Pet Tales: Hero dogs wow all with their expertise

When you walk through the front door of the Senator John Heinz History Center, the first thing you usually notice is one of those big red streetcars that has been off the streets of Pittsburgh for many years. But Sunday a dog named G-Man was front and center in the lobby, and he was a big hit.

"He's our concierge dog today, and people were so happy to meet him," said a museum employee at the front desk.

G-Man, a 2-year-old German shepherd, wore a black vest emblazoned with the words, "therapy dog in training." His owner, Animal Friends volunteer Brian Averi, marveled, "We've had 25 [visitor] contacts already, and it's not even 11 a.m.," which was the start time of the Hero Dogs of Western Pennsylvania event.

Visitors cuddled and cooed over G-Man before heading upstairs for dog-lover's heaven -- dozens of very special dogs trained for life-saving and life-enhancing jobs.

I rode the elevator with Queen Mab, an adorable chocolate Labrador retriever named for a fairy in "Romeo and Juliet." "Mab's from the Shakespeare litter," said Susan Tyson, a volunteer who has raised many puppies for Susquehanna Service Dogs in Harrisburg.

Mab, 1, is a big, playful puppy. Because she's still in training, and not working with a partner, we were able to pet her, as well as other dogs who did meet-and-greets and demonstrations for three hours.

The event included dogs that assist people with physical and mental disabilities, dogs that search for and rescue lost people, a bomb sniffer from the sheriff's department, an arson detector from the county, a Pittsburgh Police Department K-9 dog, and many wonderful therapy dogs that provide comfort and joy in hospitals and nursing homes and education in schools and libraries.

Then there was Hank, 4, a friendly yellow Labrador retriever who was one of 11 dogs that came with CAESAR Inc. Canine Aided Emergency Search and Rescue members have been volunteering for 22 years.

Visitors seemed taken aback when owner Cindy Braden answered the frequently asked question, "What does he do?"

"Hank's a cadaver dog," said Ms. Braden. That means he finds dead people.

She displayed a cheerful sense of humor, adding, "Don't worry, if Hank's not laying down next to you, you're still alive."

Queen Mab took the stage to cheerfully follow commands from Ms. Tyson. She picked up a metal can of vegetables and then she picked up a quarter -- tasks she may one day perform for a person in a wheelchair. She turned on a light switch, opened a door and then was given the command to find a cordless phone.

"She cheats when I hide things," Ms. Tyson said. "She looks while I'm hiding it."

To the delight of the audience, Mab watched as her handler hid the phone and quickly obeyed the "find it" command.

Mab's biggest applause came after she went through her bag of tricks and was lying quietly on a "down-stay" command while another dog took center stage. Mab stretched and rolled onto her side and fell off the stage -- a drop of only a foot or so. There were many chuckles and much applause as Mab stood up, uninjured, and looked out to the audience. She seemed pleased to be back in the "spotlight."

The Susquehanna Service Dogs organization wants to raise its profile in the Pittsburgh area, said Christine B. Guss, development specialist.

Since 1993, it has placed more than 220 dogs with children and adults with mobility, hearing and psychiatric disabilities, as well as military veterans and children with autism.

The organization always needs people to volunteer to raise puppies like Mab for 18 months. Go to for further information.

The Hero Dogs were part of the Heinz History Center's "Pennsylvania's Civil War" exhibit, which runs through Jan. 5. The heroics of Civil War canines Dog Jack and Dog Sally were featured in the exhibit and reported on Monday by the Post-Gazette's Elizabeth Bloom.

The dog day activities were a success, said Sandra Smith, director of education and visitors services at the history center. More than 250 people visited with the dogs, and total attendance Sunday was higher than usual for a beautiful sunny summer day, she said.

The staff is looking into scheduling more educational activities with dogs.

More Hero Dogs

I'm running out of space here, so look to future columns for more stories about the dogs and handlers I met at the history center -- especially Bandit, Allegheny County's explosive detection dog with Deputy Maria Watts, and Coal, the arson detection dog with Don Brucker, chief deputy fire marshal for Allegheny County.

TV for Dogs

DirecTV has launched what it says is "the first and only TV network for dogs." Since Aug. 1, DOGTV has been broadcasting shows 24 hours a day. The news release says the channel is especially good for dogs that are bored or lonely when they are home alone.

There are three categories of programming: "relaxation" with soothing music, sounds and visuals; "stimulation" with camera movements, "exciting animations" and moving objects; and "exposure," which teaches dogs how to cope with doorbells, cars, children, vacuum cleaners and other situations.

I haven't been able to see this because I'm not a DirecTV customer. Those of you who are can see DOGTV on channel 354 for free until Wednesday and then it costs $4.99 a month. I'd love to hear feedback from people who have watched it.

DOGTV was produced and developed by a team of experts, according to a news release, including Nicholas Dodman, a well-known veterinarian and animal behaviorist who writes best-selling books, and trainer Victoria Stilwell from Animal Planet's "It's Me or the Dog."

Elizabeth shelter closing

The Fallen Timber Shelter in Elizabeth Township is closing after 38 years.

The facility is owned and operated by the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, which operates its main shelter at 1101 Western Ave., North Side.

Pets can still be adopted from Fallen Timber until it closes Sept. 30.

The pet cemetery there will remain open, and humane officers will continue to investigate and prosecute animal abuse and neglect cases.

All other services, including the health clinic, will be provided at the North Side shelter.

"The board of directors of the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society feel it is in the long-term best interest of the entire organization, both financially and operationally" to consolidate services at one location, said Jeff Sterling, board co-president.

The WPHS North Side shelter is 24 miles from Elizabeth, the White Oak Animal Safe Haven is 91/2 miles and the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania is 20 miles, as noted in a news release.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.