Extraordinary creatures

Apart from the dogs that went into space, paving the way for human astronauts, how many dogs down the ages have made history. The Roman Army had dog units with spiked collars of long curved knives around their neck and ankles. Their dog of choice was the great Molossian dogs of Epirus, specifically trained for battle. These dogs helped spread the Roman Empire across the ancient world. Thousands of crimes have been solved by sniffer dogs and hundreds of drug smugglers are cooling their heels in jail, caught by dogs. In fact a great deal of detective work is done by them all over the world. So many heads of state have been saved from assassination by dogs sniffing out bombs. So many people are saved from robbers every day by timely alerts from their dogs. So many people become enemies over dogs. All this must surely count as history making.

Dogs have influenced the decisions and actions and fates of well known figures down the ages.

I would say the most important story that turned an entire nation’s attitude is that of Hachiko. The book, “Empire of Dogs: Canine, Japan and the Making of the Modern World”, by Aaron Skabelund relates the evolution of Japanese pride with the dog.

As the Western Nations colonized parts of the world, they brought their dogs with them. Local breeds were immediately termed as inferior and local populations were taught that only Western breeds were superior. In most cases (including India) the colonized populace fell in line and immediately lost pride in their own. The English bulldog, the German Shepherd, the French poodle…these racist bloodlines became superior and companions of the local elite, lording it over mongrels and stray. The Japanese were no different – until Hachiko the Akita.

Hachiko met his master in front of Shibuya Station everyday when he returned from work and kept coming for nine years even after the professor died in 1925. He caught the attention of the public and became the embodiment of unswerving loyalty and duty. A statue was made of him and his symbol lead the revival towards self pride in the Japanese. Indigenous dogs became the rage and seven Japanese breeds were recognized in the 1930s. The most famous wartime dog was the cartoon character Norakuro (1931-41), a mongrel orphan who rose from private to colonel in a dog army whose feats, blunders and victories captured the popular imagination.

Florence Nightingale is regarded as the founder of modern nursing. But this might not have happened if she had not had a chance encounter with a wounded dog. She was best known for her activities in the Crimean War in 1854 when she organized a band of nurses and then established a nursing school in London. What drew her to nursing? In 1837 when she was 17 years old, she came across a sheepdog named Cap who lived with his shepherd owner in a cottage near her house. One day some village boys looking for entertainment pelted him with stones, one of which damaged his leg so severely that he could not work. His master decided to hang him as he could not afford to keep a sick dog. While he was in the fields he met Florence and told her his decision. She asked him if she could help and, taking the local clergyman with them, she examined the dog whose leg was simply badly bruised. Florence prepared wet hot flannel compresses for bandages and returned for several days to nurse the dog who went back to work and became her friend. A day later Florence had a dream that nursing was her destiny. In her mind, the entire incident was a sign from God that she should devote her life to healing others. She was ultimately to change the world.

Alexander the Great might have died before conquering half the world if he had not been saved by Peritas his dog. When he was surrounded by the army of Darius II in Persia and an elephant loomed ahead to crush him, Peritas leapt and bit the lip of the elephant causing it to swerve. Alexander lived to pursue his conquests.

How did the scientists recognize the value of pets in therapy for the mentally and physically unwell? Sigmund Freud kept a chow named Jofi in his office during psychotherapy sessions, believing the dog comforted the patients. Freud’s notes on these interactions, detailed in his diaries, form the basis of modern day pet assisted therapy.

Its not just that God spelt backwards is Dog. Here is how the major religion of England came about. King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon. Being Catholics he needed the

Pope to agree to an annulment. Cardinal Wolsey was sent to Rome and as he bent to kiss the Pontiff’s ring , his little dog Urian dashed forward and bit the Pope. The Pope, in a temper, refused to entertain any thought of divorce and Henry then established his own religion called the Church of England and made himself the head.

Napoleon Bonaparte, escaping the Island of Elba in 1815 fell overboard in a storm. He was rescued by a fisherman’s dog, a Newfoundland. He lived to fight and lose again at the Battle of Waterloo.

Perhaps the only thing standing between an artist and true greatness is the lack of a good pet. German composer Richard Wagner relied on his spaniel, Peps, to help him through the creation of “Tannhäuser”, an epic opera. Peps had his own stool next to Wagner’s piano. Wagner would play each passage to his dog and judging by his reactions would tweak the music to please him.

Sir Isaac Newton who invented calculus, the theory of universal gravitation, Newtonian mechanics, reflecting telescopes, particle theory and the visible spectrum of light, had one close companion, his dog Diamond. Who knows what else Newton would have revealed to the world? Diamond knocked over a candle that destroyed years of Newton’s work. Newton replied, "O Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the damage thou hast done"

Here’s one that will appeal to all of us : A dog, named Saur, served as king after the people of Norway killed Onund, King Eystein’s son. After his son’s death the king gave the people a choice - to be ruled by a slave or a dog. The people chose the dog. He ruled for three years, had his own gold collar, the best food, and an opulent palace. He stamped all official documents with a paw print. Unfortunately he was killed when wolves tore him to pieces.

The Pawprints of History, by Stanley Cohen, gives the histories of dozens of dogs that have influenced or been part of history. Worth a read if only to value your dog companion even more.


Maneka Sanjay Gandhi


Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*