The year of the dog

Dogs and humans go back a long way. As ‘man’s best friend’, the dog has the reputation of being loyal and enthusiastic – attributes shared by people born in the Chinese Year of the Dog.

By Lalita Kaplish

  • Story

Loyal and playful

A young Victorian girl reading a book to her three pet dogs.

The Jade Emperor summoned all the animals in a Great Race. The first twelve animals to cross the river and reach him were put in the Chinese zodiac. Although the dog was a strong swimmer, it couldn’t resist stopping to play in the river and, as a result, it almost missed out, finishing in 11th place.

People born in the Year of the Dog (2018, 2006, 1994, 1982, and 1970) are said to share the dog’s playful enthusiasm and loyalty – they can also be stubborn. In this year of the Earth Dog, they are also said to be communicative, serious, and responsible in their work.

The dog that ate the moon

A Chinese hunter shoots a bow and arrow at a winged black dog

In Chinese mythology, a dog is responsible for the solar eclipse. Legend has it that Tiangou (the Heavenly Dog) ate the moon, but he was captured and forced to spit the moon back out. Zhang Xian, god of birth and protector of male children, is the enemy of Tiangou. He is often depicted aiming at the sky with his bow and arrow waiting for the black dog to appear.

The royal pug

A pug, a yorkshire terrier and an Italian greyhound

Pugs were highly valued by Chinese Emperors, they were kept in luxury and guarded by imperial guards.

When pugs arrived in Europe, they kept their Royal patronage. It's said that a pug named Pompey saved the Prince of Orange from assassination in the Netherlands. In 19th century England, Queen Victoria bred her own pugs.

Pugs had longer legs in the 18th and 19th centuries. The modern pug’s appearance probably changed after 1860 when a new wave of pugs was imported directly from China. These dogs had shorter legs and the modern-style pug nose.

Rabid dogs

A rabid dog on a French notice about rabies

Dogs are man’s best friend but because of the threat of rabies, they’ve also been viewed with fear. Although dogs are not the only animal to get rabies, their proximity to people mean that they are most often linked to it.

Modern health posters continue to show frightening images of rabid dogs. In French, rabies is called ‘la rage’ (the rage), and we still play out our fears in fantastical tales of werewolves and zombies suffering from ‘rage’-like symptoms, once bitten.

Dog bites

Tibetan charm against dog bites

Cures and amulets against dog bites and rabies were commonplace around the world.

The ‘Shiwu Bencao’, a Chinese dietetic herbal (1368-1644) has an entry for leaking house water, which is highly poisonous, “however dog bites bathed in it heal rapidly”.

Cutting rabies down to size

Louis Pasteur holding a chemical bottle in front of a miniature dog with rabies, while another dog stands at his feet.

Amulets and charms were the only protection against rabies until Louis Pasteur produced the first vaccine for rabies. The vaccine was tested in 50 dogs before its first human trial in 1885, when nine-year-old Joseph Meister received the first dose. Meister received 13 inoculations, and after three months he was fully recovered.  

Pasteur was hailed as a hero. This image shows him cutting rabies down to size as he towers over the rabid dog in front of him.

Dogs to the rescue

Two St Bernard dogs find an injured man in the Alps

Dogs can be heroes, too. The St Bernard was named after the Great St Bernard Hospice. For at least 300 years, monks at the hospice have been training dogs to find travellers stranded on the treacherous Great St Bernard Pass in the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. The St Bernard is just one of the many dogs that work along side us, look after us and generally make life easier for humanity.

So whether you’re born in the Year of the Dog or just a dog lover, the Chinese New Year is a good a time as any to appreciate our long shared history with the dog.

Inspired by Chloe Robertss article, published in the Wellcome Library Blog.

About the contributors

Photograph of Lalita Kaplish

Lalita Kaplish

Lalita is a web editor at Wellcome Collection.