Dogs in Detroit: From menace to a member of the family

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

Stray dogs roam blighted Detroit streets today, but the danger pales in comparison to the 19th century, when mongrels traveled in large packs through many U.S. cities, especially Detroit.

In 1831 the Michigan Intelligencer wrote, “The number of dogs in Detroit is one of the greatest nuisances in which citizens and strangers can complain. In some parts of the city it is almost impossible for a person to sleep at all through the night on account of the continual barking, yelling and fighting of the dogs.”

Newspapers reported hundreds of dead dogs on the streets, from natural causes or injuries. Early in the 19th century Detroit Common Council ordered the U.S. marshal to shoot to kill stray dogs, a common solution throughout the country. But the dog shooters were seen as part of the problem as well.

“The ‘dog executioners’ are a set of ignorant, stupid, intemperate fellows who have neither discretion, humanity nor a sense of justice. … Valuable dogs have been shot when tied to in the yards of owners, farmers from the interior, unacquainted with our regulations, have had their canine friends shot at their feet … Executioners have been seen intoxicated with arms in their hands … These complaints should be attended to.”

- Michigan Intelligencer, 1832

‘Mad dog’season

In 1912 it was estimated 35,000 homeless dogs roamed Detroit streets. In the spring of that year 70 people had been bitten by dogs, many of them children.

“Theodore Bikel, 22, of Detroit, broke his ankle today in escaping from a mad fox terrier which ran about the district three hours and bit a woman and two men before being shot to death.” — Detroit Free Press, July 14, 1911.

There was a near panic-level fear of rabies, as people on a regular basis reported “mad dogs.” The newspapers even referred to “mad dog season,” which was late summer.

One newspaper reported in 1907: “A mad dog broke up the services in the church. The audience was thrown into a panic by those who saw the snapping, snarling cur enter while F.W. Grawne was preaching. While the congregation huddled in one corner of the room and jammed the doorway in an effort to get out, the sexton with a lantern as a weapon began a desperate battle with the canine in the opposite corner …. The sexton came out victorious.”

Mobs of terrified people would try to encircle rabid dogs to contain and kill them. One collie on Congress Street was chased for several hours and trapped by a patrolman, a group of medical students and a “small army of indignant citizens.” It had bitten seven people in two days.

Some took action on their own.

“A dog owned by a family at the corner of Marcy Street… bit a child on its way from Jefferson School. The mother of the child tied the dog to the fence and with an axe literally chopped the poor brute to pieces on the sidewalk in the presence of a crowd of persons.” – Detroit Free Press, Feb. 1, 1879

No cure for rabies

In the 19th century there was no effective treatment for rabies, called “hydrophobia” then, and many people had witnessed the horrifying symptoms, sometimes in their own children.

Dubious cures were regularly published in newspapers, such as sitting in a hot tub of water or eating raw asparagus before going to bed. A nationally best-selling home medical book published in Ann Arbor in the 1880s by Dr. Alvin Wood Chase advised: “Pour upon the wound a few drops of hydrochloric acid, because mineral acids destroy the poison of the saliva.” (Not to mention human flesh.)

Of course, not all salivating dogs had rabies and some doctors and dog fanciers did not believe in the disease, claiming it was a fiction invented by the newspapers, which fanned the flames of panic with headlines like Policeman Fights Mad Dog in Darkened Cellar - Thrilling Encounter with a Brute. Children Bitten!

One frustrated Detroit veterinarian, Dr. E.E. Patterson, wrote a letter to the editor in 1903: “A few lectures on canine pathology would work wonders for several dog fanciers in this city. Hydrophobia did and still exists in Michigan and the city of Detroit. From my own experience from last summer I hope never to undergo such another, because a man takes his life in his own hands with every case and I had between thirty-five and forty cases at my door …. It is very dangerous to meet any dog upon the street, and I most earnestly advocate the muzzling of all dogs that run at large.”

Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux developed a rabies vaccine in 1885. In 1903 the Pasteur Institute opened a research laboratory and hospital clinic at the University of Michigan. It was the third Pasteur Institute in the U.S.; the first was in New York and the second in Chicago. The institute located in the medical school treated about 10 people a day bitten by rabid dogs. Of course, to be treated at the institute you had to prove you were infected.

To do this you were instructed to not kill the dog but to chain it up for 10 days. If it remained healthy, you were safe. If it showed symptoms of rabies, you were instructed to kill the dog and mail its head to Ann Arbor. If the results were positive you were to report immediately to the Pasteur Institute — assuming you survived killing the rabid dog and waiting for the results.

Stray dog packs were a huge problem in Detroit in the 1800s, some carrying rabies, for which there was no known cure. In 1881 the police department began appointing dog catchers to collect strays in a wagon. Here, a Detroit dog catcher with one of his captives, date unknown.

New occupation: Dog catcher

Dog catchers appeared on streets in the 1880s to address the stray dog problem. Early in 1881 the Detroit Common Council funded a dog wagon — a horse-drawn wagon with a cage for a dog catcher to hold strays and bring them to the dog pound, located on the Detroit River at 19th Street. Unclaimed stray dogs were drowned in a cage, which was considered an improvement over shooting the dogs in the street.

Unlike cities that elected dog catchers, that role in Detroit belonged to the police department. In the summer the police department’s dog catchers brought in as many as 50 stray dogs a day. One summer nearly a thousand dogs per month were dropped off at the pound.

Dog catchers were generally loathed. Boys followed the wagon and threw stones at them. They were chased by mobs, some carrying clubs and guns. At one point dog catchers were paid by the number of dogs caught, and people claimed the dog catchers stole family pets. Some reported that dog catchers snipped off licenses to take a dog into the pound. Unscrupulous dog catchers would snatch popular breeds, like collies, and sell them on the side.

Mrs. Elizabeth Golling, who owned a water spaniel, reported to the Free Press in 1903: “I was sitting on the front porch with the dog lying in front of me when the [dog] wagon went past. It did not stop but pulled up near the corner on Trumbull Avenue. … One of the men commenced to whistling to the dog. I told him to stop and the dog, who is friendly to everyone, jumped into the yard. The man came up on the lawn and grabbed the animal by the ears, and commenced pulling him away. I caught hold of him also, but the man jerked him from my grasp and started for the wagon and dumped him in. I ran after him and tried opening the door, when the man came up and gave me a shove that bruised my arm, and then drove off.”

People had to pay to get their dogs back. There was no telephone at the dog pound, so to claim a missing dog, one had to take the trolley.

The poundmaster in 1905 was Richard Cuthburt, a retired city cop. He had been bitten over 100 times by what he called “ugly dogs,” which resulted in blood poisoning twice. On a really bad bite wound, he would put a poultice of hot bread, milk and chopped onions.

Among the most common visitors to the dog pound were children, who always asked the poundmaster questions about the dogs. “They don’t believe it’s right to kill the nuisances and if they had their way there would be no dog pound,” Cuthburt said.

Working dogs

Until the 1860s dogs that had owners were mostly relegated to farms, sleeping in the barn or under a front porch. They were used for hunting, herding or other specific tasks, such as catching rats. In the city people had dogs to guard their homes.

Occasionally a homeless, unloved cur found some friendship. Among children who spent their days living on the streets during the Victorian Era to the 1930s, dogs were sometimes the loveable sidekick, like the Little Rascals’ pitbull Peety or Little Orphan Annie’s Sandy.

But for the most part, only the European aristocracy or wealthy Victorians owned dogs as pets. During the late 1800s pet dogs were portrayed in newspapers and magazines as ridiculous luxuries for the wealthy.

The pampered dog

The wealthy folks who owned dogs could not find enough luxuries to bestow upon their pets, especially little dogs such as the popular three-pound “muffed Pomeranian.” Newspapers and their readers seemed obsessed with pampered dogs and the behavior of their equally pampered rich mistresses. (The owners were almost always wealthy women.)

It was a world of “Dog’s Toilet Clubs” with manservants and kennel maids in attendance. In Detroit dogs were boarded in the summer as owners traveled or vacationed up north. Dogs sat at the table on silk pillows eating, as one Detroit article described, “creamed chicken and mushrooms with cream and coffee.”

In 1907 the Detroit Free Press visited a canine fashion house in Paris, the epicenter of dog pampering: “On the first floor above the magnificent reception room rows of sewing machines … turn out all manner of garments for every conceivable occasion. There are morning, afternoon and evening outfits with traveling and wedding dresses. There were coats of scarlet silk and velvet with elaborate collars, there are motor goggles to protect the eye, foot warmers and traveling coats. … Some dresses are trimmed with sable, chinchilla, ermine, and mink and the costumes and fur match the mistresses’ own frock or the huge carriage and livery.”

In Detroit in 1891 the newspaper reported that “Mrs. Everhard, the wife of a wealthy brewer, keeps a footman whose exclusive duty it is to care for her five dogs, and those same beasts are driven out every afternoon in a carriage for their precious health.”

Dressing up dogs as human characters was popular in the early 20th century.

A later offshoot of this was the fad of photographing dogs dressed as humorous human characters, such as a bulldog as pipe-smoking, salty old sailor. The unforgettable paintings collectively called “Dogs Playing Poker” showed dogs dressed as people smoking cigars, drinking beer and playing cards. The series began as 16 oil paintings by C.M. Coolidge in 1903 to advertise cigars.

Perhaps the most famous dressed-up dog was Sergeant Stubby, a war hero of World War I who saved his regiment from surprise mustard gas attacks, found and comforted the wounded, and once caught a German soldier by the seat of his pants, holding him there until American soldiers found him. Back home his exploits were front-page news. After the war, Stubby marched in parades across the country and met presidents Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding. He died in 1926.

Changing attitudes

By the late 19th century Detroit’s middle class was beginning to embrace the notion of dogs as pets. The Detroit City Clerk Dog Record included the names of 303 dogs in 1884. Topping the list was Sport, by a clear plurality. Other popular names of the day included Carlo, Gyp, Dan, Frank and Fritz. The bulldog mascot of the fire department, recorded as 23 years old, was named Tom Farrand. A lumbering Great Dane coach dog was named Babe. Among the names the Detroit Free Press found “peculiar” were Dapho, Ola, Tad, Rex, Alcoe, Uno and Crib.

But pet ownership was not as committed a role as it is today. Many people on summer vacations at Great Lakes cottages abandoned dogs or cats in the woods or on islands when it was time to return home at the end of the season. One woman said in October 1904, “I hope someone finds and is good to Dick. He’s been such a good dog all summer.”

“But aren’t you going to take him with you?” a reporter asked.

“Dear me, no,” she said complacently. “He’d track mud all over the house, and everything would be thick with his white hair. Besides, he’s nothing but a mongrel. If I wanted to bother with a dog in the city I should get a thoroughbred.”

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals believed abandoned animals to be such a problem it made an annual rescue of abandoned pets a national cause, claiming part of the problem was people simply let pets roam at will, so when it was time to depart they were nowhere to be found. But the SPCA declared that the bottom line was “a selfishness that prefers to avoid personal inconvenience when traveling,” the New York Herald reported in 1906.

People gradually started to see dogs as companions and by the 1920s many dogs had become indoor pets, eating pre-packaged dog food and sleeping in cozy comfort with their human family.

Detroiters love the dog show

Dog shows exhibiting breeds began to appear in Detroit in the 1870s, about 10 years after the first public shows in London. The first regularly scheduled American benched show, in which a dog is judged for meeting the established standard of its breed and spends the rest of the show on an assigned bench meeting the public, was reported to have been held in Detroit in the late 1870s. Prior to that dog shows were an extension of livestock and cattle shows but became so popular they branched off.

Hunt clubs also showed hunting dogs privately but soon found the public loved them and when breeders began making serious money, they broadened the audience.

Dog shows exhibiting the best of breeds began to appear in Detroit in the 1870s. The Detroit Kennel Club was established in 1916. This DKC show, probably from the 1980s, celebrates those early years with a costumed exhibitor and pair of Borzois.

The Detroit dog shows drew national and international breeders and award-winning dogs from New York and London, featuring between 500 and 600 dogs at Merrill Hall on Woodward between Jefferson and Larned. The first two days were for exhibitors and judges only; on Sunday the public was welcome. The unique qualities of each breed were explained to people as they strolled up and down the aisles admiring the breeds until 10 at night.

A popular event was the trick dogs. The winner in 1887 was Tony from Simcoe, Ontario. Tony played the piano, played dead and performed a variety of jumping tricks.

Some breeds that were popular at the 1887 Detroit dog show have disappeared today, including the Ulmer Dogge, black and tan terrier, English bobland sheepdog and Russian retriever.

‘All women’ shows

American women were not only showing dogs by this time but holding “all women” exhibitors’ dog shows, and were now becoming professional breeders and owning kennels. In the big national shows by 1907 women made up one-quarter of all exhibitors, according to the New York Times.

Women kennel owners won in New York and the most prestigious dog shows in England. They were considered more energized and cosmopolitan than their male counterparts, and credited with expanding the U.S. gene pool for breeds.

As reported in a 1907 article from the Detroit Free Press: “Their choice of dog purchases for their American kennels have included Spaniels from Japan, Chow Chows in China, Samoyeds in Russia, Papillions, Poodles and French Bulldogs in Paris, Great Danes and Dachshunds in Germany, Schipperkes in Holland, Griffons in Belgium, and Russian Wolfhounds in St. Petersburg.”

By the 20th century some contended that Detroit had more fine show dogs than any city in the U.S. The Detroit Kennel Club, which will mark its 100th anniversary in 2016, was one of the largest benched dog shows in the country for most of its history.

Back at that 1887 Detroit dog show, the public was introduced to a new product: “dog biscuits.” Made of corn meal, oatmeal, wheat flour and finely chopped meat bound together with molasses and then baked, they were a big hit with the dog-loving crowd. A reporter covering the event wrote: “They are not only good for dogs, but may be relished by human beings.”