Best Friends

When speaking of dogs, the expression “man’s best friend” is said to be the shorthand version of a quote from an 1870 courtroom speech given by George Graham Vest in Williamsburg, Missouri.

Mr. Vest’s words came at the end of a trial in which he was representing a farmer who was suing for damages after a much-loved dog was shot by a neighbor. The actual words were: “The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.”

Bravo, Mr. Vest!

And in the unlikely event that anyone need convincing of the truth of this contention, there are countless examples throughout history that can be cited. Some of these have certainly been romanticized, but the occasional bit of embroidery does not alter the basic truth: our canine companions have proven to be trustworthy, dependable, loyal, and loving time and time again.

In a recent edition of the New York Times Magazine, Melissa Fay Greene wrote “Wonder Dog,” a heart-wrenching article about a family from Atlanta and their adopted son, Iyal, whose “brain and central nervous system had been severely, irreversibly damaged in utero by the teratogen of alcohol, resulting in an incurable birth defect.”

Dealing with this child had turned into a nightmare for the family until, after much deliberation, they decided to adopt a service dog from a non-profit agency in rural Ohio. The upshot of the story is that the dog, a “shaggy, tawny giant” of a Golden Retriever named Chaucer, has managed to bring a degree of tranquility and stability to Iyal and his family that could not have been conceived of before the dog’s arrival. The child has not been miraculously cured and there are plenty of serious problems expected in the future but Chaucer doesn’t know that. “What he knows is that Iyal is his boy. Chaucer loves Iyal in a perfect way, with unconditional love beyond that even the family can offer him.”

Less contemporary, and less able to be authenticated, is the tale of Greyfriars Bobby, the nineteenth-century Skye Terrier who is said to have spent many years after his master’s death keeping watch over his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard, a cemetery in Edinburgh. Many tears have been shed over this romantic tale, told beguilingly by Eleanor Atkinson in her 1912 book and the inspiration for two popular movies.

There is a life-size statue of Bobby in Edinburgh, created by William Brodie in 1872, almost immediately after the dog’s death and paid for by a local aristocrat, Baroness Burdett-Coutts. It stands in front of the Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, which is located near the main entrance to the cemetery. Travelers to this fair city often make a point of visiting the statue and they frequently leave sticks (and all sorts of other dog toys and treats) at Bobby’s nearby gravestone for him to fetch.

Yes, the tale may be exaggerated but the essential fact of this particular dog’s devotion to his master was certainly inspired by a true story.

Another statue frequently visited by the canine-minded is in New York’s Central Park. This celebrates Balto, a Siberian Husky who led his team on the final leg of a 1925 serum run in Alaska.

In January 1925, there was danger of a deadly diphtheria epidemic sweeping the northern city of Nome, and the only serum that could stop the outbreak was in Anchorage, almost one thousand miles away. A series of dog teams saved the day, relay racing through a storm with minus-23-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures and blizzard winds to deliver the life-saving medicine. Balto was at the head of the first team that arrived in Nome on February 2, 1925 and he had proved himself several times on the journey. His team had stayed on the trail in nearly whiteout conditions and had run their leg of the journey almost entirely in the dark.

Beneath the statue in Central Park is a plaque that reads: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the Winter of 1925. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence.”

Togo, another sled dog who participated in the same errand of mercy, should also be mentioned. Togo was the dog who actually covered the longest and most hazardous stretch of the run and some felt should have received more recognition. Alas, the involved humans, instead of celebrating the triumph together as representatives of one large team, allowed a good deal of jealousy to surface. Certainly the dogs would not have indulged in such pettiness.

In Snowdonia, Northern Wales, is another monument, this one marking “Gelert’s Grave.” According to tradition, this marks the final resting place of Gelert, the faithful hound of Llewelyn the Great, a Welsh medieval prince. The story on the plaque reads:

“In the 13th century Llewelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert, “The Faithful Hound,” who was unaccountably absent. On Llewelyn’s return the truant, stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince, alarmed, hastened to find his son, and saw the infant’s cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged his sword into the hound’s side, thinking it had killed his heir. The dog’s dying yell was answered by a child’s cry. Llewellyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed, but nearby lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain. The prince was filled with remorse and is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here.”

Butler’s Lives of the Saints, originally published in 1756–59, chronicles another tale of canine loyalty.

In the mid-fourteenth century, Roch, the son of a noble family of Montpellier, France, was left an orphan at the age of twenty and, after disposing of all his worldly goods, went on a pilgrimage to Rome. Once there, he discovered that Italy was plague-stricken and he immediately devoted himself to the care of victims of the disease. It was also reported that he was able to cure large numbers of people “simply by making the sign of the cross on them.”

After many years, Roch himself was infected while in Piacenza and, not wanting to be a burden to anyone or any institution, he fled to the woods in order to die. But his devoted dog wouldn’t have any of this. He refused to abandon his master and brought him a daily loaf of bread so that he would not starve. Eventually, a stranger arrived, saw Roch, understood his plight and nursed him back to health.

Throughout history, St. Roch, the patron saint of dog trainers, has usually been depicted with his faithful companion.

Those familiar with this website will know that it would be impossible for me to discuss a topic like dogs as man’s best friend without citing examples from the world of Pugs.

In the sixteenth century, the Dutch stadholder William the Silent was particularly fond of Pugs and took his along with him when he waged war against the Spanish. One woke him just in time to confront would-be assassins who had slipped into his quarters during a battle. The Pug consequently became the official dog of the House of Orange and to this day the Pug Dog Club of Great Britain has orange as its official color.

More recently, on December 27, 2011, a posting by Rikki Klaus from Scripps Media told the story of Pei Pei, an eleven-pound Pug in Vero Beach, Florida. She is the pet of James Taylor, a retired Army police officer who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss.

Pei Pei was rescued from Halo Rescue in Sebastian, Florida. She, along with Mr. Taylor, was trained at Dogs for Life and the training took about two years. Among her many accomplishments, she has been taught to press a large circular button that automatically dials 9-1-1 in emergencies.

Says Mr. Taylor, “Without her, I couldn’t imagine my life. I’d probably be home-bound a lot because of what I suffer severely. I know if there are any kind of problems, she’s going to help me right through it. . . . If I’m out, like in Walmart or somewhere, I give her a ‘go out’ command, she’ll actually circle around me to keep the people three or four feet away from me . . . If someone knocks on the front door, rings it, she’ll find me in the house and then tap me, and I follow her.”

The report also mentions, not surprisingly, that Mr. Taylor and his wife really dote on Pei Pei and that she has, in true Pug style, her own wardrobe of thirty-four tailored outfits.

Clearly dogs deserve their title of “man’s best friend.” However, it should also be noted that they are also capable of fulfilling the same role with each other.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, recently ran an extraordinary story about a pair of Pugs with a very special relationship.

Elly, a fawn female, is blind. Franky, a black male, acts as her guide dog: escorting her on walks, helping her locate food and water, and in general being her eyes.

The pair, both four years old, were found by the RSPCA “in poor conditions” and nursed back to health. They are now inseparable and Elly follows Franky everywhere he leads. “She sniffs the air to find her friend, then nuzzles into his side to trot along with him.”

In a follow-up article on the website, it was great to read that “they have both been re-homed recently by the Newport RSPCA, after a press campaign to re-home them together. They look great and a real inspiration and we are jealous of the new owners. We offered a home to both of them but we were too late.”

And so it is. Dogs are indeed man’s best friend and sometimes, each other’s best friends as well.

Issue Twenty Two