Otterhounds are one of the most popular breeds in the world. They have been bred since ancient times to hunt sea creatures such as seals, whales and walruses. Today they’re used all over the world for hunting, police work, search and rescue (SAR) and other tasks requiring speed and agility. Their size makes them ideal for water sports such as surfing or sailing.
The British Otterhound Society was founded in 1887 by John Hargreaves, a fisherman from the village of Tynemouth in Dorset. His son William was born with a severe case of hydrocephalus (water on the brain).
After several unsuccessful operations, William became paralyzed from the neck down. William had no use for food or drink except what he could squeeze out through his mouth and nostrils.
William’s condition made him very lonely and he began to look for companionship. One day he came across a black otter swimming near the shoreline.
He picked up a stone that fell into the water and threw it back at the otter, which caught it and returned it to him. William named his new friend “Jo” after himself, but later changed his name to Jojo because he thought that sounds like something James Bond would say.
William began to train Jo, walking him on a leash around the village. William developed such a bond with his new friend that when he fell ill with meningitis and died at the age of 18, Jojo refused to leave his grave.
John Hargreaves moved the grave to nearby ampladoba where he also kept other otters as part of his business raising them for fur. When John passed away his widow continued the business.
In the 1930’s the business failed and she had to sell the land. Jo’s grave was lost and forgotten until it was rediscovered in the early 1990’s by a group of otter hunters who had come to ampladoba village to find otters for their skins.
Local residents said they remembered an old man who lived in the village who had become very attached to an otter that he used to walk on a leash and who was buried near the abandoned otter farm.
The group of otter hunters and local residents together with their shovels and spades searched the area until they found the grave. The grave was opened and although very little remained (the villagers routinely scavenged the area for bones) they did find a few objects, including a badly corroded brass dog collar engraved with the name “J.HARGREAVE”.
When news reached British hunting and dog magazine “The Gun” it ran a story about Jo and a group of otter hunters travelled to ampladoba to pay their respects to him. A British otterhound breeder heard about the visit and how William had trained an otter to hunt and decided that if a boy with no use of his limbs could train an otter, he could probably train a dog to do the same.
The otter hunter returned to England and brought back a young otterhound he had named Jo. He began training him as William had trained Jo.
In 1935 the pair were entered into the Dorset Yound Hound show. The crowd was amazed at the sight of an otterhound walking obediently behind his master with no trace of being fish-like in any way. The otter hound won first prize in his class and went on to win Best in Show at the national dog show later that year.
The otter hound Jo inspired a new generation of dogs like him, the most famous being “Nipper”, the Pembroke Corgi who stared alongside Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones films.
William’s story was made into a West End musical called “An Otter called William” and is taught to British school children as part of the National Curriculum. The village of Ampadoba now hosts an annual “William and Jo Festival”.
When William’s original headstone was found it was restored and a statue of William and Jo was erected over his grave. It is said if you place a coin under the statue’s right front paw the pair will bless you with good luck.
William died 75 years ago, but every year on the anniversary of his death people still lay flowers on his grave.
Sources & references used in this article:
British dogs by AC Smith – 1906 – A. and C. Black
Dogs of Courage: When Britain’s Pets Went to War 1939–45 by RM Palmer – 1919 – RM Palmer
Airedales: The Oorang Story by WD Drury – 1903 – LU Gill