When it comes to dog heroes, there isn't a prototype. They come in all shapes, colors and sizes. The only signature is the human-animal bond. Whether it's rescuing a drowning youngster from a nearby pond or helping predict an owner's impending heart malfunction, the animal is a hero in the eyes of the beholder(s).
Most acts of heroism are marked by a saber-sharp reactionary sense by the animal of a clear and present danger either at the moment or minutes away.
Since 1954, Americans have recognized a Dog Hero of the Year in a contest sponsored by several pet-food companies. But numerous animal-welfare organizations have honored their canine heroes, too.
Here are several vignettes of winners:
- In January 1995, Chester Jenkins of Springfield, Mo., turned his back on his 2,000-pound Belgian blue bull. That was just enough time to allow the angry bull to charge Jenkins and toss him several yards into a watering trough, pinning him between the trough and fence, pressing his sharp hooves into Jenkins' back countless times. Quickly, Jenkins' 3-year-old Chesapeake Bay-Labrador retriever, Bailey, rushed the bull. The brave dog forced him away from Jenkins and allowed the badly injured Jenkins just enough time to squirm under a nearby fence to safety. Bailey then ran to the house to get help but was unable to alert Jenkins' wife. So the dog returned to the injured man and assisted him back to the house so he could summon aid.
- Lisa Parker of Richmond Dale, Ohio, attempted to save her horse that had fallen through the ice of a creek near her home in early 2001. She soon needed help from her 3-year-old Australian shepherd. While attempting to pull the mare chest-deep in frozen water to safety, Parker fell through the ice and was immersed in a potential life-or-death position as well. Biyou heard her screaming for help and raced to her side, pulling her until she was able to maneuver onto the ice shelf. But Biyou wasn't finished. The 42-year-old woman still had to climb a steep bank and run another 200 yards to her home to seek help. She collapsed, but thanks to Biyou's constant prodding and pawing, he encouraged her to get to the top. Sadly, the mare did not survive.
- In 1954, Tang, a big, friendly collie from Denison, Texas, leaped in front of oncoming vehicles more than once, and used his strength to push young children to the curb before any were struck. Once, Tang was firmly planted in front of a parked milk truck. Refusing to move, the animal barked furiously until the driver finally got out and discovered a 2-year-old girl in the back of his truck, which was wide open. The youngster had somehow climbed inside and certainly would have fallen out when the truck pulled away.
- On a cold December night in 1965, Patches, a collie-malamute mix, tagged along as his owner Marvin Scott of Spanaway, Wash., walked down to the pier below his lakeside home to check on possible ice damage to a patrol boat. Spray from the lake had made the pier slick as an ice rink. While Scott pulled on the stern line to free his boat, he slipped and fell, ripping tendons and muscles in both legs. The momentum carried him off the dock and into the frigid water. Patches jumped in and dragged his dazed master to the surface and then pulled him to the edge of the floating dock.
But, as Patches was in danger of drowning, it was Scott's turn to return the favor by pulling the dog onto the dock. Scott's badly injured legs were useless, however, and he fell back into the lake. Patches went back in, seized him by the hair and towed him back to the dock again. His cries for help went unheard, so Scott began crawling up a rocky 300-foot slope toward his house until he was able to alert his wife. He remained hospitalized 25 days, undergoing surgeries on both legs. He credits his survival to Patches.
- Legally blind, Emily Larson of Boston was dependent on her Seeing Eye yellow Labrador retriever Shadow for guidance. But in 1992 Shadow turned protector, too. For years, Larson was bothered by the unwanted attention of a man. Gradually, his obsession became threatening, forcing Larson to contact the police about his stalking activities.
- In 1985, Leo, a striking standard poodle, along with 11-year-old Sean Callahan and his 9-year-old brother Erin, were playing near the Guadalupe River when they stumbled upon a 5 ½-foot-long diamondback rattlesnake. Without hesitation, Leo leapt between the children and the dangerous snake, which struck Leo six times on the head. Nearly an hour passed before owner Lana Callahan could locate a veterinarian. By then the animal's vital signs were extremely weak and his face was swollen the practitioner couldn't see his left eyeball. But Leo survived, largely due to an extraordinary will to live.
- In 1995, Michael Lingenfelter of Plano, Texas, was deeply depressed and had lost the will to live. Once a robust guy, Lingenfelter, 57, had undergone two major heart surgeries, plus a bypass procedure. Yet this husband, father of four and grandfather of seven was reeling from the physical and psychological aftereffects of unstable angina. All of his doctors were at their wits end as to how to bring him out of this deteriorating condition. When one suggested a therapy dog, Lingenfelter laughed and replied, "You gotta be kiddin'." But he agreed to give it a try, and thanks to a partnership with a golden retriever named Dakota, Lingenfelter is feeling "like a whole man again."
Dakota has become Lingenfelter's early-warning system prior to an angina attack. About 2 to 5 minutes before an attack is coming – which tends to be three to four times a month – the dog pushes on his master's chest with his back. "I hold on to him until the pain passes," explains Lingenfelter. "He has taught me to pick up on his breathing rate to prevent me from hyperventilating when the pain is intense. In other words, he's saved my life several times over." Dakota's ability to detect an oncoming attack also gives his master time to take his medication and prevent major damage."
P.S.: Sept. 23-29, 2001 was National Dog Week, with the theme "Man's Best Friend." These heroes and numerous others each year were lifesavers and once again demonstrated the incredible strength of the human-animal bond.