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Kenai service dog up for hero award

Posted: May 11, 2013 - 11:08pm

KENAI — It was President’s Day last year, and the 60-year-old was walking along the Kenai River’s south beach in a gale, snow and sand particles whipping against his body.

The sky was overcast and the sea was white-capped, and it broke on the shore as the tide rolled in.

He wanted to sit somewhere to watch the weather. As a fisherman, he said, he liked the energy in a gale.

As he walked, he noticed a large block of shore ice sitting below the tide line. He figured the river had carried it down. It was about the size of a single-car garage, he said.

He knew it was dangerous because he has experience in the mountains, so he circled it twice. He found a sloped face and began walking up it, near the top looking for a place to sit.

But he never got the view he wanted.

“I never turned around and looked back after I hit the ground,” Bill Sullivan said.

The chunks of ice that calved off the block and broke open his ankle, tore his rotator cuff, cracked the ski goggles over his eyes and smashed his face could have been any size, he said, but he didn’t waste time looking back. He was hurt. The tide was rolling in.

Meanwhile, Betsy Arbelovsky was napping at home several hundred yards up the beach. Her husband Steve was working in Anchorage, so it was only her and her dog, Sasha.

Sasha is very obedient — he never jumps, wines or barks, and he’s adorable with children — but at some point in Arbelovsky’s nap, Sasha heard something, she said.

He jumped on the bed and woke her. She pushed him off and pulled the covers over her head. But he jumped back up.

“Sasha, go to bed,” Arbelovsky said she told her dog.

But Sasha wouldn’t. He grabbed Arbelovsky by the shirt sleeve and pulled her out of bed and to their back door.

What Sasha heard, Sullivan later said, was his cries for help, as he knelt bleeding in Arbelovsky’s neighbor’s yard.

“I think that’s an incredible animal,” Sullivan said.

Now more than a year later, the 3-and-a-half-year-old Sable German Shepherd, Sasha, may receive national recognition for his service.

On Tuesday, voting will begin for the 2013 American Humane Association’s Hero Dog Awards, a national competition for dogs that serve the impaired, are seen as heroes by their owners or save lives.

“I didn’t think I would expire or anything,” Kenai resident Sullivan said, “but I knew I had my work cut out for me. I think that dog helped me out. I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

And so does Arbelovsky. She said she cannot go anywhere without Sasha.

“I’m just walk-walking, and all of a sudden I’m on the ground,” Arbelovsky said. She has a rare form of Parkinson’s Disease that short circuits the connection between her feet and brain. It causes her to fall over abruptly.

Since the 56-year-old Kenai resident began falling in August 2011, she has broken two ribs, herniated disks in her back, severed a muscle and suffered stitches and significant bruises, she said. One man she met with the disease spent nine months in assisted living after one fall, she said.

“It’s a miracle I didn’t get a brain injury,” she said.

But, since she found Sasha in the Kenai Animal Shelter in October 2011, she hasn’t fallen in more than a year, she said.

Only half of dogs have Sasha’s capabilities, she said. Sasha can perceive when Arbelovsky is about to have an episode, she said.

To do his job, Sasha has to be “startle proof,” she said. He has to watch Arbelovsky so closely that churning propellers on an airplane or hockey players slamming into the boards at a game will not disturb him.

And he can do it every day.

In mid-October, Arbelovsky was leaving home to get in her car. It was only about 15 feet away. She was going to file taxes.

But two unfamiliar dogs appeared, and, when Sasha and Arbelovsky were halfway down the steps, the two canines pounced on her dog.

Instead of fighting back, Sasha laid on the ground while the dogs attacked him, Arbelovsky said.

Eventually the dogs left.

“Sasha works his magic because he pays 100 percent of his attention to me,” she said.

Sasha wears a red vest and a titanium holster when he is on the job, Arbelovsky said.

When he walks down stairs, he takes each step one-at-at-time so he can brace Arbelovsky if she falls, she said. Most other dogs do not do that, she said.

Whenever Arbelovsky is standing, Sasha is always attuned, his large ears erect, his eyes locked on, waiting for the sign. When he senses it, he breaks the line of sight between her feet and eyes, telling her to sit down.

“I boss him around all day,” she said, “and if he tells me to sit, I do.”

When she is sitting, he is off duty, she said. “And if you take off his vest, he’s very playful.”

Sometimes he will grab the sleeves of her sweater or jacket and help her pull it off, she said. He will do the same for children’s socks, she said.

He likes games, too, she said, and he plays fair.

“Every tug of war with him is a tie,” she said. “Whether you’re an adult man or a child, it will be a tie.”

Laying broken and bleeding at the base of the iceberg, Sullivan knew he couldn’t wait for help. He had no cell phone. He was single. It was only him on the beach in the strong weather.

“I didn’t really have much choice,” he said. “I had to self-rescue.”

After assessing his injuries and determining he could not walk, he dragged himself about 300 yards along wind-packed snow, up the bluff and into Arbelovsky’s neighbor’s yard.

He began yelling “help, help, help” in intervals of three, then pausing, he said, like an S.O.S. He crouched on his knees and rocked back and forth to keep warm, and he waited.

At that point, Sasha had pulled Arbelovsky to the porch door that overlooked the beach. She opened the door and looked over the shoulder-high snow drift. She couldn’t hear over the wind, she said. But Sasha could, and he began barking, looking at her and barking.

“He doesn’t bark,” Arbelovsky said.

Then she saw it — about 100 yards away in her neighbor’s yard — it looked like a ski hat. And then she saw it was a person, and she called the police.

Sullivan said he doesn’t think the dog saved his life because he had a plan, he said. He would have made it to the emergency room eventually, he said. But Sasha did get him there a half hour earlier, he said.

“I think that dog did a good job,” Sullivan said. “That dog will get a Milk-Bone anytime I’m around, and I got one in my pocket.”

Recently he drove to Three Bears, he said, and bought the largest box of Milk-Bones the grocery store sold.

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