On a recent trip to Italy, I had the opportunity to visit the town of Pompeii. As you probably remember, this Roman town was buried in a volcanic eruption during the first century AD. The lava has been cleared away and the remaining town is remarkably intact. Many of the houses still remain, most with floor and wall mosaics depicting scenes or patterns. In the entrance of the first house I entered was an intact floor mosaic depicting a large black dog on a chain. The Latin inscription read “Beware of the Dog”. Several other homes had the same mosaic depicting a guard dog in their front entrance. Obviously, dogs played an important role as protector in the Roman culture. Most unfortunate, there was also a cast of a dog that had lost its life in the eruption.
Dogs have been an integral part of human history since they were first domesticated during the Paleolithic age. The earliest evidence of a dog helping a human was found in a cave in France. Prints and other evidence dated 26,000 years ago indicate that a child, holding a torch and accompanied by a dog, navigated the corridors of the cave. This is the earliest evidence known of what could be described as a guide dog.
Dogs have received the most esteem for the roles they have played in war, both in history and more recently. The Egyptians, Greeks and Persians built entire battalions of dogs suitable for combat. The mural depicting the Battle of Marathon celebrates a protection dog at the side of his or her master, engaging the invading Persians without hesitation. The Romans apparently never left home without their canine warriors; each legion was assigned its own company entirely made up of dogs. Napoleon, centuries later, sent his dogs into battle first.
Dogs’ loyalty to their handlers has been capitalized on throughout history. A discreet method of exchanging communications before phones became available, a dog with loyalty to two handlers would be sent from one to the other carrying messages. In addition to conveying information, loyal dogs have been trusted with dragging fallen soldiers to safety and transporting loads across great distances.
In the past, dogs were sent into battle wearing chainmail and a spiked collar. Warfare has changed, but even today they serve the same heroic function- only dressed in Kevlar. Dogs serving a variety of functions are not absent from current engagements in the Middle East. Mostly used for explosive detection and patrol, German Shepherds are utilized though Belgian Malinois and Dutch Shepherds are increasingly becoming more popular.
Canines have helped humans, and vice versa, for many thousands of years. As companions, protectors, and heroes their importance cannot only be seen in the past but will, for a long time, be valued in the future.