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Owney - Story of a Famous Traveling Dog

Owney: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit.

By Joan Gilbert ( A Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Horse people are almost always dog people as well; proof is in the number of fondly and proudly displayed pets in candid shots taken at horse shows. Usually the dogs names are included in captions, and apparently it was ever thus.

Loula Long Combs was renowned for the number of dogs who accompanied her to shows all over the country. Reggie Vanderbilt s dogs wore his stable colors. One of John Hook s most memorable yarns was of paying the requested ransom when a barn dog was kidnapped at a show far from home. Hook went to meet the kidnappers, prepared to tell them he d not pay a dime; the joke was on them for believing that this was a valuable animal. But there he was, looking up, so happy to see me, Hook would say. Of course I paid.

Here s the story of a nondescript little terrier mix who, as far as we know, never saw a horse show. He may, however have been seen by show horses shipped by train. Exhibitors of the past are certain to have known of him, if they never actually met him, because he became an international celebrity, widely written of.

His name was Owney (nobody was sure why) and he entered history in the autumn of 1888 in the Albany, N.Y., post office. Some say he was a worn and weary adult and some say he was in the most irresistible stage of puppyhood, though thin and bedraggled. Whichever, Albany workers made him comfortable and declared him their official mascot. Owney took his role seriously, riding on the mail sacks wherever they were taken in the city. The one time he did not arrive at destination with them, his coworkers noted that a sack of mail was also missing. Backtracking, they found both items in a ditch, Owney sitting protectively on the bag.

Owney s attentions began to wander, however. He began getting on trains with mail bags outgoing from Albany and then back home on those incoming. At first his trips were no more than overnighters, but gradually lengthened out until he was absent from Albany for months at a time. Everyone always knew where Owney was, however, because other post offices reported with amusement and a sense of privilege when he was with them. Fame proved useful when Owney was detained in Montreal for not having the license required for dogs in that city. Albany postal workers were informed by their Canadian colleagues that Owney had run up a $2.50 board bill. He was of course sprung at once by his loving fellow workers.

By this time, the little dog had gained an aura of mystery for railroad men. They had observed that when Owney was aboard, no train ever suffered a derailment, a boiler explosion or any other major problem. This was in days when serious mishaps were common for trains. Postal workers ran special risk, their cars usually attached right behind the engine and coal car.

If Owney s presence somehow blessed the trains, he must have been equally blessed, to have survived moving about alone for so long and so far. His travels grew to cover at least 19 states, Vermont to California, Washington state to New York. Albany employees had created an ID tag for Owney that told who he was and invited other post offices to attach one of their baggage tags to his collar. It became fashionable, also, to treat him like a mobile advertisement; many businesses put on tags touting their services.

Over time, several medals were awarded to Owney by cities he visited and which sometimes held public receptions for him.  He jangles like a junkman's horse, was written of Owney at this stage of his life and actually, the collar had long since become so burdensome that Postmaster General John Wanamaker took it upon himself to have a supportive canvas vest made, so the weight of attachments would be more evenly distributed over Owney s body. Wanamaker also reduced the load from time to time, medals saved for display. They now can be seen at the National Postal Museum in the Smithsonian Institute.

Amazingly, Owney s travels were not confined to the U.S. He made at least one round-the-world ocean voyage. Though earlier jaunts are presented as being his own choice, Owney must have had some human help and direction for this voyage, for mention was made then of his little suitcase, holding blanket, brush and eating bowl.

Owney s sweet life lasted until 1897 when Albany friends decided that their buddy should be retired there with them. He suffered several infirmities of age, including loss of sight in one eye and the need for his food to be softened with milk before he could eat it. Even so, the insatiable traveler sneaked out and went to Toledo, where he met his fate. No fully satisfying account of events ever emerged, but the story was that somehow, while being shown off to newspaper reporters by postal workers, something hurt or frightened Owney badly enough that he bit someone. He was killed almost instantly by a gun blast. Were those present that afraid of rabies? Were the police that quick to eliminate a potentially dangerous dog? Did some vigilante who wore a gun take the opportunity to put an uppity dog in its place? Why did Owney s fame and the good will he had created count for nothing at that juncture?

There are those who would say that the dog himself engineered quick escape from a life that had become too uncomfortable to continue, and that he wanted it to happen away from Albany.

Workers nationwide pooled money to have Owney taxidermed and after that he did a little more traveling. The World s Fair at St. Louis in 1904 was one of his afterlife appearances. Owney s remains now are displayed in the National Postal Museum in Washington DC and that institution is the source of the booklet that supplied most of the data used here.

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