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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: Dogs rise from scofflaws to heroes

by Tom Dillard | September 26, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Last week I wrote about the long and important relationship between Arkansans and their dogs. Dogs were crucial to the survival of early settlers in Arkansas, as these people usually made their livings from the hunt, with much assistance from dogs--deer for food, raccoons for both food and hides, and most important of all, the black bear for food, but especially for its rendered oil.

Dogs were also family pets, but they were not yet generally considered members of the family as we so often hear today.

For a variety of reasons--not the least being the disease rabies--dogs faced a certain suspicion in urban areas. The federal Army issued an order in 1864 to kill all dogs found running at large in the city of Fort Smith. In 1876, the city of Newport declared stray dogs to be nuisances, a local newspaper declaring that "Newport has commenced a war on the dogs. All running at large will be shot." This pointed to the fact that dogs generally were not spayed or neutered until relatively recently.

The large number of homeless dogs added to the movement to register and license them as well as charge a dog tax. In March 1872, the city of Little Rock adopted a yearly dog registration fee with a provision that "all animals of the dog kind" found to be unregistered and running at large were to be killed. Other cities soon adopted dog taxes, many with the same death sentence provision for the untaxed. Authorities in Arkadelphia killed "nearly 300" untaxed dogs in a two-year period.

As you might expect, not everyone welcomed the dog tax. In August 1875, when the Arkadelphia authorities killed his dog, a Black owner sued the city. In May 1888, T.H. Bass, owner of the Oakleaf Hotel in Little Rock, got into a fistfight with a dogcatcher--"Mr. Bass resisting the officer and taking forcible possession of his animal," for which he was fined $5.

Many people were hauled into court for failing to pay the dog tax. The editor of the Arkansas Democrat newspaper complained in the summer of 1899 that the dog tax was being enforced "with a sharp stick." Fully half of the defendants called before the Pine Bluff police court in July 1903 were dog tax violators, each receiving a $3 fine.

Perhaps the most interesting legal confrontation over the tax took place in Fort Smith municipal court in May 1907, when two Black dog owners were fined for having untaxed dogs. Suddenly, a prominent white attorney named took the floor to "protest against" the imposition of fines against two illiterate people who "... both took out licenses as soon as they came to know that they are expected to do so and the imposition of a fine is an injustice."

When challenged by the judge, Edmondson held his ground, noting that it was "neither just nor proper to impose a fine" of $5, and after threatening to represent the dog owners in an appeal, the judge reduced the fine to $2. Dog tax revenue for that year in Fort Smith amounted to $1,417, not including fines.

The killing of unlicensed dogs might give the impression that Arkansans were indifferent to their dogs, but that was not the case. Indeed, the newspapers often carried stories about heroic dogs which had come to the rescue of humans. In 1907, the Arkansas Gazette reported that a "worthless" dog named Growler had rescued a drowning child near Monticello, whereupon the father of the rescued girl offered $100 for the dog but was rebuffed.

Other rescues involved alerting people to fires or other threats. On a fall day in 1912, a Rogers woman had a seizure and fell into a burning fireplace, whereupon her "faithful young bulldog" ran to the backyard and raised a ruckus sufficient to bring help. Another bulldog saved his master from a house fire in Conway in 1931, though the dog lost his life in the process.

Perhaps the most poignant example of dog loyalty occurred in July 1934 when a 35-year-old man was killed by a hit-and-run driver on a road near De Queen in Sevier County. The man's German shepherd lay by the body for hours until authorities arrived. The dog refused to allow anyone close to the body until the wife of the deceased could be brought to the scene.

Arkansas has always been home to breeders, usually producing hunting dogs. But as time passed, specialty kennels arose in some cities. Perhaps the most prominent was Argyle Kennels, owned by wealthy Little Rock banker C.A. Pratt, one of the nation's early breeders of Saint Bernards.

By 1893, Argyle was home to 22 dogs, all valuable breeding stock. On one occasion Pratt sold three Saint Bernards for $20,000 to a relative of railroad magnet Jay Gould.

Little Rock was too hot for the heavy-coated Saint Bernards, and during the summer of 1895 Pratt took his kennel of dogs to Mount Nebo, a summer resort near Dardanelle for those who could afford it. We do not know if he took dogs with him to Massachusetts, where he owned a summer home.

Pratt dogs, especially a behemoth named Sir Bedivere which weighed 220 pounds and stood three feet in height, took best of show awards in the growing number of shows held in several northern cities.

Formal dog shows were slow to come to Arkansas. The earliest reference I could find was an 1893 effort at the small town of Huntington south of Fort Smith. Information is scarce, but that show was apparently limited to retrievers, and it was not sanctioned by a national kennel authority.

The first show in Arkansas sanctioned by a national kennel club was held in conjunction with the 1910 Arkansas State Fair in Hot Springs. This was a large show, with exhibitors coming from as far away as St. Louis.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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