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Home --> Critter Country --> Noble Defenders --> The Dog Soldier

The Dog Soldier

Legend:   A dog charged with guarding a baby is discovered bloody-faced while the infant is strangely missing. The shocked dog owner reacts by killing the canine, only to afterwards find the unharmed babe lying next to a wolf his faithful companion had dispatched.

Examples:

[Brunvand, 1994]

Once upon a time there was a young trapper named Peter Dobley, who lived alone except for his huge, part-wolf sled dog Prince.

Eventually Peter married, but his wife died soon after giving birth to his son. From then on it fell to Prince to guard the baby while his master was out trapping.

One day, caught in a blizzard, Peter was hours late returning home. Arriving, he found the cabin door half open. A terrible sight awaited him inside . . . his son was gone and the crib stained with blood!

As Peter stood rooted in horror, Prince crept from under the bed, his muzzle was also red with blood and he seemed to avoid his master's gaze. With a cry, Peter raised his axe and struck with all his strength, burying it in the dog's massive head.

Following the thoughtless act, Peter stepped around to the other side of the bed and found his son, alive and unharmed. He also found a dead timber wolf clenching a piece of Prince's bloody fur in his teeth.
 

[Aesop]

A farmer who had gone into his field to mend a gap in one of his fences, found at his return the cradle in which he had left his only child asleep turned upside down, the clothes all torn and bloody, and his dog lying near it, besmeared also with blood. Thinking that the animal had destroyed his child, he instantly dashed out his brains with the hatchet in his hand. When turning up the cradle, he found his child unhurt, and an enormous serpent lying dead on the floor, killed by that faithful dog whose courage and fidelity in preserving the life of his son deserved another kind of reward.


Origins:   This current tale about a widowed trapper is but a manifestation of a much older legend-type. In the Welsh fable "Bedd Gelert" (arguably the best-known of this genre), the faithful hunting hound Gelert greets Prince Baby defender Llewellyn with a bloody mouth and strangely shifty behavior. The nursery of Prince Llewellyn's son lies in disarray with the crib overturned and the child nowhere to be seen. Llewellyn acts on his fears and slays his previously faithful companion. The child is afterwards found unharmed, and the hidden intruder Gelert had battled — a huge wolf — is found lying dead where Gelert had felled him.

Also of note is the tale of Saint Guinefort, a greyhound left in charge of a lord and lady's infant who defended the child from a deadly snake only to have the disarray of the room and the blood on itself misinterpreted in the usual fashion, with the usual result. The discovery of the dispatched snake revealed the true nature of the incident, but as always, way too late to do the noble pooch any good. In addition to the expected remorse felt by the child's parents, the death of Guinefort affected the peasants of the diocese of Lyons (France) — they elevated the martyred canine to sainthood, designating it an especial protector of infants. Sickly babes were brought to the dog's grave in hopes of affecting cures for the afflicted youngsters.

The tale of Saint Guinefort is recounted in the Stephen de Bourbon's De Supersticione. de Bourbon, who died in 1261, was a Dominican friar who served as a preacher and inquisitor in northern France and thus a person who had much exposure to the superstition and folk practices rampant in that region. While de Bourbon does claim in his account to have disinterred the bones of Guinefort (in an effort to disrupt the cult of worship that had grown up around the dog), his finding in and of itself is not proof of the legend, only that he found the bones of a dog.

Possibly the oldest version of the legend comes from India's Panchatantra, a compilation of animal fables and magic tales assembled sometime during the 3rd to 5th centuries. In that tale, a wife leaves her baby in the care of her husband, cautioning him not to let their mongoose (which she'd also given birth to) get too close to the babe because she does not trust the animal. As soon as she leaves, the husband heads out himself, leaving the child alone with its half-brother. A black snake appears in the home, and the mongoose tears it to shreds. Proud of his exploit, the mongoose displays himself in all his gory glory to his mother upon her return. She jumps to the conclusion that he has hurt her human son, throws a water pitcher at him, which kills him instantly. A more careful survey of the home reveals the unharmed child and the bloodied remains of the deadly black snake.

Through the centuries, the story has popped up in one culture after another, proving once again how universal folktales truly are. The following version comes from the realm of Jewish lore:
[Rappoport, 1937]

In a town on a remote island lived a God-fearing man whose wife was barren. One day, however, she became pregnant ... The time arrived for the woman to be delivered, and when she gave birth to a son, a fine boy indeed, the husband's heart was filled with joy.

The day soon came for the mother to purify herself, and she
said to her husband, "I am going to the bath, and you will remain with the child."

So the father stayed in the house and watched over the infant in the cradle, but a messenger having come to summon him to the king, he locked the door and betook himself to the palace. During his absence a snake crept from a hole and would have bitten the child, had not the dog who was watching the house jumped up and throttled the serpent, bespattering his body with the blood of his victim.

Soon the father returned from the palace and on opening the door, he beheld the faithful dog, who was running to meet his master, besmeared with blood.

"The dog has killed my child," thought the frightened father, and without reflecting he raised his stick and killed the animal that had saved his son.

Great was his joy when he entered the chamber and found the infant alive and the dead serpent on the floor, but his joy was mingled with remorse for his rash act in killing the faithful dog. "Had I not been so hasty," he said, "I would not have committed such an act."

When the wife returned home, she was surprised to behold the bodies of the dead dog and the serpent, and when her husband informed her of all that had occurred during her absence, she wisely remarked, "This will be a lesson to you not to act hastily, for those who act in this way only repent of their deeds when it is too late, and remorse forever remains in their hearts."
It is the wife's remarks that express the moral of this fable: Those who act in haste are left to mourn the permanent consequences of rash acts.

Barbara "hasty pudding heads" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In Disney's 1955 Lady and the Tramp, Tramp's efforts to save the Darlings' baby from rats are at first misunderstood by the child's parents as an attack on the child. Unlike the dogs of lore, however, Tramp survives.

A non-canine form of the basic legend pops up in the 1995 film Babe. Babe is left blood-spattered after running off marauding dogs that have harmed some of the sheep, leading the farmer to conclude his wonder-pig is a killer. Babe only barely escapes execution, thanks to a last-minute change of heart.

Last updated:   2 April 2010

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  Sources Sources:
    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good to Be True.
    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (pp. 48-49).

    Jacobs, Joseph.   Celtic Fairy Tales.
    London: David Nutt, 1892   (pp. 192-194).

    Rappoport, Angelo.   The Folklore of the Jews.
    London: Soncino Press, 1937   (pp. 173-175).

  Sources Also told in:
    The Big Book of Urban Legends.
    New York: Paradox Press, 1994.   ISBN 1-56389-165-4   (p. 38).