Hero dogs

UMES

The devotion dogs can show to people prompts them in certain situations to put their own life in danger to save humans. Some of them – of various breeds – have become the stuff of legends, displaying through their actions a tremendous aptitude for first-aid.

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Togo and Balto, the sled dogs

Zaglia

Back in February 1925 Alaska was in the grip of a diphtheria epidemic that was threatening the town of Nome on the west coast. The winter weather meant that serum could not be flown in from Seattle, so the decision was taken to use the railway for the first part of the journey, transferring the precious cargo to sleds for the final 600 miles or so. The call went out to Leonhard Seppala, who was regarded as America’s fastest musher at the time.

As the epidemic spread, a round-the-clock relay of mushers was set up to deliver the medicine as soon as possible. In appalling weather - a swirling blizzard - Seppala was forced to take staggering risks. Urged on by the tenacity of their master, his lead dogs Togo and Balto displayed an exemplary attitude and extraordinary endurance.

Thanks to them, the serum arrived at its destination ahead of the disease. Seppala and his dogs covered over 300 miles on their own, making a major contribution to the mission, which delivered the serum in 127 hours and 30 minutes.

This feat is commemorated in one of the world’s biggest polar sled dog races, the annual Iditarod.

Barry, the St Bernard

Lanceau
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Barry was a St Bernard who lived in the 19th century. In the local dialect the name means “bear”, and the handsomest male in the hospice’s kennels is still traditionally called Barry. The original Barry is attributed with saving upwards of 40 people, which earned him a place in posterity.

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St Bernards are traditionally used as mountain rescue dogs. The monks of the Great Saint Bernard hospice in Switzerland first kept these dogs in the 11th century, and since the 17th century they have been trained to search for people missing in the mountains.

Barry was one such St Bernard who lived in the 19th century. In the local dialect the name means “bear”, and the handsomest male in the hospice’s kennels is still traditionally called Barry. The original Barry is attributed with saving upwards of 40 people, which earned him a place in posterity. A monument was raised in his honour at the animal cemetery in Paris, which notes that Barry was actually killed by the last person he ever found, who mistook him for a bear. In reality, Barry died of old age in 1814 and his body is preserved at the Natural History Museum in Bern. The St Bernard is also commonly associated with a keg of brandy around its neck, but this is a myth too. It is dangerous to give alcohol to people suffering from hypothermia.

Cyrrhus, the disaster search dog

Brigade_sapeur_pompier_Paris

An earthquake measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale hit Armenia on 11 December 1988. A call went out for international assistance due to the scale of the disaster – two towns were completely razed to the ground. French dog teams arrived on the scene within 24 hours, including NCO Deguerville and his dog Cyrrhus, a three-year-old Pyrenean Shepherd. The dog teams worked two days without a break in temperatures dropping to -4°C during the day and almost -20°C at night, before settling into a slightly less demanding routine of 6-8 hours on and 3 hours off. The local residents endeavoured to help by indicating where victims might be trapped. On day four Cyrrhus and NCO Deguerville were advised to go to the site of a primary school. The lead came up blank, but while there they decided to investigate a shoe factory in the vicinity. After a search lasting several hours, Cyrrhus marked a spot, and a young woman was pulled from the debris. She had spent several days trapped under the rubble without food or water and had sustained a serious injury to her leg. After time in intensive care she made a full recovery.

Cyrrhus is just one of the countless canine heroes that have saved people trapped under rubble following natural disasters and terrorist attacks, such as 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings, which occur with unfortunate regularity. Many others perform similar heroics in complete anonymity.

Thousands of dogs work across the planet to save human lives every year. Most of them remain anonymous, although a small number are given official awards and medals, such as the Dickin Medal for outstanding bravery in war and the PDSA Gold Medal, two British awards.

These are exceptional animals, but the same can be said for all those dogs that are dedicated to finding trapped and missing persons, detecting illegal drugs, explosives, or helping people with impaired sight or mobility. These are dogs which give their all to help us day after day.

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