Owney was a scruffy mutt who became a regular fixture at the Albany, New York, post office in 1888. His owner was likely a postal clerk who let the dog walk him to work. Owney was attracted to the texture or scent of the mailbags and when his master moved away, Owney stayed with his new mail clerk friends. He soon began to follow mailbags, first onto mail wagons and then mail trains. Owney began to ride with the bags on Railway Mail Service (RMS) trains across the state . . . and then the country! The Railway Mail Service clerks adopted Owney as their unofficial mascot.
Postal workers and others began to mark Owney’s travels by placing tokens, tags, and medals on his collar. These items included baggage check and hotel room key tokens, dog licenses, and numerous items given to the dog by a variety of individuals and organizations. Owney received so many tags on his trips that their weight around his neck began to weigh the poor dog down. After Postmaster General John Wanamaker heard of this problem, he had a harness made for the dog that could be used to display the tags more evenly over Owney’s body while he traveled. Occasionally a postal worker would collect several of the tags and send them to the Albany post office or the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
In 1895 the Tacoma, Washington, postmaster sent Owney on a trip around the world as part of an advertising campaign for the city. The dog traveled with mailbags on steamships and trains from Tacoma through Asia, the Middle East, and the continental US before returning to Tacoma 113 days later.
By 1897 Owney had taken ill twice, had become occasionally ill-tempered, and moved with difficulty. A postal clerk briefly took Owney into his home in St. Louis, but the dog would not stay still. In June 1897, while Owney was in Toledo, Ohio, he bit a mail clerk and snapped at his handlers. The Toledo postmaster believed the dog had become uncontrollable and asked the local sheriff to put him down, which he did on June 11, 1897. Mail clerks raised money for preserving their mascot, and he was taken to the Post Office Department's headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1911, the department transferred Owney to the Smithsonian Institution.
Owney’s adventures continue to fascinate children and adults alike. Several children’s books have been written about the well-traveled pup, and he has inspired the creation of contemporary traveling Owneys. The modern-day travelers are toys that elementary school teachers across the US use to teach geography to their classes.