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A Love Story: Our Bond With Dogs
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By Angus Phillips Photographs by Richard Olsenius

Some dogs work for us—hunting, herding, guiding—but others just dote on us, and we love them for it.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Roddy MacDiarmid, 57, lifelong shepherd and son of a shepherd, surveys the Scottish Highlands from a ridge overlooking Loch Fyne and the little valley town of Cairndow. On one hand lies the estate of John Noble, where MacDiarmid has worked much of his life, on the other the estate of the Duke of Argyll. Black-faced lambs and ewes by the hundreds dot the green hillsides below. His Border collies, Mirk and Dot, trot faithfully behind. It’s familiar turf.

“Everywhere you see,”says MacDiarmid, sweeping his shepherd’s crook in an all-encompassing arc, “I have gathered sheep. And I can tell you this: You cannot gather sheep from these hills without dogs. Never could and never will; never, never, ever!“

That ringing endorsement is a comfort to those of us who keep dogs but sometimes wonder why. It’s good to know that somewhere dogs remain absolutely, undeniably essential to man’s work while we happily wander about with our furry friends, feeding them, walking them, scooping their droppings, showering them with affection, taking them to the vet at the first glimmer of trouble. We occasionally get nipped or barked at in return, but more frequently we are rewarded with a lick on the hand or a wagging tail or a rapt willingness to listen to our most banal statements, as if they are something profound.

Dogs and people, people and dogs: It’s a love story so old no one knows how it started. “The human beings who participated in the earliest domestic relationships [with dogs] thousands of years ago are all dead,” says zooarchaeologist Darcy F. Morey with refreshing candor. “They cannot tell us what was in their minds or what they sought to accomplish.”

And since no one had yet begun to write things down, we are left to speculate, as did the British writer Rudyard Kipling in 1912 when he offered this theory in Just So Stories.

“Then the Woman picked up a roasted mutton-bone and threw it to Wild Dog, and said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, taste and try.‘ Wild Dog gnawed the bone, and it was more delicious than anything he had ever tasted, and he said, ‘O my Enemy and Wife of my Enemy, give me another.’

“The Woman said, ‘Wild Thing out of the Wild Woods, help my Man to hunt through the day and guard this Cave at night, and I will give you as many roast bones as you need.’”

That scenario (minus the talking dog, of course, of which there are none even today) would have played out about 14,000 years ago if you follow the archaeological trail to the origins of dogs, much further back if you favor DNA evidence suggesting dogs existed well before the earliest traces of their bones. Either way, this is clear: Dogs are not just our proverbial best friends in the animal world but probably our oldest. They evolved from wolves long ago, found a home alongside humans before history makes a record, and never left.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Dogs guard our homes, herd our stock, hunt the fox, entertain and adore us, but not most dogs. The vast majority wander the streets and back alleys of villages and towns around the world, scavenging human garbage just as they did thousands of years ago. According to Raymond and Lorna Coppinger’s book, Dogs, there are perhaps 400 million of man’s best friend in the world, yet the Coppingers estimate that only a quarter of those dogs are our companions, allowed a place by the fire or on the couch.

—Jeanne E. Peters

The American Kennel Club (AKC)
Discover your favorite breed, learn all about it, and search a list of breeders on this comprehensive site covering purebreds and potential show dogs. Tips on how to care for your pet are also featured, as well as clubs around the United States that specialize in particular breeds.

The Kennel Club (KC)
The United Kingdom’s Kennel Club annually sponsors the largest dog show in the world, Crufts. The website describes British breed standards judged in various show categories—hounds, working dogs, gundogs, terriers, utility dogs, pastoral dogs, and toys.

The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI)
The World Canine Organization, based in Belgium, was founded in 1911 by Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands to monitor dog breeds and the results of dog shows around the world. The FCI website and newsletter, featuring schedules of upcoming competitions across the globe, are offered in English, Spanish, German, and French.


Alderton, David. Dogs. DK Publishing, 1993.

Coppinger, Raymond, and Lorna Coppinger. Dogs. Scribner, 2001.

Fogle, Bruce. The New Encyclopedia of the Dog. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

Hausman, Gerald, and Loretta Hausman. The Mythology of Dogs. St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997.

Morey, Darcy F. “The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog.” American Scientist (July/August 1994), 336-347.

Serpell, James, ed. The Domestic Dog. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Sheldon, Jennifer W. Wild Dogs: The Natural History of the Nondomestic Canidae. Academic Press, 1992.

The Complete Dog Book. American Kennel Club, 1992.

Thomas, Keith. Man and the Natural World. Pantheon Books, 1983.

Thurston, Mary Elizabeth. The Lost History of the Canine Race. Andrews and McMeel, 1996.


O’Neill, Catherine. Dogs on Duty. National Geographic Books, 1988.

“Search-and-Rescue Dogs,” World (March 1986), 4-9.

“Making the Grade in Dog School,” World (November 1982), 11-14.

“Racing Across Alaska,” World (January 1981), 29-35.

Vosburgh, Frederick G. “Dogs of Duty and Devotion,” National Geographic (December 1941), 769-774.


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