Hungry Hungry Hero Dog?

Somewhere, there’s a dog doing something heroic. Maybe the dog’s owner passed out on a walk, and the pet is barking to get a passersby’s attention. Perhaps the is chasing away a would-be thief. Or maybe the dog is springing into action, pulling a vulnerable person out of a dangerous situation. Those feats seem like something out of a television show — for Lassie, for example, such actions were the norm — but they also happen in real life as well.

And sometimes, the dogs get rewarded for their good deeds. For example, more than a century ago, the Paris chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals handed out a few awards to dogs that went above and beyond and saved lives. Per a newspaper report from 1907, the Paris SPCA gave medals to dogs “that stop runaways, doges that save suicides from the [River] Seine, [and] dogs that rescue drowning children.” One dog owner whose pet received a medal told the paper that her dog earned the reward for “saving his mistress from a highwayman” by biting the would-be attacker and taking a quarter-pound of flesh in the process. The dog’s owner told the U.S.-based publication “I wonder you don’t give medials to heroic animals in your country” and suggested the American SPCA do the same as its Parisian counterparts.

But there’s a problem with giving dogs medals for their heroic acts. First, they probably don’t really understand that a medal is a reward — we humans like shiny things that we can show off to other humans, but dogs probably don’t care as much. And second, the dog may learn the wrong lesson from the feat. At least, that’s what happened in Paris just a year after the above-linked story hit the news.

In the early 1900s, a resident of France who lived on the shores of the Seine just outside of Paris bought himself a Newfoundland — a breed of dog that is known for its swimming abilities and often is the hero of water rescues. And at some point in late 1907 or 1908, the dog did something fantastic. As the New York Times reported, “a child playing on the river bank fell into the water and was in imminent danger of being drowned. The dog, hearing the cries and the splashing, leaped over a hedge, ran down the bank, and plunged into the stream just in time to rescue the little victim.”  The dog was a bonafide hero. 

And he was about to get his reward. Not a medal, though — a meal. Per the Inquirer, “naturally, the brave animal was made much and the other of the child, by way of recompense, presented him with a succulent beefsteak.” The dog had learned a great lesson — save a child, earn a steak dinner — and that turned out to be immediately important, for not two days later, “another child fell into the water and was rescued by the dog,” the Inquirer continued. And again, the dog was rewarded, this time with “some caresses and another beefsteak.”

Unfortunately, the accidents kept coming. Almost every day, a child would mysteriously fall into the river near and, coincidentally, the heroic dog would be there to pull the child out of the water and to safety. And invariably, the dog would be heralded again as a hero and given a nice meal for his great work. 

If that sounds suspicious, you’re not alone in your skepticism. Per the Times, the neighborhood feared that some nefarious criminal was trying to drown its babies, and they set up a neighborhood watch to keep an eye on the river’s edge. And after a few days, their suspicions proved correct: someone saw a malfeasor knocking a young child into the water.

The villain? It was the dog.

The dog had been taught that dragging a child out of the river would net him a juicy steak, and the dog, being a dog, liked juicy steaks. To earn the reward, though, there needed to be a child to rescue, and those were few and far between. So, as the Times summarizes, the dog created his own rescue opportunities: “whenever he saw a child playing on the edge of the steam, he promptly jumped in to the rescue.”  

Whether the town kept rewarding the dog with beefsteaks went unreported, but we can safely assume they did not.

Bonus fact: A Newfoundland and its penchant for rescuing would-be drowning victims once changed the course of history. In 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte was overthrown as Emperor of the French and excited to Elba, an island off the coast of Italy. He managed to escape from Elba a year later but probably should not have made it back to France; rough seas caused him to be thrown overboard on his return journey, which in most cases would be fatal. But as CNN recounts, “a fisherman’s dog jumped in after the drowning despot and kept him afloat.” He mustered a new army and briefly took control of France before being defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June of 1815. It is unknown if Napolean gave a medal or a beefsteak to the dog that saved his life.

From the ArchivesMeal Ticket: Meet the homeless, subway-riding dogs of Moscow.