Cultural aspects of canines in the United States
To talk about the historical background of dog ownership namely in America, we must begin with the origins of canine domestication. The exact location and time in history, as well as the genetic evolution that took place as a result of breeding ancient wolves (canis lupus) and jackals into the domesticated forms of modern day dogs is unknown. However, the result has created a diverse variety of dog breeds in America and throughout the world. Noteworthy aspects related to canines in the U.S. include historical context, socialization, enculturation, communication, ritual, family, kinship, community, and global aspects of dogs.
There is evidence to suggest that dogs were the first domesticated animals on record. Archeological records indicate signs of domesticated dogs as far back as the end of the ice age. The first archaeological remains of a domesticated dog (canis familiaris) was found in Asia and parts of Europe dating back to 14,000 BP. As humans began to settle into the agrarian lifestyle around the Fertile Crescent around 8,000 years ago, dogs were joined by other animals such as sheep, goats, and of course, cats. In America however, dogs reigned supreme as the sole domesticated animal to Native Americans until Europeans invaded and settled in America in 1492. It is also difficult to discern the remnant of the first domesticated dog in North America from the European species which were integrated in to the landscape. Through extensive DNA testing of the bones of dogs, biologists have been able to determine that dogs were first brought to the new world by migrating hunter gatherers more than 12.000 years ago. Wayne Robert, Professor of biology at UCLA stated that “dogs are the only domesticated animal that had a New World and Old World distribution before the arrival of Columbus to North America,”. This means that there were more similarities between ancient American dogs and dogs from the Old World compared than gray wolves of North America.
Although not as vital as they were for nomadic hunter gatherers of the past, Americans have etched out an important role for dogs; companionship. The attributes that make dogs so advantageous to humans for survival in terms of hunting also allow them to be ideal companions for mankind. The domestication of dogs is often thought of as initially involuntary on the part of the dog but it is more likely that non-aggressive wolves attached themselves to humans, probably as an initial curiosity or interest in food. A symbiotic relationship formed and as wolves became socialized with human beings, they evolved into having splotchy coats, drooping ears and a tails that wag. They became invaluable hunting companions and guards. Like all creatures, domesticated wolves adapted to their human environment which created a different kind of creature; one that depended on their human counterparts. The ability that dogs have to read human gestures and facial expressions is extremely sophisticated. Our primate cousins such as chimpanzees do not even have the ability to read facial cues any where near the level that canines do. In fact, dogs have been observed being able to recognize a change in the eye movement of their owners. This is probably related to the deep bond that canine companions have with their owners which after all is an essential part of their genetic survival.
Dogs are so reliable in their ability to communicate that they are used to lead the blind. Guide Dogs of America is an organization that facilitates the temporary adoption of specific breeds of dogs to families willing to raise and socialize them from puppies so that they have the basic skills needed for more advanced training in their adolescent ears with professional trainers who will prepare them as seeing eye dog for a bind person. This gives the person much more independence. Guide dogs are even trained to look both ways before crossing the street! Guide dogs are just one example of the many practical uses of dogs. There are many successful instances of pet therapy such as in cases of depression, mentally ill patients, and elderly people who live in nursing homes or on their own. While some animals are capable of mimicking human language, they do not rely on fully formed language like humans do. Instead, dogs tend to communicate using a combination of body language and vocalization. Wolves howling to alert their pack of possible danger though, is one example where verbalization is vital. It is likely that this was one way that dogs protected human throughout the more primitive eras in human history. Rituals such as guarding human territory, hunting, and bonding with humans are all vital aspects that have lead to the symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs.
There are many rituals involved in the daily routine of domesticated dogs in America. Most dog trainers would agree that a daily routine is an important aspect of maintaining a happy well behaved dog in the same way it is for a human child. Because dogs are inherently pack animals, they thrive on ritualistic routine. Caesar Milan, the famous dog trainer points out that when puppies patiently wait for food from their mothers, they are developing healthy psychological patterns which result in a healthy mind state. This is just one example of a ritual that takes place in the canine world and shows the importance of rewarding your dog for positive behavior. When dogs develop a pattern of aggression or impatience at meal time, it is important to develop a routine which will reward only healthy behavioral patterns. Some other examples of rituals that take place in the coexistence of dogs and humans are daily walks, affection, playing fetch or any other repetitive games to name a few. This creates structure that translates to a sense of security and purpose for dogs in their daily lives. Many Americans take these ritualistic activities with their dogs very seriously and augment their schedules and family life around them. Family life for Americans often involves owning a dog. One of the first things children often ask their parents for once they realize it is an option, is to own a puppy.
Dogs have become such a symbolic part of the of family life in American culture that it is difficult to imagine an America where they don’t exist. Although they are descendants of wild animals with which comes the risk of violence, many dogs are docile and mosts families choose breeds that are known to be extremely friendly and safe for children. Evidence suggests that the bonds that were formed between people and dogs thousands of years ago through the protective value of domesticated wolves has created a legacy of attachment between humans and dogs. This bond has clearly translated in to modern day family dynamics. A study conducted in the 1980’s was conducted through extensive phone interviews with 612 people concluded that pets were dominantly considered to be family members, dogs being the favorite. Referred to as “pet attachments” some of the hallmarks included reports of people feeling closer to their dogs than most of their friends and some family members, feelings of unconditional love, and feeling less lonely around them.
It’s no wonder that dogs were the first animal to be domesticated through out all parts of the world,. They are able to adapt to any culture through their universally adaptable characteristics. As discussed, in America, they are well suited for family life and a kinship is normally quickly established through the dog’s ability to communicate via facial cues and body language.
The fact that many pet owners define their dogs as “family members” signifies the kinship between dogs and people. In the 19th century, a shift in moral obligation towards animals took place when humane organizations were developed. ‘Culturization’ of the dog takes place through acts such as giving naming him/her and participatory activities within a family dynamic. These can include outings, family photos and daily activities. A bond between dog and family forms which creates a strong kinship. A thesis written by Jill Jhonson named “Dogs. Cats, and Their People: The Place of the family and attitudes about pet keeping” contained some significant research in relation to kinship between dogs and their owners. In reference to American culture, Jhonson states that “the use of kinship terms for pets creates an interesting paradox when we think of the borders between humans and animals, and the meanings of pets in our culture”.
In the articles “The Animal – Human Bond and Ethnic Diversity” “Demographics of Pet Ownership Among U.S. Adults 21 to 64 Years of Age”, both point out from the beginning that there is not a lot of research and that over all there is very little difference between different ethnicities when it comes to pet ownership in the U.S. Also both papers point out that the differences that do exist could be the result of social economic differences between ethnicities instead of being specific to the ethnicity itself. In “The Animal Human Bond and Ethnic Diversity” white people were more likely to have a companion animal, rated their companion animals as significantly more important to them, and more likely to commit animal abuse. This article also cites a different study of African American and white veterinary students which found that 100 percent of the white students had companion animals compared to 86 percent of African American students. The white students were also more likely to sleep with their companion animals.
Much in the same way that humans are categorized by ethnicity, dogs are categorized by breed. Dogs in America have been developed through many eras of crossbreeding and selection. People who intentionally select a specific dog breeds in order to facilitate mating between them are called dog breeders. This is of course much different from natural selection where they would breed naturally in the wild. Sadly, due to the demand of purebred dogs in America, puppy mills breed dogs in a ‘factory farm’ manner in which dogs are neglected and abused. They are often kenneled in small spaces with inadequate amenities. If they are no longer able to reproduce, they me be killed, abandoned or sold to questionable buyers looking to exploit the dogs further. On the bright side, many people are becoming aware of this practice and are turning to adopting dogs from rescue outfits. Often times ‘Muts’ which are a result of crossbreeding different breeds of dogs such as purebreds. The result actually often translates to a much healthier animal than the purebred dogs. For example, short faced breeds such as bulldogs and pugs commonly suffer from breathing difficulties, large dogs such as Great Danes suffer from joint problems, and the ever popular Labradors Retrievers are prone to over 50 genetic disorders.
The association between dogs and globalization are more common than one might think. It can be difficult to draw correlations between globalization and the effects it has on the realm of dogs and dog ownership but there are instances where the effects are evident. One specific example of the impact that globalization has on dogs in America is the outsourcing of dog food products. Regulatory issues in China have been a problem with imports of dog food into America. There have been numerous instances of dogs being poisoned through tainted products. In 2007, Chinese authorities admitted that a prohibited chemical was used in processing dog food after one of the largest recalls of dog food in America took place. The ministry of foreign affairs disputed that the chemical caused the deaths of the poisoned dogs when stating “There is no clear evidence showing that melamine is the direct cause of the poisoning or death of the pets,”. Many people have caught on to the loose regulatory system in China and have started to check labels to be certain that the food was sourced and produced locally.
One thing that has changed a lot with the globalization of dogs is their acceptance into other countries. Back in the day, animals were not permitted to some in from other countries. Now, that has all changed. With people around the world moving to the United States for business, it has changed the rules that use to prohibit dogs coming into America. Now, with a few simple forms and a shots for the dog coming into our country, you get a dog from anywhere in the world.
Another thing that changed in the globalization of dogs is that more people want purebred dogs for showing in dog shows. Many people who have these purebred dogs have more than five purebreds that they will show in the hopes of their dog becoming a champion and breeding with another champion. Besides the financial benefit, they are also breeding for certain physical characteristics which the shows consider standard for that breed.
In conclusion, the role of canines throughout American history as well as their role in modern day culture is undeniably an important one. Dogs have enriched the lives of Americans throughout history and their favorable qualities will ensure that a dog’s place in American civilization will endure as long as humans are around.
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