“What’s the matter, Lassie? Did Timmy fall down the well?” For those old enough to remember the book, film, or television series, Lassie was always on the spot to protect or save her family from danger. But canine heroics are not just the stuff of fiction. In real life, dogs have been to known to rescue humans under extraordinary circumstances; provide warnings of danger; soothe and comfort; and perform challenging, heroic tasks.
Setting aside our tendency to anthropomorphize our dogs, some experts believe that dogs can exhibit true bravery. This isn’t just behavior that a dog, or specific breed, has been bred to display. It is the ability to assess danger and act, even if he’s putting himself in harm’s way. This behavior may be linked to dogs' evolution from wolves who formed tight social family units, or "packs." Our dogs become socialized and emotionally bonded to us as their pack. And a pack member must be protected and defended, no matter what the cost. We think these dogs are all heroes.
- Should you be in need of a lifeguard on the Italian coast, don’t expect a well-muscled Adonis to come to your rescue. You’re more likely to be saved by a dog trained at the Italian School of Canine Lifeguards. The Newfoundlands, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers are on duty at several beaches around the country, ready to rescue swimmers in trouble.
- On September 11, 2001, Michael Hingson, along with his guide dog for the blind, Roselle, was working as usual on the 78th floor in Tower One of the World Trade Center. When the planes struck, Roselle guided him through the building and down the stairwell—1,463 steps—to safety. The yellow Labrador Retriever led Hingson through the choking smoke and chaos, and away from the building just before it collapsed.
- Kathie Vaughn, who has paraplegia, was trapped in her van when it caught fire, and was unable to assemble her wheelchair and get out. Eve, her 104-pound Rottweiler grabbed her by the leg and pulled her to safety, before the van exploded. Eve suffered burns to her paws, but Ms. Vaughn was unharmed.
- Named one of history’s most heroic animals by Time Magazine, Trakr was a German Shepherd Dog who, along with his handler, dug through the debris at the World Trade Center and located the last survivor of the 9/11 attack.
- Great Pyrenees Duke may not exactly be a hero, but he’s undoubtedly celebrated in his hometown of Cormorant, Minnesota, where he serves as mayor. He won the votes of almost all the one thousand residents, and has served three consecutive terms.,
- A Miniature Schnauzer named Danny probably saved the life of Bethe Bennett when Bennett fell, broke her femur, and lost consciousness. Danny was a trained service dog who had cared for Bennett’s mother, and he seemed to know exactly what to do. First, Danny licked Bennett’s face until she regained consciousness. Then he knocked over the phone and nudged it towards her. Knowing her front door was locked, she told Danny to bring her "paper." Miraculously (or cleverly?), among the five pieces of paper he brought her was the one with her neighbor’s phone number on it. She was able to call both 911, and the neighbors to unlock the door before paramedics arrived, thanks to Danny.
- We all know how reliable a dog’s sense of smell is, and dogs are often used to detect bombs and drugs. But Duke the Vizsla is trained to sniff out peanuts, in any form and often in minute quantities, such as in oil, dust, or butter. Duke alerts his owner to the presence of peanuts by sitting firmly in front of her, blocking her from the offending allergen, and refusing to budge. His owner says that Duke saves her life every day.
- The heroics of Paris, a Boxer in Cornwall, England, may not be as dramatic as those of other hero dogs, but she does her part just the same. Whenever she goes on walks, Paris picks up cans and plastic bottles, and deposits them in the closest recycling bin. No one trained her for the task; it just comes naturally. And she’s doing her part to save the environment.
- Who would you bet on in a fight, a 100-pound black bear or a Yorkshire Terrier? If you said the bear, you lose. Deborah Epstein of New Jersey left the front door open one evening and Joe, her Yorkie, started barking even more furiously than usual. She turned around to see a black bear lumbering towards Joe’s food bowl. The six-pound terrier barked, lunged and nipped at the bear until it turned tail and ran out the door. Joe not only defended his food, but he also he defended his owner.
- Debbie Parkhurst of Maryland was at home eating an apple when a piece got lodged in her throat. She knew she was choking and began beating her chest, trying to dislodge it, to no avail. Her Golden Retriever, Toby, noticed her distress and sprung up, putting his paws on her shoulders. He knocked her to the floor, and jumped up and down on her chest, dislodging the morsel. He then licked Parkhurst’s face to keep her from losing consciousness. It’s a mystery how Toby figured out this modified Heimlich maneuver, but he won a Dog of the Year award for his heroics.
Dogs have been invaluable in the military, the police, and search and rescue, as well as in more everyday ways. They've been man's protector and helper for centuries. And, every once in a while, a dog goes to extraordinary lengths and uses almost inexplicable skills to come to our aid. The dog is more than man's best friend; he is often our hero.