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Victorians Placed Dogs at Heart of Homes

19 May 2015

UK - Cambridge academic Dr Philip Howell argues that it was the Victorians who sealed the fate of the dog as a household pet and gave it a much-cherished role at the heart of the British family.

In his new book "At Home and Astray: The Domestic Dog in Victorian London", Mr Howell suggests that the family dog as we know it today was ‘invented’ in the London of the 19th century.

The period saw rapid change in human-animal relationships within the urban context, a shift that saw the development of the pet industry as well as the beginnings of animal rights.

The second half of the 19th century was an era when London’s population boomed. The newly affluent middle classes became increasingly focused on the creation of the home as an oasis of domestic bliss.

As London grew, sanitation regulations were imposed, and Londoners became increasingly separated from the natural world.

The herds of dairy cows needed to supply the capital with milk migrated away from the centre of the city. Abattoirs and livestock markets were shifted to outlying districts. From the mid-19th century, sheep and cattle, pigs and geese were no longer driven through the streets of central London. Even dog carts were banned.

Mr Howell argues that, as other animals disappeared from the streets, the pet dog filled a vacuum.

Dogs (or at least certain ‘polite’ dogs) were invited in from the cold of the backyard, or kennel, to join the family at the fireside. In the intimate space of the domestic world, the dog was precious rather than productive, even child-like in its reliance on the humans that surrounded it.

In the bosom of the family, the dog gained a name, a personal narrative and, at the end of its life, a burial place. As pets, dogs were mourned by their owners, who interred them in pet cemeteries where their final resting places were marked by gravestones. 

Bolstered by its reputation for unswerving loyalty, the domestic dog was not just petted but clearly anthropomorphised. Highly prized pet dogs became easy targets for thieves, and by 1837, an estimated 141 dog thieves were operating in London. 

The rise in popularity of the dog and a concern for the fate of animals in the streets was also accompanied by the emergence of the first homes for street dogs. A ‘Temporary Home for Lost and Starving dogs’ opened in Holloway in 1860: moving south, it became the famous Battersea Dogs Home.

The problem of strays was certainly acute: in 1869 it was reported of London that “during the five months of the police raid against wandering curs, 12,465 dogs were taken into the Home".

The newspapers scoffed at the sentimentality evident in the provision of a facility for homeless dogs, with the Times wondering: "Why should there not be a home for rats?"

Mr Howell's conclusion is that Britain is a nation of dog lovers, but it is a conditional kind of love, with pedigrees celebrated and strays perceived as dangerous.

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