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Dogs inhabit a trusted but secondary position in world events. After all, humans write the history books. Dogs are only interested in making their mark on trees and fire hydrants. But at certain points through history, the dog has taken center stage and made his own mark – in ink that is.
The Checkers Speech
In 1952, Richard M. Nixon's political career rested on a speech he gave that ranged from how the Democrats "lost 600 million people to communism" to the cloth that made up his wife's coat.
But the famous speech will forever be known as the "Checkers speech," the name of the black and white, spotted cocker spaniel his daughter owned. The mention of the dog lasted only a minute, but it welled sympathy for Nixon, who, as vice presidential candidate, was under attack for accepting private donations.
Checkers was one of those donations, Nixon said. "And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it," he said.
By the time Nixon gained the White House in 1970, the little dog had passed on. But his memory still lives as one of the most famous pets in history, for helping to revive the career of one of the most famous presidents in history.
Fala Defends the President
Eight years before Checkers saved Nixon's career, another dog earned his place in electoral history. Fala, a Scottish terrier, belonged to Franklin Roosevelt and traveled with him everywhere. The dog was present at many historical moments in Roosevelt's 12 years as president.
In 1944, at the height of World War II, Roosevelt was running for an unprecedented fourth term as president. The president's political enemies spread a story that he had sent a destroyer to the Aleutian Islands just to pick up his dog.
In a speech, he responded: "These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. … They now include my little dog Fala. … I don't resent attacks, and my family doesn't resent attacks. But Fala does resent them. His Scotch soul was furious. He has never been the same dog since."
Though the speech was noted at the time for Roosevelt's own mud-slinging (he compared the tactics of his opponents to those of Hitler's), that part was soon forgotten. Fala lived on, however, and Roosevelt soundly defeated his opponent.
Incidentally, Fala was present for the historic signing of the Atlantic Charter, the document that outlined Allied war aims and set the foundation of the United Nations. (Winston Churchill's poodle, Rufus, also witnessed the signing.)
Chips: A One-Canine Battalion
During World War II, dogs were pressed into service as guards and scouts. The most famous was Chips, a part-collie, part-German shepherd. Chips would have gone down as the most decorated dog in history, but his medals caused an uproar among the American public.
A member of General George Patton's Third Army, Chips waded ashore at Sicily with the other "dog faces" (a somewhat disparaging term used by other branches of the military to describe army soldiers). The soldiers established a beachhead and began moving inland. Resistance was light.
An enemy machine gun nest suddenly opened up, however. Chips, unmindful of his safety, lunged into the nest even though a bullet had already pierced his body. When American soldiers came up to Chips, he had one enemy soldier by the throat. The rest had either fled or surrendered.
The lieutenant in charge of the platoon recommended Chips for a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, citing how "his courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine-gun nest and causing the surrender of its crew had prevented injury and death to his men."
But the public was outraged. So much blood was being spilled that it appeared unseemly to bestow medals on a dog that couldn't understand the sacrifices that were being made. Undeterred, members of his unit awarded Chips with a theater ribbon that commemorated his involvement in the Sicily campaign. Chips would serve in seven more bitter battles.
Chips' glory continued. He helped guard Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. It's rumored that he even took a nip at General Dwight Eisenhower – perhaps the dog was upset at losing his Silver Star after all.
Laika the "Mutt-nik"
Atomic weapons had rendered war between the United States and the Soviet Union unthinkable. Competition centered in economic and technological arenas.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite. The launch caused hysteria in the United States – the Soviets had beaten the Americans into the space! They pressed ahead with "manned" flights to keep up the string of space "firsts."
Two months later, Sputnik II carried the first living being into space – the dog Laika. She was wired with sensors and transmitters to let Soviet scientists monitor her condition. Unfortunately, in the rush to send the first earth creature into space, no provision had been made to return Laika.
Laika (Russian for "Bark") was a stray. Her calm nature and easy-going personality were perfect for the program. She was trained to ignore the roar of engines and the motions of the rocket on which she traveled.
This second launch – with an earth creature no less – was considered another blow to the United States, which was struggling to overcome a string of spectacular failures in its own program. The blow spurred Americans to redouble efforts, and eventually led to the Manned Moon program.
Nevertheless, Laika captured the hearts of Americans because the dog's fate was hermetically sealed in a capsule traveling 18,000 miles per hour, 900 miles above the surface of the earth. The press called her "Mutt-nik," and people followed the Soviet reports on her condition. The capsule eventually reentered the atmosphere and burned up.
Subsequent space flights with dogs included a return vehicle, and many did return safely. But Laika was the first. In 1997, Russia unveiled a memorial at the Institute for Aviation and Space Medicine in Moscow.
Other Notable Canines
Although the fate of nations did not turn on the following dogs, they did earn a niche in history or legend.
Saur: King of Norway
Saur was a dog that belonged to the king of Norway in the 11th century. The king was deposed, but returned to power. He was angry, however, at the insult to his dignity, so he crowned his dog "king" for three years, and demanded that he be treated royally.
Rin Tin Tin
Rescued from the trenches of World War I, this German shepherd rose to become Warner Bros.' top draw in the early 1920s. His success earned him the name "the mortgage lifter" by his grateful human colleagues.
Balto, a Siberian husky, led the famous 650-mile run from Nenana to Nome to deliver diphtheria serum in 1925. The run has become the famous annual Iditarod race.