Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

History Revisited - the long history of man's best friend

NATIVE CANINE: It is thought that the dingo reached Australia 4,000 ago to become the first Australian dog variety.
Continuing the story of the dog from my last column, the RSPCA suggests that Australians have over four million pet dogs. That’s a considerable number. However, the role of dog as pet is quite recent.

There appears to be considerable dispute as to when the first dog diverged from wolf ancestors. However, a date range of 27,000 to 40,000 years ago appears most likely. It also appears that population shifts during the Late Glacial Maximum, that cold period when the Northern Tablelands displayed semi-glacial conditions, helped spread the dog.

Archaeological remains suggest that the first Australian dog variety, the dingo, reached this continent somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. We know that the dingo had reached Northern NSW around 3,200 years ago because of the presence of a canine tooth found in a shell midden at Wombah in the lower Clarence.

Dogs and humans seemed to have formed a natural pairing, in so doing changing the dogs in the process. Dogs are intelligent pack animals, fitting into the natural life style of hunter-gather societies.

With time, they came to be used in a variety of roles – hunting, guarding, herding, transport and, in some cases, food. The dingo could well have reached Australia as live food on off-course voyages.

The role of dogs as guards and hunters is well incorporated into mythology, showing the ancestry of the relationship. In Greek mythology, Cerberus is a three-headed watchdog who guards the gates of Hades. In Norse mythology, a bloody, four-eyed dog called Garmr guards Helheim. In Hindu mythology, Yama, the god of death owns two watch dogs who have four eyes.

NUISANCE: Barking in urban areas has become a problem in modern times. It's just a question of selection.  

Time, space, natural selection and breeding with related species created a variety of dog types. Breeding to achieve or preserve particular characteristics has a considerable history, Barking, now seen as a major problem in an urban environment, is an example of a trait that seems to have developed through breeding for guard purposes.

A major change took place over the nineteenth century with the creation of dog breeds through selective breeding and breed promotion through kennel clubs and dog shows. Increasingly, dogs came to be selected for attractiveness and distinctive features, resulting in a vast variety of breeds.

Growing up in Armidale, few people had dogs for pets. Those that did generally kept their dogs outdoors. There was a clear distinction between the working dog and pets, creating a rural urban divide.

From around the start of the 1980s, there was an explosion in the number of domestic pet dogs and cats. The dog became an urban phenomenon. This was reflected in changes in the veterinary profession and especially the rise of the small animal vet. Today, the majority of veterinary students see their practice in terms of urban clinics catering to pets.

The rise of the urban dog has created its own rules and problems, including the rise of the puppy farm. The puppy farms are an urban, not rural problem. There would be no puppy farms without the urban buyer.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 22 July 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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