Monday, 30 November -0001

Hail the hero dogs

As a new book reveals, inside every dog is a hero waiting to get out. Janet Menzies shares some remarkable tales of fearless devotion and bravery…

Written by Janet Menzies

Have you ever looked at your dog and wondered what he would do if the chips were down? If you were being chased by escaped bank robbers, would he fight them off? And if you uttered the immortal command: ‘Lassie, get help!’ – would he?

The idea of a boy and his wonderfully intelligent dog captured the public imagination in Eric Knight’s short story, Lassie Come-Home, published in 1940. But in real life, Eric Knight is believed to have been influenced by a story about a collie-cross called Lassie who saved a mariner’s life during the First World War.

Lassie was owned by the landlord of a pub called The Pilot Boat in Lyme Regis. On New Year’s Day 1915, HMS Formidable was sunk by a German torpedo off the south Devon coast. More than 500 men were lost, but some made it on to life rafts. Rescuers took some of the men to the pub, where the dead were laid out on tables. But Lassie kept licking the face and feet of one sailor, Able Seaman John Cowan, gradually bringing him round.

Luckily someone noticed that John was reacting, and his life was saved. Every day, animals prove that this tale is far from improbable: dogs are detecting cancer; predicting epileptic seizures; or monitoring blood sugar levels. Search and rescue dogs regularly find buried survivors in disaster zones. As these examples show, Lassie’s dramatic fictional adventures are constantly replicated by real-life dogs.


The saying goes: 'Cometh the hour, cometh the man,’ but when it comes to Mike Dewar of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service and his dog Echo, it is more a case of: ‘Come a disaster, here comes the dog.’ The search and rescue team regularly travels abroad to help in disasters, and in the aftermath of 9/11 it was decided that the team would be much more effective with a canine capability.

HeroDogs-02-590Echo with Mike Dewar of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service

Mike remembers: ‘I’d seen search dogs working in America and India and been very impressed, so I bought a dog of my own. Echo was the first dog I had ever owned in my life!’ And it seems Echo knew this was the right thing, too.

As Mike says, ‘Echo picked us. We saw an advert about working Lab puppies for sale, and the family and I went to look and we had decided on buying a different pup from the litter. But then this little yellow one came up to me and when I went to put him down again he wouldn’t let go. We realised he was the one.’

The toughest emergency he ever answered came on 14 January 2010, when he and Mike arrived in Haiti to help with the search for victims of the earthquake. ‘On the first day, we did eight searches,’ Mike explains. ‘Every house was awful. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We searched a building and it was like sticking your head in an oven.

HeroDogs-03-590PC Dave Coleman with Vinnie, who received the canine George Cross for working in the aftermath of the 7 July bombings in London

‘Echo got heat exhaustion. But he would not stop searching. He is very focused, he has this incredible drive. If there is somebody there he will find them. In Haiti he went on until he collapsed and had to be put on a drip.’ He is fearless. ‘He goes up in the helicopter quite a bit and can either jump out if it is near enough to the ground or be winched down in a specially designed harness, with me following after him. With the fire engines we go up in the cage and I hook him up. I remember once I car-ried him up a ladder 40ft in the air and he panicked. I thought, “if you are going, I am going too” and just at that moment a fireman managed to grab us both back on to the ladder.’


Maureen Burns’s pet collie-cross Max, needed no training to alert her to an upcoming medical emergency. At first Maureen, from Rugby, Warwickshire, was worried it was Max who was ill. ‘Max was acting sad, he’d stopped being this hyper dog that I knew so well. We got him from the RSPCA as a youngster, and now he was nineyears- old. I thought maybe it was age.’

Maureen had had a non-cancerous lump (a fibro adenoma) removed from her breast some years before, so was always conscientious about checking her breasts. ‘Then one day, I remember it so clearly, I was checking myself in the mirror and Max was lying on the bed behind me. Then he sni. ed my breath and occasionally nosed my breast. I saw the re. ection in the mirror of Max on the bed and our eyes met and I could tell instantly.

‘I went to the doctor who referred me to the hospital and I was sent for a scan and a mammogram. But they couldn’t find anything. Butthe surgeon could feel a lump, so did five biopsies. One of them was slightly suspect, so he did seven more. When the results came through, two showed cancer. When I returned from surgery, Max was back to normal – wagging his tail and back to his old self. But I had never heard of anything like this. I happened to mention it to the breast-care nurse and she wasn’t at all surprised, saying she’s heard about this before. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t imagining it. It does happen!’

In fact there is now a whole science of cancer detection and medical alert by dogs that is making huge strides in researching dogs’ abilities, and putting them to practical use.


Most of us, faced with an oncoming tank or an unexploded bomb, would consider it our job to run, quickly, in the opposite direction. But of course soldiers don’t, and neither do their dogs. Question a human hero who has just won the Victoria Cross and nine times out of 10, they will mumble modestly, ‘I was just doing my job.’

HeroDogs-05-590Afghanistan: US Army dog handler Staff Sgt Hile prepares Ronnie to be hoisted by helicopter

Indeed, they are now recognised by the PDSA’s Dickin Medal for gallantry and play such an important role in the armed forces that they now have their own special regiment, the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, comprising the five different working dog units that have served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of the most famous of the Afghanistan sniffer dogs is Theo, a springer spaniel-cross, who has been nominated for a posthumous Dickin Medal. Theo and his handler, Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, were on patrol on 1 March 2011 in the Nahr-e-Saraj district in Helmand province, when Lance Corporal Tasker was shot dead by the Taliban. Shortly afterwards Theo died of a seizure, probably caused by shock. In his five months on the frontline, Theo had won praise for finding 14 homemade bombs and weapons-hoards, more than any other dog and handler in the conflict. When Liam was repatriated, Theo’s ashes were on the same aircraft.


This ability of dogs to find people hidden in tiny spaces is especially valuable for the UK Border Agency, who patrol Britain’s borders for everything from illegal immigrants to contraband – and use more than 60 dogs to help. Foremost among these is Lola, a three-year-old German shorthaired pointer who found 24 illegal immigrants in just one week. In a recent find she dragged her handler, James Niven, for 50 yards to get to a lorry driving into Calais ferry terminal, barking to indicate her suspicions. James said, ‘She dragged me down there because she got a big whi. of the scent.’ Sure enough, when the offcials searched the lorry, they found a Vietnamese teenage boy, a girl and an older man, hidden among air-conditioning parts. They spent nine hours crushed into the tiny gap between the lorry’s cargo and its roof after stowing away in the South of France – any longer and they could have died.


Mountain rescuers always advise hill walkers to go out properly equipped – by which they mean sensible walking boots and a map you can understand, rather than trainers and a mobile phone. When the inevitable SOS goes out, the one bit of ‘equipment’ the rescuers wouldn’t be without is a dog.

HeroDogs-04-590Cluanie, a search and rescue dog in Wales

The UK’s National Search And Rescue Dog Association (NSARDA) is the umbrella group for a number of different SARDA groups in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, providing volunteer search-dog teams not just for mountain rescues but also general searches for missing people worldwide. SARDA’s Ireland North call and training coordinator has recently added a bloodhound cross called Paddy to the team.

‘I have only just completed his training as a trailing dog,’ says Neil, ‘but we used him the other night. A lady went missing from her home and after searching for two days, the police asked me if the bloodhound could help. It was at the very limit of Paddy’s ability: a 50-hour-old trail after rain and high winds. The girl had left her car and it had been found in the early hours of Saturday.

‘I asked the police for some articles of clothing and used a T-shirt to give the scent to Paddy. We were on a busy road, but he picked up the trail and away we went for over a mile to a wall at the edge of a cliff. Then Paddy set off again and after 50 yards, he found a gap in the wall and tried to pull me through it. There was a ledge 40ft down, where it was clear someone had gone over. Paddy’s ability so early in his training was amazing. It’s extraordinary what the dogs can do.’

Hero Dogs, by Janet Menzies (Quiller Publishing, £10.99). The author is donating all royalties to Hearing Dogs For Deaf People.

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