This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine


Biting: Mad dogs and paranoid Frenchmen

Dog bites alarmed many Parisians, as fears of rabies stalked the 19th‑century city. Rabies anxieties led some doctors, vets and other commentators to call for the eradication of dogs from French cities. Among them was army officer Alexandre Roger, writing in 1813, who lamented how rabies could strike anyone, rich or poor.

To minimise the risk of rabid dog bites, the police prescribed the muzzling of dogs in public places and targeted unmuzzled dogs for destruction. But the muzzling orders were often ignored and poorly enforced, while some doctors and vets labelled them dangerous because ‘spontaneous rabies’ was more likely to develop in restrained and repressed dogs. Animal protectionists, for their part, portrayed muzzles as cruel and ineffectual.

The French chemist Louis Pasteur’s development of a rabies treatment in the mid-1880s did not eradicate fears of dog bites: the press reaction to Paris’s newly minted police dog unit in the early 20th century dwelled on the possibility that police dogs might bite innocent Parisians, even if the dogs spent much of their time muzzled. More recent fears over dangerous dogs suggest that dog bites remain a source of concern and controversy.

Crime-fighting: Four-legged agents of the law

At the dawn of the 20th century, fear of crime in Paris was soaring. Lurid newspaper articles routinely portrayed the city as a wild, dangerous place, where violent street-gangs (so-called ‘Apaches’) preyed on hapless citizens.

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The police needed to fight back – and fast – and so enlisted the services of Paris’s pooches. Drawing on the experience of police dog units in Belgium and Germany, French law-enforcers started to train dogs to identify criminals and defend themselves against Apaches.

Scientists and philosophers had long posed the question: are dogs intelligent? For the police, the answer was a definitive ‘yes’, and they promoted their dogs’ mental dexterity and physical prowess at dog shows, and many newspapers enthusiastically reported on the exploits of the “four-legged agents of the law”.

Such was these canines’ apparent success that Apache gangs reportedly trained their own dogs to attack the police’s hounds. But doubts soon began to emerge about dogs’ intelligence: could they really distinguish between criminals and innocent citizens? With such concerns rising, the attempt to turn dogs into canine crime-fighters floundered during the First World War and was only resurrected in earnest in 1965.

Eating: “Dog cutlets with petits pois”

During the 1871 Prussian siege of Paris, hungry and wealthy Parisians famously devoured the contents of the city’s zoo, as well as cats, rats and dogs. Adolphe Michel, editor of the daily newspaper Le Siècle, attended a dinner where “dog cutlets with petits pois” and “brochettes of dog liver” appeared on the menu. The dog cutlets were over-marinated, he concluded, but the brochettes were “tender and completely agreeable”.

We don’t know for sure exactly how much dog meat humans actually ate – and reports of their consumption have undoubtedly been exaggerated.

In any case, modern Parisians have paid far more attention to what dogs eat, rather than what they taste like. As far back as the 19th century, public hygienists were praising stray dogs’ proclivity for scavenging harmful debris from the streets – including infected carcasses covered in flies – so doing their bit to keep the city clean.

Since then, countless owners have tried to give their dogs a more refined diet. Just like their British and American counterparts, French vets have long advised dog-owners to provide their pets with a balanced diet of bread, vegetables and meat. And, by the late 19th century, they were were being bombarded by adverts for Spratt’s dog biscuits, a mixture of processed flour, vegetables and meat powder.

Defecation: The dirty war on dog poo

The streets of Paris are infamous for being littered with dog mess. But canine excrement only emerged as a public health problem in the 20th century, after human and other animal wastes had been largely removed from the streets.

In the 1920s doctors and city councillors became alarmed at the diverse range of dog excrement splattered across Parisian pavements, which harboured harmful microbes and tapeworms. But reluctant to confront dog owners, the city authorities did little to tackle the problem until the election of Jacques Chirac as mayor in the late 1970s. With the number of Parisian dogs seemingly reaching breaking point, Chirac’s administration launched educational campaigns, constructed dog toilets and brought the infamous ‘moto-crottes’ onto the streets of Paris. Adapted to ‘scoop the poop’, these motorbikes and their riders scoured the streets to much press and public ridicule.

But this technological fix was not enough to remove the estimated 20 tonnes of dog excrement deposited daily on the capital’s streets. It was not until the enforcement of fouling fines in 2002 that progress was made. Yet dog poo remains on Parisian streets and continues to spark public health concerns, attract the ridicule of foreign observers, and provide evidence, for some, of widespread incivility in the capital.

Walking: The curse of the canine vagabond

Owners walking their dogs are a ubiquitous presence in Paris. Such is the importance accorded to ‘walkies’ that busy Parisians can now pay for someone to walk their dog in Fontainebleau Forest (40 miles south-east of the city) while they are at the office.

Yet the authorities haven’t always been so relaxed about the movement of dogs across the city. In the 18th century, “merchants, artisans and others” were banned “from letting their dogs loose on the streets at day or night”. This legislation became even more stringent in the 19th century, when stray dogs were widely reviled for undermining the myth that dogs’ main role was to serve humans as loyal companions.

Strays symbolised disorder – observers criticised their fondness for public fornication – in the supposedly modern city and, like human ‘vagabonds’, were treated as a threat to the rest of the population.

Dying: From pet cemeteries to industrial slaughter

Attitudes towards dead dogs lay bare the contradictions in man’s relationship with canines in modern Paris.

The pet dogs of wealthy Parisians could be buried as if they were human – in 1899 feminist writer Marguerite Durand and lawyer Georges Harmois opened the world’s first pet cemetery at Asnières-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. Here, the headstones attest to the sense of loss that pet owners felt towards their departed canine companions.

The cemetery was a shrine to middle-class sentimentality, and evidence that pet dogs were now treated as part of the family. But it was also an attempt to make the capital more hygienic and prevent owners from throwing their dead pets into the river Seine, from which thousands of canine corpses were fished out each year. At the same time, the municipal pound killed thousands of stray dogs in its lethal chamber, selling the bodies to renderers and glue makers.


Dr Chris Pearson is a lecturer in 20th-century history at the University of Liverpool, specialising in environmental, animal and French history.