BOOKS: The Pawprints of History:

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2003:

The Pawprints of History:
Dogs and the course of human events
by Stanley Coren
The Free Press (1230 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020), 2002. 322 pages. Hardcover, $26.

Documentation of dogs’ roles in the
course of human events rarely appears in school
history texts.
Stanley Coren establishes in The
Pawprints of History, however, that dogs have
been enormously influential, not only in helping
humans to survive in prehistoric times and
perhaps in shaping our social structure, but
also through interventions of various sorts in
political and military affairs.
For example, dogs saved the lives of
people of historical stature including Napoleon,
the Fifth Dalai Lama, and Alexander the Great.
Dogs also provided emotional support and
encouragement at critical times to Abraham
Lincoln, Isaac Newton and Mary Stuart, Queen of

Dogs were a source of inspiration to Ivanhoe
author Sir Walter Scott and the composer Richard
Wagner, Coren continues. Sigmund Freud’s dog
led Freud to research the basics of what would
later become the widely recognised technique of
pet-assisted therapy.
Coren claims that the English civil wars
of 1642-1646 and 1648, which ended the
previously much greater power of English
monarchs, were partially sparked by the
bloodlust of pack hunters King James I and his
son Charles I. Coren explains that James I
ordered his envoys to confiscate from his
subjects any dogs suitable for hunting and
dogfighting. To prevent other people from
hunting in the royal forests, which were extended
by expropriations of common holdings and
sometimes the private property of others,
hunting rights were withdrawn, and large dogs of
both landlords and commoners were mutilated. The
population was outraged.
Together with dissatisfaction over the
kings’ other policies, the dog-related
regulations led eventually to the execution of
Charles I and to the regime of Oliver Cromwell,
who attempted unsuccessfully to repress blood
Dogs have often been misused by soldiers,
Coren notes. The Spanish conquerors of the New
World, for instance, trained mastiffs to hunt,
subdue, and sometimes kill indigenous Americans,
whose own dogs were much smaller.
Many U.S. presidents have been associated
with dogs. Coren believes that some presidents
used dogs to create a particular public image of
themselves, among them Andrew Jackson, William
Harrison, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Richard
Nixon, George Bush and Bill Clinton. The books
Fred’s Story and Millie’s Book, by Barbara Bush,
wife of the first President Bush, were
supposedly written by the family spaniel and
pictured Bush as a loving family member and
caring pet guardian, rather than as a life
member of Safari Club International and former
head of the CIA.
Dogs caused embarrassment to other
presidents. Gerald Ford, a responsible
petkeeper, once took his dog Liberty for a night
“business trip” around the White House lawn.
Unfortunately Ford forgot to warn the Secret
Service agents who were supposed to be guarding
him about his late night walk. Meanwhile the
security team locked the White House for the
night. Dressed only in his robe, the President
found himself locked out. He tried to draw the
attention of the guards, and ended up under
searchlights with federal agents pointing guns at
him. Coren believes that the incident added to
Ford’s image as a bumbler, contributing to his
1976 election loss to Jimmy Carter.
Particularly interesting is Coren’s
research on dogs’ role in religions, for example
in the formation of the Anglican Church. Most
history books describe how Henry VIII sought
divorce from Catherine of Aragón, and appealed
to the Pope Clement VII, who refused to grant
the divorce. Outraged, Henry VIII passed the Act
of Supremacy (1534), thus denying the Pope any
power or jurisdiction over the Church of England.
He then reasserted the ancient right of the
monarch to exercise supremacy over the Church.
This event marked the beginning of the Anglican
church as a national church independent of papal
Coren believes that the Pope’s decision
to decline Henry’s request of divorce might have
been prompted by the escapade of a dog who
accompanied Henry’s envoy to the Vatican,
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Coren writes that the
Pope originally favored the divorce. During the
decisive audience, however, before signing the
papers, the Pope pointed his bare toe at Wolsey.
Wolsey was to kiss the toe in obeisance and
homage. Protective of his guardian, Wolsey’s
dog mistook the Pope’s move as an act of
aggression, rushed to the offender, and bit his
foot. The Pope changed his decision on the spot.
In China under the rule of Tzu Hsi
(1835-1908) the sacred dogs of Chinese
Buddhism–the Pekingese–played an essential role
in the choices of the empress, Coren continues.
“The birth of each litter of dogs was
taken to have special significance that might
reflect upon current or future events. The
colors and markings of the litter were noted, as
well as the number of puppies born, the order in
which each puppy appeared, and the sex of each,”
Coren explains.
These signs were vital for Tzu Hsi, and
had a special meaning: black fur-color was
associated with evil, red with happiness, yellow
with death, etc. The combination of the signs
was interpreted, and Tzu Hsi would often base
her political decisions on these tokens of
Thus puppy litter signs encouraged a
successful coup d’etat during the rule of Kuang
Hsu (1871-1908), and helped to instigate the
Boxer Rebellion (1900). The latter failed
despite the initially favourable interpretation
of the puppy-litter signs.
Dogs have lived with people for
millennia, Coren notes, and despite the many
historical incidents involving dogs in some
manner, they have had a far greater influence on
human events through their daily interactions
with us. Dogs had an essential role in the
origin of civilization, by furnishing protection
for crops, livestock, and permanent settlements.
Dogs also have their own history, much
of it still unknown to humans. There is dispute,
for instance, as to whether dogs evolved from
wolves, or wolves evolved from dogs, and
whether dogs were domesticated just once, in one
place and time, or were domesticated and
redomesticated many times in many places.
“Several wild species of Canidae have
been tamed,” believed Charles Darwin. “Their
blood, in some cases mingled together, flows in
the veins of our domestic breeds.”
Although genetic research has now
excluded jackals, coyotes, and foxes from the
ancestry of domestic dogs, fossil evidence
indicates that dogs already exhibited a variety
of regional traits now identified as “breed”
characteristics, including “Asian street dog,”
“sight hound,” and “mastiff,” long before the
human species emerged.
As to the time of domestication,
opinions are also divided. Most experts believe
dogs were domesticated between ten and twenty
thousand years ago. However, some UCLA
researchers claim domestication occurred as long
as a hundred thousand years ago–or earlier.
Coren is a neuropsychologist and
professor of psychology at the University of
British Columbia. The Pawprints of History
follows previous Coren titles including The
Intelligence of Dogs, What Do Dogs Know, Why We
Love The Dogs We Do, and How to Speak Dog.
-Tanja Maroueva

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