Why Are Dogs Man’s Best Friend? | Phrase Origins

You’ve probably heard that dogs are “man’s best friend” before. Given the unflinchingly loyal reputation dogs have as pets in pop-culture, it’s not a very surprising stereotype. It also makes for a lot of touching stories if that’s your speed, like Hachiko, the Akita Inu who waited at his owner’s train stop for almost 10 years after his owner died at work. There’s a statue of Hachiko near Shibuya Station, in case you were wondering. So the answer to “why are dogs man’s best friend” seems pretty clear cut—but that’s not exactly why we’re here. Why did we start using the phrase?

Further Reading: The Origin of Dogs | How Were Dogs Domesticated?

It’s always been kinda common

The “man’s best friend” sentiment long predates the first recorded use of the phrase. It appears in The Odyssey (dating back to the late 8th or early 7th century), with Argos (the dog) being the only one who recognizes Odysseus when he returns home. It’s played as a pretty sad scene, because dogs are and have always been free heartstrings points. 

Anyway we just wanted to validate anyone who had to read The Odyssey in school or something.

The first recorded reference to dogs being “man’s best friend” dates back to the reign of Frederick the Great. He was the King in Prussia from 1740 to 1772 and was the King of Prussia from 1772 to 1786. Functionally the titles were the same, Prussia switched from “King in” to “King of” in 1772 when Frederick the Great annexed most of Royal Prussia. The whole reason being “King in” was some legal jargon that Frederick’s power reached over less territory. During his reign, Frederick II was known to be fond of Italian greyhounds, and referred to them as his best friends.

Allegedly, Frederick II said “the only, absolute and best friend a man has, in this selfish world, the only one that will not betray or deny him, is his dog” once in 1786, and this specific quote is what people attribute the “man’s best friend” thing to. Of what we could find that attributed Frederick II to this specific quote, they were mostly offhanded references in something not expressly examining Frederick II’s words. 

Popularizing our best friends

The widespread popularization of “man’s best friend” seems to stem from poetry. Specifically, the popularization of the phrase is attributed to Ogden Nash’s “Introduction to Dogs, An,” where the first line is literally “the dog is man’s best friend.” 

Perhaps one of the more notorious invocations of the idea (at least in the US) dates back to 1870. This story also ends with a dog statue being put up, this time in front of Missouri’s Supreme Court. 

Further Reading: Can Animals Testify in Court? Can Animals Be Put on Trial?

The story takes place in Warrensburg, Missouri, when a dog named Old Drum was shot and killed by a guy named Samuel Ferguson, on the order of a guy named Leonidas Hornsby. Old Drum’s owner, Charles Burden, filed suit in September, 1870. It’s a little spicier than that though, as Hornsby was Burden’s neighbor and brother-in-law. Ferguson was Hornsby’s nephew. 

On October 28th, 1869 Hornsby was maintaining his flock of sheep with Ferguson—it wasn’t going super well since there were lots of wolves in the area and Hornsby had already lost quite a few sheep to wild animals. Hornsby saw a dog near his yard, and Ferguson proposed shooting the dog, and Hornsby (allegedly) told him to load their rifle with corn and scare the animal away. Burden and the rest of Hornsby’s neighbors heard gunshots, and Burden was immediately suspicious of Hornsby when he called his dogs and Old Drum didn’t come. The next morning, Burden found Old Drum dead and with multiple gunshot wounds and appeared to have been dragged by a river bank. Sorrel horse hairs were found on Old Drum’s Body, and Hornsby had a sorrel mule. 

Eulogy of a Dog

There were multiple trials, and after two of them Hornsby was found guilty of ordering Ferguson to kill Old Drum, though the decision was reversed. It’s the third trial that we see “man’s best friend” as a phrase make an appearance in a courtroom. 

Burden’s lawyer for the third trial, George Graham Vest, made a pretty boisterous claim; he would “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.” 

Vest’s approach to his closing argument was something you’d more likely see in a legal drama or movie. Instead of relying on facts that came out through trial, Vest instead chose to lean entirely into our attachment to dogs (doesthedogdie.com is a real thing, after all). He actually didn’t reference anything that came out in trial. The gambit worked though, and Burden was awarded $50 by the jury. Hornsby appealed the decision, all the way to Missouri’s Supreme Court. It didn’t work out for him though, and now there’s a bust of Old Drum in front of Missouri’s Supreme Court.


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