ORCA the golden labrador was hailed a "wonder dog" today, after helping to save his disabled York owner when she plummeted 20 feet down a ditch in her motorised wheelchair.

In a scene straight out of Lassie, the dog ran off to get help and managed to get the attention of Peter Harrison, who was jogging in a nearby field.

Orca, who is a specially-trained rescue dog, then led him to his stranded owner, Cheryl Smith, and the alarm was raised.

They found Cheryl had had an amazing escape because there was six feet of water at the bottom of the ditch.

The drama unfolded when Cheryl, a University of York student, was taking Orca for a walk yesterday along a dirt track near Holmefield Lane, Heslington.

Her motorised wheelchair struck a brick, causing it to veer off down a steep drainage ditch. She came to rest with the wheelchair on top of her, trapping her legs.

Orca, who finished rescue training eight weeks ago so that he could help Cheryl if anything like this happened, immediately sprang into action to find help.

Cheryl said Orca first found a nearby dog walker who took off his emergency collar - identifying him as a rescue dog - to raise the alarm from home.

Orca then returned to Cheryl before making a second attempt to bring assistance.

"Orca is just the best," said Cheryl, 22, who was taken to York Hospital suffering from mild hypothermia.

"I didn't think anyone would find me. I just couldn't free my legs. I was really out of it because it was so cold."

Mr Harrison, who lives nearby, said: "Orca really persevered to attract my attention.

"At first I thought he had lost his owner, but then I heard shouting and decided to follow. It's lucky he found me because the weather was so bad. He's very intelligent."

Peter found Cheryl in the ditch and ran home to raise the alarm. He met a fire crew at the road to direct them while his wife, Julia, and daughter, Rosie, kept Cheryl company.

The crew was forced to leave the appliance at the road and walk more than half-a-mile to reach her.

They lifted Cheryl out of the ditch and kept her warm until an off-road paramedic arrived to take her to hospital.

"I thought Orca was unbelievable, anyway, because he can obey 105 commands, unload the washing machine and press buttons at the pedestrian crossing," said Cheryl.

"He can now add saving my life to the list."

Fire station sub-officer Carl Vinand said: "The dog is the real star. Cheryl is extremely lucky to be alive. The fall alone could have killed her as the wheelchair weighs 280 pounds."

Updated: 11:39 Monday, May 19, 2003