Dog + Man: From The Odyssey to Beginners

Arthur + Oliver

Dogs haven’t always held the top place in human affection. Earlier this year, archaeologists reported that they had found a grave in northern Jordan in which a man had been buried with his pet fox 16,000 years ago. The first dogs—genetically domesticated wolves—arrived on the scene 4,000 years later and foxes became a passing fad. And while this special relationship between two species has endured for centuries, it remains as mysterious, powerful and controversial as ever. While there is increasing rise in dogs/human companions, especially in the United States and Western Europe, there has also been a steady increase in cruelty and abandonment. Iran recently put forth a bill that would ban dog ownership for religious and cultural reasons. Others, like those in the animal rights movement, question dog “ownership” as an ethical issue. But nevertheless, as the relation between Arthur (Cosmo) and Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in Beginners so lyrically dramatizes, there remains some thing strange and beautiful in the way human beings and dogs try to coordinate their confusing lives around each other. As a tribute to that enigmatic connection represented in Beginners, we consider some of the most stirring examples of Dog + Man throughout history.

Argos + Odysseus

“Argos Recognises Odysseus,” Theodor van Thulden (1606 - 1669)

With the advent of writing, people began to set dog stories down on page. And, as happens when stories are retold, lines blur between fact and fancy, history and legend. The first famous canine story dates from the 8th century B.C. In Homer’s “Odyssey,” the king of Ithaca returns home disguised as a beggar after 20 years. Two of King Odysseus’ old friends recognize him, his aged nurse and Argos, the only dog to whom Homer gave a name, and as such the first named dog in recorded history. “As they talked, a dog that lay there lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears … It was Argos, Odysseus’ long-enduring dog, he trained as a puppy… the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by he thumped his tail, muzzling low, and his ears dropped, though he had no strength to drag himself an inch toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side and flicked away a tear.” And with that, on his dung heap, Argos dies. While the story of the steadfast friend and the first recorded tear shed for an animal, may be mythic, the vignette of the faithful hound was a story that would be oft repeated.

Peritas + Alexander the Great

Detail on Alexander Sarcophagus shows Alexander and Peritas

In 345 B.C., 11-year old Alexander was given Peritas. Nine years later Alexander would become King of Macedon, upon the assassination of his father Phillip II, and soon go on to conquer the ancient world, with Peritas at his side. (Peritas was a Molossian, a breed of ancient Greece, now extinct, that is thought to be the the ancestor of the Mastiff.) Virgil wrote, “Never, with [Molossians] on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back.” A dissenting view of Molossian dogs holds that this is "mastiff malarkey" and the dog was really a coursing dog, closer to a greyhound than a mastiff. In either case, Peritas showed up in a number of questionable stories throughout history. In one tall tale, Peritas supposedly protected Alexander from an elephant by biting its lip during the Battle of Gaugamela. In India, Peritas defended a wounded Alexander from attacking Mallians, holding them off long enough for Alexander’s troops to arrive. In that battle Peritas was mortally wounded, and it is said, used his last bit of strength to put his head on Alexander’s lap. Alexander named the city of Peritas, India, in his dog’s honor. In “The Life of Alexander,” Plutarch, the only ancient source to actually reference Peritas, writes: “It is said, too, that when he lost a dog also, named Peritas, which had been reared by him and was loved by him, he founded a city and gave it the dog's name."

Gelert + Llywelyn

19th century illustration; Grave spot.

Llywelyn the Great (1172-1240), the Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales, lived in what is now known as village of Beddgelert with his family and his faithful dog Gelert, who is said to have been a gift to the prince from King John of England, who also provided his illegitimate daughter Joan to Llywelyn as a wife. “In the 13th century, Llywelyn, prince of North Wales, had a palace at Beddgelert. One day he went hunting without Gelert "the faithful hound" who was unaccountably absent. On Llywelyn's return, the truant stained and smeared with blood, joyfully sprang to meet his master. The prince alarmed hastened to find his son, and saw the infant's cot empty, the bedclothes and floor covered with blood. The frantic father plunged the sword into the hound's side thinking it had killed his heir. The dog's dying yell was answered by a child's cry. Llywelyn searched and discovered his boy unharmed but near by lay the body of a mighty wolf which Gelert had slain, the prince filled with remorse is said never to have smiled again. He buried Gelert here. The spot is called Beddgelert.” So reads the marker on a mound in the village is known as Gelert’s Grave, the invention of David Pritchard, the owner of the Royal Goat Inn, who concocted the legend in 1793 to encourage tourism.

Guinefort + his Knight

De Supersticione, by inquisitor Stephen de Bourbon; from a Medieval illuminated manuscript, Modern rendition.

Pritchard was perhaps inspired by Guinefort, a greyhound who belonged to a knight who lived in a castle near Lyon, France, in the 12th century. The story has it that one day the knight went hunting, leaving his baby boy with his faithful dog Guinefort. When he returned he found his son’s cot overturned and Guinefort with blood dripping from his jaws. Thinking the baby had been eaten, he killed the dog only to hear the child begin crying, under the cot next to the body of a dead viper. The knight put the dog down a well, and made a shrine to Guinefort. Thus was born, St. Guinefort, the only non-human saint, though albeit one not recognized by the Catholic Church. Stephen de Bourbon, a 13th century chronicler of medieval heresies, writes: “The local peasants hearing of the dog's noble deed and innocent death, began to visit the place and honor the dog as a martyr in quest of help for their sicknesses and other needs. They were seduced and often cheated by the Devil …” For centuries the church sought to stamp out the cult of Guinefort, which persisted through the 1930s.

Donnchadh + Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce; Early drawing of a bloodhound –– “Thierbuch,” Conrad Gesner, 1563.

In 1306, Edward I of England was fighting Robert the Bruce for control of Scotland. To find the Scottish leader, Edward’s man let by John of Lorn attempted to use his own dog, a blood hound named Donnchadh, against him. They captured the pooch, and then let him lead them to Robert the Bruce. But rather that blindly hand his master over the English troops, Donnchadh supposedly turned on the English when it became apparent they meant his master harm. Because of Donnchadh’s fierce defense, Robert the Bruce would go on to become the King of Scotland.

Urian + Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Wolsey from Christ Church Picture Gallery; Greyhound detail from Renaissance painting.

More than 200 years later, Cardinal Wolsey accompanied by his greyhound Urian, petitioned Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. At the time greyhounds were among the most aristocratic hounds, cited in Shakespeare’s Henry V (“I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot.”) But when Pope Clement extended his toe to be kissed by Wolsey, the dog’s good breeding went out the door. Legend has it that Urian reached bit the papal toe, ending in effect any further discussions about the marriage annulment. In The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, authors Stanley Coren and Andy Bartlett write, “A historian using counter-factual reasoning could quite legitimately raise the question as to whether the rise of Protestantism and its heated conflict with the Catholic Church might have been avoided, or at least delayed, if a dog named Urian had not chosen to sink his teeth into the Pope’s toe.” Although there is little to prove this anecdote true, it remains hotly contested, and not just by those who doubt its veracity. The anti-papist John Foxe floated a similar –– probably equally fictional–– story, likely also made up, in his “Book of Martyrs” that Anne Boleyn’s father’s spaniel bit the pope’s toe as well.

Pompey + William the Silent

William I, Prince of Orange, aka William the Silent, by Adriaan Key; 'The New Church at Delft with the tomb of William of Orange', van Vliet, 1667

Originating from China, pugs were believed to arrive in Europe via Holland in the 16th century via the Dutch East India Company. Adopted by the Dutch royals, the toy dogs rose to the stature of the official dog of the House of Orange in 1572 after a pug named Pompey supposed saved the life of William I, the Prince of Orange. According to legend, while Holland was at war with Spain, the prince was camped with his troops in Germigny, France. In the middle of the night his pug woke him, first with his incessant barking, then by jumping on his face. The camp was brought to alert just in time to catch a Spanish solider who had snuck in with the intent of assassinating William I. In tribute to the dog, a statue of Pompey rests at William’s feet at his tomb in the New Church in Delft. In 1688, when William III moved to England to rule with his wife Mary II, he brought pugs with him, attending the coronation wearing orange ribbons.

Luath + Robert Burns

Robert Burns and Luath statue in Boston’s Winthrop Square; Wood Engravings by Joan Hassall of the “Twa Dogs”

The Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) had a border collie named Luath, who made history as one of the first talking dogs. (The name comes from the dog belonging to the giant Cuchullin in “Fingal,” the epic poem supposedly written by ancient Gaelic author Ossian, but most likely created out of myths and ballads by the 18th century Scottish poet James Macpherson.) In 1785, when he was 26, Burns wrote a now famous poem about two dogs, “The Twa Dogs,” in which two friends Caesar, a Newfoundland belonging to a rich man, and Luath, a border collie belonging to a poor man, discuses the depravities of the rich and the virtues of the poor. The bard’s brother Gilbert, wrote this about the poem: “Robert had a dog, which he called Luath, that was a great favorite. The dog had been killed by the wanton cruelty of some person, the night before my father’s death. Robert said to me that he should like to confer such immortality as he could bestow on his old friend Luath, and that he had a great mind to introduce something into the book under the title of ‘Stanzas to the Memory of a Quadruped Friend,’ but this plan was given up for the poem as it now stands. Caesar was merely the creature of the poet’s imagination, created for the purpose of holding chat with his favorite Luath.”

Boatswain + Lord Byron

“Lord Byron in Albanian dress,” by Thomas Phillips, 1835; Boatswain by Clifton Tomson, 1808)

Lord Byron’s favorite dog, a Newfoundland named Boatswain who was brought from Newfoundland by the British Navy, died after contracting rabies from having a fight with another dog. Through his illness, Byron nursed him by hand with no fear of contracting the disease. When Boatswain died, Byron buried him at Newstead Abbey, the family’s ancestral home. When Byron himself died he wanted to be buried with Boatswain, but his family interred him in a nearby church. To commemorate Boatswain, Byron wrote “Epitaph to a Dog,” a poem that is sometimes called “Inscription on the Monument to a Newfoundland Dog.” (Actually, later scholarship showed that the poem was really written by Byron’s friend John Hobhouse.)

Near this Spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty Without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
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 at Newfoundland, May, 1803,
And died at Newstead Abbey, Nov. 18, 1808.

Fortune + Josephine

Josephine and the Fortune-Teller (1837) by David Wilkie

Josephine entered her marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte with a pug named Fortune. In 1796, when they got married, Napoleon reportedly refused to let the pug come up on their marriage bed, so the pug bit emperor on the leg. Josephine supposedly said that if the dog was not allowed to stay in the bed at night, then neither would she. So the three of them slept together.  Perhaps as a harbinger of Bonaparte’s own political fortune, the little pug that conquered Napoleon was later killed in a scuffle with the chef’s English bulldog.

Lauro + Napoleon

Despite his experience with Fortune, Napoleon had a special place in his heart of dogs. After one battle, the general, seeing a dog howling and licking the face of his now-dead human companion, remarked: “This soldier, I realized, must have had friends at home and in his regiment; yet he lay there deserted by all except his dog. I looked on, unmoved at battles, which decided the future of nations. Tearless, I had given orders, which brought death to thousands. Yet here I was stirred, profoundly stirred, stirred to tears. And by what? By the grief of one dog.” During his first exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, Napoleon had a dog called Lauro, who you can presently see stuffed Musee de l'Armee in Paris.

Seaman + Meriwether Lewis

Statue of Captain Meriweather Lewis, Captain William Clark, and Seaman at the City of Saint Charles Park, Mo.; book cover

At the start of their transcontinental voyage, Captain Meriwether Lewis (of the famed Lewis and Clark pair) acquired a black Newfoundland dog he named Seaman. The heroic dog soon became an essential part of the expedition, appearing regularly in Lewis’ journals. Lewis recounts about his various encounters with the wildlife along the way, from retrieving geese to scaring off bears. In May, 1805, Lewis recounts how Seaman was seriously bit by a beaver. Lewis noted simply, “it was with great difficulty that I could stop the blood; I fear it will yet prove fatal to him.” A week later Seaman pops back up in the journal, standing guard. In July 1806, Lewis notes that the dog was “much worried” about a wounded moose. And in then his very last entry about the dog, on July 15, 1806, Lewis describes the dog’s persecution by mosquitoes: “my dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them." It’s a mystery what happened to Seaman after this last entry, but the dog fame continued in books, civic statues, and documentaries.

Flush + Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Watercolor by the poet’s brother Alfred Moulton-Barrett, 1843; photo of Virginia Woolf and her cocker spaniel Pinka.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) immortalized her red cocker spaniel Flush (born 1842) in the poem, “To Flush, My Dog,” which tells of a faithful dog who keeps his ailing mistress (the neurasthenic Barrett) company:

But of thee it shall be said,
This dog watched beside a bed
Day and night unweary
Watched within a curtained room,
Where no sunbeam brake the gloom
Round the sick and dreary.

And this dog was satisfied
If a pale thin hand would glide
Down his dewlaps sloping
Which he pushed his nose within,
After—platforming his chin
On the palm left open.

When the poet was discouraged from including a poem to her dog in her published volume, she responded, “Leave out Flush!! –– Why for love’s sake I could not do it…the public must have an introduction to Flushie.”  The bond between the two was so famous, that Virginia Woolf wrote a novel/biography Flush, A Biograph. Drawing on letters from the humans, Woolf spins various tales about Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. In one, after the two poets had become a couple, the jealous pooch tries unsuccessfully to bite Robert. And then there are the stories when Flush was kidnapped—and ransomed—three times. Elizabeth’s father disapproved of her paying the ransoms almost as much as he disapproved of her younger husband. Woolf herself had a cocker spaniel named Pinka, that she would often write about to her lover Vita Sackville-West.

Greyfriars Bobby + John Gray

Statue of Greyfriars Bobby; Grave site.

In the Victorian era, stories about dogs and their human companions proliferated. Among the most famous was the tale of a Skye terrier named Greyfriars Bobby, whose life has been immortalized in books, films, and legend. Bobby was the companion of John Gray, a night watchman for the Edinburgh City Police. For two years the pair were said to be inseparable, but on Feb. 8, 1858, Gray died of tuberculosis. He was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in the old part of Edinburgh, and for the next 14 years Bobby sat on his Gray’s grave, leaving only to eat at a nearby restaurant and perhaps to take refuge in a nearby house during cold winter days. When a law was passed by the city that all dogs without owners were to be put to death, the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir William Chambers, paid for Bobby’s license out of city funds making him the responsibility of the city council. When Bobby died, he was buried at the gate of the graveyard (as an animal he couldn’t be buried on consecrated ground). His tombstone reads: “Greyfriars Bobby, Died 14 January, 1872, Aged 16 years, Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.” Bobby’s grave is now a shrine at which dog lovers pay their respects, leaving flowers, dog toys and, of course, sticks.

Balto + Gunnar Kaasen

Gunnar Kaasen and Balto in 1925 (Cleveland Public Library Photographic Collection); Display at Cleveland Museum of Natural History

In January 1925, a diphtheria epidemic was poised to decimate Nome, Alaska. The engine of the one available plane was frozen. So the only feasible way to get the necessary serum from Nenana to Nome was by dog sled. A Siberian Husky named Balto led the dog team that would carry the serum. Norwegian musher Gunar Kaasen drove the team through a blinding blizzard, After they arrived in Nome and were heralded as heroes, Kaasen especially noted the efforts of Balto. News of the heroic dog spread quickly via radio, and within a month, Hollywood producer Sol Lesser arranged for Balto and his fellow team members, along with Gunnar Kaasen, to be brought to Los Angeles to appear in the film Balto’s Race to Nome. The dog’s fame became a national obsession with Mary Pickford being photographed with him on the steps of Los Angeles’ City Hall. Not to be outdone, New York City’s Parks Commissioner Francis D. Gallatin authorized a sculpture of Balto to be created by Frederick George Roth and placed in Central Park. For the next year, Balto and his fellow dogs were celebrated across America. But when the attention waned, their fate turned sour. In 1927, Cleveland businessman George Kimble found the canine hero and fellow team, maltreated and underfed, in a Los Angeles sideshow. Kimble encouraged The Cleveland Plain Dealer to lead a campaign to bring the dogs to Cleveland. When Balto finally died, he was stuffed and made a star attraction of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

Hachiko + Hidesaburo Ueno

Photo of Hachiko; Offerings during the April 8 Hachiko ceremony

Hachiko was a purebred Akita dog, one of the few in Japan, back in 1924 when Hidesaburo Ueno acquired the golden brown dog as a pet. Hidesaburo taught agriculture at Tokoyo University and each day when the professor returned from work Hachiko greeted him at the Shibuya Station. One day Hidesaburo had a cerebral hemorrahage and died, never to again return to the Shibuya station. Yet every day for nine years, Hachiko went to the station to wait for his master to return, arriving at precisely the moment the train was due. When the Asahi Shimbun, a big Tokyo newspaper, published a story about Hachiko the dog became an overnight celebrity. He became a role model for Japanese children, a paragon of unwavering fidelity to family and country. In 1934 a bronze statue of the Hachiko was erected at Shibuya Station. He died in 1935 of cancer, yet he remains, stuffed like Balto, for all to see in a glass case in the National Science Museum of Japan. During World War II, Hachiko played his part for the war effort when his statue was melted down. A new statue was erected in 1948, where it stands today at one of the five exits of Shibuya Station—the “Hachiko-guchi” [Hachiko exit]. Each year, on April 8, hundreds of dog owners gather at Shibuya Station to honor the dog.

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