Historic Dogs - Level 3
Famous U.S. Dogs
Read about five dogs who made an impact on American history.
By Amy Fernandez
Many unsung heroes never find their way into history books, including countless canine history makers. In different ways, each of these dogs had an impact on American history.
Dogs and letter carriers have a history of conflict, but Owney, one of our country’s most widely celebrated dogs, became the beloved mascot of postal workers. Owney may qualify as America’s first national moral support dog. This scruffy mixed-breed stray fostered unprecedented teamwork and pride among postal railway workers in the late 19th century.
He was adopted by clerks at the Albany Post Office in 1888 and began riding the mail wagon between the train depot and the post office. Owney’s protective attitude about the mailbags soon led him to accompany them on the mail trains across the country. Although derailments, collisions and boiler explosions were commonplace, nothing went wrong when Owney was aboard.
Railway clerks eagerly awaited his visits and coordinated trips by the dog, a combination ambassador and lucky charm. Railway clerks were instructed to attach baggage tags to his collar to track his travels through 19 states, Canada and Mexico.
In 1895, they coordinated Owney’s world tour, during which he accompanied mailbags on trains and steamships, traveling across Asia and Europe in 132 days. His special classification for this international jaunt was Registered Dog Package. Owney traveled over 143,000 miles, collecting 1,017 tokens documenting his destinations. He is now on display with his complete collection of travel mementos at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Meriweather Lewis never explained why he bought this Newfoundland to join his expedition with William Clark, mapping a route to the Pacific Ocean and studying the 828,000 square miles of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. However the breed was extremely popular in the early 1800s, celebrated for bravery, strength and loyalty.
Lewis’s journal notes confirm that Seaman fulfilled these expectations. Unfortunately, his name was recorded as Scannon until 1984 when a historian correctly deciphered Lewis’s notes and realized the mistake. Lewis and Clark routinely named geographical features after expedition members, which explains why they named a Montana stream Seaman’s Creek, today called Monture Creek.
Seaman hunted, guarded the campsite and protected the party from marauding wildlife. During the two-year trek, he was stolen briefly by Native Americans, nearly starved during their winter in the Rockies and almost bled to death when bitten by a beaver. The last reference to Seaman in Lewis’s journal on July 15, 1806, complains of the mosquitoes, saying, “My dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them.” Seaman is not mentioned during the last leg of the trip but it’s believed that that he completed it uneventfully because every notable incident was documented in the expedition’s journals.
During World War II a Siberian Husky-German Shepherd mixed-breed dog named Chips served in eight European campaigns, becoming the most decorated war dog in history.
Dogs have served America during wartime since the Revolutionary War. However, they had no official role until 1942 when a volunteer organization, Dogs for Defense, began obedience training dogs for WWII. This prompted the creation of the U.S. Army Canine (K-9) Corps.
In 1942, over 20,000 dogs donated by the public were trained as guards, sentries, pack dogs, messengers, detection dogs and search-and-rescue dogs. Chips was donated by his owner Edward Wren of Pleasantville N.Y., in 1942 and trained as a sentry dog. Chips made history during the 1943 invasion of Sicily by charging into an Italian army machine-gun nest, attacking the gunners and forcing their surrender. Despite being wounded, he helped capture and guard 10 other Italian prisoners that day.
In recognition he was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart for wounds received in action. The War Department revoked these awards because Army policy forbade official commendations to animals. In response, his unit unofficially awarded Chips a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for an assault landing, and eight Battlestars marking each of his campaigns. Chips was discharged in 1945 and returned to his owner. He died seven months later at age 6 due to complications from his war injuries.
A Siberian Husky named Balto may be America’s foremost hero dog. In 1925, Balto’s dogsled team carried lifesaving diphtheria serum to the remote Alaskan outpost of Nome.
On Jan. 20, Nome doctors radioed warning of a diphtheria outbreak and serum was sent by train to the nearest railroad depot at Nenana. Over 20 mushers relayed the serum 674 miles to Nome in the Great Race of Mercy.
Balto guided Gunnar Kaasen’s team 53 miles through a raging blizzard on the last leg, reaching Nome Feb. 2, completing the run in a record-breaking 127½ hours. They became national celebrities touring America and starring in a film. On Dec. 17, 1925 a statue of Balto was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park.
It was downhill from there. Balto’s team was sold to a California carnival and fell into neglect until Cleveland businessman George Kimble discovered them two years later. Alarmed by their horrendous condition, he established the Balto Fund to raise money to purchase them. His public plea generated the necessary $2,000 within 10 days. The seven Huskies arrived in Cleveland on March 19, 1927, and lived out their lives as national heroes. Balto died March 14, 1933.
After the Sept. 11 attack in 2001 this 7-year-old German Shepherd, a highly trained police dog in Nova Scotia, and his partner James Symington immediately headed for New York to assist with search and rescue. Early on the morning of Sept. 12 Trakr located Genelle Guzman who had been on the 13th floor of the South Tower when it fell. Trapped under rubble for 26 hours, she was the last person rescued alive. Trakr received the Extraordinary Service to Humanity Award.
In 2008 Trakr was selected by BioArts International for the company’s canine cloning project. His DNA was sent to the Sooam Biotech Research Lab in South Korea. In June 2009, two months after Trakr’s death at age 16, Symington received five Trakr clone puppies: Trustt, Solace, Valor, Prodigy and Déjà Vu.
Amy Fernandez is former president of Dog Writers Association of America, and is a regular columnist and contributors to dog magazines. Her recently published books include “Training Your Dachshund” (Barrons, 2008) and “The Poodle” (TFH, 2008). She has owned Chihuahuas since 1970 and bred and shown Chinese Cresteds since 1981.
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