Elora dog won Victoria Cross for animals in 1936

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Over the years, many Elora residents have taken stray dogs into their households. The most remarkable was a full-size collie that found a home with George and Mary Farquhar in the 1930s.

It was a muscular, thick-furred dog, weighing over 100 pounds. He soon displayed great intelligence and strong loyalty to his adoptive owners. George and Mary Farquhar began calling him Old Peter, though they had no idea of his real age.

At about the same time, Claude Mosure returned from a holiday trip with a part-terrier mongrel of indeterminate ancestry. There are two stories about how the dog was found. Old newspaper accounts reported that Skipper was rescued from an uninhabited island on Georgian Bay.

Claude Mosure has a different story. He was vacationing with an Elora group at Harry Walser’s cottage on Georgian Bay. A scrawny terrier was found on an old barge that had sunk a couple of hundred feet offshore in shallow water, and was immediately named Skipper. 

Back on shore, Bill Duncan picked the dog up, dropped him in Claude’s lap, and said, “He’s yours.” The dog found a new master on the spot. Skipper soon felt at home in the Mosure household.

In the 1930s, there was not much traffic in Elora, and most dogs had the run of the village. Skipper and Peter became acquainted, and before long they were the best of friends. They formed an amusing pair, and a regular sight around the village: the big, hulking collie and the small white terrier, only a fraction of his size.

Skipper was the more adventuresome of the pair. Often in the morning, Skipper would call to pick up Peter at the Farquhars’ house (at Colborne and Kertland Streets, now owned by Dan Wright), and the two would head off to explore the town. Their route often took them downtown, where Sandy Kerr could usually find a scrap or two for them at the back of his butcher shop.

One day (Oct. 14, 1936), the dogs did not return to the Farquhar house at their usual time. Supper hour, and still no sign of them. Where could the dogs be? They had always returned home in good time.

As it was getting dark and Reta Stafford, an Elora nurse, was out for an evening walk. On Mary Street she heard the whining of dogs, and went to investigate. There was Peter, scratching frantically at a culvert. The desperate yelps of another dog came from inside.

It seems that Skipper had spotted a squirrel or a cat, or perhaps a rabbit, and following the instincts of a terrier, had chased it into an eight-inch cement culvert, and then had become stuck, unable to move forward or to back out.

Peter had tried to rescue his friend, first dislodging and moving the end section of the culvert, and then by digging a hole over the spot where the other dog was trapped. He had been at the job for a long time, perhaps as much as eight hours. In the 1930s, this area was the outskirts of Elora, much of it consisting of a grassy meadow. Hours could pass before anyone might walk by.

Peter had excavated a hole two feet deep, down to the drain, but was unable to get through the cement tile. The nails on his front paws were gone, and his paws had been badly scratched by the digging.

Reta soon had reinforcements on the scene, and Skipper was quickly liberated from the underground prison. When he was released, Skipper collapsed from exhaustion, but the dog soon revived, suffering no permanent injury.

The story of Peter’s bravery and loyalty spread through the village over the next couple of days. N.J. Cole, a prominent local citizen, thought the deed deserved some sort of recognition. He and George Farquhar reported the incident to the Humane Society in Guelph.

That put the story into general circulation. Over the next week, Peter’s rescue of his friend appeared in many newspapers across the province, including the three Toronto dailies, all of which ran pictures of the dogs. There was more recognition to come.

On Nov. 24, 1936, several hundred residents gathered at the Elora Opera House (originally Chalmers Church, and now One Axe Pursuits) for a presentation ceremony. It was organized by Elwood Davidson, under the auspices of the Home and School Club. Reporters were present from a number of papers, including the Toronto dailies.

W.A. Baker of Guelph, the Ontario vice-president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, awarded Peter the society’s medal for bravery. The engraving reads, “To Peter in recognition of his courage, intelligence and perseverance in rescuing his pal Skipper. October 1936.”

Mr. Baker told the audience, “It is the highest award that can be given to a dumb animal, and represents the Victoria Cross for animals.” Reta Stafford and Skipper both attended the ceremony to see Peter awarded the medal. 

Peter lived with the Farquhar family for many years, and continued his close friendship with Skipper. Peter’s loyalty was not restricted to his canine friend. He was also known to keep a close and watchful eye on Mary and George Farquhar’s young daughter, Jolan. 

Skipper and Peter would often sit on the sidewalk downtown, looking longingly into the window of Kerr’s butcher shop. Sometimes Sandy Kerr would give each of them a bone, and they would be objects of amusement as they paraded side by side down the street.

A frisky little fellow, Skipper once jumped from a second-floor window onto the sidewalk on Geddes Street. He remained a close family member for about six years after his rescue but unfortunately came to a violent end. 

Shortly after the Mosures moved to a house on Carlton Place, Skipper was out exploring his new neighbourhood. He got himself into a fight with a large dog down the street, and came home so badly mauled that he had to be put down. 

So many people knew Peter, who in 1936 had been Elora’s most famous citizen, that when he died, he rated an obituary in the Elora Express, perhaps the only dog ever to be accorded this honour.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 22 and March 1, 1994.

Thorning Revisited