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Orca is a male golden retriever trained by the UK charity Canine Partners as an assistance dog. As of 2007[update] he is one of 12 dogs to be awarded the PDSA Gold Medal, the highest award for outstanding bravery and dedication by an assistance dog, for remarkable dedication, tenacity and initiative in saving his owners' life in 2003, when he was still a young dog of 17 months age.
As a result of this and other achievements, Orca was also the first dog in the county to be officially recognised in 2004 as a "carer" by the City of York council, entitling him to an allowance for equipment and food.
Orca was born on 13 November 2001, and was partnered with his disabled handler, Cheryl Alexander (née Smith) on 28 March 2003. He is a large dog weighing approximately 36 kg. Cheryl is a wheelchair user who suffers from the disabling condition Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy syndrome, a neurological condition that effectively prevents her from walking.
Orca, trained to think for himself, can respond to over 150 commands, including loading and unloading a washing machine, operating an ATM and VCR, open doors and cupboards, bring things from the fridge, untie shoelaces, remove gloves, socks, hats, scarves, shoes and jackets. He can select items from shelves in the supermarket, place them in a basket, and then put the items onto the conveyor. He takes an envelope of money into a shop which does not have wheelchair access and returns with a newspaper. Orca can recognise around 20 objects by name, such as book, blanket, glove, phone, mobile, post and pole. Orca knows his left from his right and knows the difference between his left and the handler's left. He can press buttons for lifts, light switches and pedestrian crossings. Cheryl gives as an example an anecdote, that:
Orca is also capable of complex decision making. If Cheryl drops an item that she is unable to reach, Orca will retrieve it without being asked. However, if Orca feels she is able to retrieve the item, he will not interfere. Orca can follow strings of commands, up to a maxiumum of five at a time. For example, if asked to retrieve a book from a table, he can be given the command string; 'Out; up table; get the book; bring it here.'
On 18 May 2003, after they had been partnered for two months and Orca was 17 months old and only just out of training, Cheryl's powered wheelchair struck an obstruction on a country footpath near Heslington, pitching her some 12 – 20 feet (3 – 5 metres) down an embankment into a drainage ditch. The lower part of the ditch was water-filled to between a foot and waist level, and Cheryl became trapped in the water with the full weight of the 300 lb wheelchair pinning her across her legs. By chance, it had landed in a manner that did not crush her, however it held her trapped in the water, with her head facing downwards and her legs pressed into the thick mud at the bottom.
Orca sought to descend to help her, but after 5 minutes was finally persuaded to leave and seek help. It began to rain very heavily, a risk given that Cheryl was in a drainage ditch. A long time later he returned to Cheryl, but he was still alone.
It later transpired that he had found a passer-by, but the person approached had not realised Orca was an assistance dog seeking help in an emergency, and had tried to lead the dog home by his collar, to report him as a stray. Assistance dogs are trained to follow humans, and Orca had evidently reached the exceptional understanding that this person was not going to follow him or provide help, and that this was accordingly an occasion to break the rule. Orca had had to pull out of his collar and avoid being led, to do this - an act which goes against all normal assistance dog training.
Having checked on Cheryl, Orca left her to search for help a second time.
By this time it was "pouring with rain" and the weather had deteriorated to the point of hail, placing her at risk of drowning or hypothermia (death from exposure and cold). It took Orca around two more hours, and much perseverance, to find help, and considerable initiative to persuade the man to follow him for the entire mile-long walk back to the ditch. The person he found was a passing jogger, one of Cheryl's neighbours, until then unknown to her. Cheryl was already suffering hypothermia and drifting in and out of consciousness, when they finally arrived.
Cheryl was rescued and treated in hospital for hypothermia. The rescue services considered that Orca's "remarkable skills and unstinting devotion" had without question saved her life. The ditch was remote, the weather very bad - both cold and raining - and the path not commonly walked.
Orca has been honoured for his bravery and ingenuity several times; In 2003 he won the Pro Dogs Silver Medal for life saving and the first ever Wag and Bone Show "Woman's Best Friend" award. In July 2004 Orca became one of the first assistance dogs in the country to be paid an allowance as if he were a human assistant. In 2006 he was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal, the highest award for a non-military dog and the animal equivalent of the George Cross. Orca has been on television many times, including Test Your Pet, Dogs with Jobs and Sunday Style. He has 'released the balls' on the UK National Lottery. He has been in many magazines and newspapers and currently appears in a book Hearts, Minds and Paws by Nina Bondarenko in the chapter on "Canine Superheroes".