Kenai received the Valor Dog of the Year award last week from the Humane Society of the United States


photo by Todd Smarr

 It was about this time last year when software consultant Todd Smarr and human resources consultant Michelle Sewald of Erie, Colo., loaded up Kenai, an aging Bernese mountain dog mix, and Tanner, their Lab mix, and joined five other adults, two kids and two other dogs for a two-day break at friend’s weekend house. There had been no thought of leaving their dogs behind. “We camp, hike, snowshoe — whatever we do, the dogs join us. They play an important part in our life,” says Smarr.

In the wee hours of the second night there, Kenai began whining and whimpering. Relentlessly.

This awakened Smarr from a sound sleep.

He lay there for only a second before arising to investigate. This dark-hours behavior was highly unusual for Kenai. She was clearly unhappy or upset about something.

He sought her out in the dark, thinking the old dog had to go out and found she couldn’t get up on her own. When he got her to her feet, she was wobbly and disoriented. He managed to get her outside. The commotion woke up the other person who was sleeping on the same level of the house; she stumbled into the bathroom saying she felt sick and headachy.

Smarr — still not completely awake and feeling the beginnings of a headache himself (maybe from the late night, he thought) — woke his wife to help the ailing woman. Sewald lurched out of bed, announced she didn’t feel right, and passed out.

This rocketed Smarr to total alertness: “I’ve got two people down and a sick dog,” he recalls. He hauled the women to fresh air, raced upstairs to wake everyone else, threw open windows and doors, and they settled around the computer to research carbon monoxide poisoning.

Everything fit.

They piled into cars and went to the hospital, and blood tests later showed the two women had very high levels of carbon monoxide. They were airlifted to Denver for hyperbaric oxygen treatment. Smarr’s level wasn’t as bad; he was given on-the-spot oxygen and released. Kenai, the first to sense something bad, and the first out the door, was fine. And the other humans and dogs, who had been sleeping on a different level, were OK, too, since the gas hadn’t reached that level. Yet.

Had Kenai not been there, had she not communicated as she did, in another few minutes “we probably would have been another Colorado carbon monoxide tragedy,” Smarr says. In the preceding four months, there had been three awful carbon monoxide incidents in the state: a family of four died in their Aspen vacation home at the end of November, and in December a grad student in Denver died, and a mother in Manitou Springs died (her husband and child survived).

Kenai didn’t dash through the house alerting everyone. She actually couldn’t stand up on her own at that point. So Smarr downplays her heroism a bit, pointing out that it was not of the pull-a-kid-to-safety sort. Still, he says, “her companionship made the difference.”

If the couple hadn’t had a dog, or if they had decided to vacation without the dog (which these two people just don’t do) or if Smarr wasn’t so connected to this dog that even half asleep, he knew he needed to see to her and not just snarl for her to quiet down and then sink into sleep, nine people might be dead.

By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY,