58 UNDER-VALUED HEROES
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.
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".
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.
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.