TAMPA — With a whine and the nudge of a paw, Rio turned lifesaver. The little white dog is more cotton puff than Lassie, but his owner, Janet Lopez, credits him with her beating heart.
It happened in September. Lopez, 54, takes Rio with her almost everywhere, and this day, they went shopping at Publix. She was filling her grocery cart with frozen foods when he began to squirm with urgency, apparently trying to get her attention.
She was in the checkout line when the chest pain kicked in.
"Really, if it wasn't for him getting increasingly upset, I would've gone home," Lopez said. "I knew he was trying to tell me that something was wrong."
Later at the hospital, the verdict was in: heart attack averted.
It may sound strange to some, especially non-dog lovers, but Lopez says Rio can sense when something's wrong inside her body. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and Rio can tell when her joints tighten by a change in her gait. He paws at her when she needs to rest, she says.
Rio may have company. Some experts say dogs have the ability to tell what's going on deep inside us.
Psychologist Clive Wynn, a University of Florida researcher and animal behavior expert, said Rio's talents are plausible for several reasons.
"One is that they (dogs) have very keen senses, and the other part of it is that you are your dog's project," Wynn said. "If you have a dog, his or her mission in life is to watch you and read your behavior. Even when a dog is asleep, he has one eye open in case you might do something interesting."
Wynn said a dog's sense of hearing and smell are naturally heightened. He cited a 2006 Shands at UF research study that found that dogs could be trained to identify cancer patients by smelling their breath. He also mentioned bomb-sniffing and rescue dogs.
But he said most of a dog's perception skills stem from dependency. Dogs need people for nearly everything: food, shelter, exercise and bathroom breaks.
Lopez doesn't work, but receives disability payments. Her 21-year-old son lives with her in her South Tampa home. She said she never taught the 21/2-year-old half-Maltese, half-bichon frise to pick up on her arthritis symptoms.
She thinks he noticed a pattern: Her body would slowly tense, and she'd lie down to rest. Now he gets agitated when she falls out of step with what he's used to.
She can't explain the heart attack alert, but she figures Rio has just learned to notice her body's subtle changes even before she does.
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Because of his skills and boot-camp-like training courses he has taken, Rio is now a service dog — navy blue vest and all. Like dogs who aid blind owners, he's legally allowed to go everywhere with Lopez — no matter that he's part of a canine group often confined to designer purses.
With the help of a local "dog whisperer," Rio's obedience improves each week.
One recent Wednesday night, master trainer Clarke Inghram's voice boomed from speakers as leashed dogs and their owners marched in a straight line.
"Tell them to 'stay' and get moving!" Inghram told the owners, his brow furrowed. "This is the most important exercise."
Little Rio looked toward Lopez as she walked away, but he didn't move. Inghram pointed at the little dog as an example as a German shepherd scampered out of place.
But in the next few minutes, just before Lopez's right hip started to twinge, Rio began to prod her.
"If I ignore him long enough, he'll start barking his full head off," Lopez said as she took a seat on a plastic chair, where Rio's service dog vest was waiting.
Inghram, of Inghram's Sit 'N Stay Dog Academy in North Tampa, trained and tested Rio before the pooch earned the vest. It'll take years for Rio to be fully certified, but because he has mastered certain commands and is well behaved, he is allowed to enter any establishment with Lopez.
"We taught him how to learn," Inghram said. "After that, it's easy."
He said dogs respond to movements, rather than words. When Inghram leans back and pats his calf, Rio sits.
When Inghram walks away, turns around and bends toward the little dog, Rio gets up and comes to him.
If people train their dogs to be obedient, the dogs will treat them like pack leaders and take notice of their every move, he says.
Wynn, the UF researcher, echoed the sentiment. "People always say, 'My dog has psychic powers,' but that dog has been watching you all its whole life."
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It's certainly the case for Rio. Lopez raised the dog from infancy, initially training him to be a therapy dog that offers comfort to people in nursing homes and hospitals. But Rio's acute observations made him destined for service, requiring a different set of obedience skills.
And so, Lopez left another of Inghram's sessions, pup in one hand, vest in the other. Other dogs of all breeds meandered about, sights and sounds aplenty. But Rio's gaze was fixed.