8 May 2023

Why we dig dogs: a tale from 1788 disembarkation to today

| Sally Hopman
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Dog leaping on to ute

No book on Aussie dogs would be complete without this classic 1991 image by acclaimed news photographer Bruce Postle of Bo taking a leap of faith onto the hay-laden ute. Photo: Bruce Postle, National Library of Australia collection.

When you can fill almost 300 kilometres of shelf space with books, music, maps, documents and photographs, and your total number of items is way beyond 10 million, chances are you have more than a few cute dog pics in your collection.

Welcome to the National Library of Australia.

Known world-wide as a treasure trove of Australian stories, who knew it also boasted a remarkable collection of dog photographs. Historic ones, chocolate box-type classics, and weird ones – who knew dogs could drive cars/ride bicycles/wear sunglasses/”speak” with such dog-gone skill?

And then there are the patriotic ones, or the ones that look at home with women wearing everything from bikinis on the beach to long skirts in the dusty outback, ones with the famous and the more infamous, embarrassing ones and then there are the straight-out tear-jerkers – “Wowser, my chum across Australia three times” carved into a tree by his human, adventurer Francis Birtles. Birtles was also Dinkum the dog’s human – Dinkum being possibly one of Australia’s most driven dogs – check out the images of him photographed behind the wheel of Birtles’ Oldsmobile.

Dog drinks from bushie's hat as horse looks on

No greater love had a bloke for his companions – dog and horse, back in 1935. Photo: National Library of Australia collection.

Or then there’s farm dog Bo who took his leap of faith onto his human farmer’s hay-laden ute when acclaimed Australian news photographer Bruce Postle just happened to be there to capture the moment.

Dogs have played their part in our European history from as early as their bark could be heard, from Hector the Newfoundland who was apparently one of the first to disembark, literally, when the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788, to an image of hard man Tom Crean who was reduced to mush when photographer Frank Hurley loaded him up with puppies born on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1915 Antarctic expedition.

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In the new NLA book, Australia’s Dogs by Katherine Kovacic, we learn quickly how important these early settler dogs were to their humans. Yes, they were probably brought on board initially because of their hunting skills in what was an unknown land, but there had to be some consideration, later if not earlier, to their abilities to warm even the hardiest of souls in the new cold land.

Man with armful of pups.

Despite being known as one of the toughest blokes aboard Shackleton’s 1915 Antarctic expedition, Irishman Tom Crean was no match for these Newfoundland pups born at sea. Photo: Frank Hurley, National Library of Australia collection.

No-one can know for sure how many dog images there are in the national collection – apparently 600,000 images all-up were recorded some years back – but there would have to be a fair percentage of dogs among those.

Kovacic, who looks to have dug her way through the NLA photographic collection, which dates from the late 1800s to today, to write this good book, turns out to be the perfect person for such a job. Not only was she a vet, she now spends her time “writing, dancing and teaching other people’s dogs to ride skateboards”.

“If it wasn’t for the style of clothing or the model of a car, in many cases, it would be difficult to accurately date some of the photographs,” she writes.

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“Regardless of whether a picture was taken today or 100 years ago, the connection between people and their dogs shines through.

“Australians work closely with their dogs, play with them, embrace them, stroke them, comfort them, are comforted by them; and most of all, Australians laugh and smile with their dogs.”

Declaration: Your author knows the book’s Managing Editor Amelia Hartney and Image Coordinator, Jemma Posch, who, not known dog-lovers, have clearly been swayed to do their best work by this excellent tail. Good girls.

Australia’s Dogs by Katherine Kovacic, $39.99 RRP. NLA Publishing

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