I like many people in America have a dog. His name is Edward. Edward is a large black lab who sheds everywhere, snores like a grown man, and has a borderline obsession with socks. He is my best friend and has been my constant companion for nine years. I consider him a member of my family. It’s true that he doesn’t physically contribute to the running of the household. He never picks up his toys and more than once he has thrown himself a ticker-tape parade in the living room with newspaper to celebrate his fabulousness. Still, he is the center, the heart, of my home. Edward’s value comes from him being himself and providing unconditional love, loyalty, and lots of laughs.
The sentimental view of dogs as faithful and adoring companions is a pretty recent phenomenon. For much of our history, human and canine relationships have been one of cooperation, not out affection, but rather survival. This noticeably changed around the end of the 18th century and two of the main reasons are philosophy and middle-class urbanity.
Enlightenment and the Rise of Sentimentality
The Enlightenment’s ideas dominated the 18th century world and gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. These concepts were based on the belief that the primary source of authority and knowledge is reason. The Enlightenment ushered in an age of fundamental social, scientific, and philosophical change.
One of these deep philosophical shifts led people to start thinking of animals as valued in their own right rather than based on their usefulness to humankind. The idea of sensibility or the perception of others’ emotions, particularly among the vulnerable, became quite fashionable. Having a pet, like a dog, became an acceptable way to demonstrate this sensitivity. By the end of the 18th century, the representation of the dog as faithful, loyal, and adoring was a fixture in popular culture. Broadsheets and magazines regularly published stories extolling the noble virtues of the canine and even noted their ability to think, problem solve, and communicate with people.
This admiration for the dog was endorsed by many notable writers and philosophers of the time. Poet Alexander Pope said that “histories are more full [sic] of examples of fidelity of dogs than of friends”. Clergyman Humphrey Primatt became an advocate for animal’s right in 1776 when he published what essentially amounted to a declaration of rights for animals. Even the esteemed Benjamin Franklin wrote “There are three faithful friends—an old wife, an old dog, and ready money.”
Urbanity and the Middle-Class
Shifts in philosophical thinking were not the only reason that dogs began to make their way from the fields into people’s living rooms. Colonial America, by the late 18th century, saw the rise of more affluent urban communities, a development that made keeping pets more feasible and desirable. In prosperous cities, the middle-class found pets as a way to express their status. Instead of having hunting dogs like the gentry to show wealth, they had lap dogs like pugs, pomeranians, papillions, shih tzus, malteses, or King Charles Spaniels. These dogs were usually adornments for the lady of the house. They were given bejeweled collars and carried around to mimic the style of English aristocracy. This view of dogs as adornment was not a particularly sophisticated or humane trend but, once the dog was in the house, affection grew as their qualities became more apparent and they began to be treated more as family. Dogs were no longer an accessory but a companion and sometimes even a confidant.
This evolution of dogs from ornament to friend can be seen in two notable examples: newspaper advertisements and portraiture.
The first newspaper printed in Virginia was the Virginia Gazette in 1736. It became quite common to see “lost or stolen” ads placed by people looking for their dogs. Colonists placed ads with substantial rewards for the return of their cherished pets. William Finne, advertised in 1777 that his, “very remarkable black shaggy dog of Pomerania breed, called Spado,” had been “Lost or Stolen,” and he was offering the sum of twenty dollars for its return. Likewise, when a bulldog named Glasgow, who could usually be found snoozing behind the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, went missing his owner placed an ad in the paper asking for his return with a twenty shilling reward. These two ads perfectly illustrate the era’s changing attitudes toward the family dog and their position in the house. Like today, when the family dog went missing, it created a void and, like us, early Americans were willing to publicly pronounce their concern and love for the missing pet and offer a significant reward for their return.
Portraiture is another example that illustrates the people’s increasing affection for the family dog in the 18th century. Today, we all love taking pictures of our dogs doing pretty much anything. Facebook feeds and social media accounts are filled with the cute antics of owners and their puppies. In the 17th and 18th century, there was a similar trend of having pictures to show off the family pet. More families in the second half of the eighteenth century had their portraits painted and many of these included a cherished pet. This showed families made a concerted effort to include the dog in their documentation of their domestic life.
While these theories and examples are not definitive proof of the changing relationship between humans and pets from one of survival to affection, they do illustrate a great attention starting to be paid to the dog. Dogs’ position during the eighteenth century did move from outside the residence to inside the house as a family member. There is still a great amount of research that needs to be done on the subject but the abstract nature of verifying emotional attachments and affection is difficult. There is one thing for certain. Once you let a dog into your life it will change forever and you can’t help but fall in love with them whether it’s the 18th century or the 21st.