Heroism has gone to the dogs. In the old days, epic heroes had dogs—great-hearted and valiant like themselves, of course. Odysseus had his Argos, the Deerslayer his Hector. Over the last century, however, the dogs have displaced the heroes.
From 1926 forward, when A Dog of the Regiment was the most popular motion picture of the year, top billing has gone to Rin-Tin-Tin, Lassie, Old Yeller, White Fang, Benji, Sounder, Beethoven, Air Bud, Shiloh, Fluke, and My Dog Skip.
This “caninization” of heroism does not necessarily mean heroism’s wrack and ruin. The four-leggers have acquitted themselves rather well as celluloid role models. Marjorie Garber, in her book Dog Love, explains how “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?” Heroism is in the safekeeping of man’s best friend.
Faithful as always, dogs keep trying to restore our heroism to us. In almost every dog movie I can think of, the dog serves as the source of instruction for various benighted, misguided, or simply young humans, especially boys. Boys need an education in the manly virtues that only a boy’s dog can give. As the theme song to Old Yeller has it, “Old Yeller was a fighter, a rootin’ tootin’ fighter. In any scrape he knew just what to do. A rough and ready feller, and though his coat was yeller, his bold Texas heart was true blue.” By movie’s end, the dog has readied the boy for his passage into manhood. In the best dog movies (Where the Red Fern Grows comes to mind), that rite of passage usually includes the loss of the dog and a confrontation with mortality.
The only movie I have seen about a man (rather than a boy) and his dog is not American. (Turner and Hooch  doesn’t quite make it, since Tom Hanks as Turner is just an overgrown boy.) Jock of the Bushveld, a 1992 South African film, tells a wonderfully non-didactic tale of two charming and scrappy runts, one canine and one human. After the man rescues the pup from the drowning tub, the film follows the pair as the man takes on South Africa’s class hierarchies and the dog, a pit bull, takes on just about anything that moves, including a crocodile, a baboon, and several large game animals. The two are purely and simply soulmates. The presentation of the dog is entirely naturalistic, without any of the artificiality or sentimentality of Disney fare. Jock doesn’t talk or even look meaningfully at his human partner. He just lives his dog life to the full, with herculean energy and courage. There is nothing fluffy or slobbery or good-naturedly muttly about him. His musculature and the desire that animates it are visible in his every movement.
Fighting spirit is a major component of canine heroism. It is remarkable that dogs will come to the defense of members of another species. Dogs will scorn life itself in fidelity to an enlarged conception of what constitutes “one’s own.” 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.”
Fighting spirit continues to be on display in recent dog movies. I was worried that the 1990s Lassie would not be much of a fighter; yet in her most recent picture she takes on a wolf, as well as two evildoers on dune bikes. Even though the staging of the fights is nowhere near as graphic as in the older dog movies (which were pre-Humane Society I suppose), the lesson remains: Goodness cannot go forth unarmed into the world.
Dog heroes are not always fictional. Each issue of Dog Fancy magazine relates a true tale of protection, like the Vizla who cornered a home-invader, rescuing his young mistress from a convicted child molester. The single woman jogging with her alert Doberman or impressive Rottweiler demonstrates that there is still some appreciation for this aspect of the canine temperament. Indeed, in an era of equality when women affect to scorn male protection—and men, in turn, show little aptitude for it—dogs often replace men. Dogs are born protectors; men require considerable training.
Every dog lover (and lover of justice) must hope that Nicole Brown Simpson’s Akita—the only witness to her murder—will one day find himself alone with an unarmed O.J., just like the dog Shep in The Painted Hills (1951). In that movie, Shep drove his master’s killer over a cliff to his death, after human justice proved a travesty.
At the same time that we celebrate the dog avenger, it is undeniable that we have become ambivalent about the aggressive impulse that is so inextricably bound up with the virtue of loyalty. Witness the attempt to brand certain dog breeds as vicious, and in some locales, to ban them outright. The breed most maligned is the American Staffordshire Terrier (aka, the pit bull). This is a breed of legendary loyalty. It was the first American breed and, in an earlier era, was closely identified with the American national character (from Teddy Roosevelt’s pit bull to Our Gang’s Pete the Pup). I think one could say that our current quandary over manliness and its relation to civilization is summed up in the revaluation of the pit bull.
Before someone starts citing statistics about the number of dog bites per year (and the breeds most involved), let me say that, yes, the number of reported dog bites has greatly risen over the last 30 years. My hunch is that feminism is largely responsible. Certainly the increase in dog attacks tracks closely with the decline in stay-at-home moms. Before the industrial era, dogs spent their days in the company of men doing serious work: hunting, fishing, herding, guarding, and hauling. Now imagine today’s suburban or apartment dog, utterly without employment or even companionship for most of the day. With both men and women gone from the home, there is no one left to introduce dogs to the world of what Hearne called “our domestic virtues.” Children are at least sent to daycare, but dogs are left to their own devices. Is it any wonder they end up as canine delinquents, barking and biting inappropriately? Moreover, it is dogs with the very best instincts who go most seriously wrong. If there were to be another war, the K-9 Corps could be recruited entirely from the ranks of these “bad dogs.”
Dogs are sharers in human fortunes and have been since the Mesolithic Era. Whether in times of rising or falling civilization, dogs share not only our lot but also many of our virtues and vices. So long as they remain by our sides, we have the possibility, through the canine mirroring of qualities that humans praise or blame, of recovering the heroic sense. Just as we despise the wretched cur—the very picture of groveling cowardice or deranged viciousness— we naturally admire the noble guardian and guide, the exemplar of faithfulness, courage, and service.
Diana Schaub is associate professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and the devoted sidekick of two great-hearted and valiant Portuguese water dogs.
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Last edited 7/27/2014 2:45:02 PM