On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

The Dog in Black

Statue of Shep at Fort Benton, Montana. Image via Wikipedia.

Statue of Shep at Fort Benton, Montana. Image via Wikipedia.

The country’s heart was wrenched earlier this week when photos released from the funeral of Navy SEAL Jon Tomlinson showed his faithful black Labrador Retriever Hawkeye lying on his side, head down, in front of the soldier’s coffin. Tomlinson, 35, a native of Rockford, Iowa, was amongst 30 U.S. troops killed August 6th when a Taliban insurgent shot down their Chinook helicopter over Afghanistan. Hawkeye, who led Tomlinson’s family down the aisle as they entered the funeral service, followed eulogist Scott Nichols up to the podium and then reportedly “dropped down with a heaving sigh” in front of his guardian’s coffin, an action most have interpreted to be one of sadness, longing, and, above all, awe-inspiring loyalty.

It’s hard not to get a little teary-eyed when viewing the image of Hawkeye’s final touching gesture to his human companion – but is labeling the dog’s act as “mourning” mere anthropomorphism, or does it have any behavioral basis? That is a question science cannot yet answer, but there is definitely historical precedence of other dogs whose commitment to their human companions has seemingly lasted until literally their very last breath.

Many are familiar with the story of Hachikō, a Japanese Akita who was adopted as a puppy in 1924 by University of Tokyo professor Hidesaburō Ueno. Returning every day from work by train, Professor Ueno would meet Hachikō each evening at the same time at Shibuya Station. This routine continued until May of 1925, when Professor Ueno did not get off the train; he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the University. But Hachikō refused to give up waiting for his guardian’s return. Each and every day, for the next nine years, Hachikō would arrive at Shibuya Station at exactly the same time Professor Ueno’s train used to arrive. In 1932 Hachikō’s story was published in a Tokyo newspaper, making him an instant celebrity and national symbol. In 1934, a year before his own death, a statue of Hachikō was erected at Shibuya, to commemorate for future generations the Akita’s faithfulness and loyalty to his human companion.

In Fort Benton, Montana, there arose the report of Shep, a herding dog that appeared one day in 1936 at the Great Northern Railway station when a coffin was being loaded onto a train headed east. When the train left, Shep too left the station, only to return to meet the next incoming train, and every incoming train after that. Station employees soon surmised that it must have been Shep’s guardian in the casket, and that the dog was returning to greet every train in the hopes that his companion would be amongst the passengers. Shep kept his vigil for the next six years, until he was tragically killed by an oncoming train in 1942.

There is also the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who is said to have belonged to Edinburgh policeman John Gray. When Gray passed away of tuberculosis in 1858, he was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard; Bobby proceeded to guard the grave for the next 14 years. After five years of in-depth historical research, the story of Greyfriars Bobby was allegedly “debunked” earlier this year, but it was too late: the tale of Bobby’s loyalty will live on in both Scottish and canine folklore, likely for centuries.

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One response to “The Dog in Black

  1. tinybadger August 30, 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve always wanted to see the Hachiko movie, but if just reading this article brings me to tears, I would be a wreck watching the movie!

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