Service Animals - History

dogs horses hunting societies

The first service animals were probably dogs domesticated from wolves around 13,000 B.C. Humans learned to use the natural instincts and skills of the dogs to help them chase down and capture prey. As other animals were domesticated over the next 10,000 years, they too became useful for doing tasks.

All ancient cultures put animals to work. At first, the primary focus was feeding people. Societies dependent on hunting used dogs to help them and also enlisted more exotic species, such as mongooses and birds of prey. Agricultural societies had different needs. They used cats to protect the grain supplies and dogs to protect and herd livestock. Herding is actually a controlled form of hunting. Wolf packs sometimes hunt by sending a few of the fastest members out to circle prey and chase it back toward the remainder of the group. This instinct to chase and contain prey is associated with herding breeds of dogs, such as collies, sheepdogs, and cattle dogs. Some herding dogs even nip at the heels of livestock to move them along.

Oxen, donkeys, camels, horses, mules, and other beasts of burden pulled plows in the fields, carried loads on their backs, and pulled carts to market. Even small farm animals were put to work. Sheep and pigs were led across fields at planting time to step on seeds and push them into the ground. Sheep were also used to trample on grain to thresh it after it was harvested.

As civilizations grew, they developed public services and engaged in commerce and warfare with each other. This required animals that could travel well. Horses became very important as a means of transportation and in delivering mail. Many historians credit King Darius the Great (550–486 B.C.) of Persia with establishing the first elaborate postal system to use horses. The Roman Empire's postal system used horses for "express" mail and oxen for less urgent deliveries. Some ancient societies also used carrier pigeons to deliver important messages.

The military use of animals has a very long history. Many horses, camels, and even elephants were ridden into battle by soldiers and died along with them. Armies used beasts of burden to haul their ammunition and supplies. Some smaller animals also had military uses. For example, carrier pigeons and dogs made effective battlefield messengers.

Valuable Traits Encouraged

The role of service animals in hunting, agriculture, transportation, and warfare changed little over thousands of years. Breeding was manipulated to produce strains that served particular purposes. This was especially true for horses and dogs.


According to anthropologist Sandra L. Olsen of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, "The horse has had a bigger impact on societies through the ages than any other animal" (

Archaeologists believe that prehistoric horses were small, only about twelve hands (four feet) tall. They probably were too small to even be ridden by humans. Horses were hunted and later farmed for meat. Over time the largest, strongest, and fastest were mated with each other to provide desired characteristics. Around 4,000 B.C. ancient humans decided to put horses to work. Archaeological excavations in the Ukraine dating to this time period have uncovered horse teeth showing signs of wear, likely from a bit or other control device held in the mouth. These devices were improved and expanded over the years to provide greater versatility. Horses graduated from pulling carts and chariots to carrying riders.

Horses became invaluable to humans. The development of Western civilization would not have been possible without their services. They carried riders, pulled carriages and stagecoaches, and did all manner of jobs. American colonists and pioneers relied heavily on horses to settle new frontiers and to deliver news and mail. Horses reached their heyday in the Old West of the nineteenth century. The Pony Express is a famous example of their historical importance. This mail delivery system operated from April 1860 to November 1861 between St. Joseph, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, a distance of more than 1,900 miles. (See Figure 8.1.)


Dogs were highly valued by many ancient societies, including the Greeks and Romans. After the fall of the Roman Empire, dogs in Europe mostly lost their status as working animals. Many were left to fend for themselves and became half wild (feral). They roamed in packs, terrorizing villages and stealing livestock for food. Millions of dogs (and cats) were killed by superstitious people who feared that they were agents of evil. Dogs were accused of being werewolves, and cats were accused of witchery. Both were massacred during times of plague.

A Pony Express rider and his horse, circa 1861. National Archives and Records Administration.

Dogs were still valued in hunting and herding, particularly by noblemen, aristocrats, and other landowners. Some dogs performed other roles. For example, during the eighteenth century, Dalmatians were used as carriage dogs. They could run alongside and underneath a carriage for miles and guide horses through busy streets. They also kept other small animals out from under the horses' feet and protected riders from thieves and highwaymen.

European colonists brought dogs with them to America and found that Native Americans were already using them for hunting, sentry duty, and sled pulling, and as pack animals. Eventually, the colonists used trained dogs to attack Native Americans in battle.

Changing Roles

In the United States, service animals continued in their traditional roles until the late 1800s. Then the urbanization and innovations of the Industrial Revolution slowly eliminated the need for many of them. Motorized vehicles took over nearly all of the work formerly done by horses and beasts of burden in transportation, warfare, and agriculture. Over the next century, many people turned to electronics instead of dogs to guard their property and to chemicals instead of cats to kill rodents. Some vital tasks previously performed by working animals have become activities of sport and recreation—for example, hunting and herding with dogs and using horses to pull carriages.

The use of animals (particularly dogs) in military and public service, however, continues to grow. In addition, animals serve as aides and provide companionship and therapy to people with specific physical and mental needs.

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