The first time it happened, Gerald Rittinger was driving to buy his gravestone. His diabetes was getting worse. Doctors had just diagnosed him with prostate cancer. They gave him six months. Gerald's wife, Jeanne, was in the passenger seat of their Lincoln that day. Their puppy, Zeke, was supposed to stay in the back seat. But the yellow Labrador kept putting his big paws on the console between them, inching forward. They headed north on Interstate 75 to his family cemetery in Kentucky. After about three hours, Zeke stood up and began barking. "Down! Zeke, get down!" Jeanne scolded, tugging at his collar. Zeke leapt up, nuzzling his wet nose against Gerald's neck. Licking his face. Laughing, Gerald tried to push away the puppy. But Zeke wouldn't back off. His barking got louder. The dog became so agitated that Gerald had to pull off the highway. Seconds later, Gerald had a seizure. "If he had still been driving," Jeanne said, "all of us would have been killed." That was 12 years ago. Gerald had his headstone engraved, planted it in the graveyard, then came home to die. But Zeke wouldn't let him.
• • •
When Gerald met Jeanne more than 30 years ago, he was running the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. She was a real estate consultant who trained other Realtors.
She told him she was afraid of dogs. Never had one, never wanted to get to know one. Then they met a neighbor, who had a chocolate Lab she learned to like.
After they moved to Florida in 1995, after Gerald's Type 2 diabetes got so bad that he had to take insulin four times a day, and Jeanne had to travel more for work, she decided to get a dog so Gerald wouldn't be so alone.
"Zeke chose us," said Jeanne, 60, a warm, wiry woman who seldom sits still. "He was only a month old, in this pile of puppies in a playpen. But as soon as he saw us he broke free and ran to us, wagging his tail."
The second time they went to visit, when the Labs were ready to be weaned, Zeke seemed to remember them. He raced to Gerald and rubbed his soft head against Gerald's leg. "You could see it in his eyes," said Gerald, 74. "He has this way of looking at you, like he knows something."
• • •
Dogs can be trained to find bedbugs and bombs, to sniff out survivors after earthquakes. Others can detect cancer cells in urine samples.
"Some dogs can smell odors given off by humans with diabetes," a National Geographic article reported in 2009.
Diabetic Alert Assistance dogs are specially bred, trained from birth through their first year, says the website dogs4diabetics.com. Getting one certified costs about $10,000. "The process requires a properly trained dog, as well as a trained handler."
Zeke never had any training, except for the basics at puppy kindergarten, where a police officer at St. Petersburg College taught him to sit and lie down.
"He never really even got 'fetch,' " Gerald said. "He just ate the Frisbee." His best trick, everyone thought, was dancing on his hind legs for a Pup-Peroni treat.
Until he saved Gerald. Again. And again.
• • •
Zeke grew to be a big boy, packing on 115 pounds. His head got wide and flat, like an anvil. Across his shoulders, the butterscotch fur faded into two white arcs. Jeanne calls the markings his angel wings.
When he was young, he used to wander around the Broadwater neighborhood of St. Petersburg. He learned which houses had kids, which people had dog biscuits. But he would always head home to check on Gerald.
Sometimes, the dog sensed plummeting blood sugar and seizures before they happened, in time for Gerald to take a glucose tablet, or call 911. Other times, Zeke didn't get any warning. He would find Gerald slumped in a chair, or sprawled on the living room floor. If Jeanne wasn't home, he would sprint through the garage to knock on a neighbor's door.
"He's a wild character. I don't know how he knows. He just has this way of sensing when I'm in trouble," Gerald said. "Maybe he smells something in my sweat, or a change in my breath. Maybe he just feels me panic."
One night, Jeanne was sleeping beside her husband when Zeke jumped onto the bed and yanked her arm. Jeanne turned on the light. Gerald's mouth was drooping, his face slack. He had just had a stroke. If she hadn't called an ambulance then, he wouldn't have survived.
"I know of 30 times, at least, that dog has saved his life," Jeanne said. "All the paramedics know Zeke."
• • •
The old yellow lab is almost 13 now. In the last few months, he has lost 20 pounds. His muzzle has faded to white, like his angel wings. His hips hurt so much, he can't jump on the bed.
But every morning after breakfast, he hauls himself up to nose Gerald's knee and let him know it's time for a walk. It's often the only time the two leave the house.
They move slowly, side by side. Jeanne watches them cross the yard. Zeke used to lead the way. Now he trails behind Gerald, limping, criss-crossing the street to find slices of shade.
After they pass four houses, Zeke starts wheezing. "It's okay," Gerald says softly. "You just tell me when you're done."
As they make their way down the street, neighbors come out to pet their favorite dog. "He's a hero. Absolutely," said Ray Ockuly, who lives a few doors down. "All these years, he's what has kept Gerald alive."
"Zeke looks out for everyone," said Kirk Price, who lives nearby. A few months ago, when his 11-year-old daughter fell off her bike in front of Zeke's house, the dog got up from the yard, licked the girl's leg, then lumbered to her home and pawed at the door until her mom came. Thinking Zeke wanted a treat, she turned to go in the kitchen. Instead, the dog clamped his mouth around her hand and took her to her daughter, who was still sobbing on the sidewalk. "I've never known a dog like that," Price said.
Barbara Klinowski also lives on the block. One day this summer, she was coming home when she saw Zeke standing in the middle of the street, barking. "What are you doing? Let's go home," she told the dog.
"He led me back to his house, where I found Gerald barely holding on," she said. "I called Jeanne, but if I hadn't found him … "
After 10 minutes, he plops beneath a palm tree, panting, and looks up at Gerald as if to apologize.
"It's okay. We can turn back," Gerald says. He waits a moment, rubs Zeke's heaving sides, then heads toward home. The old dog stumbles back onto his feet and follows, tongue lolling, tail wagging.
Some people have suggested putting Zeke out of his misery. But Jeanne knows that once she loses her dog, her husband won't be far behind.
"Whoever goes first," she said, "they're going to be buried together."
And she's going to add Zeke's name to Gerald's tombstone.
Contact Lane DeGregory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.