Man's best friend
This article contains too many or overly lengthy quotations for an encyclopedic entry. (December 2019)
"Man's best friend" is a common phrase used to describe domestic dogs, referring to their millennia-long history of close relations, loyalty, friendship, and companionship with humans. The first recorded use of a related phrase is by Frederick the Great of Prussia. It was likely popularized by its use in a poem by Ogden Nash and has since become a common colloquialism.
Before the 19th century, breeds of dogs (other than lap dogs) were largely functional. They performed activities such as hunting, tracking, watching, protecting and guarding; and language describing the dog often reflected these roles. 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.
Argos and Odysseus
In Homer's Odyssey (c. 8th century BC), upon Odysseus' return, his beloved dog Argos is the only individual to recognize him. Odysseus anonymously asks his old friend, "Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?" "This dog," answered Eumaeus, "belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him." Unable to greet his beloved dog, as this would betray who he really was, Odysseus passed by (but not without shedding a tear) and entered the well-built mansion, and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall. But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years. This story shows both companionship and neglect towards dogs amongst humans.
“As they [Eumaeus and Ulysses] were thus talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Ulysses had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any work out of him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas. As soon as he saw Ulysses standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master. When Ulysses saw the dog on the other side of the yard, dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:
"Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?"
"This hound," answered Eumaeus, "belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Ulysses left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do. There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks. But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master's hand is no longer over them, for Jove takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him."
As he spoke he went inside the buildings to the cloister where the suitors were, but Argos died as soon as he had recognized his master.”
Near the end of the Mahabharata, the Pandavas, having given up all their belongings and ties, made their final journey of pilgrimage to the Himalayas accompanied by a dog. Yudhishthira was the only one to reach the mountain peak in his mortal body, because he was unblemished by sin or untruth. On reaching the top, Indra asked him to abandon the dog before entering the Heaven. But Yudhishthira refused to do so, citing the dog's unflinching loyalty as a reason. It turned out that the dog was his god-father, Dharma. The story symbolized that dharma follows you until the end.
The relevant text in a public domain translation (translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli) is as follows (Book 17: Mahaprasthanika Parva: Section 3):
“Yudhishthira said, ‘This dog, O lord of the Past and the Present, is exceedingly devoted to me. He should go with me. My heart is full of compassion for him.’
"Shakra said, ‘Immortality and a condition equal to mine, O king, prosperity extending in all directions, and high success, and all the felicities of Heaven, thou hast won today. Do thou cast off this dog. In this there will be no cruelty.’
"Yudhishthira said, ‘O thou of a 1,000 eyes. O thou that art of righteous behaviour, it is exceedingly difficult for one that is of righteous behaviour to perpetrate an act that is unrighteous. I do not desire that union with prosperity for which I shall have to cast off one that is devoted to me.’
"Indra said, ‘There is no place in Heaven for persons with dogs. Besides, the (deities called) Krodhavasas take away all the merits of such persons. Reflecting on this, act, O king Yudhishthira the just. Do thou abandon this dog. There is no cruelty in this.’
"Yudhishthira said, ‘It has been said that the abandonment of one that is devoted is infinitely sinful. It is equal to the sin that one incurs by slaying a Brahmana. Hence, O great Indra, I shall not abandon this dog today from desire of my happiness. Even this is my vow steadily pursued, that I never give up a person that is terrified, nor one that is devoted to me, nor one that seeks my protection, saying that he is destitute, nor one that is afflicted, nor one that has come to me, nor one that is weak in protecting oneself, nor one that is solicitous of life. I shall never give up such a one till my own life is at an end.’
"Indra said, ‘Whatever gifts, or sacrifices spread out, or libations poured on the sacred fire, are seen by a dog, are taken away by the Krodhavasas. Do thou, therefore, abandon this dog. By abandoning this dog thou wilt attain to the region of the deities. Having abandoned thy brothers and Krishna, thou hast, O hero, acquired a region of felicity by thy own deeds. Why art thou so stupefied? Thou hast renounced everything. Why then dost thou not renounce this dog?’ "Yudhishthira said, ‘This is well known in all the worlds that there is neither friendship nor enmity with those that are dead. When my brothers and Krishna died, I was unable to revive them. Hence it was that I abandoned them. I did not, however, abandon them as long as they were alive. To frighten one that has sought protection, the slaying of a woman, the theft of what belongs to a Brahmana, and injuring a friend, each of these four, O Shakra, is I think equal to the abandonment of one that is devoted.’"
Vaishampayana continued: "Hearing these words of king Yudhishthira the just, (the dog became transformed into) the deity of Righteousness, who, well pleased, said these words unto him in a sweet voice fraught with praise.
"Dharma said: ‘Thou art well born, O king of kings, and possessed of the intelligence and the good conduct of Pandu. Thou hast compassion for all creatures, O Bharata, of which this is a bright example. Formerly, O son, thou wert once examined by me in the woods of Dwaita, where thy brothers of great prowess met with (an appearance of) death. Disregarding both thy brothers Bhima and Arjuna, thou didst wish for the revival of Nakula from thy desire of doing good to thy (step-) mother. On the present occasion, thinking the dog to be devoted to thee, thou hast renounced the very car of the celestials instead of renouncing him. Hence. O king, there is no one in Heaven that is equal to thee. Hence, O Bharata, regions of inexhaustible felicity are thine. Thou hast won them, O chief of the Bharatas, and thine is a celestial and high goal.’"”
King Frederick of Prussia
Poet C.S. van Winkle
The earliest citation in the U.S. is traced to a poem by C.S. Winkle printed in The New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, 1821:
- 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.
Attorney George Graham Vest
In 1870 Warrensburg, Missouri, George Graham Vest represented a farmer suing for damages after his dog, Old Drum, had been shot and killed. During the trial, Vest stated that he would "win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri."
Vest's closing argument to the jury made no reference to any of the testimony offered during the trial, and instead offered a eulogy of sorts. Vest's "Eulogy of the Dog" is one of the most enduring passages of purple prose in American courtroom history (only a partial transcript has survived):
Gentlemen of the jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it the most. A man's reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. 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.
Gentlemen of the jury: A man's dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master's side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.
If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.
Vest won the case (the jury awarded $50 to the dog's owner) and also won its appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court.
As well, a bust of the dog resides in the Missouri Supreme Court building in Jefferson City, Missouri.
- 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.
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 possibly have.
In 1941, Ogden Nash wrote "An Introduction to Dogs," beginning:
- The dog is man's best friend.
- He has a tail on one end.
- Up in front he has teeth.
- And four legs underneath.
- 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)". www.oed.com. Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
- "The Odyssey of Homer: Book XVII". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2019-08-16.
- "The Mahabharata, Book 17: Mahaprasthanika Parva: Section 3". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2019-08-15.
- Laveaux, C.J. & King of Prussia, F (1789). The life of Frederick the Second, King of Prussia: To which are added observations, Authentic Documents, and a Variety of Anecdotes. J. Derbett London.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- Martin, Gary. "Man's Best Friend." The Phrase Finder. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2013. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/mans-best-friend.html>.
- 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. <https://books.google.com/books?id=raceAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA124&lpg=PA124&dq=faithful+dog>.
- "Eulogy of the Dog" (PDF). www.sos.mo.gov. Missouri Secretary of State's Office. Retrieved 12 December 2018.
- 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.
- The Trial of Old Drum – New York Times Television Review – June 9, 2000
- Oeuvres complètes, tome 7ième, Paris 1817, p. 587 books.google