Why our love of dogs is nothing new

From poodles on the battlefield to a kingly bed full of spaniels, the dog has a firm place in human history
Why our love of dogs is nothing new

In this 19th-century engraving, Mrs Washington talks to her son George Washington, who appears to be more captivated by the hound dogs in the room. Picture: iStock

In an age of suggested “paw-ternity” leave, and doggie daycare (of which I highly approve), journalist Tim Dowling had the readership of The Guardian howling with his late November feature “We are way past peak puppy — it’s time to end the great British dog obsession”. I found the hosts and guests of Today on RTÉ 1 whining and snappish that afternoon, as they reviewed the new concept of Dog TV (neglect and potentially disturbing) and the impact of the death of the family pet compared to say losing Grandma. 

Sentimental reflections and raised hackles got me thinking about some of the most outrageous examples of our tender devotion to the domestic canine down through history.

Dowling, a dog owner but “not a dog lover”, appalled by the development of the DogPhone, that calls you at work if your pooch crunches a wifi-connected ball, wrote: “I don’t want to see a photo of your dog. I’m not that interested in talking about dogs. 

"And what I mean by that is: I don’t want to have a conversation about your dog.” 

Here, here. We need something far more entertaining than chubby puppies in tutus on Instagram. Now, I love a shaggy or smooth dog story, but not your everyday natter. There are grander, stirring relationships that underscore the fact that many of us do feel real love for our dogs. Here are just a few, deserving and outrageous doggie tales from high society.

Our affection towards our pets, can and does turn the brain to melting blancmange. George Washington (1732-1799) might stare proudly out from American currency, but even he weakened at the knees, dubbing his various beloved dogs, Sweet Lips, Truelove, Tipsy, Drunkard and Madame Moose. 

US President Joe Biden had to be persuaded to take his rambunctious, buttock-munching Alsatian Major out of the White House after it chased down several aides. Biden was baffled, telling ABC news: "You turn a corner, and there's two people you don't know and he moves to protect [bless]. 

"But he's a sweet dog. Eighty-five percent of the people there love him.” Quote from the leader of the Free World on the well-recorded bad behaviour of a very large dog rampaging through pinched 18th-century corridors, piercing fine silk suiting. It’s amazing.

We have all seen and thoroughly enjoyed how smitten our own Irish President is with his donkey-scale, photo-bombing Bernese. Michael D Higgins didn’t flinch in multiple interviews while his dogs cheerfully shredded the diplomatic gravitas. 

For sheer quiet devotion in a lap dog, it would be hard to surpass the toy dog of Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587). When Mary was about to be executed, she threw off her black outer robes to reveal a scarlet dress indicating her impending martyrdom. What was not discovered until she became a two-part person, was that her spaniel was hiding under her heavy skirts. Even head-off, he refused to leave his mistress.

King Charles II (1630-1685), for whom the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is named, used his dogs not only to warm the royal heart, and the marital and extramarital sofa, but was astute enough to know that having pets humanised him to his subjects. Picture: iStock
King Charles II (1630-1685), for whom the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is named, used his dogs not only to warm the royal heart, and the marital and extramarital sofa, but was astute enough to know that having pets humanised him to his subjects. Picture: iStock

Frolicking down the royal road to the 17th century, King Charles II, for whom the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is named, used his dogs not only to warm the royal heart, and the marital and extramarital sofa, but was astute enough to know that having pets humanised him to his subjects. Equally, it made him an object of open derision and ridicule with political commentators. 

John Evelyn wrote that the dogs of the court made it “nasty and stinking”, a sly shot at the excesses of the monarch’s lifestyle in general. Charles’ beloved sister, Henrietta Maria, whom he called Minette, was married to Louis VIX, and willed her troop of Cavaliers to Charles when she died. The cloud of feather-tailed, ruby and white companions were never far from his ermine-trimmed side. 

When his pets were kidnapped (an oddly regular occurrence), Charles, like anyone else with the means, was forced to take out bleating ads appealing for their return in the local penny papers. These spaniels had been associated with royalty, including the choice of his father — but Charles II's passion for their “exquisite qualities” and fashionable flair, cemented them in the public imagination. When Charles died in 1685, his deathbed swarmed with over a dozen distressed spaniels, which were removed in his final moments, despite his tearful entreaties. Oh, now, c’mon, that’s sad — that’s a story!

Still not impressed? What about a bullet-proof German war poodle, who could render itself invisible? I don’t think you have one of those in front of the electric bar fire. 

A woodcut from the 1640s showing an super poodle similar to Boy, the ferocious pet of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682). Picture: Wiki
A woodcut from the 1640s showing an super poodle similar to Boy, the ferocious pet of Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682). Picture: Wiki

A star of the English Civil War, Boye belonged to Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682), who popped over in 1640s to help Charles I (1600-1649) to hang onto his kingdom. Trained to lift its leg at the very mention of the enemy’s name, including John Pym, Boye had an entire Parliamentarian propaganda pamphlet devoted to its supernatural antics, “Observations Upon Prince Rupert’s White Doggie called Boye”. 

The dog was dubbed a “ Strumpet” — you can draw your own conclusions, but obscene rumours were circulated indicating that Rupert and the little dog were just too close. He was a “Lapland Lady” who was once, the author wrote, a human white-haired woman changed by sorcery to a four-footed fiend. All this for coming with Daddy to the battlefield, surviving, and resting on Rupert’s campaign bed. Bit harsh?

Contemporary wood-cuts of the time show Rupert in super-hero pose aboard a rearing horse with the lion-like power-poodle by his side. Oddly enough, Boye was said to have been present at the Battle of Edgehill in Warwickshire. I lived on a small-holding on Edgehill when I was overseas at 13. 

My Shetland pony regularly recreated the bloody frolics of 1642, breaking out onto its vast crescent and charging out of control for delighted hours followed by all our eight dogs. Was the spectre of the ghostly Royalist poodle egging them on? 

Whether you “love” your dog or own your dog — my conclusion is, whether you see the signs or not, king, queen, president, warrior or happy commoner, they certainly own you.

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