Man's Best Friends: True Stories of the World's Most Heroic Dogs

Man's Best Friends: True Stories of the World's Most Heroic Dogs

by John McShane


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781944713232
Publisher: Lesser Gods
Publication date: 08/15/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 291,450
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

John McShane is the author of Didier Drogba: Portrait of a Hero , Heath Ledger: His Beautiful Life , and Susan Boyle: Living the Dream , among other titles.

Read an Excerpt

Man's Best Friends

True Stories of the World's Most Heroic Dogs

By John McShane

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2012 John McShane
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78219-041-7



Dogs have many fine qualities that are plain for all to see but there are others no one could expect them to possess. Who, for example, expects a dog to come to the medical aid of a human in distress or even in danger of dying? Of course dogs can transport medicines or equipment, perhaps inadvertently tell humans of someone in distress by attracting their attention through barking or a sense of agitation, but to actually intercede with some form of aid of their own volition – surely not? Well, there are some instances of such action crossing the barrier from the expected to the unexpected, the predictable to the realms of almost disbelief.

Take Toby the Retriever, for example. His path had never crossed with that of Dr Henry Jay Heimlich, the American physician accredited with prescribing the abdominal thrusts used to help victims of choking clear their air passages. Dogs and the now-famous 'Heimlich Manoeuvre' didn't seem natural companions. Not, that is, until early in 2007 when a remarkable event occurred and Toby, a two-year-old Golden Retriever, became the first dog in history to save a life by performing the respiratory rescue technique.

Debbie Parkhurst, 45, was eating an apple at her home in Calvert, Maryland, when she failed to swallow a bite. Worse than that, a chunk of the fruit became trapped in her throat and within seconds a harmless, completely natural act placed her life in jeopardy. She began to beat on her chest, frantically pounding away with her fists, and even leant over a chair to perform the Heimlich Manoeuvre on herself, all without success. Then Toby came to the rescue.

Mrs Parkhurst described what then ensued: 'The next thing I know, Toby's up on his hind feet and he's got his front paws on my shoulders. He pushed me to the ground and once I was on my back, he began jumping up and down on my chest.' The chunk of apple was dislodged and she escaped death – 'As soon as I started breathing, he stopped and began licking my face, as if to keep me from passing out.' A friend arrived in time to witness the dog's amazing act and drove her to a doctor.

After her brush with death she admitted: 'I literally have paw-print shaped bruises on my chest! I'm still a little hoarse but otherwise I'm OK. They say dogs leave a paw print on your heart – he left a paw print on my heart, that's for sure. The doctor said I probably wouldn't be here without Toby. I keep looking at him and saying, "You're amazing!" Of all the dogs in the world, I never would have expected this goofy one here to know the Heimlich.'

Toby's rescue procedure was performed in exactly the way suggested at that time by the American Red Cross: 'a series of five back blows and five abdominal thrusts'. Veterinarian Dr Douglas Foreman was equally baffled by the expert response. 'Toby isn't what you would call the most trained of dogs,' he mused. 'I have no idea where he learned it from.'

If that rescue was unusual, across the Atlantic an even more remarkable act was taking place at roughly the same time. In this instance it wasn't just a case of a dog reacting to an obvious physical event, such as a human choking, but intervening after medically diagnosing a potentially critical illness.

Noel Hanley had lost consciousness in bed and although his wife Rita thought he was sleeping, Beauty – the couple's King Charles Spaniel – realised something was seriously amiss. Seventy-four-year-old Noel was suffering hypoglycaemia, literally 'under-sweet blood', an abnormally diminished content of glucose in the blood.

'I didn't take much notice because Noel never suffered from hypoglycaemia before,' explained Rita. 'He was snoring and it looked like he was just sleeping. The dog sensed something and jumped on top of the bed, freaking out, licking him and tearing off the bedclothes – that's what got my notice. I tried to wake him up then but couldn't, so I phoned for the ambulance. He was in a deep coma but I didn't know it. Apparently Beauty had sniffed him and sensed that something was wrong – she definitely saved him.'

Since she was a pup, Beauty had lived with the couple in the Cork suburb of Togher in Ireland. A normally placid creature, she had sensed something was wrong and began to behave completely out of character: barking and running in and out of the bedroom.

Rita said the family pet continued to monitor her husband's condition after his escape from death and often sniffed him – 'She's Noel's minder,' was how she put it.

On another occasion when Noel's blood-sugar level dropped again, the dog began acting in an unusual and agitated way once more. 'She keeps an eye on my sugar level,' said Noel. He explained that Beauty kept a close watch on his condition by regularly licking his wrists and ankles as if to check on his blood-sugar levels. Doctors ran a series of tests but were unable to determine what had caused the condition (for the past 50 years, Noel had smoked 30 cigarettes a day). He had no recollection of the hours leading up to his hospital admission nor his time in the hospital's A&E unit.

Doctors at South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital in Cork who treated Hanley said the dog's intervention was critical. 'His dog saved his life, without a shadow of a doubt,' said Mortimer O'Connor, a non-consultant hospital doctor who subsequently reported the incident in the Irish Journal of Medical Science. 'We were taken aback by the case,' he added. 'When someone's blood-sugar level goes below a certain value, the body starts shutting down to preserve the main organs. Eventually your brain starts to shut down and you tend to go into a comatose state. The level of sugar in your blood is not enough for normal cell activity to happen. Normally there are symptoms such as sweating and palpitations but Noel Hanley didn't seem to have these.'

Doctor O'Connor wasn't sure how a dog could detect low blood-sugar levels. 'There is a train of thought that it is by the taste of somebody's sweat,' he said.

It is well documented that having pets brings a number of health benefits as dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol because their animals act as a buffer to stress, a factor in ill-health. Direct interventions by these creatures when their owners become dangerously ill, such as in this case, are not fully understood, though.

Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar, is one of the life-threatening complications of diabetes. Times of greatest risk are before meals and during the night. In Noel Hanley's case the doctors could not find a cause since he does not have diabetes. Deborah Wells, a psychologist at Queen's University Belfast, carried out a study (funded by Diabetes UK) of people with Type 1 diabetes who have dogs. More than 200 people contacted her to say their dogs have detected when they experience episodes of hypoglycaemia. 'Some untrained dogs seem to have this ability,' she said. 'The most obvious explanation is an odour cue.' In fact, dogs have a sense of smell 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than humans.

'A lot of diabetics say their dog has woken them up in the middle of the night. The dog has maybe been downstairs and comes up and scratches at the closed door and perhaps barks,' she continues. 'Whenever the person has checked their sugar levels, they've discovered they've been very low. Because some of these animals are reacting from different rooms we feel they can't be picking up on visual cues. That's not to say all animals are using the same mechanism. Some dogs might be picking up visual signals, as maybe there is some behavioural or mood change that the owners are giving off when their sugar levels are dropping and the dogs are sensitive to these changes.'

Beauty may not have been trained to save lives (it was happy coincidence that she was near when the emergency occurred), but the same could not be said of Belle the Beagle. She had been trained to act in an astonishing fashion, should danger ever threaten her master, and that's exactly what she did on the morning of 7 February 2006.

Owner Kevin Weaver remembers walking outside his home in Ocoee, Orange County, Florida, with Belle and then waking up in hospital, his dog still by his side but he could recall nothing of the events in between. What happened was simple: a diabetic seizure had caused him to fall and hit his head on a table at home. Fortunately, a mobile phone was on the coffee table and Belle sprang into action and deliberately bit into the number 9 keypad programmed to ring the emergency number of 911. The operator at the end of the line could hear nothing apart from a dog's bark but that was enough to send medics round to rescue the stricken man.

'There is no doubt in my mind that I'd be dead if I didn't have Belle,' said Weaver, 34, whose blood sugar had dropped dangerously low.

Belle had been actually been trained to summon help in those circumstances as she was a 'service dog' – the type of animal who helps patients with physical disabilities, hearing loss, diabetes and other conditions. The dog might turn on lights, alert people to sounds and generally provide extra assistance for the disabled or chronically ill.

'The change in [the patients'] lives is just amazing in terms of the freedom it offers and the level of security it provides,' said Al Peters, executive director of Hearing and Service Dogs of Minnesota. His group was one of dozens across the country to train dogs and place them in homes. Training takes up to two years and the dogs are ultimately given away to patients who have gone through an application process. Some wait many months or years for such an animal.

Weaver first heard about service dogs while working as a flight attendant when he befriended a female frequent passenger who taught dogs to help diabetic patients by detecting, as we have already learned, abnormalities in a person's blood-sugar levels. The cost of such training could be as high as £10,000 or more, he said but his friend offered to take on Belle for just over £5,000. It was under her guidance and tutelage that the Beagle learned how to help her owner monitor his blood-sugar levels, alerting him whenever she detected a problem and calling for help if ever he collapsed, thereby giving rise to the risk of seizures potentially fatal without medical attention.

Most of the time Weaver kept his condition under control with close monitoring and by downing a glass of orange juice, should his blood-sugar numbers become low, but Belle also carried out her own health-checks. Periodically she would lick his nose and if something seemed wrong, she would paw and whine at him, not stopping until he responded.

'Every time she paws at me like that I grab my meter and test myself – she's never been wrong,' said Weaver. On the day of his attack Belle had woken him by clawing at his chest. He felt ill and sluggish, but thought the dog wanted to go out. It was about 9.30am and Weaver – now completely out of sorts – groggily decided his pet must need to go outside. He took her out but on returning home, he collapsed in the kitchen. His blood-sugar level had been at 25, well below the normal range of 80–120.

'She started scratching at me and whining,' he recalled. 'I thought maybe she had to go to the bathroom, not hitting on what was going on. I took her outside and brought her back in, and that's when I had the seizure. I don't know how long I would have lasted if Belle wasn't there. Twenty-five is not conducive to life – I would have died. I would have slipped into a coma and died.' On recovery, he visited a steakhouse for dinner, sharing the meal with his faithful pet.

It was the first seizure Weaver had experienced since Belle completed her training about eight months earlier and he had wondered if any dog could be relied on to do a job that might cause even some adults to be too panicked to cope in a crisis. And it was only by a remarkable chance that Belle and Kevin got together in the first place. Little Belle had twice been returned to the pet store where she was on sale as a puppy and it was only when a friend mentioned her to Kevin that he went to see her, about two years before she saved his life: 'I felt sorry for her. I went in and said, "She's mine!"' he recalled.

The training for diabetic-alert dogs is similar to the education provided to guide dogs for the visually impaired but instead of learning to act as someone's guide, the animals are schooled to sense when their handlers' blood-sugar is too high or too low. During training, Belle was taught to lick her owner's nostrils to smell his breath, reading his ketone level (acidic substances in the body). If something isn't right then Belle, with her amazing sense of smell, knows to start scratching Weaver's leg, warning him to adjust his sugar levels before a seizure comes on. Crucially, for real emergencies she was taught to bite down on his mobile phone – specifically, the number 9, which was programmed to dial 911.

Unfortunately not all dogs excel at 'medical service' and different breeds, with their varying qualities, are more suited to certain types of work. According to Mark Ruefenacht, founder of Dogs4Diabetics in California and a diabetic with his own service dog, breeds with exceptional smelling capabilities including Beagles and Labradors are best at diabetes training. 'Our clients tell us that they not only have this amazing dog but for the first time in their lives, they have a companion to help them deal with a chronic lifetime disease,' he adds.

The Beagle's suitability stems from breeding: they are scent hounds developed for tracking hare, rabbit and other game. Their sense of smell is one of the best developed of all dogs. In more recent times they have also been used to detect prohibited foodstuffs and other contraband. But the most famous Beagle of all doesn't actually exist – he is Snoopy (the dog in the 'Peanuts' cartoon) – though Belle had her own brush with fame.

Her miraculous intervention attracted widespread publicity and later in the year she was flown to Washington – in the cabin of the plane, not the hold – to receive an award alongside several human beings who had also saved lives by their quick intuitive use of a mobile phone. Of course they all deserved credit, though none so much as Belle. Her remarkable behaviour was preceded by another dog who also used a mobile phone to help its owner – not perhaps in the same sophisticated way as Belle, but it also managed to save a life and that's what really counts.

Fireman Lorenzo Abundiz was trudging up the side of Mount Baldy in Southern California on his day off when one of his two Rottweilers, four-year-old Cinder, began to behave strangely and refused to budge one more inch. He did not know what to make of the dog's behaviour but decided it would be best to return home. As it turned out, his pet's stubbornness undoubtedly saved his life.

'Usually my two dogs, Reeno and Cinder, like to walk up the trail and try to beat each other,' said Abundiz, from Rancho Cucamonga, California. 'But Reeno was on my side and Cinder didn't want to go farther. I looked back at her and she wanted to turn around.'

Sitting on the couch back home, the fire fighter kept an eye on his pet, thinking she had fallen ill. Cinder was a special dog, given to him by a Santa Ana fireman saved by him in 1991. Within the hour, Abundiz was the one who became sick, however. He felt tightness in his chest and his heart began to beat rapidly. After attempting to walk to the telephone to call for help, he passed out. Reeno licked his face to wake him up, but Cinder did even more: he pushed the portable phone towards his owner, enabling Abundiz to dial 911. Meanwhile, his wife Roxane returned to the house and walked into the living room to find her husband gasping for air.

When paramedics arrived, Abundiz could barely breathe and almost had a heart attack. He was given oxygen and rushed to San Antonio Community Hospital in Rancho Cucamonga, where he stayed for two days and was treated for an erratic heartbeat.

'I treat Cinder like my little boy,' said Abundiz, 41. 'I credit my dog for saving my life. If I would've been up on the hike and finished it, there would have been no one to help me – I would have died up there. I really strongly believe dogs can sense when your body chemistry is going haywire. That little Rotty saved my butt. She acted funny – that had never happened before. Cinder just sat in front of me, staring at me. I thought she was sick and I was going to take her to the vet. All of a sudden I felt palpitations in my heart.' Paramedics had prevented heart failure with drug injections before taking him to a hospital, he added.

'If I had finished that hike, there was no one around – no way would anyone have found me there! I would have died up there. I owe my life to my dog,' he admitted.


Excerpted from Man's Best Friends by John McShane. Copyright © 2012 John McShane. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface 6

1 Dog Physicians 9

2 Stately German Shepherds 29

3 Greater Love Hath No Dog Than This … 60

4 Faithful Friends 74

5 Balto and Togo's Great Rescue Mission 89

6 Rescue Dogs 108

7 Dogs Under Fire 131

8 Ne'er Had Mankind a More Faithful Friend Than Thou 154

9 Alligators, Snakes and Other Dangers 170

10 The Dogs of War 187

11 The Dogs of War (Post-World War II) 231

12 Away in a Heartbeat 250

13 Dog of the Millennium 281

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