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Man's best friend and then some Dog paws phone to get help for ill owner who had once saved pup from neglect

This pup tale sounds incredible -- but Jim Benson knows in his heart it's true.

Benson, 32, who suffers from several serious ailments, believes his dog, Chief, saved his life by pawing the phone to summon help when Benson collapsed from a seizure.

"I think my dog's a hero," Benson said, "and a really good friend."

Chief came into Benson's life back in 2001, when Benson took a road trip to Darien with a friend.

While driving, the pair noticed a scrawny puppy, covered with cuts and chained up in an old barn.

"He didn't have any water or food," Benson recalled of seeing the pathetic pooch.

Benson stopped to talk to the dog's owner, who told him he'd put the dog out in the barn because it was out of control and had torn up the house.

Benson left heartsick over the scraggly puppy who seemed nervous and scared but so sweet -- and he and his friend decided to take action.

They left a note next to the dog saying that if the owner didn't immediately start taking better care of him, they were going to take him.

They returned the next day to find the note untouched.

So Benson unchained the pulley and took the dog back with him to Buffalo.

"I brought him home, and he's been my best friend," Benson said. ". . . He's really a sweetheart."

Chief may have returned Benson's kindness Wednesday night.

Benson was at his Stewart Avenue home, chatting on the phone with a friend, Kevin Moe, a Buffalo postal worker, when he began to feel sick.

Benson is gravely ill. He has epilepsy, suffered a stroke two years ago and says he is now dying from AIDS. He contracted HIV when he was just 8 years old after receiving a tainted blood transfusion for treatment of a form of hemophilia.

Until just about two weeks ago, Benson had an emergency call box on the floor of his apartment, which his dog was trained to paw if he had a seizure. He got rid of it after installing a burglar alarm.

Benson had no idea Wednesday that he was about to face a medical emergency.

He recalled his phone conversation with Moe: "I told my friend I was going to hang up now because I'm not feeling too well." Carrying his portable phone, he began walking over to his chair by the TV when he collapsed.

From the best he could figure out, Benson said, "I passed out from a grand mal seizure."

Now, there's no way to know what exactly happened next.

But somehow, the phone at Moe's home rang, and Moe knew it was Benson's line, because he saw his number come up on the caller ID.

"I got a call from Jim," Moe said, "but I didn't hear anything."

But then he heard barking.

"I didn't know what was going on," Moe said.

But knowing how sick Benson was, Moe raced over to Benson's apartment.

He found the door unlocked and saw Benson lying on the floor and starting to wake up. The phone was next to him, and Chief was still barking.

Benson believes his dog had pawed the buttons on the phone until he managed to hit redial -- ringing Moe's phone.

"He was trying to get me help," Benson said.

Moe took Benson to the emergency room Wednesday night. Benson said Friday he was feeling fine.

But he believes he easily could have fallen into a coma or had a heart attack after the seizure because of his frail condition.

"I think I saved his life, and he saved mine," Benson said Friday. "We saved each other's, I guess."

Dr. Helen Roberts, a veterinarian at 5 Corners Animal Hospital in Orchard Park, said Benson's story doesn't surprise her in the least bit.

"We have to be careful about anthropomorphizing this," she said. ". . . But I think dogs have a lot more intuitive intelligence than we give them credit for."

Buffalo Zoo staff veterinarian Dr. Frank Ridgley said it is doubtful the dog understood how a redial button works, but it is likely that Chief understood Benson was in trouble.

"The dog probably recognized the abnormal behavior," Ridgley said. "That distresses dogs. They can pick up on that."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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