Editor’s Note: This ariticle originally appeared in the November 5, 2001, issue of National Review.
It’s been widely remarked that the only allies we can count on from “the first . . . to the last” (Tony Blair’s words) are the British. In a sense, this is true: The loyalty of our friends across the pond is peerless. But as the images of September 11’s aftermath remind us, there is another, often overlooked comrade whose fidelity is even more impressive, at least in a statistical sense. For while the British are unique among some 200 nations, canine fidelity is unique among the more than 10 million species of the earth.
Recently I spent the better part of an afternoon about half a mile south of where the World Trade Center stood, with Tara, a three-year-old golden retriever employed by Michael Stanton Associates, a private security firm. Tara’s job is to find bombs. Of course, she doesn’t know that they are bombs; all she knows is that her human master wants her to find something that smells like plastic explosives, or TNT, or a dozen other dangerous substances. The only payment she will receive for this is a few moments fetching the ball with her boss.
This work ethic is the heart of canine exceptionalism. The dog is the only animal that volunteers for duty. If we want other animals — horses, oxen, mules, falcons, bears, or parrots — to come to our aid, we must either force them or bribe them. You might even call horses our slaves: Their spirit must actually be broken before they will agree to do anything for us. And, if the comparison of the jovial dog to the jovial Briton is a fair one, then the conclusion is unavoidable that cats share many attributes with our friends the French: They are coquettish when called, unavailable when needed, and always self-interested. If Lassie had been a cat, the barn would have burned down and Timmy would have starved to death at the bottom of the old well.
Long before the rubble settled in downtown New York, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, and Rottweilers — as well as canines of less aristocratic lineage — were already pulling at their leashes to help with the search-and-rescue efforts. Locating the dead and searching (too often in vain) for the living is obviously an arduous and emotionally draining task for human beings, but it is no picnic for dogs either. The rubble provided unstable footing, was full of glass shards and twisted metal, and sometimes glowed red hot. Dangerous fumes, loud noises, and the equivalent of landslides were constant sources of distraction and peril. Dogs repeatedly had to limp out of the wreckage on bloody paws, the razor-edged debris slicing through even the leather boots distributed to some of them.
Worse, the stress associated with not finding survivors was extreme; dogs tasked with this assignment expect — need — to find survivors. “They don’t like to find bodies. They’ll find them, but they don’t feel rewarded,” veterinarian Douglas Wyler explained to the London Daily Telegraph. “The dogs are good, they’re professionals, but like any professional they can suffer from melancholy and depression. It’s hard for the men not to find anyone alive, and the dogs sense that.”
But the dogs persevered. Consider Servus, a Belgian Malinois (a smaller version of the German shepherd) who arrived at the Twin Towers site with his owner, police officer Chris Christensen, the day after the disaster. While searching for survivors, Servus fell down a nine-foot hole into a mound of dust and debris. When they pulled him free, “he couldn’t breathe,” Christensen explained to London’s Sunday Herald Sun. Servus tried to vomit, to no avail. By the time the convulsions started and Servus’s tongue turned purple, between 20 and 30 men were gathered to help an animal they clearly considered a colleague (often, police dogs are given full-dress funerals). The canine was rushed to one of the veterinary MASH units set up to treat the rescue dogs as well as the numerous “civilian” animals and pets injured or abandoned in the surrounding residential areas.
The vets managed to resuscitate Servus, and he was given an IV. (It was not unusual to see rescue humans and rescue dogs lying beside one another, each with his own IV drip.) When the vets unstrapped the dog from the gurney and released him for some doggie R&R, he ran straight from the tent and leapt into the police car assigned to bring dogs to ground zero. “I couldn’t believe it,” Christensen told the Sunday Herald Sun. “I told him three times to get out and he just looked at me, so we went to work. We worked for seven hours.”
Such dedication has inspired a growing effort in the scientific community to explain this age-old symbiosis between men and dogs. Until fairly recently, the study of dogs has been ignored by scientists more interested in more “authentic” animals — despite the fact that the domestic dog may be the second most successful of all mammal species, after human beings.
More to the point, their success is directly attributable to the fact that they have teamed up with human beings. I’m told that according to an American Indian legend, human beings and animals were separated by a great canyon in prehistory. Forced to choose sides, the dog decided to throw in his lot with man and leapt the chasm to live and work with us. The moral of the story is certainly true, though the choice was evolutionary as well as sentimental. Some, like nature writer Stephen Budiansky, take the story too far in the other direction. He argues that canines have mastered an evolutionary strategy that makes us love them: “Dogs belong to that elite group of con artists at the very pinnacle of their profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it.”
These cynics would have us believe that dogs — which have, in numerous documented cases, given their lives for human beings — are actually slyly exploiting an emotional glitch in people that makes us love soft, big-eyed furry things. This overlooks the obvious fact that we “con” dogs too; that they, in fact, love us as much as, if not more than, we love them. Allowing himself to be carried by crane hundreds of feet above the ground and then lowered into a smoldering pit of metal and glass defies every instinct a dog has, except one: to be a selfless friend of his ally and master. “Histories are more full of examples of the fidelity of dogs than of friends,” observed Alexander Pope. “Heaven goes by favor,” remarked Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
According to evolution totalitarians, I love my wife because I want to propagate my genes and attain an exemplary mother for my children. That may or may not be entirely true, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that I love my wife. Correspondingly, my dog’s genes may tell him to love me because I bring home the Alpo, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t love me. And once that bond is established, who really cares what its genetic basis is? Everything wonderful about dogs stems not from the why of their affection, but from the fact of their affection.
There’s no disputing that dogs do things for canine reasons. Many of their heroic acts can be attributed to misplaced maternal or other instincts. Newfoundlands have saved many people from drowning, but their instinct is just as strong to “save” banana crates and other flotsam. Tara — the ebullient golden retriever I looked for bombs with — doesn’t know the details; all she knows is that she wants to please her human master.
And isn’t that good enough?