by   David Hancock

Heroes were much a feature one hundred years ago, whether  intrepid explorers, valiant soldiers or pioneer airmen. Canine heroes too were once much vaunted in those more romantic times, when dogs were valued not for what they looked like but for what they could do. Throughout the 19th century, both the Newfoundland and the St Bernard were very much the hero-breeds. Landseer's celebrated painting "A Distinguished Member of the Humane Society" drew attention to the feats of the Newfoundland. His "Alpine mastiffs re-animating a distressed traveller" of 1820 paid homage to the St Bernard. The heroism of one St Bernard, "Barry", was legendary.

In his "Dog Heroes" of 1935, Peter Shaw Baker writes: "Barry, however, served the hospice faithfully for twelve years. Whenever the mountains were enveloped in fog or snow, he set out in search of lost travellers. He used to run barking until he lost breath, and would frequently venture on the most perilous places. When he found his strength insufficient to draw from the snow a traveller benumbed with cold, he would run barking back to the Hospice in search of the monks..." The Newfoundland too drew the writers' attention.
Edward Jesse, in his "Anecdotes of Dogs" of 1846, writes: "A gentleman bathing in the sea at Portsmouth, was in the greatest danger of being drowned. Assistance was loudly called for, but no boat was ready, and though many persons were looking on, no one could be found to go to his help. In this predicament, a Newfoundland dog rushed into the sea and conveyed the gentleman to land..." Margaret Booth Chern, in her "The New Complete Newfoundland" of 1975, describes how: "Every Christmas season brings to memory the heroic rescue of the 90 passengers and crew of the SS Ethic by a stalwart Newfoundland. For the number of people saved, it is believed to be the record for any dog of any breed...The Newfoundland swam out through a sea in which no man could possibly have survived. The powerful dog made it to the ship and carried a lifeline back to the shore..."

For such feats these two breeds are rightly lauded, with Landseer's two paintings recording such heroism for posterity. But in a much less public way dogs not associated with such glamorous recognition have done their bit too. In his book, Shaw Baker commendably pays tribute to the heroism of ordinary dogs owned by ordinary people in ways not attracting immortality through famous artists like Landseer. Shaw Baker tells us of an Alsatian, as they were then known, Bob of Carmel, owned by Mr Elliott Durham of Northwood, Middlesex, who not only predicted his owner's car catching fire, allowing his escape, but once held his owner's collar when he fell over a cliff, thereby saving his life. This happened seventy years ago. The dog had a stumpy tail (he was descended from Noris von Kriminal Polizei, who threw this fault); how many people would have taken this dog on with such a fault? So many pure-bred dogs are valued only for their looks these days, with perfection of form rated higher than character. We are going to have to be so careful that we are not perpetuating only those dogs which can perform in the show ring but do nothing else. In previous centuries dogs were valued for what they could do rather than how they stood or moved in the show ring.

Sadly too the St Bernard has lost its working role and seems to be bred for bulk rather than activity. Every depiction of a Hospice dog shows a strapping active dog, lacking carthorse bone and drooling lips. No dog with slobbering lips would last long in sub-zero temperatures. Nowadays, the mountain rescue services of the Alpine nations make great use of dogs, nearly always German Shepherd Dogs, dogs thankfully rated on what they can do not on physical beauty. We all love a handsome dog but must be careful we don't end up with just "no-brainers".
Of course the hero dogs don't always get it right. An unfortunate incident was reported in The Times of 1839 in which a Mr Ashton, swimming in the Serpentine, was "rescued" by an over-enthusiastic Newfoundland and needed a number of stitches as a result! Two illustrious dog writers of the 19th century, Dr Gordon Stables RN and Hugh Dalziel once organised a life-saving exhibition which ended in near-farce. First of all, the twelve canine competitors stubbornly refused to enter the water, one ran away, one overbalanced and fell in the water in the uproar, whilst a clever retriever went the long land route to rescue the dummy without getting wet! The fiasco ended on a low note with the redoubtable naval doctor taking to a boat to encourage his much-praised Newfoundland "Theodore Nero" to enter the water and collect the floating dummy. Ignored by his dog, the increasingly-angry doctor drifted further and further away until his Scottish companion felt compelled to hail him with: "Ay, Doctor man, be canny or ye'll get the dowg wet - Theodore Nero will be drooned!"

The many many dogs which have saved their owners from being burned in house fires allow us to overlook Sir Isaac Newton's dog "Diamond" which, left alone in his master's study, knocked over a lighted candle and in a few moments the detailed calculations and mathematical studies on which the great man had been engaged for years went up in flames. At least this dog's owner appreciated that the candle had been affected by gravity as well as the dog! Another famous dog-owner, Sir Walter Scott, once said that he could believe anything of a St Bernard dog. What we nowadays would call "hype" surrounded this breed in the 19th century. Men like the Rev MacDona embellishing stories of their Alpine feats - and then selling their pups for huge amounts.
Breeds of dog rarely need hype to inform us of their worth. In many newspapers four years ago, there was a leading story on how "Customs top dogs sniff out £50m of smuggled drugs". Apparently, a team of Customs-trained sniffer dogs, rescued from dogs' homes or donated by people unable to cope with boisterous pets, had sniffed out illegal drugs at Dover with a street value of more than £50 million. What a reward from dogs unwanted by society! The top dog of this invaluable team, a springer called Scooby, was described by his handler as "an extension of my right hand". A Customs spokesman said that inquisitiveness, coupled with intelligence and athleticism, made a good sniffer dog.
Paradoxically, these three qualities are the main attributes of dogs that roam, because they can escape more cunningly, of dogs that challenge the patience of their busy owners and of dogs that want to exercise their talents, rather than sleep all day. People who are out at work all day cannot cope with dogs which are really lively, extremely curious or remarkably agile. Yet so often they choose breeds which have been specifically bred for such attributes for several centuries; mercifully, such dogs often end up in outlets like the Customs and Excise, where they are regarded as heroes.

If you advertised dogs for sale which were "remarkably inquisitive, highly intelligent and extremely athletic", as the pioneer breeders in that breed desired them to be, you would be regarded with suspicion. Far safer to trot out the strangely acceptable untruth "Pups for sale, excellent pedigree". One day soon the paying public will see through the often crafty use of a worthless piece of paper as some indication of quality. More likely however, is a case with the local Trading Standards Officer, where the exposure of both a badly bred dog and a false pedigree will damage both the dog-breeding game and the many honourable breeders.
We no longer set out to breed canine heroes. Perhaps the Guide Dogs for the Blind breeding programme, some sheep farmers and those police forces in the world wise enough to breed their own dogs are attempting this in a quiet way. So many service and police dogs however started off as misfits, rejects, individuals that wouldn't conform. Conformation, in both senses of the word, is rated above character in dogs today. If every lively, intelligent, inquisitive dog is either surrendered to the services or castrated by some misguided vet, we will end up with no source for canine heroes and the world will be a poorer place for that. Dogs which don't conform are like humans who don't conform: they achieve great things and carry out great deeds.