova episode “Dogs Decoded Gregor Larson, at Durham University in England, says that “Without dog domestication, civilization just would not have been possible.”
Did dogs descend from wolves? In this same episode, it is stated that most scientists today believe, based on DNA evidence, that dogs did evolve from Grey Wolves from which there is a 99.8% identical genetic match. But they are by no means certain how that process occurred. Did wolves become tamer and dog-like through their increased interactions with humans? Did humans pursue wolves as hunting partners? The evidence seems to be falling on the side of humans pursuing tamer wolves, perhaps orphaned juveniles, rather than wolves pursuing us. Wolves that began to bond with early human groups helped us hunt, alerted us to danger, and increased our chances of survival.
Humans and dogs, perhaps because of our partnership, are two of the strongest species of evolutionary survivors. The American Kennel Club recognizes 180 distinct breeds that meet their specific criteria, but depending upon what criteria you use to define breed, as today there are many cross-breeds, “Dogs Decoded” states there are over 400 distinct breeds. This genetic variation and success are unprecedented in any other species.
Dog population far outstrips wolves, who were once very prevalent in Europe. The mutual evolution of humans and wolf-dogs is intertwined, and both species are strong survivors. Humans may have learned some hunting skills from wolves, and wolves may have learned a variety of bonding skills to become the dogs we know today.
We are both social species, and today’s dogs have the ability to “read our emotions” with unparalleled precision – partly because we share many of the same emotions, joy, fear, anger, curiosity, boredom, jealousy, playfulness, to name a few. Dr. Daniel Mills, in England, has shown that dogs are particularly adept at reading the right side of our faces specifically -- which gives accurate indications of our emotional states as he discusses in “Dogs Decoded.”
Thank you to all the dogs of the world -- for all time -- for how much you have given us. On behalf of the humans, I wish to say; I hope someday we can be worthy of the purity of your love.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: Animal Consciousness Institute