The Wolf Inside Your Guide Dog

By Will Grignon & Pennsylvania Guide Dog Users and Supporters (PAGDUS)*


An insurance company radio ad describes two humans and a dog sharing a couch; one human scratches the dog’s ears, the other human feeds the dog slivers of cheese, and the announcer reminds the dog “and your ancestors were wolves.”


Although the exact timing and genetic progression are up for academic debate, there is no debate that the histories of humans and dogs have been inextricably linked: without humans, dogs would not exist and without dogs, modern humans would probably not exist.


45,000 years ago: Humans and wolves were deadly competitors for the same food sources. For millennia, humans killed wolves and wolves killed humans. Then, slowly, some wolves, probably exiled from the pack, crept closer to the human camps and their fires. The wolves scavenged bones discarded by the humans and the humans were alerted to the approach of rival humans and predators, including other wolves, by the scavenger wolves, who, through centuries of selective breeding, became domesticated dogs.


6,000-14,000 years ago: Dogs, with their human consorts, spread out over the globe.


10,000 years ago: Humans develop agriculture, towns and cities arise, and dogs learn distinct jobs like rat-catcher, sheep-herder, barnyard protector.


5,000 years ago: Domesticated dogs in Sumerian cities throughout Mesopotamia got collars and leashes.


4,000 years ago: Sumerian tablets contain the first literature involving dogs: “The Show Dog” and “Why the Dog is Subservient to Man.” At this time, ancient Mesopotamians began to worship dogs as deities, a belief practice that would spread to Egypt and as far east as India and as far north as the Norse lands.


2,000 years ago: The Romans began breeding dogs for military uses, breeding for size, strength, and fierceness. These dogs quickly became the scourge of Rome’s enemies as well as featured attractions in the blood sports of the Circus Maximus, where they would fight large animals, humans, and one another. This cruel sport would continue for centuries as “baiting” remained a crowd favorite until the 19th century.


1493: European dogs accompany Christopher Columbus to the Americas, he and his crew brought 20 greyhounds and mastiffs—the first European dogs ever to set foot in the New World.


1750s: Professionals working at a Paris hospital for the blind began training dogs to aid and guide visually impaired humans. In 1819, an Austrian named Johann Wilhelm Klein, who started the Institute for the Training of the Blind in Vienna, published the first guide dog training manual, complete with instructions on incorporating a special harness and a pole, a technique that is still in use today.


1800: Modern dog-sledding is born when Russian hunters adopt new technologies to indigenous practices. In 1900, Jack London publishes his classic Call of the Wild, and less than a hundred years later, in 1973, mushers competed in the first annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1000-mile wilderness course from Anchorage to Nome.


1866: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was formed.


1877: First Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is held. A year later, kennel clubs recognized nine “charter breeds” of dogs, most of which were among the in-demand hunting breeds of the day. They were the Gordon setter, English setter, Irish setter, Irish water spaniel, Sussex spaniel, cocker spaniel, clumber spaniel, Chesapeake Bay retriever, and the pointer. While in 1884, the American Kennel Club (AKC) was formed.


1899: British police create the first canine units, where highly-trained dogs tracked, performed crowd control, and took on other enforcement duties.


1908: The German Shepherd was formally recognized by the AKC.


1917: The Labrador Retriever was formally recognized by the AKC and has gone to become the most favorite breed of dog by far.


1930s: European mountain-climbers developed the rescue dog. Originally a St. Bernard with its iconic neck barrel, climbers soon transitioned to using more agile dogs in mountain rescues.


1943: A German shepherd mix named Chips was awarded a Purple Heart, a Distinguished Service Cross, and a Silver Star for his role in helping American troops take an enemy machine gun position and capture 10 Italian troops—he also saved his handler’s life. The gesture was objected to by many veterans, and Chips’ medals were revoked. Although Chips later got his medals back, the War Department ruled that no other military dogs would ever receive official military medals.


November 3, 1957: Eager to capitalize on Sputnik’s propaganda value, the Soviets launched Sputnik 2, a much bigger craft containing a dog named Laika who became the first animal to orbit Earth, Sadly, the Russians made no effort to recover Laika, who probably died while in orbit.


1960s: Researchers began experimenting with dogs serving people not as guides or helpers, but as a form of living therapy. What they learned was that the elderly, people suffering from depression, trauma survivors, and many other populations dealing with mental anguish could experience relief just by being in the company of well-trained canines.


1989: Guide dog breeder Wally Conron created a dander-free, non-shedding guide dog for blind allergy sufferers: the Labradoodle.


September 11, 2001: An army of canines now known simply as the “9/11 dogs” searched the rubble for survivors, others for bombs, others for bodies—some were there only to provide comfort and companionship to distressed rescuers and first responders. They had names like Bretagne, Riley, Guinness, Coby, Apollo, Thunder, and Sage.


2010s: Studies reveal that dogs can smell diseases, infections, and other medical conditions, possibly replacing invasive testing with a few doggy sniffs.


2020: The AKC, who currently recognizes 195 distinct dog breeds, added two recognized breeds: the Barbet and the Dogo Argentino.


So, there you have it. A quick forty-five-thousand-year journey from the dim and bloody past to binge-watching your favorite show with your faithful companion nestled against you. Somewhere, maybe when your dog is running in their dreams, the old wolf raises its shaggy head, gives you a hard yellow stare, then whips around and disappears into the endless forest where the pack howls its gathering call to an ancient moon.


*Taken from: Fifty Major Milestones From the History of Dogs, by Andrew Lisa:

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