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National Dog Day: How Sadie saved Michael's life

English-Setter-AP.jpg

FILE -- English Setter (AP)

The dictionary defines a hero as “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” A hero shows acceptance and fairness. He doesn’t judge. He’s loyal, forgiving, loving, and honest. He’s someone who will stand with you when things are bad and celebrate your accomplishments when things are good.

It takes these combined qualities to fully define a hero. Trouble is, it’s hard to find a human who can claim them all. Sure, we occasionally see news headlines of someone who has gone above and beyond, but maybe it’s time to look at our feet—to the four paws sitting next to us. While few humans possess every quality of a hero, it is the very nature of a dog to exhibit them all.

In honor of National Dog Day, I want to celebrate the canines in our lives who are so much more than pets. Time and time again, dogs come to the rescue of their owners, exhibit the most special form of unconditional love, and step beyond the call of duty to do the impossible.

Sadie weighed just forty-five pounds. She was not bred nor trained to pull anything. Yet she was suddenly determined to take Michael home a few inches at a time.

Here is one such account:

On a cold winter’s morning in Bethpage, Tennessee, the lure of the hunt called strongly to thirty-six-year-old Michael Miller. The cloudless sky, the light wind, and the freezing temperature signaled the perfect day for hunting doves. A gleam showed in the man’s sharp eyes as he stepped off the front porch, squinted into the morning sun, and headed up a hill with his dog, Sadie, happily leading the way.

Sadie was a forty-five pound English setter, a breed that for four centuries has been pointing out winged game to hunters. Trained to not only find and flush the birds but also to stay calm during the firearm’s discharge, the English setter is a canine with a singular purpose. And because of that purpose, few members of the breed are seen outside of rural areas.

Setters are by nature high-energy animals. They love to run, and when not hunting, they are carefree children of the dog world. They have little desire to herd sheep or do farm chores, they don’t pull wagons or sleds; for them, life is a play just waiting to be experienced. Therefore, nothing in Sadie’s breeding or training positioned her for the responsibility that was about to fall on her slight shoulders and lean body.

As the sunlight filtered through the bare limbs of a hickory tree, Michael’s attention was drawn to Sadie nosing around just ahead. That was the instant he barely noticed the first slight twinge of pain in his arm. He figured it was a cramp from carrying the gun, so he shifted the weapon to the other side. 

A few seconds later the aggravating sensation grew slightly worse, but Miller still reasoned that it was nothing to worry about and it would pass as quickly as it came. Cradling his gun in the crook on his left arm, Miller used his left hand to rub his right arm. As he did, he glanced back over toward the house. It was no longer visible, hidden behind the crest of the hill they had crossed a few minutes before. As Sadie moved farther away from him, he considered turning back toward home, but that thought was immediately wiped from his mind and replaced with an electrifying agony far beyond any he had ever known.

The once slight tightness in his arm now raced through his body like a bolt of lightning. In an instant the pain had become searing, pushing through his ribs and deep into his chest. His eyes still locked on the hilltop, Miller now realized something was incredibly wrong.

Grunting, a confused expression framing his face, his gun dropped from his hand as he wrapped his arms around his chest and awkwardly fell to his knees.

Miller was slim and muscled. He was in great shape, a man of self-discipline and no bad habits. He was not under stress. Nothing in his family background forewarned of what had just happened. But nevertheless he knew what was going on. He didn’t have a cell phone and was too weak to even cry out for help. He was just over 1,700 feet from his front door but it might as well have been a hundred miles.

As tears clouded his eyes, Miller remembered the dog whistle hanging from his neck. He used it to let Sadie know when he needed her to come back to his side. It was often the only thing that kept the dog from wandering too far away from the man. 

His hands shaking, the camouflage-clad sportsman grabbed for the whistle. Trying to ignore the pain and calm his ragged breathing, Miller shoved the brass instrument between his lips. 

His strength almost depleted, his mind beginning to drift into a semiconscious state, he weakly pushed his breath through the whistle. He blew several times, each toot robbing him of what little energy remained in his body. Then, without knowing if Sadie had heard his efforts, the man’s head sank down onto the frozen ground.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Michael heard what sounded like an animal running across dry grass and leaves. Was it a deer, a coyote, or maybe a wild dog? Lifting his eyes, he was comforted when he spied familiar white paws racing up to him. Sadie had heard the whistle and come back to his side.

Seeing her master flat on the ground must have initially confused the dog. She had to be wondering what kind of new game he was playing. Was this part of a training drill? Did he want to wrestle? Yet as the seconds ticked by, as she observed his moans and saw the tears stream down his cheeks, her playful expression was transformed into a look of genuine concern. Lowering her head to lick away a salty teardrop, Sadie quietly cried out.

As Sadie continued to cry and lick his face, Miller reached up a few inches and patted her head. This simple act seemed to help ease the pain. With a new sense of hope and Sadie’s barks encouraging his every effort, Miller tried to stand. 

He fell and tried again with the same result. And with each new attempt, the pain raging in his chest grew worse. After several minutes of giving more effort than he had expended in his entire life, the strong 180-pounder couldn’t even rise to his knees. 

Knowing what little hope he had was ebbing away, Michael grabbed onto Sadie’s collar with his right hand and tried to use the dog’s neck as leverage. But it was no use. With Miller’s hands curled around Sadie’s leather collar, he was resigned to dying in the woods with his hands on the best dog he’d ever known.

A sad expression in her deep eyes, Sadie now finally understood that this was no game. After several moments of lying beside him, his hand locked onto her collar, the setter dug her paws in the soil and made an effort to move up the hill and in the process yanked Miller a few inches across the frozen grass.

Sadie weighed just forty-five pounds. She was not bred nor trained to pull anything. Yet she was suddenly determined to take Michael home a few inches at a time.

Miller’s mind was now so clouded and confused he didn’t fully comprehend what his dog was attempting to do. He just didn’t want to lose touch with Sadie, so he kept his fingers curled around the collar and let her slowly drag him. Ten yards became twenty and the distance to the top of the rise grew closer. Twenty more minutes, and they were a hundred yards up the hill. Sadie took a deep breath, rested for a few seconds, took another look at the hilltop, and dug back in, bravely putting one foot forward and then another. Growing tired, she slipped to her knees, but rather than quit, she got up, and continued to move ever closer to home.

Each foot of the journey was as painful for the man as it was the dog. The same rocks and limbs that were causing Sadie to lose her footing and slicing her paw pads were raking across his body creating bruises and cuts. Yet they were headed home, so pain began to diminish as hope took root in Miller’s heart.

As they crested the hill, Sadie must have sensed the worst was behind her. Pulling Miller downhill was much easier than the first two-thirds of the trip, but as tired as the dog was, each step was still a monumental effort. Sadie’s muscles were aching, her heart pounding so loudly that even grogg y Miller could hear it. Now Miller began to wonder if the dog could manage the last few steps of the way. Was she actually going to give her life so that he might have a chance to live?

It took the setter just over an hour to complete her impossible journey and drag the man who outweighed her by one- hundred-forty pounds into the yard. Now, just as some deep- seated instinct had told Sadie to pull Miller the third of a mile to home, another instinct told the dog to fight free of the man’s grip. Shaking loose, she raced to the back door, yelping and scratching until Miller’s wife, Lisa, came to find out what was the fuss was all about.

“Sadie,” Lisa practically yelled, “what has gotten into you? I’m going to put you in your pen until you can calm—”

Lisa never finished her threat as her eyes fell upon her husband’s crumpled and motionless form just a few yards in front of her. “My Lord,” she sighed, rushing out the door. Lisa and Sadie both arrived by the man’s side at the same time.

For a few moments Lisa tried to rouse her husband. It was a useless effort. He was now completely unconscious, much closer to death than life.

“Stay with him, Sadie,” Lisa ordered as she ran back to the house. Grabbing the phone, the woman dialed 9-1-1.

Within twenty minutes paramedics were ministering to the barely breathing man. Doing all they could for him on site, the medical team then raced him to the emergency room, where he was stabilized and prepared for emergency triple bypass surgery. The next few hours would be the longest of Lisa Miller’s life, yet somehow her husband fought off not just the extensive damage to his heart but also the numbing cold and injuries he’d experienced as the noble English setter had dragged him home.

For more than a week, Sadie waited, not knowing what had happened or if she would ever see her master again. Then, on a sunny day not unlike the one eight days before when the adventure had started, the family car drove up and Michael Miller got out. The setter’s face showed her great joy, yet somehow sensing Miller was still weak, she approached him cautiously. Though Lisa begged her husband to go immediately inside and rest, the man took a moment and leaned down to thank the dog that had given him a second chance at life.

It has long been said that courage is not displayed when you do what you are trained to do, but is found when you do the unexpected. Sadie proved the size of her heart and the full measure of her devotion by stepping beyond what she should have been able to do and doing the impossible.

Sadie is a hero.

Ace Collins is the best-selling and award-winning author of more than sixty titles, both fiction and nonfiction, including the biography "Lassie: A Dog’s Life." This story of Sadie and Michael is an excerpt from his latest book "Man’s Best Hero: True Stories of Great American Dogs."