5 Not-So-Famous Firsts, Doggy Style

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1. The First Leader Dogs

The first modern attempt at training dogs to help the visually impaired occurred just after World War I in Germany. Many soldiers were returning from the Front blinded from the effects of poison gas. That's when Dr. Gerhard Stalling got the idea to train German Shepherds to assist the country's visually impaired veterans. His successful results inspired the founding of a specialized training school for guide dogs  in Potsdam, where an average of 12 fully-trained dogs graduated each month and were then matched with blind people from all walks of life (not just military veterans). The concept spread stateside when Dorothy Harrison Eustis, an American living in Switzerland, wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post. Upon hearing of the article, Morris Frank, a young blind man living in Tennessee, wrote to Mrs. Eustis and asked for help in obtaining a dog. Soon after, he traveled to Switzerland and trained with Buddy, a German Shepherd, who became the first American Guide Dog when the duo returned to the States.

2. The First Royal Corgi

Queen Elizabeth II owns the world's most pampered pack of Welsh corgis. Her Majesty personally scoops the royal dog chow into sterling silver dishes for her favorite pets and when recently shopping for a new car turned down a sporty Jaguar in favor of a Daimler Super Eight limousine so that her pups had room to stretch out. The four corgis currently residing at Buckingham Palace are all descendants of Susan, the dog that was given to then-Princess Elizabeth by her father, King George VI, in 1944 as an 18th birthday present. The Queen is also credited with introducing a new hybrid to dogdom, the dorgi, after one of her corgis had an illicit affair with Princess Margaret's dachshund, Pipkin. Her Majesty now has four dorgis in her inner circle of favored pets as well.

3. First Postage Pup

The first animal to be pictured on a postage stamp anywhere in the world was a Newfoundland. The half-cent stamp was issued in 1887 by the government of Newfoundland, which was not yet a province of Canada. The Newf also has the honor of being the first dog to be pictured on a postage stamp alongside a reigning monarch. The hardy, sturdy, hard-working Newfoundland was truly a service dog in its native land; during harsh winters, the dogs could pull carts loaded with Royal Mail over treacherous terrain inaccessible to horses or motor vehicles. In acknowledgement of their service, King George VI commissioned a postage stamp in 1937 on which he shared face space with the gentle giant.

4. First Top Dog

The Westminster Dog show is older than the American Kennel Club, the governing body that determines the standards for each breed today. (Actually, since the first Westminster show was held in 1877, it is also older than the electric light bulb, the Brooklyn Bridge and the ballpoint pen.) Since there was no established set of breed standards at the time, the first Westminster show was not limited to purebreds. And there were no "Champion Chin-Up White Tie for Dinner"-type names on the roster; most of the entrants had refreshingly simple names like Duke and Nellie. Westminster introduced the coveted Best in Show prize in 1907. The winner that year was a smooth fox terrier named Warren Remedy. The Blue Ribbon bitch (I mean that in the doggie sense) went on to win Best in Show in the next two Westminster shows, making her the only three-time winner in the history of the competition.

5. First Matinee Idol

Rin Tin Tin owes his career to Etzel von Oeringen, who, despite the impressive-sounding name, was not a human of royal lineage but a fellow German Shepherd. Etzel was born in Germany in 1917 and was the offspring of an undefeated champion work, police, and attack dog sire. Etzel earned many dog show championships in Europe before he was sold to an American kennel owner at the age of three. His impressive size and regal carriage caught the attention of Hollywood animal trainer/film director Larry Trimble, who hired the pooch after he demonstrated extraordinary agility (despite his size) as well as the ability to follow commands. Etzel was re-christened "Strongheart" and ultimately starred in five films during the 1920s. Strongheart became so popular that he was photographed dining on steak at New York's finest restaurants and also had a brand of dog food (still available today) named after him.

May 27, 2010 - 2:41pm
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