Devoted

“Devoted: 38 Extraordinary Tales of Love, Loyalty, and Life With Dogs,” by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh. National Geographic Books. $14.95.Devoted

This riveting read begins with a near bang thankfully and gains momentum from there. It is the perfect gift book for self and that special dog-owning friend or relative, since it captures the essence of what that special four-legged character beside you is all about.

Each of the heartwarming but sobering stories is complemented with photos of the subject and owner along with a factoid box of the breed or mixed breed. The majority of the subjects are shelter rescues whose lives are saved by adopters and then pay back the choice in a variety of fashions from sheer presence to detecting cancer, dragging a family member out of the path of an oncoming train, giving new life to a young quadriplegic surfboarding partner, helping provide a calmness to a young rape victim testifying in a courtroom, etc.

All are profound accounts, but they don’t get any better than the opener which details how Cheyenne, an American Staffordshire terrier puppy helped saved the life of a suicidal owner David Sharpe, a Georgian.

Sharpe recalls, “I had two military buddies who committed suicide and I couldn’t deal with what was in my head. I went to my room and took out a .45 my father had given me that he had in Ranger school. I was crying and calling myself a loser, and then I pulled the hammer back, put the barrel in my mouth and my thumb on the trigger. And as soon as I did that, one of the weirdest things happened. This little pup, who was maybe 6 months old at the time, came up and licked my ear, which distracted me so I took the gun out of my mouth to ask, ‘What did you do that for?’

“And then she came over and sat down in my lap and put her head on my right thigh. The pistol was on my left. I understood it was an ultimatum to choose her or take my life. I chose her, and I never looked back.”

Not only did Cheyenne help save Sharpe’s life but the terrier helped prompt Sharpe to found Companions to Heroes, which pairs vets, active-duty personnel, first responders and their families with rescue dogs. The organization has a 98 per cent placement success rate.

And then there’s these accounts:

Of Gary Murphy, a 72-year-old Palm City, Fla., resident who wrestled his beloved 11-year-old West Highland white terrier Doogie, from the mouth of an alligator in a river in his backyard.

Dee Dee, an Iowa retired racing greyhound who became a service dog for an owner suffering from myalgic encephalomyelitis (a neurological disease causing muscle pain, weakness and loss of balance).

Wendy, a Texas Labradoodle that gave its retired owner suffering from congestive heart failure, kidney and liver disease, a new reason to live.

Luca, a deaf New York pit bull who has become a therapy dog for at-risk and disabled youths.

Faith, an Indiana part Chow Chow born with three legs, only two of which worked, forcing the amputation of the lone front limb, that took off on her hind legs and hasn’t stopped since. She has become a regular visitor at military hospitals worldwide housing disabled veterans and featured partner for her owner at motivational speeches nationwide.

And Effie, a large, stray brown-and-white mixed breed that found its way into the life of Lisa Hulber, of Port Huron, Mich. Several months later after Hulber had a routine mammogram with normal results, Effie began persistently sticking her nose in Hulber’s breast. A second mammogram showed nothing but Hulber was convinced it wasn’t right and went in for an ultrasound, which revealed an aggressive large carcinoma of a type that rarely shows on mammograms. A month later Hulber underwent a double mastectomy.

Prior to the surgery Effie had begun sniffing under Hulber’s arm, which she showed the doctor the exact spot. After awakening from surgery, Hulber was told that spot held the only lymph node of 27 that the carcinoma had reached.

“Devoted” serves up plenty of soul about ordinary dogs and ordinary people finding each other, which is the rich fabric surrounding most of us in our everyday lives. It isn’t saccharine but it is spirited and packaged with an earthy delivery.