Yoga with Collies

Man's best friend: Dogs and humans have lived together since the last ice age. Our trusty companions also played an important role in the development of bourgeois society in the 18th century. 

By Roger Nickl, translated by Caitlin Stephens

Yoga classes for dogs and owners and psychotherapy for pets – our love of domestic animals leads to some bizarre extremes. For Gesine Krüger, however, such phenomena are not as strange as they might seem at first glance. “Pets today are often life partners and family members,” says the historian. “They are viewed as individuals with needs, rights and duties.” When you look at it like that, animal psychologists and yoga classes are understandable.

The relationship between dogs and their people is a particularly close one – and not just in modern times. In fact, it goes back as far as the last ice age over 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began keeping dogs. As they established settlements the dogs settled with them. The animals were gradually domesticated and became humans’ trusted companions, a trend which has continued right up to the present day. “Dogs and people developed together into what they are today – modern dogs and modern humans,” says Krüger, who has spent many years researching the role of animals in history.

Her colleague Aline Steinbrecher, a pioneer of animal history research, is examining the shared history of dogs and humans in her current project, in particular how the relationship has changed over time. The reason the relationship could become so close is down to the nature of our four-legged friends. Dogs are especially versatile and adaptable and – in contrast to cats for example – seek social contact with humans, says the historian, whose own family includes two dogs and two cats.

Because dogs are so flexible, they are able to take on a multitude of different roles in their relationships with their masters and mistresses – from guard dog and protector to companion or even life partner. And, says Steinbrecher: “Dogs are extremely inquisitive and eager to learn. Border collies, for example, are total swots: For them, a yoga lesson is an exciting new learning opportunity.”

The first pet shops

Dogs are a commonplace feature of modern street scenes, despite the fact that the relationship between people and dogs has not always been conflict-free – think for example of the intense debate of around 10 years ago about people keeping fighting dogs. In the 18th century, many more dogs than today roamed the streets of cities like Zurich, and there were also differences of opinion between dog owners and the authorities back then, as the numerous police cautions in the archives from that time show.

Aline Steinbrecher is particularly interested in the human and dog relationship among the modern middle classes – a relationship that began in the cities of Europe more than 200 years ago. According to her research, dogs played an influential role in the establishment of a confident middle class with its own morals and values. “A dog was a necessary part of a middle-class household,” says Steinbrecher. “Dogs became an important element of the bourgeois lifestyle and thus a mass phenomenon.”

The first pet shops began opening up in the 18th century in European capitals such as London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna, selling little shoes, knitted jackets and collars for the dogs of their well-heeled clientele. Such shops, along with the numerous “Missing” notices for lost dogs, indicate the depth of feeling that people at that time had for their canine companions – long before the invention of yoga classes and therapy for pets.

Dogs had successfully made the leap from their role in earlier centuries as working animals and guard dogs on farms to being coddled pets – or as Steinbrecher puts it, society dogs or companions – enjoying the good life in heated city apartments. Not everyone was happy about this development, however. Veterinarians, for example, were suspicious of the new relationships, warning that the unnatural anthropomorphism of dogs could make them weak and sick. Vets also pointed out that dogs should be fed appropriate food, as back then most people were allowing their dogs to eat with them at the family dinner table. That gave rise to another new business niche – pet food.

One bourgeois idiosyncrasy that arose in the European cities of the 18th century was the culture of going for a walk. “The habit is thanks to dogs,” according to Steinbrecher. Some townhouses were home to up to 30 dogs, show investigations from Vienna – quite a challenge in terms of hygiene, to which a solution was needed. At the same time, the authorities ordered that dogs were no longer allowed to roam freely on the streets. “That meant that people had to take their dogs out for walks,” says the historian.

Thus the dogs became part and parcel of the Sunday promenade, which itself was an opportunity for society ladies and gentlemen to show themselves off to the world. Dressed in their best finery, they strolled through the streets and parks with others of their ilk, developing the new middle-class culture. A well-groomed dog was part of the look. “You couldn’t be seen with a half-wild creature,” says Steinbrecher. “People’s dogs were extensions of themselves.”

This requirement led to the need to teach dogs good manners. Being “well brought up” – so important for middle-class children – became equally applicable to dogs, and the new middle classes occupied themselves intensively with educating both their children and their dogs. “Discussions about education took on great importance as the middle classes wanted to ensure their morals and values were passed on to the next generation,” says Steinbrecher. “In this context, dogs became a kind of socialization tool.” Children could practice their social skills with and on their pet dogs, as they learned how to be good citizens. By handling dogs, the children learnt to be considerate, to punish appropriately, and to exude an air of authority without resorting to violence. “By appreciating dogs, they also learned to appreciate people,” says Steinbrecher. And thus dogs assumed an important role in the establishment of the modern bourgeoisie.

Animals shape history

When Aline Steinbrecher began researching the history of the relationships between humans and animals almost 20 years ago, she encountered raised eyebrows and suppressed smiles: Many historians didn’t see it as a serious research topic. That perception has now changed, and today animal history is a firm part of historical scholarship. “Quite rightly,” says Gesine Krüger. “Imagine a story without the active participation of animals – it would be very different.”

Both academics, who often publish and teach as a team, don’t just believe that animals are an important part of our history, however. For Krüger and Steinbrecher, animals and people actually shape history together. “Dogs changed humans’ behavior,” says Steinbrecher, “as the history of the bourgeois promenade shows.” Seen from this perspective, animals are actually agents who can – even if unintentionally – influence the course of history.