When an earthquake leaves shards of buildings with people trapped in the rubble, or when a blind or deaf person needs to be guided toward safety, dogs come to the rescue.
Please, cat fanciers, don't start the usual protest: Dogs are heroes. Not all dogs are, any more than all humans qualify. But the dogs celebrated at the American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards, airing Friday, Nov. 11, on Hallmark Channel, are magnificent examples.
Carson Kressley hosts the 90-minute special, taped Oct. 1 in Beverly Hills, Calif. Presenters include Betty White and dog trainer Victoria Stilwell. Whoopi Goldberg, Kristen Chenoweth and Jillian Michaels are among the judges.
"I said yes because I am an animal lover, and I didn't understand the magnitude of what the hero dogs are," Kressley says. "Some of them were as simple as the eyes and ears of someone who is deaf and blind and need the sensitivity to go about their daily lives. Some are search-and-rescue dogs that help in the military and Iraq and 9/11. I can't even get my dog to roll over, and they are answering the telephone! It is unbelievable."
The Hero Dog Awards are divided into eight categories: law enforcement/arson, service, therapy, military, guide, search and rescue, hearing, and emerging hero dogs.Each winner has his or her story told in a video. Mickey Rooney narrates a tribute to Rin Tin Tin, whose look-alike descendant is at the awards.
Not to discount any canine's courage on the battlefield or in sniffing for a bomb, but the top honors go to Roselle, a gorgeous yellow Lab who died in June. Even if her name doesn't automatically ring a bell, chances are you know about her.
Roselle was the guide dog of Michael Hingson, who celebrates her in his best-seller, "Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, his Guide Dog & the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero."
And to guide someone down 1,463 stairs, away from the cascading mountain of the collapsing towers, and help others stay calm is what made Roselle an amazing creature.
In his well-written book, Hingson tells how he tried to head into work very early on that clear Tuesday morning, but there were delays on the New Jersey Transit. He and Roselle still arrived early at his 78th-floor office in the North Tower, where Hingson was the regional sales manager and head of operations for Quantum/AFL, a data protection company. Hingson had an important breakfast meeting in his office, and he was about to refill the fax machine with stationery when the first plane hit at 8:46 a.m.
"The building shudders violently, then starts to groan and slowly tip to the southwest. In slow motion, the tower leans over something like 20 feet," Hingson writes.
He was certain he was going to die. Hingson grabbed Roselle's leash as a colleague looked up and saw the windows above them had been blown out. The plane crashed floors above them.
As terrified as everyone was, Roselle and Hingson stayed calm.
"The fact is it's not really the dog," Hingson says from his home in Novato, Calif. "It's the team. A blind person using a guide dog uses the dog to guide them. I don't like to use 'leading' because it just implies that I am passive. Her job is to make sure we walk safely."
And she did, down 1,463 stairs.
During his descent, the South Tower was hit. Hingson and Roselle were in the cocoon of the stairwell, where it was quiet. He didn't know about the second airplane crash. He also did not yet know it was a terrorist attack. Hingson, though, knew very early on that it was jet fuel because he recognized the smell. He called his wife at 8:47 (he kept the phone bill to prove he scooped the media), told her there was an explosion and headed to the staircase.
While making the long descent, a woman near Hingson froze. She said that she just couldn't go on, but a nudge from Roselle kept her going, he recounts in the book.
"Who would have thought I was working for a computer company, and doing OK, and here we go off to the World Trade Center one day to do our jobs?" Hingson reflects days after the awards. "So I think that it was a lot of different emotions that went through my head. I enjoyed celebrating the teamwork and the bond that Roselle and I had."
Hingson had been reared to be independent and as a child taught himself echolocation so he could ride a bike. That fierce independence is what made Hingson argue with a firefighter who wanted to send someone to help him down. The firefighter was heading upstairs to a certain death. When Roselle licked that firefighter going upstairs, it "was probably the last unconditional love he ever got," Hingson writes.
"Roselle was anything anyone could expect in a guide dog," Hingson says. "She knew when to work, when to play. She was a great team player."