Dating back to the beginning of written history, man’s best friend has long been Canis familiaris, the domestic dog. Native Americans and Europeans are believed to have domesticated the animals independently of each other and when the earliest European settlers approached the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from them was a roving dog.
Dogs accompanied Christopher Columbus on his voyages to the New World and they were to be found in nearly all subsequent voyages from Europe to America — the companionship, protection and aid provided by these canine friends proved to be an invaluable resource to terrified sailors and settlers.
With stalking mountain lions, warring Native Americans, and an abundance of black bear, the domesticated dog served as a critical component to the early Appalachian homestead and in the centuries that have followed, this reality has never ceased.
As I look back at faded black and white photos from more than a hundred years ago of frontier families seated along their front porch, with dog in hand, I have often found myself wondering, “What were these dogs fed?”
In an era long before pet stores and commercial dog food, what did Appalachian settlers feed their dogs?
Not too long ago, I asked my grandmother this question and her answer was quite interesting, “Each Saturday, my mother would take all of our table scraps that weren’t considered unhealthy for the dog and bake it together — we called it ‘dog bread’ and it was the dog’s food for the coming week.”
Smiling while she reminisced of a bygone day, my grandmother laughed as she said that the dogs readily ate the mixture and enjoyed it more than any of the expensive dog foods people buy today.
“Back then, we didn’t let anything go to waste and we sure didn’t buy very much — we didn’t have the money, nobody did. We may not have had a lot of money, but no one under the roof, including the dog ever ate anything processed and we all got more than enough exercise,” she concluded.
Interestingly, dog owners have long been concerned about the welfare of their beloved friends and as far back as the 1700s, books were being published detailing how to properly feed one’s dog.
In 1785 The Sportsman’s dictionary described the best diet for a dog’s health in its article “Dog”: “A dog is of a very hot nature: he should therefore never be without clean water by him, that he may drink when he is thirsty. In regard to their food, carrion (decaying flesh of dead animals) is by no means proper for them… Barley meal, the dross of wheatflour, or both mixed together, with broth or skim’d milk, is very proper food. For change, a small quantity of greaves from which the tallow is pressed by the chandlers, mixed with their flour; or sheep’s feet well baked or boiled, are a very good diet, and when you indulge them with flesh it should always be boiled. In the season of hunting your dogs, it is proper to feed them in the evening before, and give them nothing in the morning you take them out, except a little milk. If you stop for your own refreshment in the day, you should also refresh your dogs with a little milk and bread.”
Though dogs may have survived for thousands of years eating the meat and non-meat scraps and leftovers of humans, in the mid-1800s an American electrician saw the opportunity to remove the work from cooking meals for one’s dogs and became the first person in history to sell dog food commercially. The food was made up of wheat meals, vegetables and meat. By 1890 production had begun in the United States and the product became known as “Spratt’s Patent Limited”.
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