As most Americans continue to stay home amid shelter-in-place orders, there seems to be one demographic fully appreciating the moment: our dogs. They get to spend all day long with their beloved humans, basking in belly rubs and treats galore. And for those of us lucky enough to be quarantined with a canine companion, it’s a pretty good deal on our end, too. That’s because a dog is truly man’s best friend. The sentiment has been well-documented throughout history, from The Odyssey, where Odysseus’ dog Argos is the only being who recognizes him when he returns home, to Socrates noting that “dog is a true philosopher,” the domesticated dog has proven through the ages to be human’s closest, most loyal ally in the animal kingdom. So why are humans and dogs so close? And what is the history behind that classic saying? Let’s examine.
Mutually Beneficial Friendship
Dogs and people started living together nearly 15,000 years ago when dogs followed human migration out of East Asia. The connection between the two species seems pretty apparent: like humans, dogs are social beings, meaning they have emotional needs that prevent them from living alone. Both humans and dogs are social pack animals who thrive off the affection and attention of others. Thus, the two species are a perfect match.
Domesticated dogs descend from wolves, who are skeptical and defensive of others. But as the domestic dog diverged from its vicious ancestor, it evolved to have a symbiotic relationship with humans. In contrast, dogs needed humans to provide food and emotional affection; human dogs required protection and companionship. Today, most pet owners will tell you that they consider their dogs to be members of their families.
Origins of the Phrase “Dog Is Man’s Best Friend”
There is no exact record of the first use of this now-cliché proverb, but there are a few early instances. One comes from King Frederick, the 18th Century ruler of Prussia, who used to refer to his Italian Greyhounds as his best friends. In 1821, American author C. S. van Winkle wrote the following lines of poetry in homage to the canine:
The faithful dog – why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man’s best friend
Does often at his heels attend.
But perhaps the most dramatic early record of the phrase comes from an 1870 Supreme Court trial, wherein a bombastic lawyer named George Graham Vest defended a man whose beloved hound had been shot and killed by a neighbor. In an over-the-top closing argument, Vest delivered a eulogy of sorts for the animal, whom he dubbed “the best friend a man has in the world,” arguing that his client did not just lose an animal but a dear family member.
More Than A Pet
Dogs have proven to be much more than just a mouth to feed. Dogs offer love, support, and physical connection, which are essential for the emotional wellbeing of humans. Whenever a dog receives love from its owner, its brain releases oxytocin, a chemical called the “love hormone” that raises its mood. At the same time, the human brain releases the same chemical, which is why dogs have been used for therapeutic purposes with people who suffer from anxiety or depression.
Dogs have also been used as guides for the blind, dating back to the 16th century. Today they also work as assistants to the police who sniff out explosives or narcotics and as helpers to firefighters who can smell smoke or hidden bodies after a fire. A dog will show love and affection for his human without judgment and condition. Dogs can help you get through the most challenging times and give you a reason to get up in the morning. And at a time like the present, full of panic and uncertainty, we could all use a best friend like that.