OPINION | OLD NEWS: Arkansans amazed in 1922 by dogs that listened to phone calls

From the Feb. 15, 1922, Arkansas Gazette, detail in an ad for O.K. Houk Piano Co.,  311 Main St., Little Rock.  (Decmocrat-Gazette archives)
From the Feb. 15, 1922, Arkansas Gazette, detail in an ad for O.K. Houk Piano Co., 311 Main St., Little Rock. (Decmocrat-Gazette archives)

As 1921 rattled into 1922, the editors of the Arkansas Gazette became enchanted with the idea that dogs were using telephones.

It appears to have started with a stringer's report from Mountain Home. The Dec. 15, 1921, Gazette told the story of Charles Cole, a farmer, and his remarkable dog. This dog had taken to loafing around the telephone exchange in town.

We don't know what shape or color dog he was, just that he liked to loaf.

One day, his owner wanted to go hunting with him and so called the phone exchange and asked the operator to send the dog home. She tried, but the dog wouldn't budge.

Finally, she coaxed him to the board and held the receiver to his ear while his master whistled and called to him. Barking loudly, the dog leaped from the chair and bounded away.

Fifteen minutes later, Cole called back to report his dog was home. the Gazette explained:

"Now when Cole wants his dog, all he has to do is to call the operator."

The next week, the editorial page repeated that story and added another:

An unnamed man was in an unnamed city when he telephoned his home in the country. His dog happened to be in the same room as the telephone but seated far across the room.

"Even at that distance, the ears of the dog detected his master's voice, and he leapt into the air and barked, although his master was not calling him."

How presumptuous these dogs can be. But that was not the editor's opinion or his point. Here's his point:

"These cases suggest experiments that might be made with telephones and dogs."

The editor urged readers to go forth and experiment on dogs and report back. The essay ended:

"But to avoid embarrassment, we wish in advance to express the hope that none of our readers will send us a story about a dog that has the habit of going to the telephone, pushing the receiver off its hook with his nose, and then insistently barking until someone gets the number of his master and permits him to bark a conversation over the line."

In short order, a letter to the editor poured in. The Dec. 23, 1922, Gazette printed this letter from reader Perry Boone. (The word "call" refers to the particular clatter made by a telegraph apparatus when someone was sending a message to that station. See arkansasonline.com/13dot).

The reader wrote:

"Many years ago, I was sent to relieve a telegraph operator who owned a very intelligent bird dog that was left in my care during the month's vacation taken by the owner. The dog had been raised at this depot and office from puppyhood, and to my surprise and to my great benefit, I found that he knew the office call and if I did not answer the wire promptly, would become restless, and if I was outside attending other duties, he would come for me and make the fact known that I was wanted on the wire.

"Upon investigation, I found that the owner had slept on a cot in the office several months in order to perform telegraph service for several switch engines that made up irregular night trains of coal near the station, and the dog had learned that when the telegraph sounder made a certain kind of noise, his master always hopped to it, so that in time the dog took it upon himself to see that the master did hop when the call came.

"I played 'possum,' on the dog several times to test his ability, and he never failed to pull the cover off and proceeded to chew me up if I did not answer, and he never in a single instance called me to the office with a false alarm.

"When the owner returned a month later, I had become so much attached to the assistant operator that I kissed him an affectionate goodbye and handed him the finest beefsteak I could buy. Like Carlyle, the more I know of men (in Little Rock) the better I like dogs."

He closes with "the dog stands first in our hearts."

Which, as historian Tom Dillard recounted in two of his columns in September, wasn't universally true. To learn more about Arkansans' special history with their dogs, see arkansasonline.com/13dillard and arkansasonline.com/13dillard2.

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Here is another letter to the same editor, this one published Dec. 3, 100 years ago today (assuming you are reading this Jan. 3, 2022):

"About five years ago, I owned a very fine pointer named Booth. He was very large and one of the most sensible dogs I ever knew.

"I lived on a farm two miles south of Harrison, but I had lent my dog to my nephew, Wirt Watkins, who lived about seven miles from me.

"One night I concluded to call my nephew and have him to bring or send the dog home. When I called, the dog was in the room, and as soon as I called Mr. Watkins said, 'Booth is here and hearing you talk,' I immediately recognized his barking like he always did when he would see me after a few days absence. I then spoke to the dog and said: 'Come here, Booth, Booth, come home.'

"My nephew let him out of the house without anything further being said or done. And in less than an hour he was at my door."

The reader, George J. Crump, added that Booth lived to be 13 and died on Armistice Day 1918.

Not to be outdone, a Little Rock resident, Aaron Canada of 1600 Cedar St., brought his dog, Joy, physically into the newspaper office. Canada claimed that this little dog understood whole conversations delivered by phone.

He was told to "prove it."

Canada took Joy into another part of the Gazette building and left him there. Back in the newsroom, he called the office where he left Joy and asked that the dog be put on the phone.

"Here, Joy, here, come to me this minute," Canada said and whistled into the phone.

As he replaced the receiver, the dog bounded into the newsroom.


These stories are not amazing to Arkansans in the second decade of the 21st century, when we chat with our dogs via Zoom and Facetime. But phone dogs sure did excite Arkansans in 1922 -- enough that someone named Roscoe S. West copied these same stories out of the Gazette for an article in the March 1922 "Our Dumb Animals," a magazine by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

West did credit the Gazette and changed a line here or there. Read his version at arkansasonline.com/13roscoe.

I know about "Our Dumb Animals" because, in addition to dogs on Zoom, today we have glowing boxes that fetch information. "Wirt" is an unusual name, and so I typed "Wirt Watkins" into my information-fetching box. Up came the name of a big secessionist politician of the 19th century. A few more taps informed me that old William Wirt Watkins (1826-1898) married into a family named Crump (see arkansasonline.com/13wirt and also arkansasonline.com/13crump).

So, could be that Crump's nephew Wirt was named after an ardent opponent of President Abraham Lincoln — which also might explain the name of Crump's amazing dog, Booth.

But we can hope not.



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