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15 Heroic Pets


15 Heroic Pets

(ZT Pet News Photo courtesy of the ASPCA.)

By Margo Sullivan
A German shepherd runs into oncoming traffic along a New York highway, determined to save its injured mother. It uses itself to stop the cars from running her over. That was in April.

Thousands of miles away in Chile, a dog crosses from the opposite side of the highway, ducks under eighteen-wheelers, and drags an injured dog out of harm's way.

These are just two of the true-life heroic pet adventures caught on videotape and being replayed over mainstream media and YouTube.

Animals have been playing hero for as long as people have been telling stories, but another decade has revealed more of their amazing feats, and raised new questions about why and how pets know to find lost children, stop burglars in their tracks, or call 911 after an accident.

In 2006, a beagle named Belle used a cell phone to call 911 for her stricken owner, Kevin Weaver, in Orlando, Florida. He had taught her to bite down on the speed dial button in an emergency. When he collapsed, she hit the button with the number nine.

And in 2008, a German shepherd named Buddy used a land line to summon help for his owner, Joe Stalnaker of Phoenix. Buddy, it turned out, had also been trained to use a programmed telephone button.

All over the U.S., dozens of organizations now honor heroic pets - and their owners - with special awards. The ASPCA, according to Emily Brand (ASPCA Media Contact), started its annual humane awards 12 or 13 years ago. They do it to celebrate the human-animal bond, she said.

The attention also makes people wonder what animals are thinking when they rush into danger to save a pal.

"It's kind of an interesting question to figure out what's going on," says Dr. Stephen Zawistowski, an animal behaviorist with the ASPCA in New York City. Sometimes, of course, pets are just doing what comes naturally.

Take stories about dogs and children lost in the woods, for example. The dog saves the child by curling up together and staying warm. That's typical pack behavior, he said. The dog might even be trying to stay warm itself.

Dogs, cats, and even birds have saved whole households from fires, lightning strikes and carbon monoxide poisoning. That's also normal behavior.

"If something strange happens, the pet would go and wake up the owner," he said. It's the way pets would say, "Things are weird; I'm scared; save me."

Yet, pets don't always step up.

"For every dog that wakes up a family in a house fire, there are probably four other families whose dogs died with them in fires," he said. The stories of hero pets are compelling just because they don't happen every day, he added.

As for the 911 calls, those are trickier to understand and assess, he said. Sure, those dogs - and even cats - did not really dial the numbers, he said. They only pressed a button.

"It's a relatively simple thing to teach an animal to press a button," he said. "But how do you train the dog to recognize when you're in distress?" Did these heroic pets show the ability to recognize an emergency and apply their training? That's a harder question to answer, he said.

Among other explanations, some animals may detect a certain smell when a person is about to have a seizure, he said.

"Some dogs will actually grab them by the arm and pull them down on the floor so they won't hurt themselves falling in a seizure," he said. But the exact reason some animals have this skill is still a bit of a mystery.

His own favorite tales of pet heroism include Scarlett, the cat, who in 1996 saved her kittens from a burning building in Brooklyn, and Lulu, the pot-bellied pig of 1998 celebrity, who ran into traffic in Presque Isle, Pennsylvania to bring help home to her owner, who was stricken.

Here are some of this decade's most valiant pet heroes.

Belle (Orlando, Florida) - The 911-Dialing Beagle

Belle, a beagle, was trained to call emergency medics by biting the speed dial on owner Kevin Weaver's cell phone.

One day, his blood sugar levels crashed, and he collapsed. His little dog hit the number 9 and summoned rescue workers, who saved his life.

Although Belle kept her head in the emergency, she probably also used her nose to detect the drop in Weaver's blood sugar, experts believe.

Belle may be the first dog to use a telephone to save her owner. But she was not the first pet to phone 911. According to news reports, a Tampa, Florida cat named Tipper hit the 911 sequence 10 years before, while choking on a flea collar. Tipper made pet history - by accident.

Duke (Edmond, Oklahoma) - Barking His Way to Heroism

So if cats are monopolizing the phone, a heroic dog still has some options. Barking a lot for a long time - very loudly - works just fine. A King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Duke was credited with saving his human owner, Kathy Scherman, the old-fashioned way -- by barking until someone paid attention.

Scherman had been standing by the family swimming pool when she went into cardiac arrest and fell into the water. Duke stood by and barked until help arrived.

Toby (Cecil County, Maryland) - The Golden Who Pounced

It's an open question whether a 2-year-old golden retriever could really know the Heimlich maneuver, but there's no doubt that Toby saved owner Debby Parkhurst from choking. According to Emily Brand, of the ASPCA, Parkhurst was eating an apple when a piece caught in her throat. Alone in the house, except for her two dogs, Parkhurst tried to self-administer the Heimlich maneuver by beating herself on the abdomen, but it wasn't working. Then Toby sprang into action. He pushed her down on the kitchen floor and jumped on her chest. The apple popped out. The ASPCA named Toby their 2007 Dog of the Year.

Sam (Deerfield, New Hampshire) - One Tough Golden

The night before Christmas Eve 2005, a call came into the police dispatch reporting a dog walking on the edge of the highway. Could it be the Golden Ghost? The Rockingham County Sheriff's office recognized his description. He was unmistakable in the red harness he had been wearing the day he escaped in 2004. And their team belonged to the posse of volunteers, animal control officers and dog lovers who had been searching for Sam since he slipped away from owner Dennis Sklarski.

But the dog had not been spotted for almost a month. Now, the fear was something had happened to Sam.

His owners never gave up hope.

Peg and Dennis Sklarski had rescued Sam a couple of weeks before he ran away. The dog, who had been abused and kept in a cage, was unused to people and fearful. In interviews that Christmas Eve, Peg Sklarski said she was sure Sam was still out there. She believed he would be home someday. Events a few months later proved her correct.

Sam resisted capture for two years. He survived snowstorms and cold winter nights but was finally caught by a specially-designed net set up at a feeding station and reunited with his family.

Sadie (Ashland, Wisconsin) - A Real-Life Lassie

Melvin Reiten was cutting down damaged trees near his home when a treetop came down and pinned him on the ground. But his dog Sadie was by his side. When the accident happened, the shepherd/collie mix ran back to the house for Reiten's wife, Annie. At first, her barks failed to win Annie's attention. For two hours, Sadie alternated between Reiten and the house. She licked his face and warmed him with her body. Then she would rush back for Annie. Finally, Reiten's wife realized something was wrong. She followed Sadie to the scene and discovered her husband trapped under the tree. Reiten was whisked by helicopter to a trauma center and survived.

Winnie, the Cat (New Castle, Indiana) - The Reluctant Celebrity

The Keesling family had a close call in March 2007 when a basement water pump malfunctioned and spewed carbon monoxide fumes into the home. Winnie, the cat, had been sleeping by an open window. The fresh air probably kept her alert enough to save the family, Kathy Keesling says.

Keesling said her cat pounced into bed and awakened her by pulling her hair and meowing. Keesling started to get up, but collapsed.

"I felt like a ball bat hit me right across the head," she said. Sick and dizzy, she fell back in bed and into a daze. But Winnie didn't give up until Keesling made it to her feet. She realized she was the only conscious person in the house. When she tried to rouse her husband and failed, she called 911. Keesling wasn't able to make it to the door for arriving rescue workers. She collapsed 20 feet away. Firefighters found the couple's 14-year-old son unconscious on his bedroom floor.

"He was blue," she said. "They thought he was dead." All three were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Winnie, meanwhile, hid in a closet.

She was afraid of the firemen, Keesling said. Later, the cat was afraid of the cameras and attention. But after a while, Winnie began to enjoy celebrity.

"She likes it now," Keesling said. "She poses."

Margaret, Corgi (Yukon, Oklahoma) - The Corgi Who Could

A trip to Overhulser Lake in September 2006 to feed the ducks almost went terribly wrong for Julie Whittaker and her 2-year-old niece, Kayleigh. They were heading home, with dog Margaret in tow, when the 2-year-old ran down the boat ramp and slid into the water. Whittaker ran after the child and fought to keep them both from going under. As she started losing the battle, she called to her dog. The Corgi clamped down on the child's tee-shirt and didn't let go until she had pulled Kayleigh and Whittaker to dry ground.

Stache, Black Lab (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) - War Hero

It was fall 2007 and the 101st Airborne stormed into Samarra, Iraq searching for the bodies of two kidnapped U.S. soldiers.

Jim McCans of Philadelphia and his dog, Stache, a family pet trained as a cadaver dog, went on the mission. They marched with the soldiers into the desert where a roadside bomb exploded a few feet in front of the dog. The impact knocked them both to the ground. McCans tugged on Stache's leash. It felt like dragging a bag of sand.

"I thought Stache was dead," he said. "There was so much stuff in the air, you couldn't see anything;" He rolled on top of his dog to protect him from the smoke and debris, and McCans felt the Black Lab stir.

"He started waking up, and I was holding him," he said. But he couldn't stay long to help his dog.

"I'm a medic," he said. "There were so many wounded guys. I had to help them first."

Stache made it out of Iraq alive but suffered a ruptured eardrum and a concussion.

Iraq had turned out to be a different mission than McCans, a forensics professor and helicopter medic, expected when he agreed to take Stache over to the battlefield to help the military find its missing dead. McCans expected to head into already-secured areas and search for bodies. Instead, when the Screaming Eagles had information the missing soldiers might be nearby, they launched assaults into Samarra with Humvees, predator drones and F-18's.

The day Stache was wounded, McCans remembers thinking. "It's the kids' dog," he said. "Am I going to come home with an empty leash in my hand?"

Stache did his job up until the day he was hurt.

"I'm not one to read a lot of emotions into the dog to make myself feel better or to make a good story," he said. "But he had an awareness of what was going on around him and how important it was," he said. Yet some of his best work in Iraq may have been keeping the soldiers company. They all loved him, McCans said.

And that may be the whole point about heroic animals, Zawistowski said. As amazing as their feats may seem, the most heroic thing animals do is cheering us through good days and bad days, and just being there when we come home.

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