Extraordinary Dog Heroes

Every dog lover thinks his or her dog is special, but some dogs stand out so far above the rest by the way in which they assist their humans. This article isn't about assistance dogs or dogs who have been specially trained to help people, but rather about mostly ordinary pets who rise to the extraordinary to save their loved ones, often risking their own lives to do so.

Superhero dog illustration
There are many examples of superhero dogs.

Dogs in History

Stories of heroic dogs go back at least as far as the last days of Pompeii, a Roman city destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the first century. A young boy was found buried in the rubble alongside his dog Delta. The dog's collar apparently bore markings showing that he had saved the boy from three previous disasters: a drowning at sea, an attack by robbers, and an attack by a wolf, before losing his final battle against the fire caused by the volcano.

Saint Bernards, originally bred by monks along the border of Switzerland and Italy, served as rescuers for people who got lost in the mountains as they crossed between the two countries via the Great St. Bernard Pass. These dogs could locate people by scent from over two miles away or under 10 feet of snow. Barry, one of the monk's original St. Bernards, is credited with saving over 40 lives.

In perhaps one of the most well-known canine rescues, a team of sled dogs led by Alaskan Malamute Balto carried diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925 when the town was in danger from an epidemic of the deadly disease. The trek made by these sled dogs has become part of the lore surrounding the annual Iditarod Sled Dog race.

Dogs of War

Stubby, a Pit Bull serving with the Americans during World War I, was the most highly decorated dog in US history, having been awarded medals by General Pershing and President Harding. In fact, when he traveled with his handler to Georgetown University, the Hotel Majestic broke its long-standing "no pets" policy to allow Stubby to stay in their finest accommodations. The dog was even assigned a special chef to tend to his nutritional needs after hotel staff saw the blanket displaying all of Stubby's medals.

In Great Britain, a German Shepherd named Sam was awarded the Dickin Medal for his heroics while serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sam chased a gunman and took him to the ground so he could be disarmed. In addition, the dog held off an angry mob bent on attacking ethnic Serbs until help arrived to put down the riot.

Sadie, a Labrador Retriever who served in Iraq, was also awarded the prestigious Dickin Medal for her work sniffing out bombs in Afghanistan. Her best work involved locating a pressure cooker packed with explosives that had been hidden on an army base.

Terrorist Attacks

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center gave rise to a whole pack of hero dogs. Trakr dug through about 30 feet of debris at Ground Zero to locate the last human survivor of the attack. He has since been cloned in an attempt to come up with new dogs who will share his bravery and tenacity.

Roselle, an assistance dog, led his human down from the 78th Floor of Tower 1 just before it collapsed.

Jake, a search and rescue dog, died recently after a battle with cancer which many think was caused by the polluted conditions at Ground Zero. He had been abandoned at 10 months of age with a broken leg and dislocated hip when he was picked up by a search and rescue trainer. After rehab, he worked both after the World Trade Center attacks and after Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf coast.

Crime Stoppers

Dogs have also proved their worth in stopping crimes of much smaller magnitude than terrorist attacks. Maya, a Pit Bull, and Moti, a German Shepherd, both protected their families from assault. In fact, Moti actually took a bullet from an intruder's gun before scaring him out of the house. Nellie, a black lab, scared away an intruder before her deaf companion was injured.

And in a story that you won't see everyday, Kankuntu saved his family from armed pirates who highjacked their yacht, despite being shot and stabbed in the process. (He's fine now.)

It's not just humans who attack us and require our dogs to step in. Blue, an Australian Blue Heeler, sparred with an alligator when his 85-year old master fell while walking the dog. Leo, Brutis, and Zoey all saved children from poisonous snake bites. All three dogs were bitten in the process, but have since recovered - quite a feat especially for Zoey, who is a five-pound Chihuahua.

Troy, a Labrador Retreiver, was killed while protecting his family from a Pit Bull attack. Troy's son, Cole, was also injured in the attack, but Troy didn't get involved until the other dog came after the children of his human family.

Who ya' gonna call?

Even though many of us keep a cell phone nearby in case of emergencies, these dogs took matters into their own hands to save their families after accidents and home disasters.

Patty, a yellow Lab, saved her human from drowning in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic after their duck hunting boat capsized. Bo provided a similar service to his human when their rafting trip on the Colorado River was interrupted by an eight-foot wave.

Eve (a Rottweiler) and Honey (an English Cocker) saved their humans from terrible car wrecks. Eve pulled her friend, a paraplegic, far enough away from the car to prevent further injury when the vehicle exploded. Honey ran for help to free his master from a roll-over.

Woodie, a Collie mix from Cleveland, jumped 80 feet off of a cliff to keep his human's face up out of the water of the Rocky River when he fell. The dog suffered two broken hips for his efforts.

Bud, a Border Collie / Labrador mix, responded to a call from his 8-year old friend who had fallen into a stream and broken both of his arms. Bud pulled the child up the bank and began dragging him home while barking to alert the boy's parents.

Shannon, a Border Collie / Golden Retriever mix from the Show Me State, begged to get outside when her farmer father became pinned under his tractor. She led the farmer's wife out to the field where the accident had occurred, allowing the farmer to be rescued just before he reached the point of no return.

Fletcher, Junior, King, Nyla, Rocky, Snickers, and countless others woke their families when fire broke out in their homes. Many of these dogs refused to leave the house, even though they had a way out, until all members of the family were safe.

Shelby and Willy both woke their families when carbon monoxide leaks spelled certain disaster.

Mother Nature vs. the Canine

When natural disasters occur, the Red Cross advises that we don't forget to provide emergency help for our pets. But sometimes the reverse is true, and dogs provide emergency relief to us humans.

Villa saved an 11-year old neighbor child when she fell into a large snowdrift. Villa jumped a five-foot fence when she heard the child's screams and made circles around the girl to pack down the snow so she could escape. She then cleared a path through the snow to the girl's home. Shana, a half-wolf / half-German Shepherd dog, rescued her elderly humans by digging a tunnel through the snow to lead them back inside during a blizzard.

After Hurricane Katrina, a dog who was actually named Katrina saved a drowning man from rising flood waters. And Reona, a Rottweiler, jumped three fences to rescue a five-year old neighbor after a 1989 earthquake in California.

And speaking of rescuing children...

Can any parent imagine anything more terrifying than a child lost in the wilderness? In Idaho, an 11-year old boy took a hike with his dog Athena. It was supposed to be a simple climb, so he didn’t take food or water. He lost his shoes early on. When they ended up lost, Athena kept him warm overnight, then led him back down the mountain to safety.

A 2-year old Canadian boy was recently lost in the Yukon wilderness wearing only a T-shirt. Although he was located within 24 hours, he would have likely frozen to death if not for a dog his family had found while hiking earlier in the day. The mixed breed dog had been through an ordeal himself, and was very grateful to the family for picking porcupine quills out of his muzzle. The dog snuggled with the boy, preventing hypothermia through the cool, damp night. The stray's guardian later identified him from news stories as Koda, a dog she herself had adopted after he was abandoned in British Columbia. Luckily for the family, she agreed to give Koda to them after the ordeal was over.

A different kind of heeling

Dogs are supposed to know how to heel, but many of them also know how to heal. In addition to the known health benefits of dogs for senior citizens and people with all kinds of disabilities, dogs who aren't even trained to help can often provide life-saving assistance to their humans.

Neo, a beautiful Siberian Husky, ran for help when his human fell after going into hypoglycemic shock. A Beagle named Belle called 911 when her guardian had a seizure and collapsed. Faith, a 2-year old American Bulldog woke his companion when the man had a heart attack while sleeping. Tragically, the man died two months later, leaving Faith homeless. As this article was being written in October, 2009, prospective adopters were being asked to e-mail [email protected]

Even in previously healthy people, a dog can be a life-saver. When a Maryland woman began choking on a piece of apple, her Golden Retriever Toby knocked her down and began jumping on her chest in a canine version of the Heimlich maneuver. She reports that she has paw-print bruises where the dog jumped on her, but is grateful to be alive.

Fighting like dogs and cats?

In a truly bizarre twist of events, several dogs have been recognized as heroes for their efforts at saving cats! English Bulldogs are not known for their swimming abilities due to their short legs and bulky frame, but Napoleon jumped into a lake and pulled out a burlap sack containing six abandoned kittens. Four of the cats survived and have since been adopted.

Ginny, a Schnauzer-Siberian Husky mix, lived with a man who loved cats and would make night-time trips around their neighborhood to feed strays. This love must have rubbed off on Ginny, who found and rescued several cats in need. At one time, she threw herself against a standpipe in a construction site, tipping over the pipe to free the kittens trapped inside. Ginny was named "Cat of the Year" in 1998 at the Westchester Cat Show. When she subsequently died at the age of 17, a memorial service was held at Westchester, with 300 cats in attendance.

And in Melbourne, Australia, a terrier named Leo stayed with a box of newborn kittens until firefighters could rescue all of the animals from a house fire. All of the pets survived their smoke inhalation, but Leo had to be given heart massage and oxygen to revive him after the fire.

Who needs a pedigree?

As you can see, most of these dogs were ordinary house pets with no special training and no fancy pedigree. Their lack of distinction didn't stop them from stepping up when their families needed them. Don't sell your own dog short; you never know when he just might save your life!

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