Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

The Heroic Dog on the Titanic

A Newfoundland dog helped rescue passengers from the Titanic.

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic which went down around midnight on April 14, 1912. Titanic was considered to be the most luxurious ship ever built and was thought to be unsinkable. At its helm was the experienced first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, of Scotland. Murdoch brought a companion when he came to the Titanic:  a large, black Newfoundland dog, named Rigel, whom he had also had with him when he was serving on the Titanic's sister ship, the RMS Olympic. On that fateful night, Rigel was safely housed in the Titanic's modern kennel facilities since Murdoch needed to focus on the goal of this voyage—to reach New York in record time.

dog Newfoundland Titanic Rigel William Murdoch
William Murdoch and Rigel
Rigel was not the only dog on the Titanic. There were twelve other dogs as well. In the kennels next to Rigel were two Airedales owned by John Jacob Astor, a Chow Chow owned by Harry Anderson, and a champion French Bulldog with the impressive name "Gamin de Pycombe," owned by Robert Daniels. William Dulles brought a Fox Terrier, William Carter's family had two King Charles Spaniels and Ann Isham had the largest dog, a Great Dane. Several other dogs stayed in the staterooms with their owners. These included a Pekingese named Sun Yat Sen, owned by Henry Harper and his wife, Myra, the Pomeranians of Elizabeth Rothschild and Margaret Hays, and a small dog of unknown breed named Frou Frou that belonged to the newlyweds Helen and Dickonson Bishop.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Each day, a crewmember would take the dogs for a stroll around the promenade deck. These canine parades became quite an event and people would schedule their times on deck so that they could see the dogs. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the dogs so much that an informal dog show was scheduled by the first class passengers to be held on Monday, April 15th. Unfortunately, that show would never take place.

In the fog and darkness Titanic collided with an iceberg tearing five hull compartments open. This was too much for the "unsinkable" ship and she began to go down. In the years that followed, the human tragedy and bravery of that night would be well documented. We know quite a bit about the fate of the 1,522 people that were lost that night, and even more about the 714 people that survived. In the chaos of those events, it is not surprising to find that the accounts of what happened to the dogs are less clear. Some of the reports are confused or incomplete, but the following information appears in a variety of respected accounts of that fateful night.

Although many people died because of the inadequate number of lifeboats it turns out that some of the first boats in the water had empty seats. Thus, Henry and Myra Harper boarded their boat carrying their Pekingese, and Elizabeth Rothschild and Margaret Hays each boarded different boats carrying their small Pomeranians and the presence of the dogs was not challenged. The Bishops' little dog was with them in their cabin; however, when it became clear that, by now, there were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers, Helen Bishop felt obliged to leave her much-loved pet behind. Later, she would tearfully tell how, as she left the cabin for the last time, Frou Frou grabbed the hem of her dress, trying to keep her from going.

In the case of Ann Isham, however, her dog was a Great Dane and clearly too large for the lifeboats. She refused to leave her dog behind and insisted that she would do what was needed to save him. Sadly, after the sinking, her body was observed in the water with her arms frozen around her beloved dog.

But what of Rigel and the other dogs in the kennels? Murdoch had no opportunity to leave his post to rescue his dog. After the collision, he took charge of the starboard evacuation. Crew members report seeing Murdoch hard at work, attempting to free Collapsible Lifeboat A from the rope tackles used to lower it when a huge wave washed him overboard. He was never seen again.

An unknown passenger went to the kennels and released all of the dogs in an attempt to spare them the horror of drowning in locked cages. Sadly most of the dogs simply disappeared in the cold water, but Rigel's fate was different. Most of the passengers (and dogs) that ended up in the freezing water died from exposure. For that reason, some people have questioned whether a dog such as Rigel could have survived a long swim in the icy ocean. However the Newfoundland dog was bred to function in the harsh conditions of the North Atlantic. It has webbed feet, a rudder-like tail, and a water-resistant coat that make it a natural swimmer. Its body uses the same mechanisms to combat hypothermia that polar bears possess. This allows these dogs to help retrieve fishing nets off the shores of its home island near mainland Canada-actually 400 miles north of where the Titanic sank. There are also many stories of Newfoundlands rescuing people from the sea and enduring icy conditions for long periods of time.

Rigel swam around, at first apparently desperately looking for his master, but after awhile  he chose to simply stay close to Lifeboat 4. The dog was too large to bring on board even if there had been space to do so, but the humans, in their exposed lifeboat, apparently suffered more from the effects of the wet and cold than Rigel did from the freezing water.

More than two hours after the Titanic went down, the passenger ship Carpathia finally arrived and began to pick up the surviving passengers. However, it was still dark and a low mist hung on the water. Carpathia's crew was calling out and waiting for lifeboat passengers to respond in order to locate them. Lifeboat 4 was separated from the other lifeboats by some distance. Finally, the Carpathia began to pull away from the area, unknowingly on a course directly bearing down on the unseen little lifeboat. Its passengers were simply too weak to shout loudly enough to avoid being run down by the ship. Yet, somehow, Rigel was still strong enough to bark. Carpathia's Captain Arthur Henry Rostron heard the dog and ordered the ship to stop. Swimming in front of the lifeboat, the dog marked the location of the survivors and all were hauled up the starboard gangway.

The day after the Carpathia reached New York with the survivors, the New York Herald carried a story about Rigel's significant role in the rescue of Titanic's passengers. The reporter noted that, since the dog's owner was dead, one of Carpathia's crew named Brigg had adopted him. This was an error, as "Brigg" was the name of a passenger on the lifeboat. Recent evidence suggests that Rigel was adopted by John Brown, Carpathia's Master at Arms, who, at 62 years of age was the second oldest crewman. Brown retired shortly after and took Rigel with him to his rural home in Scotland. Presumably, this canine hero of the Titanic tragedy finished out his natural life without ever having to face icy water again.

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

more...

Subscribe to Canine Corner

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?