Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Opinion: The O'Donovans were barking up the right tree with 'pull like a dog' line

O'Donovan Brothers
O'Donovan Brothers
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Among the few good Irish memories from the Rio Olympics are those of Gary and Paul O'Donovan. Not only for winning the country's first rowing medal but also for their humorous, uninhibited interviews.

They were refreshing; in an era when elite sportspeople, who often look like dull automatons, fleshed by an amalgam of training regimes, diets etc, regularly roll out banalities.

The phrase that grabbed the attention was their simple strategy to "close your eyes and pull like a dog".

It's already made its way into the Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases which says it "can be used when analogizing an exerted effort for attaining an insurmountable goal."

This got me thinking about the use of animals and particularly dogs for emphasis in our speech.

There are a few happy, positive sayings: 'as happy as a dog with two tails', 'as fit as a butcher's dog'. But the context is often pejorative or negative i.e. 'as sick as a dog', 'as crooked as a dog's hind leg', 'dog-tired', 'dog in the manger', 'dog's breakfast', 'go to the dogs', 'dog Latin'.

There are several expressions of 'sick as a …' from the 18th and 19th centuries but the 'dog' one dates back to 17th century.

This may be because dogs, like other animals of the genus Canis, are habitual regurgitators. This has to do with their hunting as a pack and returning to feed the young. As they have long been domesticated and will eat almost anything, they are the animal we are most likely to have seen vomiting.

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So what's this 'pull like a dog'? Maybe it's different in West Cork but I haven't heard of dogs been used as draft animals in these parts any time recently.

Perhaps due to the flatter terrain, dogs were widely used on the Continent, especially in Holland and Belgium, well into the 20th century.

This was a time of peak draft dog usage and they were crucial for everyday work in places like Lapland and Greenland. Draft dogs also played a crucial role in polar exploration, once explorers learned how to handle them.

However, it was a different story in London.

Dogs were widely used in London in the early 19th century, to transport goods or people by those who could not afford horses or oxen or where there wasn't enough room to manoeuvre larger draught animals.

But some of these dogs were badly treated and parliamentary acts in 1839 and 1842 banned the use of dog carts throughout the kingdom. (Children often replaced the dogs in pulling the carts, there being no laws against child labour.)

In America, historical references of dogs and dog harnesses that were used by native American cultures date back to before European contact.

The close relationship between dogs and mushers (their handlers) has resulted in many heroic feats, none more so than the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska, also known as the Great Race of Mercy.

An outbreak of diphtheria occurred in Nome and there wasn't enough anti-toxin serum to treat the infected. There was serum in Nenana, 1,100km away and inaccessible except by dog sled. Twenty teams worked in relay to complete a journey which normally took 11 days in half the time.

Both the mushers and their dogs were feted. A statue in honour of Balto, the Siberian husky who was the lead sled dog on the final stretch into Nome was erected in New York's Central Park. The plaque on it reads "Endurance • Fidelity • Intelligence".

A fine commendation. For dog. Or man.

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