Man has often gazed at the stars, and dreamt of flying into space. The imagination of Science Fiction writers from HG Wells to Isaac Asimov were full of stories where man had taken their first steps into space travel. Little did they know that it wasn’t man that would first touch the stars, but man’s best friend.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, the USA and Russia were engaged in ‘The Space Race’. Both sides were determined to become the first the conquer space. During their early attempts at space exploration, the Russian premier, President Nikita Khrushchev was delighted with the positive reaction he and the USSR gained by their space exploration. Seizing an opportunity to outdo their American rivals, the Russians decided to take the race one step further and be the first nation to send a living creature into space.
The Russians decided that dogs were the best creature to travel into space, rather than the chimpanzees or monkeys chosen for the the American space programme. There were many early tests of sub orbital flights where dogs were used, and safely returned to earth. Special space suits were designed, and the dogs were trained to be able to stand still in confined spaces for long periods of time.
In this section, you'll learn more about some of the most significant missions that paved the way for human exploration of space.
It doesn’t matter whether a dog is big or small, a stray, an unwanted ruffian or a pampered pet, the thing that singles them out is their loyalty and bravery.
Even though we are talking about dogs in wartime, these stories aren’t all about highly trained dogs who have had specific training regimens - there are dogs who have acted on their own initiative. Even dogs such as Peter, who had training to find humans, also wanted to help any creature trapped, rescuing an African Grey Parrot in the course of his work. Time and again, without being asked, these dogs knew instinctively how and when to react in particular situations. Saving their colleagues, friends and strangers, they possess a bravery that very few humans can ever match.
It seems that no matter how many amazing feats and life saving tasks dogs perform for us, people will still say things like ‘you can’t bond with an older dog’, ‘they need to be a puppy to train them’ or simply that ‘strays are no good’ they’re ignoring some of the most loyal, brave and amazing dogs in the world.
And if they don’t believe you, just the story of Sergeant Stubby, the stray whose dedication, bravery and fortitude saved many lives, should be more than enough to convince them.
The first creature from Earth to orbit the Earth in space was Laika, a stray found on the streets of Moscow. On the 3rd of November 1957, she made history - in more ways than one.
Her trip was always planned by the Russian scientists as a one-way ticket - there was no return contingency. It is believed that in the atmosphere of wanting to beat the Americans to putting an animal in space as quickly as possible, Laika’s mission was rushed, with no plan to bring Laika back to Earth.
The Russians had presented Laika as a national hero, parading her in front of the Russian people, and treating Laika as a celebrity before her trip to become the first animal to orbit the Earth.
However, when it was revealed that there she died in orbit and there was no plan to bring her home, this carefully planned PR stunt backfired. There was widespread condemnation throughout the world. And while some of this would be the rivarly between east and west, the Russian people where horrified by Laika's fate.
The USSR had created a heroine in Laika, and then allowed her to die, all in the space of a few weeks. Whilst the USSR and the Russian President would usually ignore negative reactions, the strength of feeling for Laika was much more than they ever anticipated.
Such was the sensitivity of the issue, it was only in 2002, that the true nature of Laika’s death was officially revealed. Until then, the Russians maintained that Laika died in space due to her Oxygen running out. The real reason was that Laika had died only a few hours after takeoff due to stress and heat exhaustion. A sad end for a very brave dog.
Due to the backlash of public opinion, Laika became the only dog sent into space by the Russians where they did not have a plan for bringing them back home. In her own way, Laika ensured the safe return of other canine cosmonauts. Sadly, whilst other dogs did die as a consequence of the Russian Space Program, those fatalities were as a result of unforeseen technical problems. In the atmosphere of the space race, such accidents claimed the lives of many human cosmonauts and astronauts too.
At a Moscow press conference in 1998 Oleg Gazenko, a senior Soviet scientist involved in the project, later came to regret his role in Laika’s death and stated "The more time passes, the more I'm sorry about it. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.”
Fortunately, the sad end of Laika’s story was not repeated by all canine space explorers. The vast majority of those used by the Russians thankfully returned to Earth safely.
The story of Sergeant Stubby sounds like the exploits of a dog from a newspaper cartoon serial; from a stray dog who appeared at the New Haven Connecticut military training camp he became a genuine World War I hero who even caught German Spies!
No one knows where Stubby originally came from. There is a lot of speculation over Stubby’s breed; but certainly his size and build made him look like a bull terrier of some sort. Whatever his history or breed, Stubby found his way to the military training camp in Connecticut.
He would regularly come to watch the training drills, and became a familiar face that the soldiers enjoyed seeing around. One of the soliders, Private Robert Conroy struck up a friendship with Stubby, and even trained him funny little tricks, such as raising his paw as if to salute officers as they walked past. Being a very clever little dog, Stubby enjoyed watching (and no doubt joining in) the military drills and exercises.
When it was time for the troops to ship out, to join the fight in Europe, Private Conroy could not bear to leave Stubby behind. Risking his career, Conroy smuggled Stubby aboard the ship. Mascots were not allowed to be on the front lines, and so smuggling a dog aboard against the rules and regulations was a serious offence. It was just a matter of time before Stubby was discovered, and so when Conroy’s Commanding Officer found that Stubby had been brought aboard Conroy feared the worst. However, Conroy should have known better.
Stubby certainly didn’t let a little issue like a Commanding Officer be a problem. As a well-trained little soldier Stubby remembered his ‘military training’ back in Connecticut, and Stubby immediately saluted the Officer. According to Conroy, the Commanding Officer was so impressed that he allowed Stubby to stay on board.
Stubby served for 18 months in France as part of the 102nd Infantry. Despite being under constant fire night and day, Stubby participated in 17 battles and four offensives. During one attack, Stubby was gassed, but survived. This experience taught him how to recognise the danger of gas attacks, and from then on he would alert his fellow soldiers, saving many lives in the process.
His life-saving skills didn’t stop there - Stubby would locate and rescue soldiers from the dangerous environment of no-mans land.
Stubby was also able to alert his fellow infantrymen when shells were incoming before any of the other solider could hear them coming.
If all of those feats weren’t enough reason to commend Stubby as an indispensable member of the war effort, he was also responsible for apprehending a German Spy by biting and holding him by the seat of his trousers!
The bravery and intelligence of Stubby seemed to have no limits, and the story of his exploits were well-known throughout allied territory. When US soldiers helped retake Château-Thierry, the townsfolk were so grateful, they made Stubby a coat made out of Chamois on which his many campaign medals could be hung.
It was during a raid in 1918 that Stubby was injured, and sent to the rear of the lines to recover. Undaunted by his injuries, Stubby simply would not go off duty. Stubby infectious personality and now-famous heroics were vital in improving the morale of injured personnel, just as he had done with the active soldiers while on the front lines.
When Stubby had fully recovered from his injuries, seemingly undaunted, he returned to front line duty.
Thanks to his exploits and medals, he was now known as “Sergeant” Stubby. It wasn’t just Stubby who had received a promotion; Conroy was now a Corporal.
Despite Stubby’s heroic actions, Conroy still had to smuggle Stubby back to America when their tour of duty was over.
Unbeknown to Sergeant Stubby, he had become something of a celebrity in his absence. The tales of his adventures had been recounted to an adoring public in newspaper reports during the war. Such was his popularity, he met a number of US Presidents; Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren G. Harding.
Sergeant Stubby even became the team mascot of Georgetown Hoyas’ baseball team after Conroy and Stubby attended Georgetown University Law Centre. At games, Stubby was given the football during halftime and would entertain the crowd with his antics.
Sergeant Stubby passed away in the arms of Conroy in 1926. He is honoured with a brick in the United States World War I monument the “Wall of Honor”. His preserved remains are still featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian.
It is amazing to think that an unwanted stray animal (whose breed is often denigrated these days), saved countless lives, became a war hero, and it still celebrated to this day.
Damka and Krasavka proved to be very hardy dogs when they were planned to make an orbital flight on 22 December 1960 as a part of the Vostok programme. Like other early space exploration, their mission was dogged by a catalogue of technical problems and failures.
After takeoff, the upper stage rocket failed, and it started to plunge back to Earth. Protocols put in place for such an eventuality failed; the ejection system (meant to eject the dogs in a capsule and then parachute back to Earth) failed, and so did the self-destruct system which was supposed to be initialised after ejection.
The craft had a secondary back up self-destruct, set for 60 hours after the return of the craft to Earth. With this window of opportunity, a rescue team was quickly dispatched to try and rescue the capsule’s inhabitants. No doubt aware of the public feeling over the canine cosmonauts, they were keen to act swiftly. As a consequence, the capsule was discovered quite quickly, but the failing light and minus 45 degree temperatures hampered their efforts to disarm the self-destruct mechanism.
The combination of the heavy impact and viciously cold temperatures left the rescue team believing that there was no hope of recovering the dogs alive from the capsule. The heavy snow and frost on the windows made it impossible for the team to tell if any creatures had survived, and so could only report that no signs of life were apparent.
On the second day, the team worked feverishly to disarm the self-destruct and open the capsule. Upon opening the capsule, barking was heard, and both dogs were recovered. They were wrapped in blankets and furs and flown back to Moscow immediately. They were cold and shaken from their ordeal, but apparently recovered fairly quickly, given their ordeal.
In fact, Oleg Gazenko (the senior scientist who regretted the death of Laika), adopted Krasavka and she was well enough to mother a litter of puppies during her lifetime. Krasavka lived for another 14 years, until her death, with the Gazenko family. As with much of Soviet-era information, there are as yet, no references to where Damka was rehomed.
Bamse was born to be a seadog, and was named after the Norwegian word for ‘Teddy-bear’. His owner was the Captain of the whale catcher Thorodd, and was used to sea-going life from an early age.
Due to the beginning of the Second World War, the Throdd was conscripted as a coastal patrol vessel by the Royal Norweigan Navy. Shortly before the complete Nazi occupation of Norway, the Throdd was able to escape to the United Kingdom. By this time, Bamse had already been enrolled as an official member of the crew.
The Thorodd was converted into a minesweeper, and Bamse had a vital role. During battle, Bamse would stand on the front gun tower of the boat, as if guiding his troops. The crew decided to make Bamse a special metal helmet he could wear into such battles.
Bamse had a strong strong sense of responsibility, and appeared to take on the role of ship security. Not only did he take on the task of ensuring the crew’s safety (he once pushed a knife-wielding assailant into the sea to stop them attacking a young Lieutenant Commander), but he would also break up fights by jumping up and putting his large paws onto the shoulders, claiming them down and leading them back to the Thorodd. He was also responsible for dragging a young sailor who had fallen overboard, back to safety.
During his time in Scotland, Bamse took it upon himself to ensure the crew were present and correct if they went missing. He was well known for rounding up the crew in time for duty. This was no small task - he would take the local buses into Dundee, find the crew and bring them back again. So accomplished at this, Bamse was unaccompanied on these trips, and so the crew bought him his own buss pass, which hung from his collar. On the occassions he could not locate his crew, he would take the return trip back to base - no doubt he didn’t want to fall foul of the curfew.
Due to his bravery and impressive sense of professionalism, Bamse first was awarded the honour of becoming the mascot of the Royal Norwegian Navy. It was probably inevitable that he also become the mascot of all the Free Norwegian Forces.
On the 22nd of July 1944, Bamse died on the docks at Montrose of heart failure. Such was his effect on the his naval comrades, Bamse was buried with full military honours. According to reports, hundreds of servicemen, sailors, and local residents of Dundee and Montrose of all ages attended his funeral.
Even to this day, the Royal Norwegian Navy holds a commemorative ceremony every ten years. In 2006 HRH The Duke of York unveiled a bronze statue of Bamse, crafted by Scottish sculptor Alan Herriot.
Sources seem unclear as to whether Bamse was a male or female, but his official website describes him as male, although other sources believe from photographs, that ‘he’ was a ‘she’. Whatever gender, there’s no argument that Bamse was a big, brave dog with a huge heart.
Some of the Soviet Space Dogs even managed to form a bridge of sorts between the USA and Russia, at a time of very high tensions. Belka and Strelka were Space day-trippers, spending a 24 hours in space aboard Korabl-Sputnik in 1960 before safely returning to Earth.
At the Russian research facility, a dog named Pushok was involved in many earthbound experiments, but did not travel into space himself. The space suits for the dogs were designed exclusively for females, so he was never going to go into orbit himself. However, Pushok certainly discovered some perks of being one of the few males in the program, and used the opportunity to romance Strelka. He and Strelka produced six puppies.
The Russian President, Nikita Khrushchev presented one of these puppies, named “Pushinka” to Caroline Kennedy - the daughter of the US President, John F. Kennedy. It is said that she was allowed to live at the White House - but only after being checked for Spy equipment first! After first having a thorough examination (no doubt a CIA operation!) Pushinka did not have any interest in maintaining the Cold War between Russia and America, and forged her own bond by partaking in a US-Soviet joint project - having four puppies fathered by one of the Kennedy’s dogs - Charlie.
It is said that JFK himself referred to the offspring jokingly as “pupniks”. Pushinka's legacy still exists to this day, her descendants are alive and well. The Zvezda Museum outside Moscow pays tribute to her by displaying a photo of some of her descendants in the exhibit.
A dog doesn’t have to be as big as a St. Bernard to make a difference in wartime. During World War II, Smoky, a small Yorkshire Terrier was found down a foxhole in New Guinea. It seems amazing that such a small breed, that had largely become unfashionable by this time, would be stray in the jungles of New Guinea!
The soliders who first found Smoky believed that she must have belonged to the Japanese. This idea was quickly discounted when it become clear that she didn’t understand Japanese or English. One of the soliders that found Smoky, needing money to fund a poker game, sold Smoky to Corporal William A Wynne for two Australian Dollars. This must have been the best spent $2 by Corporal Wynne.
Throughout the rest of the war, Smoky was Wynne’s constant companion on treks through inhospitable terrain and stifling weather conditions. She even accompanied Wynne on a dozen air combat or reconnaissance missions in the Pacific. At one point, Smoky even parachuted 30ft from a tree, using a parachute made especially for her. She saved lives on many occassions warning the troop of incoming air attacks before anyone else could hear a thing. On one occassion, Smoky guided Wynne away from a particular spot on the ship’s deck - moments later a shell hit that section, killing eight fellow servicemen.
Smoky’s bravery and trust in Corporal Wynne made her a vital component during the building of an Airbase in Lingayen Gulf, Luzon. The Signal Corps needed to run a telegraph wire through a 70-foot-long pipe that was just 8 inches in diameter. Due to the conditions, a significant amount of soil had come through the joints of the pipes, making access almost impossible for the engineers. Corporal Wynne, appearing on NBC-TV after the war, recounted the story:
“I tied a string to Smoky's collar and ran to the other end of the culvert. Smoky made a few steps in and then ran back. `Come, Smoky,' I said sharply, and she started through again. When she was about 10 feet in, the string caught up and she looked over her shoulder as much as to say `what's holding us up there?' The string loosened from the snag and she came on again. By now the dust was rising from the shuffle of her paws as she crawled through the dirt and mold and I could no longer see her. I called and pleaded, not knowing for certain whether she was coming or not. At last, about 20 feet away, I saw two little amber eyes and heard a faint whimpering sound . . . at 15 feet away, she broke into a run. We were so happy at Smoky's success that we patted and praised her for a full five minutes.”
The simple role that Smoky played in this could not be underestimated - the runway, piping and surrounding area would have had to been dug up, has Smoky not succeeded. This would have required many hundreds of servicemen, engineers and other ground crew to be vulnerable from enemy bombings, not to mention the number of reconnaissance planes necessary to try and keep the area safe. It was estimated that the work would have taken anything to to three days - a task Smoky accomplished in just a few minutes.
Despite her clear importance and value to the soldiers, Smoky wasn’t an ‘official’ war dog, and so didn’t qualify for her own rations. Corporal Wynne would share his rations with her, and even made her a special blanket from some green card table felt.
Her talents didn’t end there. Smoky also performed a role as what is to be believed as the first official ‘therapy dog’. Still in New Guinea, she accompanied nurses to try and lift the spirits of casualties from the Biak Island invasion. Smoky was already well known, which ensured her special status. She performed this role for 12 years, long after the war ended.
After the end of the war, Smoky became something of a celebrity, appearing over 40 times on American television performing tricks, and entertaining millions of viewers.
After a long career of danger, and finally adoration of millions, Smoky passed away in 1957 at the approximate age of 14. On November the 11th 2005, a bronze life size statue of Smoky was unveiled at the Rocky River Reservation, Lakewood, Ohio - her final resting place. The statue depicts Smoky wearing a GI helmet. The monument is dedicated to “Smoky, the Yorkie Doodle Dandy, and the Dogs of All Wars".
Smoky was beloved far and wide, and there are no less than six memorials to this brave little Yorkie in the United States alone.
“I am in favor of animal rights as well as human rights. That is the way of a whole human being.”
- Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
“A lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me.”
- Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States
There are many thousands of people who enjoy sharing their lives with a rescue dog. It is a rewarding, fulfilling experience to know that you’re living with a dog who has been let down by a human already, and you’re helping to right that wrong.
If you are living with a rescue dog, it’s very important to make sure that you’re not doing your little friend a dis-service. Some of them may have gone through terrible experiences, and others may well have just needed to find a new home through no fault of their own.
It’s sad that the term ‘rescue dog’ seem have a stigma attached - it suggests to many people that there must be something wrong with this particular dog, otherwise they wouldn’t be in a rescue situation. It’s probably more accurate to consider them as dogs that haven’t found a permanent home yet.
Many dogs come into rescue purely because the owners did not understand what they were taking on when they were seduced by a small, cute puppy. After the initial novelty has worn off, the reality of house training and the responsibility that comes with sharing your home with an animal can become too much.
In other cases, a much beloved family pet can come into rescue because of a bereavement, or a change in circumstances. Sadly, when members of the family lose their job, it is often the pets who are the first ‘cost cutting’ measure.
Sometimes dogs are just found as a stray, and there’s nothing known about them whatsoever. No microchip or identifying tags mean that if no-one comes forward to claim them, the local pound must either find a rescue space for them, or have them put to sleep.
As the Russians pushed the boundaries more and more, space exploring dogs continued to break records. Veterok and Ugolyok spent a record-breaking 22 consecutive days in orbit, before landing back safely on Earth on the 16th of March 1966. It took another five years until the Soyuz 11 mission in 1971 for humans to surpass this feat.