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My pet my hero!

As a video of a cat saving a child from a savage dog goes viral, Kerry McKittrick talks to four local owners about their truly fearless animals

Viewers across the world were stunned last week by a YouTube video that went viral showing a young boy, Jeremy Triantafilo, playing on his tricycle in the driveway of the family's California home.

Suddenly, the neighbour's dog grabs Jeremy by the leg and starts to drag him away.

Then, miraculously, his saviour rushes into view and hurtles into the dog, pushing him away from the boy.

But the saviour isn't a parent, or even another dog; it is, in fact, the family cat Tara who helped Jeremy escape the attack with just a few stitches.

There is a long history of pets saving their owners from peril, or helping humans in any number of ways, as we discovered from some local animal-lovers.


‘Buster saved us from dying in an inferno’

Caroline Wilson (21), works as a carer. She lives in Lisburn with her partner, Mark, and son, Lucas (4). She says:

“I got Buster six years ago. He belonged to a friend of mine who had a few dogs. The other dogs bullied him, so my friend had to re-home Buster. I took him when he was six months old.

Just before Christmas three years ago, I had lit a fire in the grate in the living room and, later on, I went to bed, taking Lucas in to bed with me.

What I didn't realise was, as the fire burned in the grate, one of the coals fell out on to the floor. The carpet caught fire and spread to the sofa and ignited some thinners I was storing — the whole living room went up in flames.

I didn't hear any of this — I was fast asleep. The first thing I heard was Buster barking and pulling at me. I thought he just wanted to play with me, so I told him to leave me alone.

Buster kept at it, though — he would pull my hoodie, or my ponytail, then he started dragging the duvet off the bed.

Finally, I woke up properly and realised I couldn't see anything because of the smoke. I ran out to the hallway.

I had forgotten that Lucas was asleep beside me in bed. I was standing there really confused, as I didn't know where he was.

Buster then pulled me back towards the bedroom and I realised where Lucas was. But he was so small at the time and there was so much smoke, I couldn't see him.

Buster jumped on top of him and barked so I would know where to find him.

The three of us left the house — my bedroom was on the ground floor beside the front door, so we didn't have to walk through it all. Just after we got out, the house totally went up in flames.

I don't think Lucas or I would be alive if it wasn't for Buster. I doubt I would have woken up and the smoke would have overcome both of us.

As it was, we spent the night in hospital just to be on the safe side, but neither of us were injured.

Buster has been part of the family to us. He's a great wee dog and he saved our lives.”


‘Jack’s like a guardian angel to our little Zach’

Jenni McFall (32), is a legal secretary. She lives in Carnmoney with her husband, Michael, and their son, Zach (4). She says:

“Zach was diagnosed as autistic with a significant learning difficulty just before his third birthday. We knew it was coming, as it was first picked up at his two-year health visitor assessment.

He had a speech delay and was just playing in his own little world. As he was our first, we didn't realise that he wasn't developing as he should.

He needs just a little more care than other children. He'll go through phases where he won't walk and it can be difficult to understand him, because he's non-verbal.

After Zach was diagnosed, we joined up with Autism NI, which sent us out a newsletter which mentioned assistance dogs. It was a new thing, because the Big Lottery Fund had provided funding. We applied for it, never in a million years thinking it would actually happen.

We didn't really know much about assistance dogs. You know what a guide dog for the blind does, but there aren't many assistance dogs here.

After we applied, we had to send them Zach's medical reports and statements of his needs. Then they interviewed us over the phone and asked for support letters of friends and family. They did a house visit to check we had the right kind of garden, so there was a secure area for the dog. They then brought Jack the dog out to the house to meet Zach.

We found out we were going to be awarded Jack just before Christmas 2013 and then, in January, we had to go to Autism NI to spend a week with the trainers and go through everything.

We had to get Zach used to the dog, as they are tethered together. We also had to teach Jack commands that he would only obey if we gave them.

Jack is a golden retriever and we brought him home on January 16. He's made a real difference to Zach's life.

Zach would have wanted to be alone a lot, but he's now much more sociable. He's really bonding with the dog and I feel more relaxed, too.

Jack is trained to stop Zach from harming himself, or wandering off. Zach also has sensory issues and is uncomfortable with his head, or his back, being touched.

When Zach cries, Jack now knows to apply pressure to his back and it actually comforts him. They go everywhere together. Hopefully, when Zach starts school in September, Jack will be able to go with him.”


‘My dogs can find bodies after earthquakes’

Neil Powell (63), has been training rescue dogs for more than 30 years. He lives near Newcastle with his wife, Kate, and they have two grown-up children, Claire and Emma. He says:

“When I was eight years old I got my first dog, a Cairn terrier called Trixie, and she was the most adorable wee thing.

Years later, in the mid-1970s, I became involved in the mountain rescue teams on the Mournes. Often, we would be out searching at night when we couldn't see anything.

I thought having a dog would make things much easier, but I didn't know where to start. I loved dogs, but I didn't know anything about training them.

I ended up buying a German shepherd and the police agreed to release one of their dog handlers, Joe Boyd, every Saturday to teach me how to train dogs. We worked every single Saturday for a year as Joe taught me the basics. I then found out about a guy in Scotland called Hamish McGuinness who was training dogs for mountain rescue. My first rescue dog was called Kim and it took about a year-and-a-half to train him. After Kim came Pepper and things just snowballed. I've trained dogs to find bodies underwater and to find people who might be buried after severe earthquakes.

I had a dog called Charcoal who could find people under rubble. I took him to Kashmir in 2005 to find people after an earthquake. He found a man who had been buried next to his dead uncle and two best friends for three days.

Another time, I was attending a rescue symposium in Sweden and a guy gave a talk on using rescue dogs to find people underwater using a two-man canoe.

With him, I developed the idea of training dogs to find bodies underwater. The first dog we trained to do that found 12 bodies.

At the moment, I have Fern, who is a springer-cocker cross, and she has found about nine victims of drowning in her time.

I also have bloodhound Paddy, a trailing dog trained to find the scent of a person who’s gone missing.

At the moment, he can pick up a trail up to 90 hours after it was left.

I also have a dog called Sam, who works with the Fire Service looking for living people who have been buried.

All of these dogs I've trained have been on a voluntary basis.”


‘Horses are great for showing boundaries’

Lesley Harvey (59) runs the In Touch Equine Centre in Richhill, Co Armagh, and has two grown-up daughters, Helen and Jenny. She says:

“I've worked with horses all my life and I’ve also worked in alternative therapies — counselling and coaching. I'd always seen them as two separate things until one day I heard about equine-assisted learning and realised I was able to bring the two together.

I started up the In Touch Equine Centre five years ago. We can work with almost anyone. We do a lot of work with children and adults with special needs, but anyone can gain benefits from equine therapy.

We recently had my favourite group ever come in — they were women who were recovering from eating disorders from a group called Adapt.

One of the people who came with the group was a young man who was training to be a youth worker and was very sceptical about the whole thing. He was also the one who was the most enthusiastic by the end of the day.

We work on boundaries — how close we let horses get to us and how that reflects on how close we let people get to us.

We talk about issues, like personal grooming and bullying. I'm also qualified in the Horse Boy method, which works closely with people with autism to increase direct communication.

I have five horses that we tend to work with and each one has a different personality. There's Titch, the Shetland pony, who is brilliant with nervous children and those with autism.

She's not an easy pony to catch, but if someone is feeling down, she will go up to them straight away and walk beside them. She's really good for adults with depression, too.

Then there's Maydew, who is a Highland pony. She's as solid as a rock — you can do anything around her, such as walk around her, or even under her, and she won't move.

She's great to have around kids and because she's a little bit larger, she can also take an adult on her back.

Barney is a rescue horse who came from Holly's Horse Haven, in Co Meath, for training. When he went back to the haven, no one adopted him so we decided to take him back. He's very patient and sensible.

Then we have Pirate. He'll be all over you, trying to nibble your handbag, or eat your toes. He's excellent for teaching about boundaries — if you don't want him to do that, then don't let him.

We can work with anyone, we tend to have a 50/50 split between children and adults and we can also teach people to ride.”


Household heroes ...

  •  In 2013, Elaine Hilton, from Doncaster, assumed her drowsiness was a symptom of her pregnancy. However, when her cats began crying and having fits in the living room, she realised something was seriously wrong. She carried the cats to her garden and rang the fire brigade, who confirmed their gas boiler had sprung a deadly carbon monoxide leak
  • When 18-year-old Aysha Perry, from Nottinghamshire, began choking on a piece of food at the dinner table, it was her dog who saved her life. Sheba the Japanese Akita jumped on her back and gave her a whack with a paw, dislodging the morsel.
  • When the Jansa family, from Whitstable, rescued cat Pippa from an animal sanctuary, they didn't realise it was Pippa who would do most of the rescuing. Daughter Mia, a diabetic, became prone to suffering hypoglycemic episodes in her sleep. Pippa has become adept at detecting them and starts walking across Mia until she wakes
  •  Fiona Cole, from the West Midlands, visited her doctor after her dog, Daisy (left), had pestered her for weeks, nuzzling her left breast. Fiona later realised she had a lump in exactly the place Daisy had been nuzzling her.
  • After a visit to her doctor, Fiona was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer that was diagnosed in the nick of time

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