Have you ever heard of Swansea Jack?
He was a black retriever who lived with his owner, William Thomas, near the River Tawe in Wales. In 1931 Jack jumped into the river to save a drowning 12 year old boy. Then, a few weeks later, this time in front of a small crowd, he rescued a swimmer from the docks.
And it was this second rescue that began to propel Jack towards the superhero status he acquired in later life.
His photograph appeared in the local newspaper and he was awarded a silver collar by the local council. And, after more rescues, the Star newspaper in London bestowed on him the title of “Bravest Dog of the Year.” He received a silver cup from the Lord Mayor of London and two bronze medals from The National Canine Defence League (now known as The Dogs Trust).
It is thought that over his lifetime Swansea Jack may have saved 29 lives. Not bad for a seven year career … especially when you have four legs and a relatively unsophisticated brain!
Animals are amazing.
Did you know a snail can sleep for three years at a time? A bat can eat up to a thousand insects in an hour, apparently. And honey bees flap their wings 200 times per second.
It’s funny where research takes you, sometimes. I recently came across the story of St Cuthbert and the otters, recorded in an account by Saint Bede of Jarrow (AD672 - 735).
It seems St Cuthbert enjoyed a nice walk to the seashore after dark, on his own. One night he was followed, however, by a monk who was intrigued to see what St Cuthbert got up to in the dead of night by the sea.
What happened next amazed him so much that it was recorded in the annals.
After wading out into the sea, up to his neck, and singing meditative psalms - a process that lasted until dawn, apparently - St Cuthbert then made his way back to the shore, with sopping wet, cold feet, no doubt. It was then that the two otters appeared. They raced across the beach, rubbed themselves against his feet and dried them with their fur. Cuthbert gave them a blessing and off they went, back home again.
No doubt the otters enjoyed the process as much as St Cuthbert was warmed by it. But animals do have such a capacity to do selfless, wonderful things.
In 2012, David Martin in Surrey was doing some renovations on his house. These involved taking down and repairing a chimney breast. No doubt it is common, when doing such work, to find a dead bird in the chimney. But the pigeon that Mr Martin found was anything but ordinary.
When they looked closer at what was left of the body of the bird, they found attached to one leg a red canister. And inside the canister was a thin piece of paper, which had the words “Pigeon Service” at the top followed by 27 hand-written sections of code.
What, of course, they had discovered was a WW2 pigeon, carrying a secret, coded message from the war in Europe back to Bletchley Park, where it should have been decoded and passed to intelligence services.
Pigeons were regularly used in WW2 by all services to carry messages. They played a vital role in the decoding effort at Bletchley Park, which itself was crucial to eventual Allied success.
At the brilliant Bletchley Park site (bletchleypark.org.uk), there is a display dedicated to animals who have been awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The first award was to Winkie, a blue chequered carrier pigeon, who saved a RAF Bomber crew who had ditched in the North Sea in February 1942. She was released by the crew, flew home (some 120 miles) and despite not carrying a message, the base was able to calculate the position of the downed crew and launch a rescue.
Winkie had been found exhausted and covered in oil. She was later awarded the Dickin Medal for “delivering a message under exceptional circumstances”. The whole story can be read here : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-17138990#:~:text=Seventy%20years%20ago%20a%20carrier,PDSA%20during%20World%20War%20II.
So, when you get annoyed again with your 6 month old Labrador puppy who has chewed another one of your shoes or with your tabby cat’s unstoppable determination to ruin the upholstery of your favourite chair, remember Swansea Jack, Winkie and all the others.
Animals really can be incredible.
Who’s this - alone with stone and sky?
It’s only my old dog and I -
It’s only him; it’s only me;
Alone with stone and grass and tree.
Chappie was my parents’ dog, a German Short-haired Pointer. Rehomed from Spain, he then lived a happy life in South Northants. Sadly, as he got older, his vision got progressively worse and he had been completely blind for a couple of years.
At the age of thirteen and after a contented life spent sleeping in the sun and running like the wind, he was recently put to sleep. The words of Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Man and Dog”, brought us all some comfort at what is always a sad time.
I have never yet been able to own a dog of my own. My lifestyle up to this point has meant I could not have looked after one properly.
I can honestly say, however, that without family dogs my life would be much less fulfilling.
So, what is it about dogs that brings joy to me and so many other people? Sassoon has one answer.
What is it makes us more than dust?
My trust in him; in me his trust.
Dogs are loyal. Of that, there can be no doubt.
Capitan was owned by a man called Miguel Guzman in Argentina. Guzman died in 2006. The next day Capitan, his German Shepherd, disappeared and turned up at the cemetery where his master was buried. And he spent the rest of his life there, sitting at his master’s grave being fed and watered by the cemetery staff.
And what about Argos, Odysseus’ hunting dog in Greek mythology? A puppy when Odysseus leaves for Troy, he waits patiently for the entire twenty years of his master’s absence. When the king returns to his palace, disguised as an old beggar, Argos is one of the only ones to recognise him and in one of the most touching scenes in all of literature, the old dog wags his tail one last time and dies in his master’s arms.
The fidelity of dogs is unquestionable. But dogs are great for our wellbeing, too.
Siegmund Freud, the renowned psychoanalyst, had a Chow called Jofi who regularly attended consultations with patients. Freud notes in his diary how Jofi would read his patients’ moods, sitting close by to be stroked if they were calm but remaining more distant if they appeared anxious. Jofi was also a great timekeeper, yawning and stretching when the allotted hour was up. She was never late, according to Freud.
Freud got used to working at home with his dogs in the same way that many people have done through 2020 and, in many cases, are still doing in 2021.
Lockdown dogs have definitely become a thing and countless dogs must undoubtedly have enjoyed their owners being more at home than ever before.
But dog news from the last year is not all positive.
There have been many media stories both about unscrupulous breeders cashing in on the lockdown puppy market and new owners ill-prepared for the demands that a dog puts on your life. This BBC report from November 2020 outlines some of the issues surrounding dogs in lockdown : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-54602197
Owning a dog is a real commitment which is why reputable animal organisations spend time and energy assessing whether people who want to adopt a dog are suited, both in a general sense and to that particular dog.
Wild at Heart Foundation’s current motto is Adopt a dog - not for lockdown, but for life (https://wildatheartfoundation.org/about/) This is an organisation whose mission is to compassionately reduce the world’s 600 million stray dogs through rescue, adoption, sterilisation and education projects.
One of their collaborators in the UK is Dogs4Rescue (https://dogs4rescue.co.uk/about-us/), a rescue centre in semi-rural Manchester where the dogs live together in a kennel-free environment. Dogs4Rescue rehomes stray dogs too with the aim of convincing us that rescue dogs can make wonderful family pets.
Both these organisations and many more do amazing work to care for dogs and improve their life experiences, no matter where they have ended up. Both are open to donations via their websites, if you feel you would like to support them.
Without a rescue organisation rehoming GSPs from Spain, my family would not have met the great Chappie who will get a plaque in the garden along with all the family dogs of the past. Not a monument quite as grand as Lord Byron built for his Newfoundland, Boatswain, but a memory of a legendary dog, nevertheless. Perhaps Chappie needs an inscription like that on Boatswain’s monument as well. He certainly deserves one.
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead November 18th 1808
Rest in peace, Chappie.