St. Guinefort, the Dog Venerated as a Saint
For hundreds of years, residents in the Dombes region of eastern France worshipped a saint who was said to help protect infants from illness and danger. They prayed to his name, and brought sick infants to his shrine for healing.
Such tales aren't very unusual for a saint—except this one was a dog.
According to a legend that originated some time before the 12th century, St. Guinefort was a greyhound owned by a wealthy knight. One day, the knight and his wife left their infant son for the day in the care of his nurse and their loyal dog. They returned to find a scene of carnage in the child’s nursery—the crib overturned, and blood spattered around the room. Guinefort had blood smeared all over his muzzle.
The knight, believing that Guinefort had killed his son, struck the dog with his sword, killing him. Immediately afterward, he heard the cry of a baby and found his son, healthy and whole, underneath the overturned crib. (It's not clear where the nurse was during this time, but she evidently wasn't doing a very good job protecting the child.) Next to the baby was a snake that had been bitten to bloody pieces.
The knight realized that he had killed the dog unjustly—Guinefort had in fact protected the baby. To make amends, he buried the dog in a well and planted a grove of trees around it as a memorial.
As the story of the brave and loyal Guinefort spread, people began to visit the well and brought their sick children there for healing. There are reports of women leaving salt as an offering, or placing children in the grove with lit candles overnight in hopes they would be healed by morning.
These local rituals had continued for about a hundred years when a friar named Stephen of Bourbon heard of the legend and the local custom [PDF]. He declared that the veneration of a dog was heathen—the people who were asking for intercession from the saint were really invoking demons, he said, and the women leaving their children at the shrine overnight were trying to commit infanticide. He had the dog’s body dug up and burned, and the trees cut down.
But the cult of St. Guinefort lived on, and the locals continued to pray to him. A folklorist found that the well and grove still existed in the late 1870s, while a historian discovered evidence that people were still venerating the dog-saint after World War I. Reverberations of his legend—that of a dog-healer living in the forest—seem to have lasted as late as the 1960s.
St. Guinefort was never officially recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church—or anyone else. In order to recognize someone as a saint, the Vatican requires evidence that the person led a holy life and performed miracles. (They also usually require evidence that the individual was human.) But the legend of St. Guinefort dates to before this process of sainthood was formalized, when individuals of great holiness were often spontaneously acclaimed by the people in their local areas.
As it turns out, the Guinefort legend has parallels around the world. There are similar legends elsewhere in Europe and beyond of loyal dogs that are killed after being accused of endangering a child they had in fact protected. One legend from 13th century Wales concerns a dog named Gelert, who saved a child from a wolf but was killed when his master misunderstood the bloodied scene (and thought he'd killed his child instead of the wolf). There is a more modern echo of the story in the film Lady and the Tramp (1955), when Tramp defends a baby from a rat and is hauled off by the dogcatcher for his trouble. In India, a similar story is told about a woman who kills a mongoose who has defended her son from a snake; in Malaysia, the protector is a tame bear who defends a child from a tiger. Folklorists think the tales are told as a caution against acting too hastily in the heat of the moment.
By some accounts, August 22 is St. Guinefort's feast day (although this may be a confusion with an earlier, human saint). And while there's no official dog saint, if you need heavenly intercession for any canine problems, the patron saint of dogs and dog owners is St. Roch—who is also the patron saint for those, like Guinefort, who were unjustly accused.