It's a bird! It's a plane!: Inspiring tales of canine loyalty
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a HERO DOG! They are our faithful companions, our watchful guardians, and our trusted and loyal partners. And, throughout history, dogs of all shapes and sizes have also been heroes. Bark your calendar, as we celebrate National Dog Day (Aug. 26) with stories of some of the most remarkable canine companions, soldiers, scientists, explorers, and more!
Strelka and BelkaThese 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 cheerful 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.
A faithful companion, a stalwart rescuer, and the standard bearer for what would go on to become the modern breed of St. Bernard, Barry der Menschenretter was credited with saving more than 40 people in Switzerland and Italy during his lifetime (in fact, "Menschenretter" means "people rescuer" in German).
Born in 1800, Barry lived at the Great St. Bernard Hospice in Switzerland. The Hospice, which has been run by Augustinian monks for nearly a thousand years, is located at the St. Bernard pass located in the Swiss alps between Switzerland and Italy.
Barry was one in a long line of rescue dogs living and working at the Hospice--it is believed that the dogs were first introduced to the monastery as watchdogs and rescuers in the mid- to late 17th century. By the time Barry was born, the breed would have been called the Küherhund (cowherd's dog) or Alpine mastiff--generally considered to be the original St. Bernards. The breed at that time was smaller and rangier, with a narrower skull than present-day Saints. Barry weighed around 90 lbs, compared to today's breed, which ranges from 120-180+ lbs. (Illustrations and media in the current era will often portray Barry as a modern day version of the breed; however, he was distinctly different)
The stories about Barry are legendary--and many are somewhat apocryphal--but it is said he saved 40 lives in the 12 years he lived at the monastery. The most famous of those rescues was that of a young boy found asleep in an ice cave. As the story goes, Barry woke the child by licking him, then, when the boy was warmed up enough, he was able to climb onto the dog's back, allowing Barry to carry him back to St. Bernard's, where he was eventually reunited with his parents.
One of the more "legendary" stories about Barry involves his death. According to the tale, he was trying to revive an unconscious soldier in Napoleon's army. The man woke up, and confused and possibly hypothermic, he mistook Barry for a wolf, and stabbed him. Barry's public memorial at the Asnières-sur-Seine dog cemetery in Paris alludes to this story, with inscription reading, “He saved the lives of 40 people… and was killed by the 41st!”
The truth, however, is decidedly less dramatic...and a much better ending for Barry. In reality, Barry retired from service at the age of 12, and then spent the final years of his life living peacefully in the Swiss capital of Bern. He passed away of natural causes at the age of 14. Following his death, his remains were preserved and put on display at the Natural History Museum, where they can be seen today.
In an interesting twist, Barry's taxidermy was slightly modified during one restoration effort in the early 20th century. During that process, he was re-positioned in a more upright manner, and his head/skull was enlarged slightly to make it more reflective of "modern-day" St. Bernard dogs. Also of note: Barry has worn the traditional of brandy around his neck for nearly all of the 200 years he has been on display. Truth be told, his carrying of the beverage to warm lost souls most likely never happened, and is considered the start of a legend. Occasionally, a museum director has tried to remove the cask from the display for authenticity...but it always returns, showing that sometimes the story is more of a draw than the facts.
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.
Taro and Jiro
In January 1957, a team of 11 Japanese researchers and 15 Karafuto-ken sled dogs (also known as Sakhalin huskies) arrived at the Showa Research Station in Antarctica. The researchers would spend roughly a year at the station, and then be replaced by another team. The dogs, a hearty, rugged breed well-suited for working life in a snowy climate, would remain on the base, ready to assist each successive team. Among the canine team members, were three-year-old brothers Taro and Jiro, who were also the youngest of the dogs.
In early 1958, a severe, strong, and unexpected storm approached, and the first team had to be emergency evacuated by helicopter. Because the second team was due to arrive shortly, the dogs were left tied at their stations, along with the food and water they would need for their next few days.
Unfortunately, the weather remained prohibitive. Conditions worsened, and the ship carrying the second team had to abort its mission—the way would not be passable for nearly another year, meaning the dogs were, to the great sadness of their team, abandoned and considered lost.
In January 1959, the third expedition team returned to the base in Antarctica, fully expecting to find the remains of their 15 canine compatriots. However, they only found that seven (Aka, Goro, Pochi, Moku, Kuro, Pesu, and Kuma from Monbetsu) had lost their lives while still chained. The other eight dogs had managed to break free from the chains. Amazingly two of the dogs, Taro and Jiro, were found alive—thin and a bit bedraggled, but otherwise fine—near the base. The remaining six (Riki, Anko, Deri, Jakku, Shiro and Kuma from Furen—who was the sire of Taro and Jiro) were never found.
Even more amazingly, the expedition crew’s stored foodstuffs and supplies were never breached, nor did the pair resort to cannibalism (common during famine), leaving the bodies of their chained packmates to rest. Researchers believe that Taro and Jiro instead relied on their own resourcefulness, eating “penguins, feces of seal, seabirds, and fishes (trapped in the ice).”
And so, after enduring a harrowing 11 months of the brutal Antarctic conditions, Taro and Jiro were joyfully reunited with their human teammates. And then what did the hero dog pair do? They went back to work, staying with the new pack and pulling sleds for the expedition.
Jiro died of natural causes in Antarctica in 1960; his remains are on display at the National Science Museum in Ueno Park, Tokyo, along with fellow Japanese hero dog Hachi (see above). Taro returned to his hometown of Sapporo, Japan, in 1961, and lived at Hokkaido University until his death in 1970. His remains are displayed there.
Sallie Ann Jarrett
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.
A brindle-coated American Staffordshire terrier, Sallie was given to Captain William Terry of Company I as a puppy in 1861—although she was truly “owned” by the entire 11th. Sallie was an army dog from the start, joining soldiers during their drills and standing with the color guard for dress parade.
She campaigned alongside the troops, and did not stay out of the fray when the firing began. In fact, she accompanied her regiment into battle, taking a position at the front lines and barking at the enemy. Sallie saw action in each of her regiment’s engagements, which included Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness, and Petersburg.
At Gettysburg, Sallie became separated from her regiment on the first day of fighting, and the soldiers feared she had perished in the fight. The brave pup, had not, in fact died…but when she was unable to get through Confederate lines, she returned to where the 11th had been fighting earlier, on Oak Ridge. She was found her there, days later, dehydrated, hungry, and tired—but still “at work,” faithfully attending to her injured compatriots and guarding the bodies of the fallen.
Despite enduring bullet wounds and injuries, Sallie fought alongside her unit nearly until the war’s end. Sadly, on February 6, 1865, during the Union advance at Hatcher's Run, Virginia, she was struck by a bullet and killed. So beloved and respected was the terrier, that several soldiers put aside their arms to bury her on the spot, despite being under fire.
25 years later, in 1890, the surviving members of the 11th gathered at Gettysburg for the dedication of a monument erected on Oak Ridge in their honor. The towering statue featured a larger-than-life solider marching at the top…and at the bottom? Was a bronzed likeness of Sallie Mae, lying at the base keeping watch over her troops, just as she had during her life.
In the late 1960s, during the height of the Vietnam War, wounded and injured veterans returning home for recovery was a common sight. But in the early days of 1967, a transport returned to a Texas base with an unsual cargo. It was a wounded vet--but a different one from all the others. This was Nemo, an 85-lb German Shepherd, one of the first Vietnam war hero dogs.
Born in 1962, Nemo was enrolled in training with the Air Force when he was just over one year old. He was part of a select group of dogs being prepared for life and work in a combat zone by the U.S. Air Force. At the time of his "enlistment", the military was waiting for final government approval to deploy canine troops. In late 1965, dogs were approved to serve, and in January of 1966, Nemo was sent into active duty–one of the first military dogs to go to Vietnam.
Assigned to the 377th Air Police Squadron at the Tan Son Nhut base, near Saigon, Nemo, as well as fellow 377th Squadron dog soldiers Rebel, Cubby, and Toby, were the first line of defense in case of an attack from the Vietcong. Every night, they would patrol with their handlers, silently alerting their human partner if something was amiss, and investigating further if need be.
On December 3, 1966, Nemo and his handler, Airman 2nd Class Bob Thorneburg, were on patrol when two Viet Cong units attempted to infiltrate the base. The dogs alerted their handlers, and fought side by side as a battle raged for nearly seven hours. When the fighting was over, three brave Airmen and their team member dogs (Rebel, Cubby, and Toby) had perished.
The next night, Thorneburg and Nemo went back out to patrol, alert for the remaining Viet Cong from the previous night's attack, anticipating a followup strike under cover of darkness. Early in their shift, Nemo sensed something was wrong. He silently alerted Airman Thorneburg, but before the soldier could radio for help, gunfire erupted, and four Vietcong attacked. Nemo took a round to his eye, and Throneburg was shot in the shoulder after killing two of the guerillas. Despite the gunshot wounds to his eye and muzzle, Nemo still attacked the enemy, giving his handler the precious minutes he needed to call in reinforcements. After Throneburg fell unconscious, Nemo crawled on top of the soldier’s body to protect him from harm--where he stayed, not letting anyone touch his partner. It took a veterinarian to safely remove him and get both soldiers--man and dog--to the safety of the medical unit. Both Thorneburg and Nemo recovered from their injuries, although Nemo's eye could not be saved.
Nemo was credited with saving his handler's life and preventing further destruction of life and property. In January, US Air Force officials directed that Nemo be returned to the United States as the first sentry dog officially retired from active service. One of only a handful of dogs to be retired and returned to the States following the war, he received a hero's welcome, returning to Lackland Air Force base where he would spend his retirement in comfort. After several years of sorking as a recruitment and mentor dog for other military canine, Nemo died in 1972 of natural causes. A memorial was erected in his honor at the base.
To learn more about war dog memorials and the canine heroes of conflict, visit Vietnam Dog Handler Association.
Nemo images courtesy of VDHA.
Born in 1994, Mancs (whose name means “Paw,” in Hungarian) was a German Shepherd and a member of the renowned Spider Special Rescue Team of Miskolc, Hungary, a team that traveled the globe doing search-and-rescue work.
As a member of the squad, Mancs was incredibly gifted at locating earthquake survivors who lay trapped deep beneath the rubble and alerting rescuers. He could locate where people were buried under the earthquake rubble—and not only could Mancs determine if the person was dead or alive, but he could also indicate this to the other members of the rescue crew. If he sensed a dead person, he laid down; when he sensed a live person beneath the rubble, he stood up, wagged his tail and barked.
Alongside his owner László Lehóczki, Mancs helped in several high-profile earthquake rescue missions, including the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador and India. His most famous case was when he helped rescue a 3-year-old girl who spent 82 hours under the ruins after the 1999 Izmit earthquake in Turkey.
Mancs died of pneumonia in 2006. In 2015, Mancs was honored posthumously with his team with the European Citizen's Prize for their many years of life-saving efforts. Attending the ceremony as the guest of honor was Hatira Kaplan—the young woman Mancs had rescued in Izmit.
A long-haired retriever-type dog, similar to today’s Flat Coated Retriever, Jack lived in the North Dock/River Tawe area of Wales. Born in 1930, Jack's first owner was Taulford Davies. However, in the true spirit of youthful exuberance, Jack was booted out of his original home after decimating the town’s duck population while galivanting around the local park.
Rehomed to an area of town with a less tempting avian population, Jack took up residence with his new master William Thomas, and enjoyed wiling away his days lounging on the bustling docks of Swansea. It was here his career as a hero dog began.
It was reported that at first, Jack was afraid of the water, so his Thomas would encourage him to jump in and swim with some of the local kids. While he was learning to love the water, Jack developed the habit of grabbing the kids by collar and pulling them toward shore. It was a trick that would soon come in handy, when a 12-year-old boy who had been taking out the trash got into a scuffle and fell off the dock into the water. Jack jumped in after him and pulled the boy to safety.
A few weeks later, Jack jumped in to rescue a swimmer in distress—in full view of an amazed crowd on the docks—and his legend began to grow. By 1934, he had been credited with pulling 14 people to safety…and also had twice rescued some of his own brethren—a dog floundering in a muddy river, and a sack of puppies tossed into the sea.
All told, it is believed that Jack rescued 27 people in his lifetime. He received numerous honors, including Bravest Dog of the Year and a silver cup from the PDSA (a large UK-based animal welfare organization). He is also the only dog ever awarded two bronze medals (the equivalent of the Victoria Cross (UK) or Medal of Honor (US)) by the Canine Defence League, and was still earning recognition decades after his passing—in 2000, he was named Dog of the Century by NewFound Friends of Bristol, who train domestic dogs in aquatic rescue techniques.
According to a news article after his death, Jack “had not only perfect courage and the instincts of his grand breed; but he had an innate genius for knowing just how and where to seize even the most hysterical human, struggling in deep water; and how best to tow the victim safely to shore.”
Sadly, Swansea Jack died at the young age of seven, after having ingesting rat poison. His death made national—and even international—headlines, and the Canine Defence League offered a large reward for information on who may have been responsible—but no answers ever came.
His body was eventually laid to rest underneath a publicly funded memorial that still stands on the promenade near the rugby grounds. The inscription reads:
To this day, Swansea people are known as Jacks, and fans of Swansea City soccer team are known as the Jack Army, both thought to be in honor of the famous dog.
Born sighted in 1908, Morris Frank had lost the vision in both eyes by the age of 16, as a result of two separate childhood accidents. Mourning the loss of his independence, Frank grew increasingly frustrated with his having to rely on others to get around and navigate daily life.
In 1927, Frank came across an article about dogs in Germany being trained to help soldiers blinded by mustard gas in WWI. Intrigued and inspired, Frank wrote to the author, Dorothy Eustis, an American philanthropist living in Switzerland and training German Shepherd police dogs.
"Is what you say really true?" Frank wrote. "If so, I want one of those dogs! And I am not alone. Thousands of blind like me abhor being dependent on others. Help me and I will help them. Train me and I will bring back my dog and show people here how a blind man can be absolutely on his own. We can then set up an instruction center in this country to give all those here who want it a chance at a new life."
Upon reading his plea, Eustis asked if Frank would be willing to travel to Switzerland to meet with her at her dog school--to which he replied, "Mrs. Eustis, to get my independence back, I'd go to hell."
Frank was paired with a female German Shepherd named Kiss, whom he renamed "Buddy." After training in Switzerland for several months, on June 11, 1928, Frank and Buddy returned to New York, ready to show the world how this partnership could restore independence and help individuals navigate even chaotic environments like the Big Apple.
After sharing his successes with reporters and telling them about his newfound lease on independent travel, Frank demonstrated to the media by crossing multiple busy NYC streets, including Broadway at rush hour. Frank recalled, "She moved forward into the ear-splitting clangor, stopped, backed up, and started again. I lost all sense of direction and surrendered myself entirely to the dog. I shall never forget the next three minutes: 10-ton trucks rocketing past, cabs blowing their horns in our ears, drivers shouting at us. When we finally got to the other side and I realized what a really magnificent job she had done, I leaned over and gave Buddy a great big hug and told her what a good, good girl she was."
His one-word telegram to Eustis? "Success!"
In January 1929, Morris and Eustis co-founded the first guide dog school in the US called The Seeing Eye. Originally based in Nashville, the school moved to its current location in Morristown, NJ, two years later.
As the Seeing Eye's vice president, Frank and Buddy (and later, Buddy's successors) traveled across the U.S. and Canada advocating for equal access laws for people with guide dogs. His groundbreaking work was met with amazing success. In 1928, Frank was routinely told that Buddy could not ride in the passenger compartment with him; by 1935, all railroads in the United States had adopted policies specifically allowing guide dogs to remain with their owners on trains By 1939, The Seeing Eye informed the American Hotel Association that the number of hotels that banned guide dogs from the premises was small and "growing smaller constantly." By 1956, every state in the country had passed laws guaranteeing blind people with guide dogs access to public spaces.
Buddy worked with Frank up until her death in 1938. Today, a statue of Buddy, along with Frank, stands in her honor in Morristown.
Morris Frank shares, in his own words, how significant Buddy's impact was on him--and on the world--in this video from The Seeing Eye.
Hero dog Togo was 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,” Togo was the true hero.
Now considered one of the forefathers of the modern Siberian Husky breed, Togo was gifted from the very start. A small and rather sickly puppy who did not appear to be cut out for the rigors of sled dog life, Togo was initially given away by his breeder and handler, Leonhard Seppala, to a family as a housepet. His stay there was short-lived, as Togo was in no way inclined to live a life of relative leisure. After only a few weeks at his new home, he jumped through the glass of a closed window and ran several miles back to his original master's kennel.
An inherent leader (and an inveterate troublemaker), Togo 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.”
During the "Great Run of Mercy," there were 20 mushers and more than a hundred dogs who carried the serum those 670-plus miles. And yes, Balto led the final leg of 55 miles, but it was Togo (who was 12 years old at the time) and his team (handled by Seppala) who 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. Togo's journey, which saw temps of more than 40 degrees below zero with white-out storms, was the longest by 200 miles and included a traverse across perilous Norton Sound — where he saved his team and driver in a courageous swim through ice floes.
Togo retired from mushing in 1927 and passed away from old age in 1929 at the age of 16.
Fun fact: The amazing canine finally got his due when a film adaptation about Togo's efforts was produced by Walt Disney Pictures in 2019. Willem Dafoe stars in the film as Leonhard Seppala, andTogo is portrayed by dog actor Diesel, a direct descendant of Togo 14 generations back.
Read more about Togo, Seppala, and the Nome Serum Run here.