A Lesson on Dogs

by Julie Knutson

xThe brightly colored posters that lined the corridor of the school hallway coaxed out my inner, canine-crazed child. I stopped to study each, taking in the student-generated graphics that chronicled the evolution of the modern dog, from their common (now extinct) gray wolf ancestors to the Beagles and Bulldogs of today.

My encounter with these posters brought to mind the adage “Teach what you love, love what you teach.” Enthusiasm is infectious, and students often catch it from an instructor who is emotionally and intellectually invested in the topic they’re teaching. Clearly, the middle school science teacher who engineered this lesson shared my passion for pooches, and the products of his students left me searching for ways to incorporate dogs into social studies and history curricula.


Whether learning about the ancient world or early America, dogs provide a window into everyday life, revealing the qualities that people regarded as important in a given time period and place. The transformation from wolf to dog began 132,000 years ago, and the skeleton of the oldest known domesticated dog appears to be approximately 33,000 years old. Over time and across cultures, humans cultivated certain traits — like the Newfoundland’s aquatic prowess or the Border Collie’s herding instinct — through genetic trial and error.

The role of dogs varies widely across cultures. In ancient Egypt, dogs were cherished companions, sometimes mummified and buried alongside their owners to provide continued company in the afterlife. This also appeared to be the case in Turkey, where an unearthed tomb dating to 12,000 B.C.E. revealed the remains of an elderly man buried with a puppy. In the Odyssey, Homer immortalized the ever-loyal Argos, while the Romans valued dogs as hunters and protectors of the home. The Tang royals in China bred the Pekingese for companionship. These “little lion” dogs were so prized that pampered, pregnant females slept on sheepskins to promote a full coat, surrounded by the desired colors for their offspring’s fur. In addition, it’s possible that the breed’s unusual rolling gait was deliberately developed to prevent wandering and to keep them near the court.

A topic as complex as the European Enlightenment can be rendered accessible by way of our noble canine companions. Newspaper records from the American Revolutionary-era feature postings for lost pets, whose owners offered steep rewards for their return. In this period, people began to campaign for animals, seeing them as sensitive creatures with unique personalities and worthy of protection. The art, poetry, and philosophy from this period of early American and European history reflect this shift, with no less a thinker than Voltaire proclaiming that “the best thing about man is dog.” Dogs also became status symbols during this time, with the privileged classes seeking out certain breeds to express their wealth.


Beyond examining dogs in different historical contexts, social studies teachers can also talk about their role in contemporary culture. Do we have rules and laws in place to protect animals? What different functions do dogs fulfill in our society? With regard to the latter, the American Kennel Club and the American Veterinary Medical Association’s National Pet Week both offer lesson plans on service dogs that tie to key character education topics, prompting students to think about helping and community service.

Of course, dogs — along with their feline friends — can nuzzle their way into other curricular areas, including language arts, science, art, and math. The Humane Society’s website features scores of subject-specific lesson plans that explore everything from the financial cost of pet ownership to literature circles based on animal-centered texts.

Julie Knutson

Julie Knutson strives to incorporate art and social justice themes into the history classroom. After fifteen years of city-hopping — with stints in New York, Philadelphia, London, Washington, D.C., and Houston — she recently returned to her native Illinois, where she lives with her husband and young son.