English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

Rescue dog: rescuer or rescuee?

Q: Is a “rescue dog” one that rescues (like the fabled St. Bernard with a cask of brandy strapped under its neck) or one that is rescued (like an abused puppy that ends up in a shelter)?

A: The phrase “rescue dog” has two meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “(a) a dog trained to aid in rescue operations; (b) a dog that has been rescued from abuse, neglect, etc.”

In the first sense, the phrase has been in use for more than a century. The second sense is newer, only about 35 years old.

But there’s little chance that the two can be confused, since the phrase’s meaning usually becomes clear in context.

Here are the citations given in the OED, listed chronologically, and the intended meanings seem obvious.

1901: “A great St Bernard, the most celebrated of all the rescue dogs that have worked in the hospice on Mount Bernard” (from the Strand Magazine).

1980: “If you are involved in dog rescue work, a rescue dog can be made much more suitable for adoption after two months of letting you practice on him in the Novice class” (from Patricia Gail Burnham’s book Playtraining Your Dog).

1992: “In addition to being an excellent working sheepdog it [the Appenzell, or Alpine Shepherd Dog] is also used as a ski patrol dog, security dog and rescue dog” (from the book 1001 Images of Dogs).

2003: “It seems that every other dog here is a rescue dog, ‘probably abused,’ their owners often say” (from Jon Katz’s The New Work of Dogs).

When “rescue dog” refers to a rescued animal, the OED says the noun “rescue” is being used attributively (that is, as an adjective) “with the sense ‘designating a domestic animal that has been rescued from abuse or neglect, typically by an animal welfare organization.’ ”

The dictionary notes that this usage can refer to other animals, such “as rescue cat, rescue horse, etc.”

It lists “rescue dog” (1980) as the earliest recorded version, followed by “rescue cats” (1993), “rescue horse” (1998), “rescue animals” (referring to shelter dogs, 2003), and “rescue kitten” (2009). 

We’ve found lots of other examples online, including “rescue bluebird,” “rescue hamster,” “rescue salamander,” “rescue snapping turtle,” and “rescue bunny.”

It’s true that this use of the phrase “rescue dog” would be more literal as “rescued dog.” But in pronunciation the adjoining d’s would tend to combine, so the phrase would end up sounding like “rescue dog” anyway.

Besides, while “rescue dog” in this sense is only a few decades old, the general concept of animal “rescue” is much older and justifies the use of “rescue” here instead of “rescued.”

The OED says that one meaning of the noun “rescue” is “the action of rescuing a (domestic) animal from abuse, neglect, etc., typically by an animal welfare organization; (also) an organization of this type, or a shelter or sanctuary run by such an organization. Freq. with modifying word, as animal rescue, cat rescue, dog rescue, pet rescue, etc.”

The earliest such use of “rescue” in the OED is from an 1899 issue of the Boston Daily Globe. A headline on an article about a shelter reads:

“Refuge for stray canines and felines. Animal Rescue League provides means for disposing of helpless animals by easy deaths or securing homes.”

The dictionary’s most recent example is from Pamela Duncan’s novel Moon Women (2001): “Border collie rescue, they called it. They also had poodle rescue, St. Bernard rescue, cocker spaniel rescue, and every other kind of rescue in the book.”

Did St. Bernard rescue dogs ever carry casks of brandy around their necks? No historical records have been found that document such a practice, according to a Jan. 1, 2008, article in the Smithsonian magazine.

The legend of the brandy-carrying dogs was apparently inspired by Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller, an overly dramatic 1831 painting by Edwin Landseer.

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