Man's best friend (phrase)

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"Man's best friend" is a phrase referring to domestic dogs, highlighting their close relations, loyalty, and companionship with humans within many societies.


Before the evolution of wolf into dog, it is posited that man and wolf worked together hunting game. Wolves were the superior tracker but man was the superior killer, thus wolves would lead man to the prey and man would leave some of the meat to the wolves. This working relationship eventually led to the evolution of dogs, although there is controversy as to the exact nature of that transition. Some say wolves evolved naturally into dogs, wherein the wolves that worked best with humans slowly began to assimilate and pass their domesticated genes down. Others say that humans took wolf pups and raised them to be domesticated. Either way, humans and dogs formed a working relationship.[1]

Previous to the 19th century, dogs, other than lap dogs, were largely functional. Used for activities such as hunting, watching and guarding, language describing the dog often reflected these positions within society. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “In the oldest proverbs and phrases dogs are rarely depicted as faithful or as man’s best friend, but as vicious, ravening, or watchful.” Beginning in the 18th century, multiplying in the 19th and flourishing in the 20th century, language and attitudes towards dogs began to shift. Possibly, this societal shift can be attributed to discovery of the rabies vaccine in 1869.[2]

The earliest citation of the actual word choice - in English - is traced to a poem printed in the The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:[3]

The faithful dog - why should I strive
To speak his merits, while they live
In every breast, and man's best friend
Does often at his heels attend.[4]

In 1870 Warrensburg, Missouri, George Graham Vest represented a farmer suing for damages after his dog, Old Drum, had been shot and killed. Vest’s closing speech included this quote, “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.” In 1958, a statue of Old Drum was erected on the Johnson County Courthouse lawn containing a summation of Vest’s closing speech, “A man’s best friend is his dog.”[5][6]

Much earlier, however, Voltaire had written in his Dictionnaire philosophique of 1764:

CHIEN. —- Il semble que la nature ait donné le chien à l'homme pour sa défense et pour son plaisir. C'est de tous les animaux le plus fidèle : c'est le meilleur ami que puisse avoir l'homme.[7]

Translated, this reads:

DOG. —- It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful : it is the best friend man can have.

Works so titled[edit]


  1. ^ Derr, Mark. "How Dog's Evolved Into "Our Best Friend"". NPR. Retrieved 10 October 2013. 
  2. ^ Paton, Bernadette (2013). "The dog: man’s best friend?(The use of man's best friend has usually been about dogs. They are hard working and reliable mammals).". Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 5, 2013. 
  3. ^ Martin, Gary. "Man's Best Friend." The Phrase Finder. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2013. <>.
  4. ^ Van Winkle, C.S., ed. Vol. 4. New York: C.S. Van Winkle, 1821. 123. The New-York Literary Journal, and Belles-lettres Repository, Volume 4. University of Minnesota. Web. 13 July 2013. <>.
  5. ^ Coren, Stanley (2009-10-21). ""A Man's Best Friend is his Dog": The Senator, the Dog, and the Trial". Psychology Today. Retrieved 2010-09-27. 
  6. ^ The Trial of Old Drum – New York Times Television Review – June 9, 2000
  7. ^ Oeuvres complètes, tome 7ième, Paris 1817, p. 587