Most of the attention around the sinking of the Titanic goes to the people who died and the engineering flaws that doomed the ship. But there were also dogs along board, whose last moments are surprisingly storied. There's even a completely false myth about one heroic dog and his derring-do. Here’s everything you need to know about the Titanic's canine victims.
How many dogs were there? According to J. Joseph Edgette from Widener University, there were twelve confirmed canines on the ship. Only three of them survived.
Which dogs survived? The three dogs that lived all had one thing in common: they were tiny. So small that the people who were being left behind by the lifeboats probably didn’t notice them being carried along. (Can you imagine being ready to die so someone’s dog could live?) Two were Pomeranians and one was a Pekinese. Edgette explains exactly who owned these three very lucky dogs:
One Pomeranian named Lady, bought by Miss Margaret Hays while in Paris, shared the cabin with and was wrapped in a blanket by Miss Hays when the order was given to evacuate.
The Pekinese was named “Sun Yat-Sen” and was the companion of Myna Harper and her husband Henry S. Harper, heir to Harper & Row, a New York–based publishing firm. Later, Henry Harper was asked about saving their dog rather than other people. "There seemed to be lots of room, and nobody made any objection,” he reportedly said.
The dogs that didn’t make it were all bigger. There was one King Charles Spaniel, an few Ariedales, a Fox Terrier, a French Bulldog and a Great Dane. One family won an insurance settlement for the loss of their two dogs. Another woman, who owned the Great Dane, refused to leave him behind, and died with him.
What happened to the dogs when the ship was sinking? Most of the dogs were kept in kennels on the F Deck of the ship, and it was the job of the ship's carpenter to take care of them day to day. They got exercise and a bathroom break once a day. The plan was to have a little dog show later in the trip, but the ship sank before that could happen.
There was a bit of a dog show while the ship sank, however. Apparently, at some point, somebody decided to free the dogs from their kennels. The dogs then raced up and down the slanting, sinking deck.
Did any of the dogs help save passengers? Short answer: no. There’s a relatively well known story of a Newfoundland named Rigel, who belonged to First Officer William Murdoch. The story goes that, being a big, well-insulated dog, Rigel was able to withstand the freezing waters. As the rescue boat Carpathia approached, Rigel was able to bark loud enough that the saving ship’s captain could locate the lifeboats.
This story is completely false. There is no record of William Murdoch ever having a black Newfoundland on board. No account from any of the survivors of the Titanic mentions Rigel. And some key details of the story (like the name of the Carpathia captain, and the fate of Rigel) don’t stand up to fact checking. The story apparently first popped up in 1912, in The New York Herald.
What about cats? There were probably cats on the Titanic. Many vessels kept cats to keep mice and rats away. Apparently the ship even had an official cat, named Jenny. Neither Jenny, nor any of her feline friends, survived.