Uses of Dogs

Written by Megan Pelzel and Samuel Wang

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, dogs were an integral part of life in England and could be found performing a wide assortment of roles. Their usefulness was quickly recognized, and they were often put to work. As the quality of city streets began to improve, tradesmen often chose to utilize dogs in lieu of horses or donkeys to pull carts filled with goods (McMullan 33). There were certainly many benefits to taking such an approach. Dogs were cheaper to purchase and maintain, and their usage was also not subject to taxation. It was common to see them spiritedly sprint down the streets of London, pulling “a large box with a double opening lid on the top” (Velten 84). Yet, this was far from an innocent practice. In addition to the heavy physical burdens placed on these animals, their owners often treated them harshly, subjecting them to cruelties like “beatings, over-loading, over-driving, starvation, [and] neglect of injuries” (McMullan, 33). The Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 brought an end to the practice of dog carts after numerous concerns about the animals’ welfare and also complaints about the danger these fast-moving carts posed to people on the streets (Velten 84).

However, there were even greater atrocities taking place, in terms of the way dogs were being used and treated. Although the growing sophistication of the middle class led to bill proposals prohibiting dog fights and the eventual outlawing of dog fighting pits by 1835, illicit gatherings could be found in hidden corners of London or around homemade, makeshift arenas where people gathered to watch fierce beasts go at each other’s throats for fun (Velten 107). Certainly, public officials were aware that these immoral activities were taking place, especially among the working class, making note of the pungent odors that seemed to permeate the air at these assemblies. Although immoral and despicable, the profitable crowds that were attracted kept the dirty business lucrative.

Both utility and entertainment came together when it came to the practice of rat killing. In the back rooms of taverns, rats would be placed in a ring with “mastiffs, yard dogs, terriers and bulldogs,” and bets would be taken over how well these dogs would perform (Velten 108). These matches would be publicized in newspapers and hardly received any social backlash, since rats were seen as nuisances and natural prey for these dogs. It became general consensus that dogs were one of the most effective means for neutralizing the rat problem in cities. For fresh stock of rats to participate in the matches, the services of professional rat catchers were frequently depended upon (Velten 108). Over time, the use of dogs for rat killing became more formalized, finding its way into public initiatives. In response to the Rats and Mice (Destruction) Act of 1919, one table presented in a City of London MOH report from 1922 lists the number of cats and dogs used every month for the destruction of rats–a grand total of 271 for the year. Another report declares the need for common participation: “Every available person and dog is called in to join in the mass slaughter of the rats as they are driven out into the open.” Not only was the killing of rats an important public mandate, it was also necessary for ensuring the success of businesses where food was involved. Many restaurants relied on dogs to prevent infestations of their kitchens. Such practices allowed food to remain free from contamination by vermin.

A rat-catcher (accompanied by two dogs) carrying a cage of l
A rat-catcher (accompanied by two dogs) carrying a cage of live rats in his right hand and a sharpened wooden stick with dead rats dangling from it in his left. Stipple engraving by J. Baldrey, 1789, after H.W. Bunbury. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Of course, dogs certainly took on the role of providing companionship as well. Having an attachment to pets became more acceptable in society during the 19th century, and lapdogs were especially in high demand among women, who saw these animals as companions or perhaps a way to make a fashion statement (Velten 185). Between 1865 and 1887, the dog population in England saw a dramatic increase, due to the growing desire for purebred dogs as pets (Ritvo 227, 1986). Street sellers and pet shops were commonplace, capitalizing on the market for domestic companions (Velten 185). Dogs who were fortunate to live in homes experienced a comfortable life. They were pampered and fed well, and some were even memorialized when they died (Velten 186). Nonetheless, having dogs as pets was not a luxury enjoyed by everyone in society. Fancying dogs was almost exclusive to urban dwellers and professionals (Ritvo 84, 1987). The working classes certainly had dogs, often in large quantities, but they were of far lesser quality (Velten 193). Certainly, they could not compare to the specially bred dogs of the elite, which were often well-cared for and put on display at dog shows (Velten 202). In addition, there were also the fancy dogs traditionally used for hunting in the countryside, which the aristocratic classes differentiated from those enjoyed by urban dog owners (Ritvo 87-88, 1986).

A greyhound with a man on horseback in the background. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Although dogs were not perceived as completely “offensive” animals, they were not exactly seen as pristine either. Instead, it appears that there was a certain hierarchy of animals embedded in the public consciousness, with animals like rats, lice, and fleas lowest on the ladder and humans on top. In this pecking order, dogs seemed to be found somewhere just below humans, suggesting that were generally viewed as acceptable. After all, they were often allowed to dwell among humans. However, people in England still held misgivings and apprehensions. It was common to see dogs clumped together into a group with rats and other perceived lower life forms. Other descriptions were more direct. One health report didn’t hold back, labeling dogs as “germ-distributing agencies.”

Looking at the relationship between how dogs were used and public health concerns, an interesting pattern emerges. Most of the criticism of dogs seems to be related to the unsophisticated practices of the poor and working classes. Even though dogs had demonstrated their unyielding usefulness on countless occasions, the question of their cleanliness still arose, often due to their association with the lowest members of society. One grievance brought to the attention of public officials complained about the amount of dogs being kept by a few individuals, which was eventually deemed a health problem because “the keeping of so many animals in a confined space caused bad smells.” Dogs were unable to break free from certain stigmas that were imposed on them as a result of class differences.

Indeed, there was a sharp distinction made between the dogs found in the upper echelons of society and those on the streets. Dogs “cared for by [a] proprietor” were viewed in a far more positive light. People who opposed the practice of dog carts viewed cart-owners with heavy disdain, seeing them as an inferior class (McMullan 36). Perhaps this also introduced bias into the assessment of how much of a threat dogs posed to public health. One veterinarian, Professor Sewell, believed that “rabies was spreading because the carts over-exerted the dogs, made them prone to fevers, and caused the disease by the pain and irritation of the feet” (McMullan 36). Dog-fighting, rat killing, and other crass diversions were seen as ripe conditions for not only spreading uncleanliness but also proliferating the most uncouth aspects of the working class. Neighborhoods containing dogs kept by these people were characterized as unsanitary. Dogs on the streets often faced gruesome fates as well. Dead animal corpses could be found lying randomly in ditches, not always out of cruelty but rather because it was simpler for their lifeless bodies to be disposed of in such a manner.

However, even as house pets, dogs still played a rather curious role within a household. Dog owners seemed to have a ‘seen-but-not-heard’ expectation for their four-legged friends. A quote from Tuan states: “The pet, if it is to find acceptance in a well-run household, must learn to be immobile-to be unobtrusive as a piece of furniture” (Sabloff 102-103). It was not until more recently that dogs took on the role of being a “human’s best friend” and a “furry family member,” becoming more integrated into daily life and viewed with higher regard. There was certainly a standard of decency that dogs inherently failed to meet, and dog-owners were required to comply with certain regulations. Notices were issued to encourage owners to keep their dogs under control while on the streets and to prevent them from leaving excrement on the sidewalks. Public safety and cleanliness were highly stressed. Instead of the footpaths, public health officials believed that asking dog owners to have their pets use gutters was well within reason. When out in public, dogs were expected to be kept on a leash or muzzled, ensuring that they were under control (Atkins 234).

Sometimes there were even incentives for proper training of pets. One campaign in Kensington offered resources to prepare for a dog training competition, with the chance to win prizes for their pets. Dogs were not allowed in any establishment that served foods to humans out of fear that they would be a source of contamination. In addition to not being allowed around food, dogs also were forbidden to eat items that were meant for human consumption. Unlike today, where a dog owner refrains from feeding human foods to their pets for health reasons, the inferiority of dogs meant they could not share in the same privileges as their owners. Nonetheless, traces of greater attachment to pets indeed began emerging in the late 20th century. Businesses were reluctant about putting up “Dogs Not Allowed” signs because, despite the lack of cleanliness, clients loved their pets, and prohibiting their admission into restaurants or shops could result in the loss of sales.

As the 20th century progressed, new and practical uses for dogs were developed, opening a way for acceptability in the public sphere. Dogs were sometimes known to serve the blind, even though that was a rather uncommon practice until recently. In the past, people would extend their eyesight to aid the blind around. Now, animals could provide a similar service. The city went to great lengths to accommodate this emerging practice, exempting blind persons from having to pay for dog licenses. As a service to the disabled public, fully-trained guide dogs were offered by the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. Those changes are still reflected today. (In modern-day London, the use of service dogs is now under popular demand, and the waiting list to obtain one is hundreds of slots long.) Even law enforcement began to turn to dogs, and, by the middle of the century, dogs were fully authorized for use by police on patrol, helping to catch thieves, find missing people, and recover stolen property (Velten, 83).

In conclusion, dogs provided a wide variety of services to the English throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, being used in markedly different ways depending on the social class they were associated with. They were both loved and hated, seen both as useful and as nuisances. They could be foul but were still allowed to dwell in the presence of man. Over time, they would gradually cement their place as an important part of everyday English life.


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