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Canine Trauma

Dog's Best Friend: Journey to the
Roots of an Ancient Partnership

Review by Deborah Straw

Dog's Best Friend: Journey to the Roots
of an Ancient Partnership

By Ursula Birr, Gerald Krakauer, Daniela Osiander;
Park Street Press, Rochester, VT;
1999; Paperback; $15.96.

"It is only because of the dog that the world exists." - Rig Veda, 1200 BC

I consider myself a fairly savvy traveler and dog person. But Dog's Best Friend: Journey to the Roots of an Ancient Partnership introduced me to several geographical regions and to several obscure, working breeds I was almost entirely unfamiliar with. The reader learns of relationships far different than those we Westerners have with our household animals, and of countries with harsh climates threatened with losing their identities because contact with the outside world is destroying many traditions. Therein lies the book's double fascination. The other plus is the inclusion of numerous, high-quality color photos of dogs, people in their indigenous clothing, and stunning and/or barren landscapes.

Dog's Best Friend developed out of a TV show in Germany. Its authors were fortunate -- and had the budget -- to travel to these often remote areas to meet the gracious people and their dog companions. The project was conceived in 1986 at a World Congress of the Delta Society. At that meeting, scientists from around the world debated the relationship between animals and humans. The authors were fascinated -- and wanted to study the history of our relationship with the dog and dog ancestry and to see firsthand some of the earliest breeds which are still essential to the lives of their human companions. First released in Germany in 1996, this is the book's first publication by a U.S. based international publisher.

Here are the countries and the majority of dogs included in Dog's Best Friend:

  • Burkina Faso - various desert greyhounds or "greyhound of the free nomads", including the azawakh
  • Borneo -- the punan and the basenji
  • Patagonia -- the kelpie (in Gaelic, this means "ghost of the water") and the border collie
  • Greenland -- the Greenland dog
  • Namibia -- the himba, the canaan dog, and the Rhodesian ridgeback
  • Nepal -- the Tibetan terrier and spaniel, the lhasa apso and the Do Khyi
  • Morocco -- the chin, the aidi and the sloughi.

Many are purebreds; some are mixed breeds. Some can now be found in the U.S., and are considered by various dog organizations to be legitimate breeds. Others are still considered pariah dogs -- a term which doesn't give much dignity to the beasts which fully earn their keep in each of these regions.

These are beautiful, strong dogs with a job to do: herding sheep; hunting; acting as playmates for children; protecting cattle; guarding people and property; pulling sleds. Some breeds, like the Northland dog, are possibly as old as 12,000 years. For all these dogs, survival of the fittest in these often-harsh climates is an absolute.

One fascinating aspect of this unusual book is the spiritual connection which many of these cultures have with their dogs. Dogs are generally treated well, even revered, are used in ceremonies, often eat as well as their human counterparts, etc. For example, the Himba of Namibia (part of the Bantu people) have a myth: Ndjambi Karunghe, the creator of all things, sent a dog to the humans with "a glowing thunder." Since that time, in their camps, a holy fire named Okuruwo has always burned. The dogs, as a reward, are allowed to sleep next to their ashes.

In Nepal a special dog festival called Kukur Tihar takes place once a year. A tika, the Hindu sign of luck, is painted on the dogs' foreheads. This is a third eye, considered the gate of enlightenment for both humans and animals. The dogs are decorated with wreaths of flowers and offered special foods served on big platters. The dogs are considered to be the gatekeepers of Yama, the god of the dead.

But how the canines are treated must be considered in relative terms -- i.e., by the specific culture's standards, not by ours. Not all dogs in the world receive a yearly regimen of shots, flea medication or vitamins; not all are spayed, etc. These dogs' color does not matter.

What matters are a dog's strength, behavior and hardiness. The authors have been respectful of these far different cultures -- and of both people's and dogs' roles in them. Only in one instance -- in Morocco, because of ancient cultural concepts of hygiene-- is terrible abuse (killing of dogs) noted. Otherwise, the people of these cultures treat their dogs well and value them highly. In most cases, they could not survive without them.

I have only two small criticisms of this text. One is that a more extensive history of each breed and its position in the community would have been appreciated. And small portions of the text still read like translated German. This can be charming or it can be disconcerting. However, these two points do not change my opinion about this book. It is fascinating, informative, and lovely to look at.

Its writers are quick to point out, responsibly, that several of these dogs should not be imported to our more "civilized" countries to become house dogs. For example, they note, "On our Morocco trip we grew to be friends with the sloughi and the aidi. We doubt that these races could remain true to themselves far away from their homes. Two of their most important abilities would be rendered useless and eventually lost: their adherence to those instincts advantageous for humans, and their adaptation to human needs in an often unforgiving environment." Dog lovers -- and travelers -- everywhere should learn a lot from Dog's Best Friend.

Deborah Straw is a Vermont-based writer who spends two to three months a year in the Florida Keys. She has written for many animal publications including Animals Magazine, Pet Product News, Animal Life, DogGone, laJoie (a journal in celebration of all animals) and more. She is also a book editor and a travel writer, having recently published her newest ecotourism book, Natural Wonders of the Florida Keys: Exploring Wild and Scenic Places. Deborah lives with her husband, two cats and one dog, Wanda the Bearded Lady.

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