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Why Are Dogs Called Man’s Best Friend? History & Origins of the Phrase

Kathryn Copeland

By Kathryn Copeland

young man with his boxer dog in the park

We can trace our relationship with dogs as far back as 33,000 years ago 1 for the earliest signs of domestication, and archaeological records show beyond a shadow of a doubt that we domesticated dogs at least 15,000 years ago 2.

This tells us that human lives have been intertwined with our canine friends for an incredibly long time. When you consider how important dogs still are to us, it’s not that surprising that the phrase “man’s best friend” has been used for as long as most of us can remember.

It’s believed the first person who used the term “man’s best friend” was King Frederick of Prussia sometime before his death in 1786 3. Keep reading, though, as there’s much more to know about how this phrase took off!

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1700’s Era

The King of Prussia’s Best Friends (1740–1786)

Frederick II, the King of Prussia, also known as Frederick the Great (1712–1786), was known for his love of his dogs, which were Italian Greyhounds.

He would write to his sister Wilhelmine as his favorite dog, Biche, “Only because my master doesn’t walk on all fours, does he not call himself a greyhound,” and she would do the same.

Frederick was eventually buried near 11 of his dogs, including his beloved Biche, which all were buried with headstones. It’s said that his dogs were essentially his children, and he was devastated when any of them passed away.

Italian greyhound dog lying on owner's legs
Photo Credit: violetblue, Shutterstock

Voltaire and Dogs (1764)

Voltaire was a renowned French writer and philosopher who wrote about the importance of dogs to humans. In fact, Voltaire and Frederick the Great were great friends for a time.

In 1764, Voltaire penned the “Dictionnaire Philosophique” (Philosophical Dictionary), which worked as an encyclopedia/dictionary.

It consists of alphabetically organized articles and includes the following entry regarding dogs:
  • Chien: Il semble que la nature ait donné le chien à l’homme pour sa défense et pour son plaisir. L’homme tous les animaux le plus fidèle : c’est le meilleur ami que puisse avoir l’homme.
  • Dog: It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defense and for his pleasure. Of all the animals, it is the most faithful: It is the best friend man can have.

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1800’s Era

A Dog Poem by C.S. Winkle (1821)

Cornelius S. Van Winkle was a publisher and printer who wrote a poem that was printed in the New-York Literary Journal, Volume 4, in 1821.

It is considered the first introduction of the term “man’s best friend” in the U.S.A.:

The faithful dog—why should I strive

To speak his merits, while they live

In every breast, and man’s best friend

Does often at his heels attend

Old Drum (1870)

Around 50 years later, the next recorded mention of “man’s best friend” occurred in 1870 in the American Supreme Court. A Coonhound by the name of Old Drum was killed by a neighbor for trespassing on his property. The owner of Old Drum was devastated and took the neighbor to court.

Lawyer George Graham Vest gave an impassioned speech regarding the importance of dogs and stated (snippet) 4:

“The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is the dog.”

The court case was won, and Old Drum’s owner was awarded $50 in damages. But the more important message here is about how essential and wonderful dogs are. While the “man’s best friend” saying was not explicitly used, there’s no question that Vest’s entire speech is about just that.

Asian man is playing with his beagle dog while having morning exercise in the park
Photo Credit: Akarawut, Shutterstock

The Old Drum Statue

In 1958, 88 years after the court case, a statue of Old Drum was erected in front of the Johnson County Courthouse. It features a plaque entitled, “A Tribute to the Dog by Senator George Graham Vest,” with Vest’s speech from the courtroom.

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1900’s Era

Ogden Nash (1920)

Ogden Nash was an American poet who was known for his use of light verse, of which he wrote over 500!

In 1920, he wrote a poem entitled, “An Introduction to Dogs”:

The dog is man’s best friend.

He has a tail on one end.

Up in front he has teeth.

And four legs underneath.

Dogs like to bark.

They like it best after dark.

They not only frighten prowlers away

But also hold the sandman at bay.

A dog that is indoors

To be let out implores.

You let him out and what then?

He wants back in again.

Dogs display reluctance and wrath

If you try to give them a bath.

They bury bones in hideaways

And half the time they trot sideways.

Dogs in the country have fun.

They run and run and run.

But in the city this species

Is dragged around on leashes.

Dogs are upright as a steeple

And much more loyal than people.

Well people may be reprehensibler

But that’s probably because they are sensibler.

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What Dogs Do for Us

Dogs have always worked for humans, but they have also long been our companions. Some of the earliest records of domestic dogs show that they traveled with people migrating across East Asia. In frigid weather, dogs pulled sleds and offered protection, but they also entered homes and huddled up with their owners to help keep them warm.

Today, for most of us, dogs are family members, and they do so much more than protect us and keep us warm.

  • There’s less risk of schizophrenia: 2019 study found there was a lower risk of schizophrenia among people who owned dogs.
  • They can improve heart health: Another study in 2019 found dog ownership contributed to a healthier heart.
  • We live longer: Yet another study from 2019 found that dog owners generally live longer.
  • We learn from them: In a study from 2016, researchers found dogs could learn puzzles effectively, whereas human children would only follow the instructions to the letter rather than figure out a more effective way of solving the puzzle.

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Conclusion

While King Frederick of Prussia seems to be the first one who coined the term, “man’s best friend,” there aren’t any specific dates associated with this event. So, Voltaire might have actually been among the first.

Regardless, there’s no question that dogs are humankind’s best friend. They love us unconditionally, and they don’t judge us or kick us when we’re down. We should count ourselves lucky to have dogs in our lives!


Featured Image Credit: Juan_Hernandez, Shutterstock

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