Dogs have been an extremely popular pet for thousands of years and ever more so in the present day and age, with over 8 million of us in the UK living with one or more canine companion.
During World War II, the dog was recognised as a valued protector to the troops. “Dogs for Defense” (an organisation comprised of civilian breeders and trainers) recruited more than 3000 dogs for sentry duties to help keep the shores safe from foreign invasion. Duties for these fearless canine troops also included mine detecting, tunnelling and tracking. Military dogs today remain an invaluable branch of the forces and also provide much needed companionship and loyalty in hostile environments.
One famous dog of World War II was “Nigger”, the black Labrador belonging to Wing Commander Guy Gibson. “Nigger” was the mascot of 617 Squadron of RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, and died after being hit by a car on the 16th May 1943 (the day before the Dam Busters raid). He had often accompanied Gibson on training flights and was featured in the 1955 film “The Dam Busters” in which he was frequently mentioned. Since then, his name has obviously become culturally unacceptable (although it was in very general use as a dog’s name at that time), so some edited American versions of the film have changed it to “Trigger”.
“Chips” (a German Shepherd-Collie-Husky mixed breed) was the most decorated war dog from World War II. He belonged to a civilian called Edward J. Wren from New York. Wren donated “Chips” for duty and he was duly shipped out to the “War Dog Training Center” at Front Royal, Virginia in 1942. He served with the 3rd Infantry Division in North Africa,Italy, Sicily,France and Germany, handled by John P. Rowell. “Chips” was also a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943. During his service he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart; but these awards were later revoked due to an Army policy preventing official commendation of animals. His unit subsequently unofficially awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for an assault landing and Battlestars for each of his eight campaigns. “Chips” was discharged in December 1945 and safely returned to the Wrens.
“Judy” (a Pointer born in Shanghai) was the only dog to be registered as a Second World War Prisoner of War. She served on board HMS Gnat and HMS Grasshopper originally as a Navy mascot, and helped to save the lives of the crew of the Grasshopper following the sinking of the ship by the Japanese. She escaped capture and survived in the jungles of Sumatra after the guards had sentenced her to death. Following the war, she came to the UK with Frank Williams (an ally from the POW camp) and was awarded the Dickin Medal by the PDSA which is considered an animal equivalent to the Victoria Cross.
“Blondi” was Hitler’s German Shepherd, and she played an important role in Nazi propaganda; portraying Hitler as an animal lover. German Shepherds (or Alsatians as they were then called) were very fashionable during the Third Reich. During the Fall of Berlin, before Hitler committed suicide, it was believed that he ordered his physician to check the potency of his cyanide pills by feeding them to “Blondi”, who subsequently died. Other sources however suggest that Hitler was very fond of his dog; so fond in fact that he could not bear for her to fall into the hands of the invading Soviets (fearing she would be harmed). He briefly thought of letting her free on the streets of Berlin but was concerned that she would be captured. Left with no alternative, he had her put down. He ended his own life shortly after.
During World War II, newspapers carried cautionary tales of people being fined for giving their pets food intended for human consumption. Some pet owners thought that it would be kinder to have their animals put down, but S. Evelyn Thomas’s “Handy War-Time Guide for the Woman at Home and the Man in the Street" said: “_"It is a mistake to destroy your pets. The wholesale destruction of cats and dogs might well result in a plague of rats and mice."_
The RSPCA pamphlet "Feeding Dogs and Cats in Wartime" suggested some recipes for emergency use, but advised that dogs and cats should be given their normal food so long as it was obtainable. Emergency diets for cats and dogs were prepared by mixing greens and stale bread or oatmeal into gravy made from bones or scraps and flavouring it with fish oil.
The commercial pet food industry started in England in1860 with James Spratt's invention of the first dog biscuit. Canned food (made from horse meat) for dogs first became available in the thirties, but this was discontinued when World War II broke out because metal was rationed (and pet food was classed as non-essential). By 1946, dry food represented 85% of the market, and there were two types – biscuits (known as kibble), and pellets. When the economy improved after the War and pet owners could afford the luxury of pet food, many companies added pet foods lines to their range of products as they saw this as a profitable way to market by-products.
The next big innovation came in the fifties when Purina invented the extrusion process (which is still a method used by many pet food companies today). Ingredients are blended and cooked together in a liquid form, pushed through a mechanical extruder (which expands the food) and then it is baked. The resultant food was larger and lighter than the original kibble and pellets and this gave it "more for your money" appeal; although convenience was the biggest marketing point.
Dog breed popularity in the forties and fifties was very much influenced by the films and television programs of the era. “Pal” was the male Rough Collie who portrayed the female “Lassie”. He was born in California in 1940 and originally starred in the1943 MGM movie “Lassie Come Home”. He went on to perform in six more Lassie films from the mid forties to the early fifties, and then made appearances in shows, fairs, and rodeos around the USA before starring in the two pilots filmed in 1954 for the television series of “Lassie”. “Pal” retired after filming the pilots, and died at the ripe old age of eighteen! His descendants continued to play the part, and The Saturday Evening Post said “Pal” had "the most spectacular canine career in film history”. It is therefore no surprise that Rough Collies were very popular at that time.
Other breeds that were much in demand throughout the UK, USA and Europe in the forties and fifties included the German Shepherd (“Rin Tin Tin”, from films as early as 1923), Cairn terriers (“Toto” in the 1939 movie based on the children’s book first published in 1900), Basset hounds (“Bernadette” from the sitcom “The People’s Choice” 1955-1958) and Dalmatians (from “101 Dalmatians” – the movie wasn’t released until 1961, but the novel by Dodie Smith was first published in 1956). “Snoopy” made his first comic strip appearance in 1950 and undoubtedly contributed to the rise in Beagle ownership. American Kennel Club statistics show that the Beagle was the most popular dog in the USA from 1952 right through until 1959, after which time the Poodle took the crown. Breeds such as Cocker spaniels and terriers of many types were in demand; with Boston terriers being highly sought after in the USA. In the UK, Airedales, Scottish terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers were all gaining popularity.
We can’t have an article on vintage dogs without mentioning “Laika”, the canine occupant of the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2 that was launched into outer space on November 3rd 1957. “Laika” was the first living creature in space, and she was also the first to die in orbit.
Every dog today deserves love and respect whether they are wartime heroes, famous dogs or simply our pets. Our canine companions were just as important to owners in previous decades as they are nowadays. In fact, although dogs were often used for more practical purposes back then, I think we would do well to adopt some of the more down to earth and sensible values of the fifties. Worrying trends appeared on the recent Petplan Census (2011), with 90% of recipients suggesting pets today are spoilt and 88% suggesting pets are acquired as status symbols or fashion accessories. The dog is not known as “man’s best friend” for nothing, so let’s make sure we treat him justly and don’t advocate malpractices such as over-breeding and puppy farming.