Butch the terrier usually follows orders. Recently, however, he insisted on misbehaving. And 93-year-old Nellie Johnston is glad that he did. And her granddaughters still cannot quite believe that their "obnoxious little dog" became Lassie for a day.
Shortly after 6 one morning two weeks ago, Butch began yelping insistently and refused to be quieted by his owner, Ann Lian, who lives with her sister, Leslie, and Johnston, their grandmother, in Westwood.
While the family's German shepherd slept, Butch ran back and forth frantically between the two sisters' bedrooms.
"He had this hysterical, agitated bark, like a person shrieking," said Lian, 28. She got up groggily to investigate.
Then, the small dog jumped excitedly against the kitchen's swinging door, yapping. "It was as if he wanted me to follow him," Lian said.
Inside, she found her grandmother lying unconscious on the floor, her face and head bloodied, a broken coffee pot and coffee grounds strewn nearby. The little dog went over to the elderly woman, curled up beside her and began to whimper, Lian said.
"He had this second sense about Gram, he sensed that there was trouble," Lian said.
Paramedics said that if Johnston, who had a severe concussion, had been left unconscious much longer, she might not be alive today. She is in stable condition after suffering "a heart episode," triggered by an irregular heart beat, doctors at UCLA Medical Center told Lian.
Five Days in Intensive Care
Johnston spent five days in intensive care and is expected to leave the hospital soon. This was the first time she had been hospitalized since giving birth 59 years ago to her only daughter, Lian said.
Butch is a Jack Russell terrier, an English hunting dog not commonly found in the United States. A wiry dog that resembles a tiny beagle, the 3-year-old Butch is a little over a foot high and weighs 15 pounds.
"You always hear about big dogs being heroic, but you never hear about little dogs," Lian said.
The breed is known for its keen hunting and tracking abilities. However, Butch usually confines his acts of bravery to "search-and-destroy missions," Lian said, ridding neighbors' homes of pests like rats and gophers.
He is even capable of a dastardly deed or two, having once bitten off the tail of the family's pet rabbit, Muffin.
"They're the funniest dogs. They can be so obnoxious, you wouldn't think they could do anything useful," said Lian's 24-year-old sister, Leslie.
"But this time he showed he was real intelligent . . . this time he was a hero, he saved somebody's life," Ann Lian said.
Since attaining hero status, Butch has received special treatment. Leslie Lian has been rewarding him with bones and taking him on special runs with her horse.
Ann Lian is plotting amorous adventures for him. "Maybe we'll try to find a girl for him to breed with, now that it's spring," she said.
Johnston, who spends a lot of time around the house, made a loyal companion out of Butch as soon as the sisters brought him home three years ago.
The elderly woman slips Butch more treats than he ought to have, Lian said. The two watch television together, and when Johnston gardens, Butch goes out and "helps pull the weeds," Ann Lian said.
So, it was not surprising when last Wednesday, a week after her fall, Johnston welcomed a hospital visitor whose enthusiasm was overwhelming.
Butch, wagging from head to tail, jumped up on Johnston's wheelchair and squirmed onto her lap, while the elderly woman smiled. She even let the dog plant a few wet ones on her face.
"Gram's got a real thing about dogs," Ann Lian said. "She has a real rapport with them. She thinks they're smarter than humans in a lot of ways."