A Dog’s History of the World
Religion professor’s new book chronicles the canine-human story
February 20, 2014
Until recently, most of the world’s histories have been told from the perspective of men in power. In the past 35 to 40 years, there has been a movement to reclaim other histories such as those told from the standpoint of women or ordinary people.
But Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion and environmental studies, says there is an important perspective missing: a dog’s perspective.
“Histories are also incomplete, I think, if we forget how much other animals have impacted our history. I’ve come to the conclusion that we wouldn’t be here, or at least we would be very different had we not paired up with dogs when we did,” Hobgood-Oster says.
The history of the world from a dog’s perspective is the subject of Hobgood-Oster’s third book, which will be released April 1 by Baylor University Press. The full title of the book is A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans.
While her two previous books − The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, and Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition − each had chapters devoted to dogs, this is the first that will be entirely devoted to one of Hobgood-Oster’s favorite animals.
Hobgood-Oster says recent archaeological discoveries have provided evidence that the partnership between humans and dogs may date back as far as 30,000 years ago − nearly twice as long as researchers had originally thought − and this partnership hasn’t always been pretty.
“There are times when humans and dogs hunting together completely wiped out some other species,” Hobgood-Oster says. “Except for sub-Saharan Africa, all the large mammals are pretty much wiped out. Was it because humans and dogs would arrive on all these continents together and start hunting all those large animals off? It might have been.
Much like horses, dogs have aided humans in a number of conquests, from prehistoric hunting to imperial expansion − and in some cases human survival has depended on them.
“There are places such as the Arctic that we probably wouldn’t have ever been able to occupy − or occupy now − without dogs,” Hobgood-Oster says. “If we exclude dogs from understanding our history, on the one hand, we give ourselves too much credit for some things, and on the other, we don’t realize the ways that we incorporate other animals into our lives.”
Hobgood-Oster grew up surrounded by pets, now owns two dogs of her own, and has volunteered at animal shelters and been involved with dog rescue for more than 20 years. At any given time, students visiting her office will find it full of puppies that she’s fostering for Georgetown Animal Outreach, and she and kinesiology professor Jimmy Smith have co-taught a First-Year Seminar titled “Going to the Dogs” for the past 12 years.
Hobgood-Oster says her personal experience with dogs and her background in religious studies were both helpful while she was writing her latest book.
“There are several junctures in history where dogs and religion have been pretty closely related,” she says. “There are all kinds of mythologies about death where dogs are the ones who accompany you into the afterlife. It’s an interesting intellectual and academic exercise to think about dogs and everything that goes on with them. But it’s also interesting to see the rescue side of it, the kinds of tragedies that are part of it, and the human stories that are part of it, too.”
The bond between humans and dogs is a strong one, and Hobgood-Oster notes that the relationship goes much deeper than humans simply choosing to domesticate dogs.
“I think dogs chose to pair up with us as much as we chose to pair up with them,” she says. “Even our closest relatives – chimpanzees − don’t take cues from us or interact with us the way that dogs do, and they are very much more like us.”
The role of dogs in human history is constantly evolving; only in the past 200 years have they become primarily pets. And historians are still uncovering new information about the contributions dogs have already made to all aspects of human existence − making any history of the world incomplete without A Dog’s History of the World.
− Elizabeth Stewart