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A Dog's History of America

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A Dog's History of America. How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent
By Mark Derr. (North Point Press - A Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York: 2004. Pg. 352. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-86547-631-4

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - September 6, 2004

Dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated by man. For well over 10,000 years, this bond has been unbroken. While modern dogs little resemble those first dogs that set up housekeeping with their human pack-mates, the relationship is still the same. Dogs provide companionship, protection, and they serve as work animals. Man, for his part, provides a home, food, and a family (pack). Dogs have been with man as they moved from being hunter-gathers to sedentary farmers, and as they explored the world around them. However, because they are so much a part of man's history, their historical significance is often overlooked. Historians may mention the presence of dogs, but few have made the effort to explore the contribution that dogs have made to the historical record. Mark Derr has taken a major step toward correcting this oversight in his book, A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered, and Settled a Continent. In this book he explores man's partnership with his canine companions by looking at the role dogs played in American history and in popular culture.

A fascinating book, A Dog's History of America shows the myriad of similar roles that dogs played in Native American societies and with the European explores and settlers that they accompanied. For both groups, dogs served as guard dogs, hunters, companions, beasts of burden, and in times of need, as a source of food. Derr not only chronicles the dogs' role in Native American life, and in the exploration and settlement of the country by Europeans, but he also illustrates the role dogs have continued to play in American history - especially during World War I and II, the Depression, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement.

"In all, perhaps a quarter of a million dogs saw active service in World War II< in nearly every corner of the globe where there was fighting. The Germans reportedly had 200,000 dogs in service as casualty dogs, sentries, scouts, guards, and intimidators of civilians. The Japanese deployed some 25,000 dogs... The Soviet Union put 50,000 into service, including antitank suicide dogs." (Pg. 297).
This book does not purport to be a comprehensive history of America, nor of its dogs. Rather it presents representative tidbits from American history that illustrate the important role that dogs have played throughout the history of the region. In doing this, Derr has chosen to concentrate primarily on the explorers that traversed the land, and took dogs along on the trek, such as Lewis & Clark, Daniel Boone, Christopher Columbus and Alexander Mackenzie. He explores the contributions that dogs made as they accompanied the wagon trains that crossed the prairies, and in the gold fields of California and Alaska. He chronicles the role they have played in helping men explore inhospitable terrains such as during Richard Byrd's exploration of Antarctica, as well as their use as test subjects in early space missions. Derr also tackles such issues as: the animal rights movement, vivisection, the health and mental instability that can be associated with purebred dogs, and dogs that have killed humans - as well as those doggie heroes that have saved countless human lives.

From beginning to end, A Dog's History of America offers a fascinating glimpse into the role that dogs have played, and continue to play, in the lives of Americans - from the farm to the White House. While most modern dogs are pampered pets, there are still thousands of dogs who work for a living. From sheepdogs that still tends flocks and guide dogs who assist the visually impaired to search and rescue dogs and bomb-sniffing dogs, our canine companions still serve a vital role in our society. "Significantly in an age of terrorism, dogs have proven to be the most effective detector of explosives yet found, better than any machine." (Pg. 346). Well researched and written in an engaging and fluid style, A Dog's History of America will enthrall dog enthusiasts, as well as anyone interested in this unique, and often overlooked, aspect of American history.


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