PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A fiercely protective, elderly mutt is up for a national hero award for pestering her owner in the hours before he had a heart attack and then barking for help once it struck.
Ceili, a 15-year-old Lab-mix, usually spends much of her day lounging in her home in North Portland. But one steamy day last August, she clung to her owner, Danny Fincher, trotting behind him from room to room, sometimes blocking his path. When he sat down, she licked his arms and legs and then jumped on his easy chair, sniffing his breath.
"She was driving me nuts," he said.
That evening, as he brushed his teeth, she tugged at his shorts. When he headed upstairs to bed, feeling knotted with indigestion, she nipped at his feet and pulled off a shoe, trying to prevent him from climbing the stairs. Ceili seemed to sense something was wrong and she was right.
Moments later, Fincher suffered the heart attack.
The idea that Ceili may have been aware of the problem isn't far-fetched, said one specialist.
Dogs can be trained to detect seizures and research is looking at canines sniffing out bladder and lung cancer, said James Serpell, professor of animal welfare at the University of Pennsylvania. Although he's not heard of cases involving heart attacks, he said that falls within the range of possibilities.
"We've bred dogs to be focused on humans," Serpell said. "So they have this combination of heightened sensitivity and heightened attention to their owners, and that combination gives them sometimes what looks like miraculous insights."
In a daze after the attack, Fincher tried to crawl up the stairs, but the dog tugged him down, then ran into a back room where his wife, Gayle Jewell, was watching television.
Barking furiously, Ceili darted between the two until Jewell checked on her husband and whisked him to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. Thanks in part to Ceili, Fincher was treated within 20 minutes of his attack.
"There's no question she saved my life," said Fincher, 62.
Dr. Jonathan Lindner, a cardiologist at Oregon Health & Sciences University, said quick treatment after a heart attack is crucial.
"The bottom line is the earlier you get in the better, Lindner said. "You lose more heart muscle the longer you wait."
For her actions, Ceili was nominated along with nine other dogs for a "Dogs of Valor" award sponsored by the nationwide Humane Society of the United States.
"She went to extraordinary lengths to make a point that something was wrong," said Colin Berry, innovations director of HSUS. "She may not have known what it was but she tried to let him know."
Ceili came into Fincher's and Jewell's lives 15 years ago as a puppy. Jewell spotted her wandering through a Safeway parking lot and brought her home. At the time, their daughter was an Irish stepdancer. The dog pranced next to her, almost in step, so they named her Ceili (pronounced KAY-lee) after Ceili dances, a type of Irish folk dancing.
"She kind of named herself," Jewell said.
She could be vicious around other dogs, but got along with people and quickly became attached to Fincher, a saxophonist who performed with Paul deLay, the late Portland blues harmonica player.
In recent years, her health declined, however, and the couple contemplated putting her down. Living on monthly Social Security disability payments, they had little cash for expensive vet bills or even dog food.
Then last year they discovered The Pongo Fund, a food bank for owners with limited means. Since then, they've fed Ceili high-quality senior dog food provided by the agency.
"If it wasn't for The Pongo Fund, I wouldn't have had the food to feed her," Jewell said. "And without Ceili, I would have found Danny when I went to bed stone-cold dead."
The Pongo Fund posted the story of Ceili on its Facebook page, leading to her nomination for the award. The top three winners will be announced Sunday along with a people's choice chosen online at humanesociety.org.
Jewell said the nomination was a welcome surprise.
"It's really nice to see the old girl get some recognition," Jewell said. "It's a great honor to be nominated and to show that animals aren't just something to be kicked around or played with. They have feelings and sense things we can't. I sleep better knowing Ceili's keeping an ear and nose on Danny."
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.