Family's Best Friends: Working Animals

You might command your family pet to "sit," "roll over," "shake hands," or "beg." But how about "baby-sit"?

A Dog's Life on the Farm

In the 1870s and 1880s, Peder Tjernagel's dog, Fido, babysat Peder and his younger brother on their farm near Story City. Peder wrote that his mother trusted Fido to keep her children from getting lost in the tall grass while she worked in the yard. If Peder's mother lost sight of her children, Fido led her to them. 

Fido was typical of pets in early days. Today we enjoy pets because they're good companions, but in the past pets were valued first for their ability to work. Cats kept mice and rats from eating stores of grain needed for food and trade. In addition to watching children, dogs also acted as doorbells and alarm systems. A dog's bark alerted the family to strangers on the property. Dogs also helped herd sheep and cattle. 

Horses Work and Play

Many families owned horses to pull farm wagons and plows. Before automobiles, horses also provided transportation. When the work was done, animals often became part of play. Genevieve Regan, who was born on a farm outside of Iowa City in 1892, remembered that when her parents were not around, her brothers hitched four horses to a wagon and played circus.

“They would put us young ones in the wagon, along with maybe a calf and always with Bruno, our big black dog," she recalled later. Her brothers drove the wagon in circles as fast as the horses would go. The game ended when a neighbor reported it to their parents.

Boy's Best Friend

Even though they were workers first, pets were also appreciated for the companionship they provided. Peder Tjernagel remembered when he was a schoolboy and was responsible for leading cattle two and a half miles from home to graze on open prairie. He was lonely and worried about the cattle straying. His dog, Chip, helped keep the cattle together and provided companionship on those long, lonely trips.

Just for Fun

With scientific advances that relieved the workload and increased leisure time for farm families, some Iowans obtained pets just for fun. At the turn of the 20th century, the Iowa Seed Company of Des Moines imported canaries from Germany, parrots from Cuba and fantail goldfish from Japan and shipped them on trains throughout the United States and Canada. 

Working Animals Today

Dog and cats are popular pets in Iowa homes. But dogs today are working animals just as they were on the farm in Peder Tjernagel’s time. Dogs are trained to hunt. Some dogs work for police departments. They ride along with the officers in the patrol cars, or they sniff out illegal drugs. Guide dogs are trained to help sightless people. Assistance dogs provide support to people with epilepsy or other physical challenges. 

History shows that pets are a special part of people's lives. Pets offer fun and relaxation to their owners, but they also provide loyalty and assistance. Peder Tjernagel's pet, Fido, was one of a long line of dogs that have served as faithful companions and steady workers. 


  • Linzee Kull McCray, “Family's Best Friend,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 24.