Pet Dog & Cat Stories

Dogs Of Courage

On January 20, 2012, the U.S. Post Office unveiled a new series of stamps to honor a very special kind of canine: the working dog. To some people, they're also known as Dogs of Courage.

From guide dogs for the blind to search-and-rescue dogs working at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, the dogs featured on the new "Dogs at Work" series of stamps have countless chances each day to show their courage, not only to their handlers but also to any human they encounter. The sheets of 65 cent stamps show four different kinds of Dogs of Courage just doing their jobs: a military working dog, a guide dog assisting a blind owner, a therapy dog, and a search-and-rescue dog.

"We are proud to commemorate these specialized dogs on stamps," said U.S. Postal Inspection Service Homeland Security Coordinator Michael T. Butler in announcing the stamps. "These animals are critical to serving individuals with special needs and critical to enabling successful rescues."

The postal service printed eighty million sheets of the stamps, and many dog lovers said it's about time that these courageous dogs were recognized for their service.

Dogs are born with courage. It's up to the humans who surround them to draw it out of them and finesse it in a way that benefits dog, human, and society as a whole.

What Is a Dog of Courage?

Dogs of Courage are many things. Tucker, a black Lab, works alongside researchers in the Pacific Northwest to help determine the cause of a significant decrease in the orca whale population. Magellan and Moses patiently work regular stints as therapy dogs in an elementary school classroom in San Marcos, Texas, to help children strengthen their reading skills when they read books aloud to the seemingly attentive canines.

There's also Fagan, a Czech shepherd who spent eleven of his thirteen years sniffing out narcotics and chasing after bad guys with the Southaven Police Department in Memphis, Tennessee, alongside his human partners. "He was absolutely fearless," said department chief Steve Pirtle. "Fagan was truly a working dog and he loved to work."

Captain Wayne Perkins, who served as the commander of Southaven's K-9 Division, worked alongside Fagan for most of the dog's tenure. His colleague, Lieutenant Mark Little, tells a story that exemplified Fagan's bravery. "We had one pursuit that raced into Memphis, where the driver bailed out and ran into some woods," Little said. As the car's other passenger also fled the scene, "Perkins released Fagan, who followed the suspect into the woods, found him and then brought him back out of the woods. As Fagan got the driver, the driver hit him in the head, but after a few minutes of recovery time, Perkins then released the dog on the trail of the passenger in the vehicle. Fagan tracked the passenger to an apartment house about 100 yards away. He made both catches on the same case even though he had been hit."

"The only term that comes to mind is 'countless,'" said Pirtle about the number of officer injuries - even possible deaths - that Fagan had likely prevented. "We always said that if we could have taught Fagan how to drive, his handlers would have been out of jobs. He was just that good."

At the same time, a Dog of Courage could be a Hollywood dog from the 1930s who was heroic because he served as the bright spot in the day of millions of people who had the misfortune to live during the Depression.

But many more Dogs of Courage go unnoticed to all but their human companions. Their courage and valor are smaller and quieter, but no less important.

Of course, anyone who has spent any amount of time with a dog - especially one who's been abandoned and unwanted - already knows that while he may feel that he's the one saving the dog, in most cases the dog is actually saving him.

Case in point: David James Knowles from Oak Brook, Illinois, adopted Lucy, a Lab and whippet mix barely six months old with a surfeit of energy. He realized he had his work cut out for him.

Considered to be unadoptable because of her nonstop curiosity and motion, Lucy required patient training. Knowles had no way of knowing that he and Lucy had begun an eighteen-year relationship that would forever change his life.

"Life is about the simple details," Knowles said. "The simple details are what dogs understand. That's what they convey to us - the simple details for genuine quality life."

And so that's how Knowles approached training the dog. But the changes Lucy would bring to his own life would turn out to be profound. You see, at over three hundred pounds, Knowles ignored his own health while he doted on his canine companion.

It took a crisis to turn everything around. In July 2000, Lucy was diagnosed with cancer, and it served as a wake-up call for Knowles. He knew that his remaining time with her was extremely limited, but while others might have used the excuse of the loss of their best friend to wallow in self-pity - not to mention food - Knowles was inspired.

In an effort to boost Lucy's precarious health, the two began to take long walks around the neighborhood before venturing farther afield to nearby parks and forests, something that was new to the both of them. Knowles also learned about good nutrition and began to eat better.

To his delight, Knowles began to lose weight. By the time Lucy succumbed to the cancer, he had lost sixty pounds. Knowles was of course devastated, but he continued to work on his lifestyle changes, and by the end of 2001, he had lost close to half his body weight. He wrote Lucy's Lessons: Thirteen Lessons to Help You Find Joy and Happiness in Your Life, in which he detailed their history together in the form of the life philosophies that Lucy had taught him through the years.

"The lesson here is not about my weight loss," said Knowles. "Your pets want to get out and enjoy life, they want to exercise, and maybe that's a lesson for people. All of the lessons are intertwined with each other. My lifestyle changed, and that allowed me to understand the lessons she was giving me."

Indeed, Marjorie Garber, in her groundbreaking book Dog Love, writes that "the dog becomes the repository of those model human properties that we have cynically ceased to find among humans. Where today can we find the full panoply of William Bennett's Book of Virtues - from Courage and Responsibility to Loyalty and Family Values - but in Lassie and Beethoven and Millie and Checkers and Spot?"

It's no wonder that humans look up to dogs. After all, they embody many traits that people aspire to - and often fail at. This makes perfect sense, because the truth is that when it comes to people and dogs, we're not really too far apart. According to gene-mapping research, humans and dogs share about 75 percent of their DNA.

"Working dogs often act as human surrogates and share many capacities with humans," writes William S. Helton in Canine Ergonomics. "Dogs, like humans, are products of uncontrolled evolution - they were not built with a purpose in mind. Dogs, unlike machines, do jobs roughly the way humans do.... Dogs, like humans and entirely unlike machines, are flexible. No machine in existence can replicate all the tasks a dog can be trained to do. Like people, dogs cannot really be forced to work; they must be persuaded, encouraged, threatened, or enticed and the possibility of a revolt is always present."

There have been Dogs of Courage as long as humans have had canines as their companions and their coworkers. "Dogs are sharers in human fortunes and have been since the Mesolithic Era," said Diana Schaub, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Loyola College in Maryland. "Whether in times of rising or falling civilization, dogs share not only our lot but also many of our virtues and vices."

But contrary to popular sentiment, dogs don't derive their courage from their relative the wolf. Another well-known writer on dogs, Vicki Hearne, points out that a wolf "will not have the courage of a good dog, the courage that springs from the dog's commitments to the forms and significance of our domestic virtues."

Here's just a small sampling of Dogs of Courage throughout the centuries:

  • In the Swiss Alps, Great Saint Bernard Pass is named for the heroic dogs who rescued hikers who had lost their way or were caught in avalanches.

  • As early as the eighteenth century, police learned to train dogs to work alongside them.

  • In the 1920s, the aviator Charles Lindbergh developed his flying chops with a dog named Booster sitting shotgun in the passenger seat.

  • During World War II, dogs helped patrol the beaches and borders of the United States to keep an eye out for spies and intruders.

Dogs have proved their mettle in recent disasters as well, from helping to recover survivors after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 to searching for people left behind in flooded homes in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

And of course dogs played a vital role in New York City in the weeks and months after 9/11, first to search for people in the rubble and then to serve as therapy dogs for workers and volunteers who needed a bright spot in weeks filled with despair.

More courageous dogs throughout history are explored in each chapter of Dogs of Courage: The Heroism and Heart of Working Dogs Around the World by author Lisa Rogat.