K-9 Heroes

The family dog is more family than you think

When Angel, a golden retriever, attacked a wild cougar who’d been stalking her young master in British Columbia, she wasn’t just acting on primal animal instinct – in her mind, she likely thought she was protecting a sibling, experts say.

“The reason dogs are willing to put themselves in jeopardy is because it’s a family affair,” said Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of Why Does My Dog Act That Way?

“What you have to recognize is the number of times dogs tend to rescue people or help them to safety every year is very, very large and the vast majority are not reported.”

Eleven-year-old Austin Forman was collecting firewood about 5:30 p.m. on January 10, 2010 outside his family’s Boston Bar, B.C., home in the Fraser Valley. While Angel, his 18-month Golden Retriever always came with him, she usually wandered off on her own and had to be called, when it was time to go back to the house. However on this particular occasion she, uncharacteristically, would not leave Austin’s side.

 As Austin pushed the log-filled wheelbarrow back to the house Angel began barking. He looked around just in time to see Angel intercept a charging cougar affording him time to reach safety. While Angel bravely locked in mortal combat with the beast, Austin’s panic stricken mother called 911.

RCMP Constable Chad Gravelle raced to the scene and finding the entwined combatants, the cougar gnawing at Angel’s bleeding neck, took aim and fired killing the cougar.

The limp body of Angel was lifted from beneath the big cat her and laid on the ground. Thinking she was gone they were happily surprised when Angel drew a deep, shuddering breath. She was badly injured; requiring surgery and stitches to repair puncture wounds and has fully recovered.

Coren has studied more than 1,000 reported cases of canine rescue and grouped them into four categories:

  • Alerting the family. It’s the most common act in which the dog barks as an alarm, like when the home is filling with smoke. This accounted for about 35 per cent of cases.
  • Finding help. The dog recognizes a problem, seeks another human, then barks and runs in the direction they want the person to follow.
  • Physical cues. This is when a dog will grab, push or pull a person to safety or out of harm’s way.
  • Physical intervention. This is Angel’s category, in which a dog risks its life to protect a human. Coren said this is the least frequent (18 per cent of the examples he studied) but the most dramatic in illustrating how strongly dogs are bound to people.

“A sensible dog is not going to take on a cougar . . . but dogs aren’t going to do a risk assessment” when sensing peril, Coren said. “The cougar weighs almost as much as a dog (like a golden retriever) but in addition to jaws, it has claws. It’s a better killing machine than a dog, which is essentially a running machine. But when a dog goes into that (intervention mode), it doesn’t seem to make any difference.”