Dogs have been man's best friend for thousands of years.
The first animals tamed by man, dogs can vary in size from a 200-pound St. Bernard to a two-pound Chihuahua. Some people say there are more than 150 million dogs living today, with 400 separate breeds. How did we end up with so many different dogs?
Dogs reproduce quickly, and people learned to pick dogs that had traits they wanted.
St. Hubert was a monk who lived in France in the 6th century. He liked to hunt, but the brush where he lived was so thick that hunting hounds had trouble running through it. So he developed dogs with short legs to help him. Nothing could stop these short-legged dogs from crashing through (and under) the forest brush. What are they? Basset hounds.
One of the oldest known dogs is the Samoyed. Legend says that ancient nomadic people were pushed from the plateaus of Iran. The Samoyed tribe was pushed all the way to the icy regions of northern Siberia far to the east.
Samoyed dogs herded the tribe's reindeer and pulled their masters' sleds. These dogs, which can pull 1-1/2 times their own weight, became famous when explorers used them to conquer the North and South Poles. These snow-white dogs, whose curved mouths seem to smile, are popular pets - and still pull sleds.
Dogs are known for their loyalty. Scientists say this is because in the wild, dogs lived in packs. Though they now live with humans, dogs still act as if they are part of a group. Their owners are their new pack.
One of the dog breeds most famous for helping people is the St. Bernard. Many stories tell of the dogs' heroic deeds in the Alps of Switzerland. In the 1660s and 70s these dogs were brought by the monks at St. Bernard Pass to their hospice, a shelter built for safety.
The St. Bernards' ability to smell through snow made them a great help to the monks who searched the pass for lost travelers. The big dogs also served as trail-breakers, making paths through the snow for humans to follow. During the three centuries the dogs were used, they saved more than 2,000 lives. Young pups received no formal training, but were simply allowed to run with the older dogs in groups of three or four.
When a fallen traveler was found, two dogs would lie down to warm him with their bodies. One would would lick his face to revive him, while the other dogs ran to the hospice for help.
Another dog valued for its value to humans is the Labrador retriever. Because of their keen sense of smell, these dogs are important to police searching for illegal drugs. During wartime, Labradors have even been used to find underground bombs.
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Despite their name, Labradors are not from Labrador, but from Newfoundland. Originally, they worked for fishermen off Newfoundland's coast. Their thick coats repelled the cold Atlantic waters, and the webbing between their toes made them strong swimmers. Cod fishermen used the dogs to retrieve fish and for swimming lines.
The Earl of Malmesbury imported these dogs into Britain in the 1800s for help with his hunting. Eventually, the dogs died out in Newfoundland because of an expensive dog tax. The Labrador retrievers we know today are descended from the ones taken to Britain.
These loyal dogs will jump into icy rivers to retrieve game birds and run through brush to flush out hidden fowl. Contests for these hunting skills are held every year. However, this same loyalty and intelligence has another use.
Labrador retrievers and German shepherds also make good guide dogs. Many other breeds also make good guide dogs, but Labradors and German shepherds are exceptional. They have the ability to disobey their masters. They are strong and smart enough to stop their masters from making dangerous mistakes.
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You may be surprised to learn that dachshunds were raised to be hunting dogs. Dachshund means "badger hound" in German. Dachshunds' long, low bodies allowed them to pursue badgers into their dens.
The seventh-most-popular breed in America, dachshunds have been bred into two sizes. The full size dog weighs about 20 pounds; the miniature weighs about five. In Germany, both breeds are used by hunters. (The other most-registered breeds, in order, are: Labrador retriever, Rottweiler, German shepherd, golden retriever, beagle, poodle, cocker spaniel, Yorkshire terrier, and Pomeranian.)
The Chihuahua is the world's smallest dog, weighing as little as 1.5 pounds. They are thought to have been the dogs of the Toltec people of Mexico as long ago as the 9th century AD. The Toltecs carved pictures of them in stone.
Later, the Aztecs sacrificed these dogs whenever someone died. They believed the dog was needed to lead the dead through the underworld.
For thousands of years, dogs have served mankind in various ways - pulling carts, guarding flocks, finding game, even keeping people's feet warm in church. Dogs are adaptable. And whether they fly in space (as the Russian dog named Laika did in 1957) or are just family pets, their devotion ensures they will remain man's best friend.