A Brief History Of Awesome Dogs

It’s no mystery that dogs earned the moniker of “Man’s Best Friend” due to their longstanding service to mankind. But should you need an explanation beyond this, I present you with an abridged history: here are selected tales of some of the most awesome dogs that ever existed.

1. St. Guinefort, Miracle Dog

According to legend, Guinefort was a French greyhound wrongfully slain by his master, a knight from Lyon. The knight returned home one day to find his son missing and Guinefort’s muzzle smeared with blood. Assuming that Guinefort had eaten his child, the knight killed Guinefort only later to discover his son alive and well under a basket, next to the body of a dead serpent. The knight then realized that Guinefort had saved his son’s life, so he buried the dog and erected a shrine in his honor. Let this be a lesson to all readers: check your baskets before you murder your pets.

Scholars have noted similarities between the story of Guinefort and that of the mythological Welsh dog, Gelert, so it’s probable that someone simply appropriated the story. Nonetheless, thirteenth-century French peasants attributed healing miracles to the deceased dog (apparently, Guinefort didn’t hold a grudge about the whole murder thing), venerating the greyhound as a protector of infants. Although the Catholic Church never recognized Guinefort as a saint, the dog maintained a following well into modern times.

2. Pompey, Royal Protector

Prince William I of Orange, commonly known as William the Silent, spent much of his life embroiled in sixteenth-century religious politics and consequently, evading assassination attempts. Let’s face it: if you’re going to complain about the Holy Roman Empire persecuting Protestants and lead the Dutch revolt against the King of Spain, you’re going to make some enemies in the process.

Luckily for William, he owned a pug named Pompey. During a campaign against Phillip II of Spain, assassins closed in on William’s campsite. William must have been a heavy sleeper, because Pompey purportedly barked and scratched for a while before he alerted William to the assassins by jumping on his master’s face. Thanks to Pompey’s quick thinking, William lived until 1584, when he was assassinated by Balthasar Gérard. Pompey must have been out that evening.

William was interred at Delft; his mausoleum includes a likeness of Pompey curled up at his feet. Afterwards, pugs became associated with the House of Orange. Oh, and carrots too, because pugs and carrots just scream “Dutch,” don’t they?

3. Barry der Menschenretter

Barry der Menschenretter, better known as just “Barry” to his friends, was a search and rescue dog at the Great St. Bernard Hospice in Switzerland. I’m going to go ahead and state the obvious here: the dogs the St. Bernard Hospice bred for search and rescue circa 1800 were the predecessors of modern St. Bernards. Feel free to blame the hospice for excessive slobbering. Remember that tired gag in the old cartoons where a St. Bernard rescues the main character and then everyone gets drunk off the dog’s little barrel of brandy? You can blame that on the Great St. Bernard Hospice too. (The monks who run the place deny the whole barrel thing, but I’m blaming them anyway.)

Anyway, Barry excelled at both searching and rescuing. In a career that spanned twelve years, he saved more than forty people lost and freezing to death in the Pennine Alps. Barry was allowed to retire from service in 1812, and possibly spent the remaining two years of his life keeping his little barrel of brandy for himself. His body was preserved and is currently on display at the Natural History Museum in Bern, Switzerland. They still make him carry the barrel around his neck.

4. Seaman, Transcontinental Journeyer

Seaman, a Newfoundland dog, bears the distinction of being the only animal to complete Lewis and Clark’s journey. This is impressive for two reasons. First, the historic trip was a long one. It’s safe to say that no dog had attempted journeying from the Atlantic to the Pacific by land before. Second, and likely by virtue of being Merriwether Lewis’s pet, Seaman managed to escape the fate of most dogs that started the trip; to survive in the wilderness, the Corps of Discovery consumed 263 dogs as they traveled westward. This, by the way, is why modern dogs are grateful for fast food chains at truck stops.

In general, Seaman seems to have received special attention from Lewis and Clark. After a rogue beaver severed Seaman’s artery, the two stopped to perform surgery on the dog. On the way home, Seaman was kidnapped by Native Americans, but Lewis organized a rescue mission. Also, Lewis named a tributary of the Blackfoot River “Seaman’s Creek,” but some (obviously dog-hating) person has since renamed it.

Merriwether Lewis paid a whopping twenty dollars for Seaman in 1803; I suspect he thought it was a good investment.

5. Boatswain, the Beloved

Boatswain was a good dog. In fact, he was such a good dog that his owner, the English poet Lord Byron, commissioned a portrait of him. Which, incidentally, was a pretty extravagant thing to do for a dog given the going rate of portraits in 1808. But in case this already wasn’t clear: Boatswain was a very good dog and Byron loved the heck out of him.

To be honest, we don’t know too much about Boatswain’s day-to-day life except that he was a lovely Newfoundland dog (and that he probably exuded awesomeness), but we do know how he died. After Boatswain contracted rabies, Lord Byron nursed his beloved Newfie until he passed away. Take note that rabies is easily transmitted to humans via contact with a sick animal and was almost surely fatal in those days. And if that isn’t enough for you, Byron then erected a monument for Boatswain inscribed with a poem co-written by himself and John Hobhouse. On that note, we should just let Epitaph to a Dog speak for itself:

EPITAPH TO A DOG

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown by Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold this simple urn,
Pass on – it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one – and here he lies.

6. Sallie, Mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment

Sallie the bull terrier was the mascot of the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment during the American Civil War. War is brutal, tedious, and generally indescribably horrible, so you can imagine the soldiers of the 11th collectively went “OMG PUPPY” when the regiment received her as a gift in West Chester, PA. She became very attached to the soldiers, accompanying them on drills and marches, and even to the battlefield itself. During the battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest site of the Civil War, Sallie went missing. After three days of being puppy-deprived, her regiment found her waiting at the site of their original charge, dilligently standing guard over the corpses of the fallen members of the 11th Pennsylvania.

If the Purple Heart had existed at the time, Sallie would have deserved one. She was shot in the neck at Spotsylvania, but survived. In 1865, she joined the first attacking wave at Hatcher’s Run and was shot in the head, dying instantly. Grieving members of the 11th supposedly stopped to bury her where she fell, despite being under heavy fire.

When the survivors of the 11th Pennsylvania erected a monument at Gettysburg commemorating their fallen comrades, they included a likeness of Sallie at the base, to watch over them for all time.

7. Sergeant Stubby, 102nd Infantry

The story of how a Staffordshire Bull Terrier became a sergeant in the U.S. Army begins in New Haven, Connecticut. During World War I, a friendly dog visited the soldiers drilling at Yale Field. When it was time for the 102nd Infantry, 26th Division to ship out, Corporal Robert Conroy snuck the dog — later known as Stubby — on board and brought him along to the Western Front. Stubby probably just wanted a dog treat, but Conroy decided to give him the glory of serving in French trenches instead.

As it turns out, the trenches weren’t so glorious, and both the soldiers and the dog quickly discovered the hellish reality of modern warfare. Stubby participated in seventeen battles, alerted soldiers to mustard gas attacks, and reportedly even sniffed out a German spy. His most important job, however, was increasing troop morale. The cheerful dog comforted both the wounded and the war-weary.

In the eighteen months Stubby spent in the trenches, he earned a number of military honors in addition to his sergeant stripes. He also got a little coat so he had someplace to pin these things. Upon returning home, Stubby lived out his days as a Georgetown mascot, making everyone laugh by playing with a football at halftime. By modern standards, this was the equivalent of having Lady Gaga perform: in other words, a very big deal.

8. Hachiko, the Faithful Friend

When Professor Hidesaburō Ueno adopted an Akita he named Hachikō in 1924, he had no idea how much Hachikō would come to love him. Ueno certainly loved the dog too; he always took Hachikō with him to Shibuya Station on his way to work. When he returned to Shibuya at the end of the day, Hachikō would be there waiting. But in 1925, Professor Ueno died of a cerebral hemorrhage while delivering a lecture. He never returned to Shibuya. But Hachikō did.

Hachikō spent the next nine years waiting at Shibuya Station for his master to come home. That’s right: Nine. Years. In 1932, newspaper coverage brought national attention to the dog’s vigil, and station-goers began to bring Hachikō treats to ease his wait. And because he was an especially likable and loyal dog, Japan erected a monument honoring him at Shibuya Station in 1934. This was sadly recycled for metal during World War II, but replaced permanently in 1948. Today, Hachikō’s monument is a popular site in Shibuya.

9. Balto, Sled Dog

Thanks to the 1995 cartoon (and no thanks to the creepy furry fan art inspired by the cartoon) you probably already know about Balto, the sled dog that saved Alaska from a diphtheria epidemic. Before we had nice things like helicopters that made emergency drops, the only way to get anywhere quickly during Alaska’s winter was by dog sled. In January 1925, a team of mushers picked up diphtheria serum in Nenana, Alaska, which would be relayed to other teams between Nenana and Nome. Normally, it took twenty five days to travel the 674 miles between the two cities; in this instance, the dogs did it in five and a half.

The most grueling portion of the trip was led by Leonhard Seppala and his dog, Togo; Balto gets most of the credit for the delivery because he was the lead dog on the final leg of the of the serum run. Which, by the way, wasn’t even the plan. When Balto and his owner, Gunnar Kaasen arrived to make the final hand off, both the dog team and sledder were fast asleep and unprepared to travel. So Balto mushed on. Kaasen claimed that conditions got so bad that he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but the dogs stuck to the trail and delivered the life-saving serum in time to prevent disaster. For that, Balto certainly deserved his share of fame, but were he able to talk, he’d probably make a point of thanking Togo and the other 150-odd dogs relegated to obscurity. He was humble like that.

10. Swansea Jack, the Lifeguard

There is something about Swansea, Wales, that makes people want to fall in the river. This kept a retriever called Jack pretty busy; between 1931 and 1937, the dog saved twenty seven people from drowning. His first rescue was a child, which is understandable, since not all children can swim. But a few weeks later, a swimmer (one assumes he wasn’t very good at swimming) needed help, so Jack came to the rescue. This time a sizeable crowd witnessed the event and Jack got his picture in the paper and a silver collar. By 1936 Jack had apparently saved enough people to merit being named “Bravest Dog of the Year” by the London Star. Jack died the following year and Swansea collected money to erect a monument in his honor. Thereafter, the Welsh resolved to take swimming lessons.

11. Terry, the Actor

There are many canine actors — Pal who played Lassie, Higgins who played Benji, and of course, the eponymous Rin Tin Tins. But Terry, a female Cairn Terrier born in 1933, was lucky enough to work with some of the most famous actresses of her time, including Shirley Temple, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and of course, Judy Garland in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Terry appeared in fifteen films, but was only ever credited for her role as Toto. She even got to go to Grauman’s Theater to see The Wizard of Oz’s premiere. Terry probably considered herself very lucky considering Hollywood’s nasty habit of barring perfectly good actors from their movie premieres; in the same year, segregation prevented Hattie McDaniel and her African-American cast members from attending the opening of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta.

Terry eventually changed her name to Toto in 1942, and apparently wrote a autobiography entitled I, Toto. Which, by the way, obviously was ghostwritten because Terry never spoke a word of English in her life. But that seems to be the norm for celebrity autobiographies anyway.

12. Appollo, NYPD K-9 Unit

In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, very few people were running toward the ruins of the World Trade Center. But 15 minutes after the collapse of the towers, and amid the utter chaos, a German Shepherd named Appollo became the first dog to arrive at the scene. Appollo was a search and rescue dog from the NYPD’s K-9 unit. He narrowly escaped death when burning debris fell on him at the World Trade Center site; luckily, he had fallen in a pool of water just prior to this, preventing any serious injury. For his service, and on behalf of all dogs that served on 9/11, Appollo received the Dickin Medal, an award acknowledging animals that display “gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” The citation read:

“For tireless courage in the service of humanity during the search and rescue operations in New York and Washington on and after 11 September 2001. Faithful to words of command and undaunted by the task, the dogs’ work and unstinting devotion to duty stand as a testament to those lost or injured.”

And if this doesn’t convince you that dogs are awesome, nothing ever will.

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