America is home to about 90 million dogs, a sometimes quiet, invariably curious, and often rollicking mass of canines who have the essentials of life never far from mind: Love, food, fun, sleep. If there’s one thing about dogs, they know how to live. It’s not quite true that dogs rule the planet—though, as Jerry Seinfeld says, an observer might think so after watching humans bending to scoop up dog droppings. But it sometimes seem that a pup’s outlook on existence, in its simplicity of wants and its simplicity of virtues (loyalty and empathy chief among them) represents a life-form that has things figured out.
There are exceptions. Dogs can be like humans. Some dogs are nuts. Some are skittish, or inappropriately exuberant, or lazy. They can be given to possessiveness and envy. The German expression Salat Hund, which means salad dog, refers to the dog who, despite his ancient-bred carnivorousness, would eat even a bowl of lettuce and tomatoes should he think that the dog beside him wants to eat it too.
They sit when you say “Sit!” and come when you call “Come!” and raise their front paw to shake your hand, just because they know you like it. These are animals who can drive a herd or guard a home or nose out a felon in hiding. And yet the things they will do for our amusement! Skateboarding, skydiving, dancing on their hind legs. They can balance things on their snouts and wear women’s clothes. Where would America’s Funniest Home Videos be without them? Dogs do what they are told and they also do what they want. Hence the after-bath shake, the rolling in unspeakable mud, the Halloween candy that suddenly disappears.
We blanket a clan that encompasses hundreds of breeds, from affenpinscher to Yorkshire terrier. The world’s largest dog (Great Dane) is 40 times the size of the smallest (Chihuahua). The breeds have their traits and we celebrate them as only humans can, chronicling the instincts of Buck, the sled dog, in Call of the Wild; and the courage of Old Yeller, a black mouth cur; and the fellowship of the Jack Russell terrier in My Dog Skip. In terms of integrity it’s not the breed that matters. It’s the doghood. Benji is a mutt.
As a rule, dogs and books go well together. John Grogan’s dog memoir Marley & Me has sold more than 6 million copies. W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose spent 52 weeks on the best-seller list. In fact, for people given to the pleasures of books and reading—and if you are here, you are among them—a book may be the dog’s strongest rival as a companion for humankind. As Groucho put it: “Outside of a book, a dog is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”
—by Kostya Kennedy, in Dogs: Why We Need Them. Why They Need Us.
Below are selected images from LIFE’s special issue on dogs.