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Napoleon got it right about dogs

A loyal dog stands guard over a Marine. Iwo Jima, February 1945. Photo: Staff Sergeant M. Kauffman, USMC, via Wikimedia Commons.

My friend, the writer Chuck Hirshberg, emailed me a quote he knew I would love. After a victory against the Austrians in 1796, Napoleon had walked onto the battlefield, which was still covered with the bodies of men who were dead or dying, and he recorded a scene that profoundly moved him.

“In the deep silence of a beautiful moonlit night, a dog, leaping suddenly from beneath the clothes of his dead master rushed upon us and then immediately returned to his hiding-place, howling piteously. He alternately licked his master’s hand, and again flew at us, as if at once soliciting aid and seeking revenge. Whether owing to my own particular turn of mind at that moment, the time, the place, or the action itself, I know not, but certainly no incident on any field of battle ever produced so deep an impression on me. This man, thought I, perhaps has friends in the camp or in his company, and here he lies, forsaken by all except his dog.”

Despite slight variations in translations, the message is the same. Though he had seen horrors and great acts of bravery in war, it was the fierce loyalty of this dog that made Napoleon cry. Was it the purity of this dog’s grief? Or that we can sometimes express our deepest emotions more easily in the company of animals?

I’m not sure I understand or can explain exactly why Napoleon was so moved, or why I am so taken with the fact that he was. There is still such mystery to be found in the bond between people and animals. But one thing I am certain of: We are so lucky to have animals in our lives. They provide us with gifts that we have appreciated for thousands of years, but are just starting to measure in the lab. Science shows that animals lower our blood pressure and cholesterol, boost our immunity, and increase our levels of a happy bonding hormone called oxytocin. They decrease our sense of loneliness. They keep us safe from danger and help us when we’re sick. But even that is just a tiny fraction of the things they do to make our lives better.

And they do it often in ways that fellow human beings can’t. Your sister might not know when you’re going to have a seizure, but a special service dog does. Even “regular” dogs have special powers. A study from the State University of New York at Buffalo Medical School, for instance, suggests your dog can be of more comfort to you than your spouse in stressful situations.

Occasionally we hear the gripe that some of us in society love animals too much, and we are accused of choosing pets over people.

The truth is that for many of us, pets bring more humans into our lives. Many studies show that dogs facilitate social interactions with other people and serve as social bridges. That’s an academic way of saying what lots of us, especially those with a shy streak, already know—animals help us make friends. And as Napoleon points out so movingly, animals themselves can be the most loyal of companions.

–Vicki Croke


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