Dog alerts neighbor to master's injury

Saturday, July 12
WASHINGTON — It was 10:30 a.m. Thursday: Sarah Lee Guthrie was driving from the family farm on Beach Street to the family offices and studio.

Sarah Lee, the daughter of folk singer Arlo Guthrie and a recording artist in her own right, is now — along with her neighbor's dog — a hero of sorts.

That day, as Sarah drove past her neighbor Gene Burnell's farm, the Burnell family's dog, Benny, began chasing the car.

This was not particularly unusual, said Sarah Lee Guthrie. Benny often chases cars that run up and down Beach Road, a sparsely populated dirt road with only two residences: The Burnell farm at the bottom and the Guthrie farm at the top.

But this time, Benny stopped and, still barking, began backing away from the car.

"That was a little strange," Guthrie said. "We were all used to seeing Benny chase cars. But I had never seen him back up like that."

In fact, it was so strange that she stopped the truck for a better look. Benny was barking louder than ever, and still backing away from the vehicle.

Sarah began backing the truck up the road, and that's when she saw two hands sticking up out of the tall grass into the air. She exited the car and ran over to the hands, which belonged to her neighbor, 68-year-old Gene Burnell.

He was lying on the ground, clearly in pain.

He was also talking, but so softly that Guthrie had to lean over to hear him.

"He was saying, 'Get my wife. Call 911,'" she said. "But he was speaking so softly that I'm sure no one could have heard him."

Sarah dashed into the Burnell home and alerted Gene's wife, Darlene. They called 911, and also the Guthrie farm, for help. Arlo Guthrie and his son, Abe, arrived a few minutes before emergency responders from Becket and Washington.

Arlo Guthrie said in an e-mail that it appeared that Burnell had fallen off his tractor, which then appeared to run over him before hitting a fence and stalling.

Sarah Lee Guthrie conceded that it may sound funny that a dog could alert a human to his master's distress. But, she added, Benny was acting so oddly that she was moved to stop her vehicle. Had he not acted that way, she said, she would not have found Burnell.

"There was some connection," she said of the dog. "I could see he was agitated."

Recent studies, including one in 2004 by the Department of Evolutionary Psychology at St. Andrews University in London, concluded that dogs, more than any other member of the animal kingdom, "have honed extraordinary communication skills with their masters," a situation that seems to be the case here.

Not only did Buddy determine that Burnell was in pain, but he also alerted a passerby for help.

"I loved that a local dog was able to communicate a disaster and help rescue my neighbor," said Arlo Guthrie.

As heartening as the rescue may have been, Burnell is still in some distress.

He sustained internal injuries to his upper torso, and is presently at Albany Medical Center. There is no word on his condition.

"I was glad to be able to help," said Sarah. "But right now, we're all saying a prayer for Gene."


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