Canine Culture – Level 4
Dog Myths and Truths
Learn which perceptions about dogs are factual and which are fictitious.
By Eve Adamson
Everybody knows a few old truths about dogs — or do they? Is it true that Dalmatians live in fire stations, that Saint Bernards rescued stranded skiers with kegs of brandy around their necks, that Poodles and their high-class hairdos are products of Paris, and that dog is man’s best friend? Learn the facts. Knowledge is power, and history has a lot to teach us.
Dalmatian: fire station mascot?
You’ve probably seen Dalmatians associated in one way or another with fire stations, either as in-house mascots, or riding in the front seat of the fire truck. But what is it about these spotted dogs that suit them for life in a fire station, and do they actually serve a purpose during a firefight?
Actually, the Dalmatian wasn’t originally a fire station dog — he was a coaching dog. Because of their athletic bodies and natural endurance, they could run beside a coach all day. Long before fire trucks existed, Dalmatians trotted beside fancy coaches, a striking decorative addition to an English equipage, or accompanied more utilitarian coaches across the English countryside.
According to Cheryl Steinmetz, historian for the Dalmatian Club of America, paintings and engravings as far back as the 16th century depict Dalmatians with horses in stables, and even today, Dalmatians and horses seem to have a natural affinity.
When early fire trucks consisted of little more than water and hose apparatus on a cart pulled by horses, Dalmatians continued their work as coaching dogs, clearing the way when every moment counted. You could call them the first sirens. During the firefight, or while the firefighters had a meal at the inn, the Dalmatian guarded the fire cart, and firefighters quickly came to value their versatile skills.
According to a 1905 article in Field and Fancy, Dalmatian Club of America founder and former American Kennel Club President Harry Peters was quoted as saying, “…the firemen have done more to keep the Dalmatian from dying out during its eclipse from fashion than the stableman. Firemen speak in high terms of their courage and fidelity.”
Today, Dalmatians continue to work in firehouses as mascots, but do not generally live there. “Because of liability issues, nowadays dogs can no longer be loose in the firehouse, but it is not uncommon at all to have firefighters contact Dalmatian breeders,” Steinmetz says.
Saint Bernards: Alpine bartenders?
More than 8,000 feet above sea level, in a treacherous Alpine pass between Italy and Switzerland shrouded in snow for most of the year, thousands of travelers have perished. Yet, over 2,000 of them have been saved by Saint Bernards.
For many centuries, monks in a monastery and hospice nestled in the Great Saint Bernard Pass kept large Mastiff-type dogs for companionship during the long isolated winters. These dogs, first depicted in art in 1695 (probably by Italian artist Salvatore Rosa), began accompanying the monks on rescue missions in about 1700.
Monks were able to send small groups or pairs of dogs out unaccompanied, to search for and rescue stranded travelers. When the dogs found someone in need of help, one dog would stay to keep the survivor warm, while the other would return to fetch the monks.
However, as romantic and picturesque as the image of a Saint Bernard with a wooden cask of brandy (or wine or rum) around his neck may seem, the evidence suggests that this one detail is probably more legend than fact. In 1820, a young painter named Sir Edwin Landseer created a painting entitled “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler.” (The breed was not officially named the Saint Bernard until 1880.) In the painting, one of the dogs has a cask around his neck, and the implication was that the “reanimation” was due to wine or spirits in the cask.
The idea caught on with the public, and the dogs were often depicted afterwards toting the casks, although monks at the monastery have insisted that the practice never existed. When the dogs did carry supplies, they say, it was on their backs, and no alcohol was involved. The fact that drinking alcohol actually increases the risk of hypothermia further discredits the legend.
Poodles: so very French?
The Poodle may have a reputation as a pampered Parisian pet and slave to high fashion, but Poodles have a much more complex and versatile history than many people know. While the Poodle is indeed the National Dog of France, and people do sometimes call the breed “French Poodles,” the origin of the curly-coated canine fashionistas is far more utilitarian than their poofy hairdos might suggest — and the story neither begins nor ends in France.
The modern Poodle originated in Germany, not France, as early as the 15th century or before, when German breeders created and refined the dogs to excel at duck droving and water retrieving. The word “Poodle” likely comes from the German word pudeln, meaning “to splash.” Poodles were naturally athletic, strong swimmers with great endurance and a hearty constitution. Their unusual haircuts had a functional purpose, too. The heavy coat insulated essential internal organs against cold, but was trimmed off legs and face to facilitate movement in the water.
Many admired the Poodle, and its popularity spread through Europe in the 18th century. Some developed smaller Poodles and used them for many tasks, perhaps the most significant of which was their penchant for learning tricks and performing in circuses.
Circus dogs, often clipped in fanciful ways to accentuate their showmanship, probably first sported the characteristic pom-poms on ankles, ears and tail. As they performed around Europe, the upper classes, particularly the French aristocracy, took a special interest in the dogs and the vast possibilities for clipping, styling and dying their coats. At the peak of their popularity in the 19th century, Paris hosted Poodle groomers on many street corners, and Poodle clipping became a true art.
So while Poodles remain a French obsession, they may never have developed into the intelligent and sound dogs so many countries value today had it not been for their German roots. They have a paw in both worlds — high fashion and high function.
Man’s best friend? According to whom?
Although the bond between dog and human existed long before 1870, the particular notion that a dog is a man’s best friend originated that year, during the closing argument of a trial in Warrensburg, Mo.
The story began with a farmer named Charles Burden, who sued his neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, for shooting his beloved black-and-tan hound dog, Old Drum. Hornsby had suffered livestock losses which he blamed on a dog, so when Old Drum ventured onto his property one night, he commanded one of his farmhands to shoot.
Old Drum wasn’t just any old dog — he was a well-known and unusually skilled hunter with a distinctive voice, and Burden demanded compensation for his loss. The rivals each hired the best attorneys they could find, and the case was tried and retried until it reached the Missouri Supreme Court.
There, the defendant’s team was sure of a victory until Burden’s lawyer, George Graham Vest, who would later become a U.S. Senator, gave his final closing argument: the now-famous “Eulogy of the Dog,” which moved the jury and entire courtroom to tears.
Burden was awarded $50 in damages and the case went down in history. Today, a bronze statue of Old Drum stands on a corner of the courthouse lawn, inscribed with part of the famous speech. Although the words “man’s best friend” do not appear, they describe the speech’s overriding sentiment, and will forever be associated with Vest’s words. The inscription reads:
Eve Adamson has been writing about dogs and dog health for 14 years. She is a DOG FANCY contributing editor and the author of over 50 books, including “The Simple Guide to a Healthy Dog,” “Pets Gone Green,” and “Chowhound,” a dog treat cookbook.