Wendy Holden knows all about man’s best friend. Her childhood pets included a Labrador, a Corgi, and a rescued Staffordshire bull terrier with appalling breath. Once she grew up with a home of her own, she acquired two Labs and two English Springer Spaniels, all of whom lived to ripe old age. All she owns now is a 17-year-old rescued Jack Russell but she’s on the lookout for a puppy and another rescue dog later this year.
When she first came across the story of how an Anatolian shepherd who’d been abused and crippled formed an unbreakable bond with the disabled boy whose family had rescued him, she was deeply touched once more by the enduring connection that exists between humans and animals. She captured their healing relationship in the book Haatchi & Little B, now out in paperback. Here Holden shares the stories of five of her favorite dogs from truth and fiction whose friendships with their owners have gone way beyond the norm.
Reader beware, spoilers ahead:
Haatchi was named by his charity rescuers after Hachikō, a purebred Japanese Akita, because of their shared connection with a railway line. The dog known as Hachi was so devoted to his master that he waited every night at the train station for him for return home from work. One day, his master died and never came home. For the next 11 years until his death, Hachi arrived at the station at precisely the hour of his master’s train and waited for him in vain. Commuters who saw him night after night befriended him and before long news of his unstinting loyalty spread and Hachi became a source of national pride. A statue of him was erected in his honor at the station and the spot where he waited is marked with bronze paw prints. When Hachi eventually died—still patiently waiting for his master—his body was stuffed and mounted for display. Thousands queued to see it. The expression, “Meet you at Hachiko” would still be understood by most residents of Tokyo.
The dog hero of The Call of the Wild, a 1903 novel by Jack London, Buck is a huge St. Bernard-Collie cross who is stolen, sold, and sent to the Yukon where he is beaten, abused, and added to a pack of wild dogs to pull sleds through hostile territories. Having been domesticated his whole life, he has to learn how to survive the brutal conditions and the pack mentality. Facing daily disappointment and the frequent risk of death, he loses his attachment to and dependence upon man and learns to take care of himself. Then an outdoorsman called John comes into his life, saves him from a grisly end, nurses him back to health, and restores his faith in humankind. Their bond is deep and pure, and, in return for John’s kindness, Buck helps his master secure his future. That is, until he leaves the camp one day to socialize with wolves and returns to find John murdered by natives. Avenging his master’s death, Buck kills the natives and then returns to the wilderness that had lured him away. Each year, on the anniversary of John’s death, Buck returns to the camp as a ghost dog to howl his grief.
The tiny Jack Russell who stole the limelight in the silent Oscar-winning movie The Artist, is as loyal to his trainer in real life as he was to his hapless actor owner in the movie. Rescued from a California pound, young Uggie showed such early promise as a star to his owner, animal trainer Omar von Muller, that he went on to enjoy a movie career spanning several years. In his twilight years he was picked for one of the greatest dog roles ever: the loyal pet of the silent movie star played by French actor Jean Dujardin. In The Artist, Dujardin falls out of favor when “talkies” come in and he loses his wife, his career, and all of his money. Uggie remains loyally by his side and saves his life when, suicidal, he tries to kill himself. Uggie’s performance created a global sensation, and he went on to win numerous awards of his own. He “barked” his own memoir, went on a world book tour, and even performs tricks in an app. Elderly and retired now, he still lives with Von Muller and his family and has never forgotten the kindness of the trainer who knows that their unique bond will survive his passing.
4) Greyfriars Bobby
Bobby was a two-year-old Skye terrier owned and loved by an Edinburgh police officer and night watchman, John Gray, in the middle of the 19th century. When Gray died and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard, the story goes that Bobby sat on his master’s grave and refused to leave until his own death fourteen years later. He became known as “the most faithful dog in the world.” So loved and admired was the loyal little creature that he was given a licence and a collar by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, who was also a director of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When Bobby finally passed away in 1872, he was buried in the same graveyard as his master. His headstone is now on the tourist trail and visitors often leave sticks and balls for him to “chase in heaven.” A statue and a drinking fountain (with a lower fountain for dogs) were later built in honor of his “affectionate fidelity” at the graveyard gates and numerous books and films have been written about his life and his loyalty.
A scruffy little mixed breed terrier who hadn’t eaten in days, Rip was discovered roaming the bombed streets of London by an air raid warden during the London Blitz in 1940. Most orphaned or stray dogs were rounded up and killed at the time, but the pair struck up a friendship and Rip was adopted as the mascot of the warden’s patrol group. Refusing to leave the side of his new master, Rip went with him on each of his patrols and began to work as an unofficial rescue dog—alerting firemen and ambulance crews to casualties trapped under rubble or in bombed-out buildings. Although dogs had been used in the First World War for carrying first aid and as messengers, and have also been vital in rescuing people trapped in avalanches in the Alps for centuries, few animals had ever proved themselves brave enough to remain in a place of extreme danger with fire and smoke, explosions, and unexpected noises. Rip had never been trained, but he rescued more than a hundred victims of the raids and his track record led to other search and rescue dogs being trained up for the same kind of work. In 1945, he was awarded the special Dickin Medal for bravery and he wore it on his collar until the day he died. In 2013, Rip became the inspiration for a novella by Taylor Holden about a dog caught up in the Blitz entitled Mr. Scraps.
Wendy Holden’s first novel, The Sense of Paper, was published by Random House, New York, in 2006 to widespread critical acclaim. Other works have included the best-selling novelization of the award-winning films The Full Monty, plus Shell Shock – an investigation into PTSD from the First World War. She lives on a farm in Suffolk, England, with her husband and two dogs.