By Michael Davis

The events of March 14, 1996 bonded Lee Stuart and his dog Boomer closer than ever. That's when he says his dog saved his life.

The McDonough resident was living in Forest Park at the time, stationed at Fort Gillem and recovering from hip surgery.

Hobbling on crutches and walking a friend to her car, Stuart and his dog startled a would-be thief, rummaging around in his neighbor's pickup truck.

Stuart's friend went back inside to call police as he and Boomer held the masked man at bay.

But Stuart began to struggle with the man as he tried to get away and was approached by two more masked men n one of whom was carrying a gun.

"I would be dead if it weren't for him," the 56-year-old Stuart said of his 14-year-old behemoth dog, 115-pound Boomer.

Stuart said that as he struggled with the three men, Boomer intervened and though the gun went off, Stuart was wounded rather than killed.

The single shot shattered much of his forearm but had been aimed at his head.

And as the gunman tried to reload the shotgun, Boomer knocked the shell away and held the three men off until they ran away into the darkness.

"I owe everything to Boomer," Stuart said.

That incident and years of loyalty won Boomer the title of "Atlanta's Top Dog," a prize awarded by Invisible Fence by Peachtree last month in Atlanta. Part of a field of 500 contestants, Boomer was voted into a group of 25 by local television viewers and from there, on to a group of 11 finalists.

Stuart describes the award for his loyal companion as a "small token."

"I can never repay the dog for saving my life," he said.

The suspects were eventually caught and jailed, Stuart said, and it took 13 surgeries to repair the damage to his arm.

Boomer and Stuart were first brought together when Boomer was a pup. A Rottweiller-Labrador mix, Stuart said Boomer's rambunctious behavior was rough on his brother-in-law's apartment n and his furniture n so Stuart took him in at about 10 months old.

The two took to each other immediately and have spent years as travelling companions while Stuart has served in the military. "He's been all over the world with me," he said.

While Stuart has been in Florida teaching scuba diving lessons, his daughter Heather, 25, and several others from the neighborhood have been caring for Boomer.

"All the kids in the neighborhood know him," Heather Stuart said of the "gentle giant."

Because of Boomer's considerable size, she said they've had to keep an eye on his diet.

"He eats a half can of wet food and a huge bowl of dry food, and that's cut back," she said.

And while Boomer may be a senior citizen in dog years, with a little gray hair on his chin and chest, he remains active.

Boomer even shares in his owner's love of water. Stuart said that often, when he's in the water during scuba lessons, Boomer has to be held back on the boat to keep him from jumping in after him.

And the pool at Stuart's McDonough home ? "That's Boomer's pool," he said.