Prof. Lisa Wolverton

325 McKenzie Hall

Office hours:  Fridays 1-3 pm





Hist 199  Freshman Seminar

The Cultural History of Dogs




Dogs are such a common and familiar part of life that we rarely stop to think about them. But there is arguably no more telling and complex human-animal relationship than the one we have with dogs. Dogs have been a part of human society for many thousands of years. On every continent, they were the first animal to be domesticated—that is, tamed and bred until genetically different from their wild forebears. As workers and companions, they have shared human history virtually from its origins. Not only have changes in history produced changes in the way we treat dogs, the species itself has been modified by direct human agency. They are both part of human history and they have a history of their own.


This course surveys the history of dogs in human society to the present day. It engages questions of how humans have understood the very nature of dogs and the differences between humans and animals. Why do we keep dogs? What function do they serve for humans? How should we treat them? And how do we use them to tell stories, to define ourselves and our world?


For answers to these questions, we will look not only to history but also to fields like philosophy and ethics, biology and psychology, folklore and popular culture. We will investigate how dogs have been portrayed in religious texts, fables, literature, works of art, fictions, and film. We will explore how the treatment of dogs sheds light on human societies—their economic institutions, class structures, and sanitary and health practices. We will ask how scientists have studied the ways dogs think and feel. And we will confront the ethical and political dilemmas surrounding the treatment of dogs today.  Historical methods and questions are varied; so will ours be.


Course Structure and Requirements


This course is structured to hone students’ analytical skills in their reading and research as well as in their oral and written expression.  We will do this through consistent engagement with a range of different materials, and a variety of discussion modes and writing assignments.  Class time will be spent primarily in discussion, sometimes supplemented by the presentation of background material by the instructor.  Often classes will include student presentations, whether to jumpstart discussion, to summarize readings not read by all students, or to disseminate individual research.  We will sometimes use classtime to analyze texts, images, or videos not assigned as homework.


Among the assignments, students will be expected to write short answers to questions about the reading in order to facilitate discussion; to do their own research on dogs in American literature oriented to children; and to consider pressing issues about dogs in the news today, both for our last class discussion and a short final paper.


The grade distribution is as follows:


1.  Attendance and active participation in discussion:  15%


2.  Three one-page discussion papers (Weeks 2, 4, 5, 6, 8—choose 3 of 5):  10% each


3.  Short analytical paper and presentation (Week 7):  25%


4.  Short final paper and presentation (Week 10 & Finals Week):  30%





Two books are available for purchase at the UO bookstore:  Temple Grandin and Catherine Thompson, Animals in Translation; and Eric Knight, Lassie Come-Home.  Kete’s book is available in their entirety on-line (see on-line syllabus).   These four books are also on reserve at Knight library.  All other readings will be provided electronically through Blackboard.





Week 1  Introduction

Jan. 7  Welcome to the course

              Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (New York:  Little, Brown & Co., 2009), pp. 21-9.

Jan. 9  The first dogs:  from canis lupus to canis familiaris

Vilmos Czányi, If Dogs Could Talk, trans. Richard Quandt (New York:  2000), pp. 7-44.


Week 2  Dogs in Premodern Cultures

Jan. 14 Dog breeds of the ancient and medieval world

              Douglas Brewer, “Dogs in Ancient Egypt,” in Dogs in Antiquity, ed. D. Brewer, T. Clark, and A. Phillips (Warminster:  2001), pp. 28-48; Albertus Magnus, On Animals, trans. K. F. Kitchell & I. M. Reznick (1999), vol. 2, pp. 1457-64.

Jan.16 Ancient fables and medieval romances

              The Fables of Phaedrus, trans. P.F. Widdows (1992), pp. 9, 24-5, 28, 30, 32, 63, 73, 105-6, 134; Beroul, The Romance of Tristan, trans. Alan Fedrick (1970), p. 80-4


Week 3 


Jan. 23  The Aristocratic dog—Reflections in art

              Start Eric Knight, Lassie Come Home (1940), esp. pp. 1-43


Week 4  The Modern Dog

Jan. 28  Dogs in 20th-century Literature—Introduction

              Finish Eric Knight, Lassie Come Home (1940)

Jan. 30  The bourgeois dog

              Kathleen Kete, Beast in the Boudoir (1994):  22-38 or 39-55 or 76-96.


Week 5   

Feb. 4  Dogs with credentials (pedigrees, etc.)

              Harriet Ritvo, The Animal Estate:  The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1987), pp. 82-121.

Feb. 6  Dogs, rabies, and public health – Topics due for Week 7 Paper

Ritvo, Animal Estate, pp. 167-202; or Kete, Beast in the Boudoir, pp. 97-114; or Neil Pemberton and Michael Warboys, Mad Dogs and Englishmen:  Rabies in Britain, 1930-2000 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 9-39


Week 6 

Feb. 11  Dogs and the early humane movement

Kete, Beast in the Boudoir, pp. 5-21; or Ritvo, Animal Estate, pp. 125-66; or Pemberton and Warboys, Mad Dogs, pp. 40-68.

Feb. 13  The Western dog abroad

              Aaron Skabelund, “Imperialism, Civilization and Canine Cultures in Nineteenth-Century Japan,” in Japanimals, ed. Gregory Pflugfelder and Brett Walker (2005), pp. 195-244. 


Dogs in Children’s Literature

Week 7  Children and Dogs:  Presentation of research papers

              Since the nineteenth-century, dogs have figured in American cultural life largely in works of art aimed at children.  Dogs were deemed useful to teach messages to children (about kindness or courage, say), while at the same time children learned fundamental lessons about the very nature of and prevailing attitudes toward dogs.  For this assignment, each student must compare the literary function of dogs in an older novel, Lassie Come-Home, with a more recent example of a young adult novel (such as Because of Winn-Dixie, The Underneath) or another “classic” (e.g., Old Yeller).  Papers should be 4-5 pages long, and student must also be prepared to present their thesis and evidence to the rest of the class in formal presentations.


Dogs and Ethics

Week 8 

Feb. 25  Descartes: Dogs don’t feel & Behaviorism: Dogs don’t think

Gary Hatfield, “Animals,” in A Companion to Descartes, ed. Janet Broughton and John Carriero (Oxford, 2008), pp. 404-24.

              video of I. P. Pavlov:

video of B. F. Skinner:

Feb. 27  How we/they think       

              Temple Grandin and Catherine Thompson, Animals in Translation, pp. 1-67, 241-83.


Week 9

Mar. 4  How we/they feel

Grandin and Thompson, Animals in Translation, pp. 68-130.

Mar. 6  New jobs for dogs


Week 10  Dog debates today

              Today, many ethical questions rage about dogs in our society:  While dog-fighting has long been outlawed as a sport, what to do with dogs confiscated from practicing it?  Are the demands of the show-dog circuit creating perversions of “classic” dog breeds?  Are the surgical procedures we perform no dogs (neutering, debarking, ear-cropping) inhumane or necessary to their survival as part of human society?  What are the norms of animal control and sheltering in our cities?  What obligations do we owe retired military dogs?  Should we care about the fate of strays abroad?  Do we spend too much on toys and treats for our dogs?


              For this assignment, each student must research one ethical question as it pertains to dogs today and present the issue to the class. 


Final Exam Week:  Short, 5-page final paper due

              In this paper, students will outline the ethical issue they presented in the last week of class, and analyse it with specific reference to some of the readings in this course.




1.  Attendance is mandatory and active participation is expected.  All classroom learning is a community endeavor, where the passive reception of information imparted by the instructor is enriched and internalized by the active engagement of students with the instructor and each other in discussion.  In larger classes, a genuinely collaborative discursive environment can be difficult to achieve.  This is the great advantage of the freshman seminar, and students are expected to take advantage of it.  Doing so requires, first, that all students and their opinions be treated with respect.  Second, for discussions to be fruitful and a genuine conduit for learning requires that everyone contribute and come prepared to do so.  All students must have completed the assigned readings on the syllabus before coming to class.


2.  Learning is impossible without a fundamental commitment to ethics and integrity in our scholarship.  Plagiarism and other forms of cheating will not be tolerated.  Students should consult UO resources in order to understand fully the nature of plagiarism and its penalties:  here.


3.  Writing assignments are due in class, at the beginning of class, on the date noted on the syllabus.  Written work may not be submitted by email.  Work turned in late will be penalized; papers more than one week late will not be accepted. Students who are ill or have exceptional circumstances potentially excusing absence from class, failure to do the readings, or turn in written work on time should contact the professor by email as soon as possible and should be prepared to submit a doctor’s note or other confirmation of their situation.


4.  Succeeding in this course may sometimes require consultation with the instructor and other resources outside formal class time.  Students are encouraged to ask questions of any sort via email, or to drop into my office during scheculed office hours.  If you would like to meet in person, but are not available during office hours, email to make an appointment at another, mutual convenient time.  Students are also encouraged to avail themselves of the resources provided to all UO student by the Teaching and Learning Center; for an overview of their services:  Students with documented disabilities should contact the Center for Accessibility Services.  Remember, for research projects, there is no more valuable resource than UO librarians.  Ignorance of the library, its search engines, or the resources available beyond its walls is no excuse for inadequate research.