With all the “Beware of Dog” signs posted on fences, doors and windows in our neighborhood, one could be forgiven for thinking that our quiet community houses a pack of Cujos. Yet the dogs I’ve encountered here are either friendly, well-socialized family pets or yippy little things with inferiority complexes that I could easily punt 60 yards if one ever decided to attack my ankles.
Dogs have served humans as hunting companions and protectors for at least 15,000 years and perhaps even longer than 30,000 years. Dogs have also played the role of guardian in mythology and literature; consider Cerberus, the multi-headed beast who stands watch at the gates of Hades, and the aged Argos, the lone figure to recognize Odysseus when he returns home in The Odyssey.
“Never, with dogs on guard,” wrote the Roman poet Virgil, “need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief.”
The earliest known dog warning sign is found in Pompeii’s House of the Tragic Poet, a second-century B.C. Roman home discovered in 1824 and famous for its elaborate mosaics, one of which features a menacing black dog above the words “CAVE CANEM,” or “beware the dog.”
“Beware of Dog” signs remain something of an art form. There is a Flickr group devoted to images of “Beware of Dog” postings in Chicago, and Wikimedia Commons features a page full of dog-related warning signs from around the world.
After noticing lovingly hand-painted “Danger Dog” signs on the gates of homes in Nepal, longtime film editor Michelle Page opened Nepal Art Dogs: Custom Folk Art from the Himalayas, a fair trade art project in which your pet’s portrait can be turned into a unique, hand-crafted metal sign by a Nepalese artist (the signs don’t have to be warnings; some indicate their subjects’ enlightenment).
“Beware of Dog” signs are often used more to ward off would-be burglars than to alert people to the presence of dogs that are actually dangerous. In his book Secrets of a Superthief, former burglar Jack MacLean estimates that 95 percent of thieves are deterred from breaking and entering by the potential presence of dogs.
For as long as dogs have provided protection, they have also been cherished and placed on pedestals. Plato observed the dog is a “lover of learning” and a “beasty worthy of wonder.” According to Plato, Socrates shared his fondness for dogs, calling the canine “a true philosopher.”
The philosopher: Now there is a creature of which to truly beware.