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Canine heroics: a doggone mystery

The Baltimore Sun

First came the stray German shepherd in south Georgia who pulled a stranger from her wrecked car and dragged her 50 yards to safety.

Then came Velvet, a Labrador mix who rescue workers credited with saving the lives of her owner and two other stranded climbers on Oregon's icy Mount Hood.

A month later, Gandalf, a Shiloh shepherd on his first rescue mission, made headlines when he located a 12-year-old boy who'd been missing for four days from his Scout troop's campsite in the mountains of North Carolina.

If those weren't dog heroes enough for the first three months of the year, this past week Toby came to the rescue -- a golden retriever whose Cecil County owner says he saved her from choking to death on a piece of apple by administering what amounted to the Heimlich maneuver.

What's next, a Chihuahua conducting a coronary bypass?

Dogs can do some heroic things (though they don't perceive them as such). They can be trained to find and rescue the lost, help the disabled and even assist in medical emergencies. The Heimlich maneuver, though, is not one of them.

"On the surface of things, dogs just do what their instinct tells them," said Lorna Coppinger, author, with her husband, Ray, of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution.

"This one may have seen or sensed that his owner was stressed and jumped up on her, and maybe that dislodged the food, but I wouldn't ascribe to the dog any conscious intent to perform a medical procedure. The story is wonderful, though; she should have a good time with it."

Debbie Parkhurst, the 45-year-old jewelry maker who says her dog saved her life, did not immediately return calls from The Sun, but according to the Cecil Whig, she was considering invitations to appear on Late Show with David Letterman and Good Morning America.

She said that a hunk of apple got wedged in her windpipe Friday, and when she began beating her chest to dislodge it, Toby jumped on her, knocking her to the ground.

"Once I was on my back, he began jumping up and down on my chest," she told the Whig. "As soon as I started breathing, he stopped and began licking my face, as if to keep me from passing out."

After the incident, Parkhurst said a friend drove her to an unidentified doctor.

The dog as hero is a long-familiar theme, in literature, entertainment and history -- from the 1950s-era novel Old Yeller and TV show Rin Tin Tin to modern-day movie canines such as Airbud and a newly revived Lassie. Dogs served as messengers for American troops in World War I and in every conflict since. They were honored for "heroic" efforts after Sept. 11 and again during Hurricane Katrina.

But, based on the literature and the experts, a dog performing the Heimlich maneuver is new turf.

'Amazing things'

Debbie Winkler, who trains assistance dogs at Dog Ears and Paws Inc. in Sykesville, said she didn't find the woman's claim all that farfetched.

"Dogs can do some amazing things, and the reasons behind them we don't always know. We can only speculate. With a story like this, I'm not sure what you can attribute it to, but there was some sort of interaction between a woman and a dog and, thank God, it saved her life."

Among the dogs she has trained are those that alert clients prone to seizures that a seizure is approaching.

"We're not sure if it's something they smell, or see, or hear, but they detect it. The world is full of mystery," she said. Seizure-detecting dogs have also been trained to lie atop their owner, or even roll them onto their sides during seizures, she said.

Other animal experts say that to label a dog a hero, or to credit it with performing the Heimlich maneuver, requires ascribing to it human thoughts, traits, feelings and emotions that simply aren't there.

"I doubt he knew he was doing it [the Heimlich maneuver]," said Terri Diener, a Sykesville animal communicator who has a company called Petspeak. "We tend to ascribe human thoughts and behaviors to animals. It's just our way of understanding them. It's a different species and we really don't know, so we apply our logic and reason to it.

"Animals who sense somebody is in trouble will jump up. They do react to our stress. He was most likely reacting to the woman's distress and just acting like a golden retriever," she said. "But I would have to talk to the dog to find out exactly what was going on in his mind."


James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals & Society at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, said attributing heroism to dogs -- while their acts may appear that way to us -- is a form of anthropomorphism, or attributing human emotions and thought patterns to animals.

"People throughout the world feed their pets on human food, give them human names, celebrate their birthdays, take them to specialist doctors when they become ill, mourn them when they die and bury them in pet cemeteries with all the ritual trappings of a human burial," he wrote recently.

In the U.S., he added, people dress their pets in designer-label fashions and enroll them in day care. Surveys have shown 75 percent of pet owners consider their animals akin to children, and half of women reported they relied more on their dogs and cats for affection than on their husbands and children.

"Most pet owners believe that their animals genuinely love or admire them [and] miss them when they are away. One could argue these people are simply deluding themselves ... [but] the fact remains that without such beliefs, relationships with pets would be far less meaningful."

If it weren't for anthropomorphism, he said, people probably wouldn't be keeping pets in the first place.

But keeping them, and ascribing human traits to them, is a fact of modern life -- as is the way a report about canine heroics quickly spreads across the country.

News accounts about Toby ran in hundreds of newspapers and other media outlets yesterday, even though his "heroics" were unwitnessed and unconfirmed.

"The Heimlich maneuver is a fairly specific activity, and I doubt very much the dog had any idea what he was doing other than trying to lick her face," said Andrew Rowan, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"We do read too much into this sort of thing, and we do anthropomorphize our companion animals, but on the other hand new research is showing dogs may be uniquely attuned to human's behavior, and there are dogs that are heroes -- service dogs, de-mining dogs -- who are working tirelessly every day."

Earlier this month outside Indianapolis, a collie named Lassie died in a house fire after waking her owners so that they could escape from their burning home. In Hallandale, Fla., this week, a poodle's barking woke up a mother and her five children just before a pre-dawn fire erupted, allowing them to escape. And last year, a specially trained beagle from Ocoee, Fla., was honored in Washington, D.C., for speed-dialing 911 after its diabetic owner had a seizure and collapsed.

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