Journal Opinion May 30, 2018
|This Currier & Ives print features a Newfoundland dog having rescued a child. This breed of dogs possesses a natural instinct to rescue individuals from drowning. There are numerous 19th century stories of these dogs participating in water rescues.
"Osmo’s a year and a half old chocolate lab. And I have not been his biggest fan. He’s been so naughty, but I’ve realizing now that he belongs with us. So what if he’s eaten $600 worth of shoes.”
Jennifer Martin Benware, Bradford, VT, 2018
On May 16, this newspaper published the 2018 Pet Parade The photo feature highlighted dogs as well as other pets. This column describes the roles dogs played in our history. Sources include A Dog’s History of America by Mark Derr, Pets in America by Katherine Grier, newspaper archives and stories sent to me by local residents.
While searching my collection of local histories, I found almost nothing on local dogs. They were so taken for granted the authors did not find them noteworthy. Even earlier local newspaper stories were likely to be about dogs from afar.
Canines were humans’ first domesticated animal and their roles in human culture were well established by the time they accompanied their masters to this hemisphere over 30,000 years ago. For Native Americans, they were guards, hunters, beasts of burden, companions, and, in some cases, worshiped or eaten.
Dogs also accompanied European settlers to the New World. In early New England, colonists used dogs to guard homes, manage livestock, kill wolves and vermin, power machinery, pull carts and pursue enemies. Species included mastiffs, spaniels and greyhounds.
Although unmentioned in local histories, it seems likely that settlers of this region brought dogs with them as companions and protections against the dangers of the frontier. Since they were untaxed, dogs were not mentioned as possessions or listed in wills.
In 1853, Vermont historian Zadock Thompson wrote, “In Vermont, each family in the country usually finds it convenient to keep one dog…in the villages a few dogs are kept, better if fewer.”
While not all wandering dogs created problems, tramps or uncontrolled dogs have always been a problem. Some were merely “free range,” following their owners or patrolling their neighborhoods. As scavengers, they were somewhat desirable. In 1877, the Bradford Opinion said that a dog “that wanders, looking for a handout or a chance to steal whatever he may find to eat.” It reported that Orford’s Willard Brothers had a tramp dog “which all people will do well to pass on the other side.” This spoke to the fear of attacks, dog bites, rabies, and hydrophobia, believed to be a symptom of rabies in humans.
These fears were not unfounded. Local newspapers carried stories of humans being attacked by “mad dogs,” but most reports were from locations afar.
As early as 1801, several urban areas passed ordinances forbidding dogs from running at large. In one case, they were required to wear wire-basket muzzles. These cities also attempted to control wandering as a cause of unwanted pregnancies. Some cities sponsored “dog killing sprees.”
The attacks that were local and caused considerable damage were against livestock, especially sheep. In 1878, the St. Albans Messenger carried an article calling for a “more stringent” control of dogs. It quoted one farmer who believed that “sheep would prosper if dogs were annihilated.” The article used the word “slut” in reference to these “miserable mongrels.” An article in The United Opinion in 1886 suggested “A dog is only a civilized wolf anyway.”
Locally, dog attacks on sheep created a “sad havoc.” In 1877, dogs killed more than 20 sheep belonging to Mrs. H. Keyes of Newbury. In Vershire in February, 1884, it was reported that a dog “killed forty sheep recently, and its owner has just sacrificed the animal.” In 1900, the Smith family of South Newbury abandoned sheep because of the damage inflicted by dogs.
The Vermont Department of Agriculture report of 1920 reported that the damage inflicted by “four worthless curs” was an example of dogs that “slink off and destroy sheep or kill poultry…and even kill hogs and small cattle. You must control the dog!”
There have been a few reports of dog attacks on sheep in this newspaper in the last 30. Iinterviews with those who keep sheep today indicate they keep up their guard, but attacks are not a significant problem.
Attacks on deer were, and still are, another problem. Local articles from Newbury and Vershire in the first decade of the 20th century refer to deer being harassed by local dogs. The 1892 report of the Vermont Fish Commission stated that the use of dogs to hunt deer is illegal and the law permits the killing of dogs running at large and killing deer. Leash laws have limited the number of dogs allowed to run without supervision. New Hampshire has a state-wide leash law while Vermont leaves it to individual communities.
Licensing was another technique used to control dogs. Vermont required dogs to be licensed in 1876. Individual towns in New Hampshire began that practice as early as 1871 and the state began requiring towns to license in 1891. Towns collected fees and placed them in a dog fund from which compensation for damage caused by dogs against sheep was paid, “but it was never enough.”
While attacks on livestock and deer were prohibited, hunting dogs have been prized. Orford’s Mt Cube is said to be originally named Mt. Cuba in honor of a favorite hunting dog killed by a bear on its slopes. In 1871, it was reported that “Edgar Bragg of West Fairlee has a dog that has caught and killed one hundred and five woodchucks during the summer and is good for as many more.”
While earlier dogs, on the whole, had been “mistreated and held in contempt,” by the mid-19th century, many dogs were looked upon by their owners as good, loyal and adoring pets. Generally, dogs ownership reflected both the personality and economic status of owners. The wealthy were more likely to own purebred dogs while the poorer often had mixed breed common dogs as companions or workers.
Breeding purebred dogs became more common in the mid-19th century. In 1884 the American Kennel Club was created to promote them. Dog shows were held to exhibit the breeds best specimens. Dorr writes that some imported breeds became the object of fads. One of the most popular was the St. Bernard. In 1887, The United Opinion suggested “Everyone should see these noble animals.”
By the 1880s, the Scotch collie became the new fashionable dog followed by the Boston terrier. Breeders treated dogs as a consumer products and skillful breeding changed their shape and markings to meet the customer demands.
Images of dogs began to appear in commercial trade cards, greeting cards, calendars, children’s books and as ceramic figurines. Increasingly, stories of dogs implied that they possessed human emotions. Theft of valuable dogs was not uncommon.
Articles on the treatment of dogs proliferated. The New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in 1842, one of the earliest animal welfare groups in the nation. Despite calls for it, the Vermont SPCA was not established until 1889 and cruelty to livestock seemed to be its first focus.
In 1893, The Country Gentleman included the following: “If you own a good dog, do not kick him outdoors when you go to bed and tell him to shift for himself. He cannot expect to remain a good dog long.” The United Opinion published a long article in January, 1895, on kindness to house dogs, with suggestions for housing, feeding and bathing.
Many families fed their dogs food scraps from their tables, bathed them in homemade soap and doctored them at home. Around 1900, commercial dog food began to appear. In 1908, an ad for Spratt’s Famous Dog Cakes & Puppy Bread appeared in a Vermont newspaper claiming “What oatmeal is to Scotch children, Spratt’s food is to Dogs.”
Dogs have always played a role in America’s armed services. During colonial wars, they were used hunt enemies and haul supplies. Soldier dogs accompanied units in the Civil War. “Mike” was the pet dog of the 1st Vermont Calvary. In World War I, “Stubby” a pet for the Yankee Division, was decorated by General Pershing and was made an honorary Sergeant. In addition to being companions for soldiers, dogs carried messages, detected hidden bombs, acted as guards and scouts and hauled supplies, functions they continued to perform in later wars. In World War II, a dog named “Chips” was awarded a Purple Heart, despite having nipped Gen. Eisenhower.
Scout-dogs were used in Vietnam to detect ambushes and find booby traps. It is estimated that they saved 10,000 American lives during that conflict. The bonds that developed between the handlers and their dog in that and later conflicts, have been tearfully chronicled as, after 1971, they are reunited in America following discharge.
Dogs also played a role as police dogs and became attached to fire companies. Their extraordinary sense of smell and an ability to be trained, made them invaluable as search-and-rescue dogs. Over the years, the same talents that led to the rescue of lost children was used to track runaway slaves and inmates. The same protective instincts that rescued families from attack or fire was used by police against protesters.
The concept of training service dogs began in the 1930’s with assistance for visually-impaired. Service dogs now assist those who are hearing-impaired or suffer from a wide number of conditions including PTSD, epilepsy, stress and diabetes.
Some dogs have become famous. There have been Presidential dogs including FDR’s Fala and Obama’s Bo. Television and films have made Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Benji and Old Yeller dog screen legends. The Little Rascals had Petey while at the opposite end of entertainment dogdom, Stephen King’s created the terrifying canine, Cujo.
In times past, there were a number of dogs that caught the attention of the public. In the 1890’s there was Owney, the railroad dog. For a number of years, this postal dog hitched rides on trains throughout the Northeast. He would get off a different stations to “inspect” and was cared for by railroad employees. The United Opinion mentioned that about once a year Owney would take a trip through Vermont.
In 1903, Bud, a bull terrier, rode shot-gun on the first successful cross-country auto trip. Picked up in Idaho by Burlington physician H. Nelson Jackson and his mechanic Sewell Crocker, Bud was outfitted with googles for the remainder of the New York-bound excursion.
Locally, there were well-known dogs. In 1897, a published report mentioned the death of Rover, “the faithful old dog” that belonged to Charles Smith of West Topsham. “His familiar figure will be missed by everyone in the village as he was a universal favorite.” That same year there was a “tale of a sagacious dog” from Corinth who sought help when its elder mistress Mrs. George Jewell fell while out of doors in a storm.
And there were dogs known for their astuteness. In 1895, there was a report of a shepherd dog in Bradford that was especially adept at herding cows for his master. One day he abandoned his herding to run off into the woods. His master discovered that the dog had found a break in a fence and guarded it to prevent his herd from straying. In 1917, a tongue in cheek report was published about a Newbury Center dog who left the neighborhood in an attempt to evade taxation. That, the report concluded, was a “wise dog.”
I requested dog stories from locals. I was told about Hockey Puck, the Rottweiller of Piermont who fell into a manure lagoon while chasing a cat. There were Corkey and Rusty who saved a West Newbury youngster from the “threat” of a woodchuck. Tatters grew up in the 1950s as a partner in the most daring of imaginative adventures with little Cynthia.
Teddy was a cocker spaniel just a few weeks older than his master. When the family moved from a village home to a farm, it took Teddy several years to stop making daily three-mile round trip to the old home. Sam was described as a “gentle protector” that once led a three year old youngster away from the dangers of a nearby road. And, of course, there was Osmo, the shoe-destroying chocolate lab.
If you were to look back at the photos in the Pet parade, you will see a number of good dogs. Some were named Shadow, Lacy, Moose and Brady. I am sure that the proud and loving owners of all dogs pictured would agree with author Mark Dorr: “We often say that a dog in a loving family is a lucky dog, but the really lucky party is the family.”