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Celebrate National Dog Day with five tales of real-life canine heroes

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s A PUPPY DOG! Maybe they aren’t from Krypton, but dogs of all shapes and sizes have been heroes throughout history. Read on as atHome celebrates National Dog Day (August 26) with stories of some of these remarkable canine companions…and soldiers, scientists, explorers, and more!

Togo: 50 pounds of muscle and fighting heart

Our first hero is Togo, a Siberian husky who helped deliver diphtheria antitoxin 674 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, during the 1925 outbreak of the disease. Although Balto became the most famous canine of “the Great Run of Mercy,” many mushers today consider Togo the true hero. Balto led the final leg, but Togo (who was 12 years old at the time) and his team (handled by Leonhard Seppala) covered the longest and most hazardous leg. They made a round trip of 261 miles and delivered the serum a total of 91 miles—almost double the distance of any other team.

Now considered one of the forefathers of the modern Siberian Husky breed, Togo was gifted from the very start. He was only eight months old when he escaped Seppala's kennnel facilities and took off down the trail after his handler and team, who were headed on a 160+ mile mission to a mining camp. When Togo caught up the next day, Seppala had no choice but to add him to the team to keep an eye on him. Togo logged 75 miles his first day in the harness--unheard of for an inexperienced young sled dog, especially a puppy. Seppala called him an "infant prodigy," later saying that he "had found a natural-born leader, something [he] had tried for years to breed," and called the (relatively undersized) dog "50 pounds of muscle and fighting heart. 

Togo retired from mushing in 1927 and passed away from old age in 1929. Read more about Togo, Seppala, and the Nome Serum Run here.

Stubby: America's first dog of war

Dogs have long served on the battlefield, doing everything from playing a role in logistics and communication; to working as sentries, trackers, and guards; to simply providing an invaluable morale boost to troops.

This hero dog is one of the most celebrated and decorated canines in American history: a gregarious little pit bull terrier mix named Stubby. Found as a stray in 1917, Stubby was adopted as the mascot of the 102nd Infantry, 26th Yankee Division. He trained alongside them, learning drills, bugle calls, even a modified doggy salute. When the unit was deployed to France in 1918, Stubby was smuggled along and accompanied his division to the front lines of WWI. Despite being injured in battle several times, he served bravely—helping locate and retrieve wounded soldiers; saving his unit from gas attacks; even chasing down a German spy (he was promoted to Sergeant for the capture!).

Sgt. Stubby spent 18 months in the trenches of France and participated in four offensives and 17 battles. For his work in some of the most crucial battles of WWI, he was honored with numerous medals and awards, including the Purple Heart. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, he was the first dog ever given rank in the U.S. Army. 

After retiring from the service, Stubby went with his owner, Private Robert Conroy, to Georgetown University Law Center, and became the Georgetown Hoyas' team mascot. Stubby died in 1926.

Strelka and Belka: Soviet space dogs

These hero dogs boldly went where no man…er, dog…went before! 

On August 19, 1960, Soviet space dogs Belka (which translates to “Squirrel” or "Whitey") and Strelka (meaning “Little Arrow”) became the first living creatures to be shot into orbit and return to earth safely. The pair’s successful journey in Sputnik 5 paved the way for Yuri Gagarin to make the first manned spaceflight eight months later.

Neither dog (both of whom had been rescued off the streets), suffered any ill effects from the journey. Live footage showing the chreerful pups as they floated in zero gravity delighted the world. The duo returned home as adored celebrities and were immortalized in everything from figurines and statues to comics and postage stamps.  They even went on tour, each wearing her own custom-made jumpsuit.

Strelka later had a litter of 6 pups with Pushok, a fellow Soviet space program dog. One of Strelka’s puppies, Pushinka (“Fluffy”) was presented to Caroline Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s daughter, by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. 

In the spirit of Cold War détente, romance blossomed with Pushinka and Charlie, another of the Kennedys’ dogs, resulting in four puppies nicknamed “pupniks” by JFK. Descendants of Strelka the space dog are still living today across the U.S. 

You can watch footage of Belka and Strelka before, during, and after their space flight here.

Hachikō: An enduring symbol of loyalty and devotion

Being a hero is many things, and sometimes, those things are very simple. This hero dog didn’t fight in a war, or save children from deadly epidemic, or help explore far reaches of the universe. This hero dog simply was…a dog. The loyal, faithful companion that makes us love the canine species so much.

Hachikō was a Japanese Akita, adopted in 1924 by Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor at the University of Tokyo. Every day, Hachikō would accompany his master to the train station to see him off to work, and after woo-wooing his goodbyes, would trot home. Then, in the early evening, Hachi would return to the station and await Professor Ueno’s arrival. 

That the dog was never formally trained for this, and undertook the ritual on his own was remarkable enough…what happened next, even more so. 

One day, the professor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while at work. He died instantly—and never came home. But that day, and every day after, at precisely the same time, Hachikō came to the platform, met the train, and waited for his owner. He continued until his own death, more than nine years later.

By the time of his death, everyone knew of the loyal dog who made the lonely trip to wait for his owner every evening. Hachi had become a national celebrity—a symbol treasured by the Japanese people as the spirit loyalty, devotion, and faith. The Akita is revered as the national dog of Japan.

Hachi died on March 8, 1935, from what scientists later determined to be terminal cancer. His body was found near the station, and was laid in state as mourners—including the widow of Professor Ueno—paid their respects. 

Hachikō’s remains were interred next to Professor Ueno's grave in Aoyama Cemetery. Today, a statue stands in Shibuya station, with a plaque commemorating him at the exact spot where he waited every day. The nearest gate is called the Hachikō exit. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, people from all over gather at the Shibuya station for a ceremony honoring his loyalty.

Bretagne: A lifetime of service

In September 2001, 300 search dogs worked tirelessly to help find survivors amid the twisted pile of rubble that was once the World Trade Center.

One of those dogs was a golden retriever named Bretagne (pronounced “Brittnay”), who, along with her handler Denise Corliss, worked 12-hour-shifts every day for nearly two weeks at Ground Zero.

It was the first major mission for the then-two-year-old dog, but not her last. Following 9/11, Bretagne  and Corliss returned to their Cypress, Texas home, where they continued to serve with the Texas Task Force 1 and Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department. The pair went on to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Ivan, and other disasters before Bretagne retired from search and rescue (SAR) work at age 9.

It was certainly an active retirement, however, as she continued to work community events, demonstrating SAR techniques. In her teen years, Bretagne volunteered as a reading assistance dog at an elementary school near her home. She continued that work up until shortly before her death.

Just before her 17th birthday, the hero dog--the last surviving 9/11 rescue dog--made her final vet visit along with the Corliss families. Representatives from Texas Task Force 1, the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department and other agencies stood at attention and saluted Bretagne as she entered the veterinary office, and saluted again as she departed the animal hospital with her body draped in an American flag. 

Her legacy and life of service did not end with her death—Bretagne was transported in a formal procession from the animal hospital to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where her body was donated to science as part of a long-running study of 9/11 search dogs. 

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