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Late one night last January, Shannon Lorio, 37, was driving down a winding back road in Georgia. Fresh from an argument with her husband, she was steaming mad and, by her own admission, driving so fast she lost control of her car and crashed into a wooded ravine. She was thrown through the back window of her Buick LeSabre and landed on its trunk. Bruised, dazed, and suffering from what she would learn later was bleeding in her brain, Lorio soon sensed a presence nearby. She turned her head, spotted what appeared to be a wild animal and panicked, fearing that it might attack her.
The creature was, in fact, a year-old German shepherd who had lived most of his young life at the end of a chain or in a small backyard pen, confined by two separate owners who had failed to train him. In winter 2006 the dog managed to escape. When he crossed paths with Lorio he had been wandering the countryside. Workers at a local steel plant sometimes spotted the skinny dog and, pitying him, gave him food.
But far from attacking Lorio, the dog was on a rescue mission. He jumped on the trunk, licked Lorio's face and pulled her off the car. Realizing his good intentions, Lorio allowed him to drag her by the shoulder of her leather jacket through 50 yards of brush to the road. A passing motorist saw them, stopped and called for help.
Even when the ambulance arrived the dog would not leave Lorio's side, witnesses reported. Lorio told them that the German shepherd was not hers and had appeared out of nowhere, so they called an animal-control officer from the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society shelter. When he transported the dog there, he told his colleagues the remarkable story.
Shelter staff began calling the new arrival "the hero dog." Soon he was just Hero. Kim Arrington, the shelter's director of operations, says he's exceptional. Most stray dogs, she says, bolt when they hear a noise like a car crash. "Something drove Hero to that crash. It's as if he has a sixth sense that tells him when he's needed," says Arrington.
Experts say dogs detect danger by picking up the scent of fear given off by a frightened victim. Hero's sense of smell may have led him to the scene of the crash, but he didn't stop there. When he went on to rescue Lorio, Hero offered insight into the biological nature of dogs, says zoologist Patricia McConnell, PhD, author of For the Love of a Dog.
"Dogs appear instinctively to have strong, deep relationships," explains Dr. McConnell. "They are one of few animals that are as highly social as people." Like humans -- but unlike most other mammals -- they don't care for just their own young but also other members of their group, Dr. McConnell adds. It's likely that when Hero sensed Lorio's vulnerability, he transferred to her his instinct to protect the other members of his pack.
At the shelter, Arrington ran a notice in the local newspaper that brought forward Hero's owner. The owner had not advertised his loss up to that point and, agreeing that Hero needed a better life than she could give him, surrendered him to the shelter for adoption. Lorio, who already had a houseful of kids and dogs, did not feel she could take Hero in. But, she says of the dog who saved her life, not doing so "broke my heart."
Lorio was relieved to learn that Arrington's next step would be to call a local woman, Heidy Drawdy, who is a member, along with her husband, Michael, of South Georgia Search Dogs. This group is made up of volunteers who use dogs to help law enforcement officers locate missing people, and Arrington thought Hero would be a perfect addition to the team.
"I was happy because I wanted Hero to be able to do for others what he had done for me," Lorio says.
Drawdy, 50, a veterinary technician and obedience trainer who describes herself as "passionate about animals being a positive in our lives," was thrilled to bring the talented, if untrained, dog home and start building on his aptitude as a search-and-rescue animal. At the Drawdys' household Hero joined three other German shepherds, two standard poodles, a Chihuahua, five indoor cats, and a macaw. Most are former shelter animals or strays. Housed in two barns and a shed are four horses, a goat, and several well-fed outdoor cats.
Hero quickly became Drawdy's star pupil. In a few months, he moved from basic obedience training to complicated rescue drills, learning to work off-leash and cover a huge area, using smell and hearing to locate a missing person, then leading his handlers to that individual. Eventually Drawdy and Hero will join the South Georgia Search Dogs team on real rescue efforts.
Hero is already a celebrity. In February the American Humane Association gave him its Golden Paw Award for bravery, a rare honor it bestows to illustrate the powerful bond between people and animals.
It's a connection that Lorio thinks of on her weekly visits to Drawdy's office to see her Hero. When she looks into his deep brown eyes, she says, she is reminded that the best thing we can do in life is love and help one other. "Hero taught me compassion," she says. "I used to get mad easily. Since the accident I know there's nothing worth getting so angry over. That night changed my life."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2007.