Onyx – One Pit Bull’s Second Chance

Back in early March, a black dog showed up in my driveway.  She was severely emaciated and had been beaten half to death, and evidently was dumped on the low-traffic dead-end road to die.  In spite of her condition – or more likely because of it – none of us could get close to her.  I was never able to take photos of her because every time she spotted a human she would stagger into the woods.  I took the pragmatic (and I’ll admit cold) attitude that she would die or she wouldn’t, but there was little I could do about it if I couldn’t catch her.  I wanted to give her a fighting chance all the same so I started putting food out at the curve of the driveway.  One day during that period Danielle Hoversten gave me a pork shoulder bone with a great deal of good skin and fatty meat still attached, with instructions to give it to my dogs.  I thought about it and decided it would be better used as a gift to the poor starving “pibble” I’d been feeding than to my own pampered pooches and their equally pampered foster siblings.  Evidently our “pibble” thought so too, because there wasn’t a scrap left in the dish when I stopped to refill it the next morning.  She got dry kibble (Natural Balance mostly); she also got boiled chicken and rice; canned tuna; canned salmon; grilled salmon; and many other things that probably made my dogs very jealous.

This went on for a little more than a month, when finally my landlord at the time was able to catch her.  Damon, my son, and I went over to get her.  I knew going in that bringing a Pit Bull-type mix into my pack and my family was a huge risk, but by this point I knew she wouldn’t survive the animal shelter.  Don’t get me wrong – our ACOs in Stokes County are amazing, and they do everything they can to find homes for the dogs that come through the shelter – but the volume is too high, and this poor dog was in an extremely unadoptable condition.


She’d put on a little weight, but still had much more to gain to be considered healthy.  Most of her wounds had healed, though a couple of the worst needed a little work.  She kept her head turned and her eyes averted, and didn’t struggle against me at all, though she also didn’t make any effort to make handling her any easier.  She was just limp, like a rag dog.  I pulled out the leash and she got those scared eyes that a dog gets when it knows it’s in trouble.  I put the leash around her neck and she exploded, struggling and bucking and fighting against me like a wild thing.  I released the leash and it slipped off her neck and she hit the ground like a switch had been turned off.  OK; we’d do it without the leash.  Someone had hurt her with a leash and she was as a result terrified of it.  I had a bad feeling… but it was outweighed by an intense rush of sympathy for her and anger at whoever had hurt her.  I won’t say what I wish I could do if I found out who did those things to that dog…  Suffice it to say that if I ever find out who hurt her, who tried to fight her, it will not end well for that person.


Even in her half-starved state she was too heavy for me to carry all the way home – not to mention the fact I frankly didn’t want a strange, frightened, stressed dog of ANY breed that close to my face for an extended period of time.  In the end Damon had to go home and get my car and bring it around so that we could drive her the few hundred yards to my house.  She rode draped across my lap, head and eyes still averted.  She didn’t move a muscle.  At home I carried her into the house – there she again panicked; I quickly brought her into the back yard, where she lay still while the other dogs checked her out, then belly-crawled into a vacant doghouse, where she spent most of the next two days.  That evening I crawled into the doghouse with her and injected her with parvo/distemper vaccine, squirted Bordatella vaccine up her nose, and wormed her.  I dragged her out so that I could run my hands over her body and assess her wounds, which I cleaned with warm soapy water and peroxide.  I gave her every opportunity to bite me and she consistently refused to do so.

Two days later we had her spayed – and though it was a risk to her in her condition, I’m glad we authorized the procedure, because it turned out she was pregnant, and the last thing this world needs is one more litter of unwanted “pibble” puppies.


Did you know that the number one animal euthanized in shelters in North Carolina is the cat… but number two is the Pit Bull-type dog?  This is a vastly under-served group of breeds (American Bull Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Bulldog, to name a few.)  They are overly-sensationalized, get a great deal of negative press, and most people are either afraid of them or want them for the wrong reasons.  The handful of rescue groups who deal specifically with Pit Bull-type dogs are full, and most general rescues won’t take them at all because they’re just hard to move and have such negative stereotypes attached to them.  SCHS currently has one other “pibble” mix in foster care – her name is Tulip and she’s been with her foster mom for two years.  For that reason, SCHS was reluctant to bring another Pit-type mix into the program… but on the other hand, we agreed we had little choice with this dog.


I decided to call this gal Onyx.  My husband called her Blackie, and my teenage children (ages 14, 16 and almost 18) insisted that her name was Reptar.  It’s a good thing that I’m her primary handler, because Onyx is the name she recognizes!

She gradually began to come out of her shell and warmed up to the family – though she warmed up to the dogs long before she trusted us, and she bonded with my 14-year-old daughter Bridget before she would have anything to do with the rest of us.  She is very young – around a year old – and she still plays very rough, which is ok for some of my dogs but not for others.  During the first month she was with us there were two dog fights.  The first time, Onyx and my 4 year old Pointer mix, Peaches, got into a fight – Peaches started the fight and took the worst of the injuries, and in my honest opinion she deserved everything she got; but it cost me quite a bit of money, and Peaches had to stay in the house afterward and was only able to be around Onyx under adult human supervision.  Onyx also fought one other of my fosters, a little black & tan hound mix named Ladybug; I’m not sure who started that one but I have a feeling it was a result of Ladybug objecting to Onyx’s roughhousing.  In any event, it was evident from these two fights that Onyx isn’t a fighter by nature; there were no kill-wounds on either Peaches or Ladybug, and Onyx stopped fighting on her own when my husband told her to stop – dangerous dogs fight to kill and don’t stop until the adversary is dead.


Our SCHS trainer advised after the second fight that we should separate Onyx from the other dogs and not let her around them under any circumstances.  I struggled for quite some time with that and finally hubby and I decided not to heed the expert’s advice.  Our fear was that it would frustrate Onyx and would be a setback in what was otherwise, in my humble opinion, a marvelous recovery.  Maybe we should have heeded her advice – maybe not.  Onyx was doing so well with the males – Max and Nanuq – and with my sweet submissive Maggie,  that I couldn’t imagine her fighting again.


At the end of August, we moved to my mother’s farm.  I call it a farm – it’s going to become one again, though it hasn’t been farmed in many years.   That is a subject for another blog post.  Mama has three acres, two of which are surrounded by a five foot welded wire fence.  She has a whole passel of frou-frou yappy little dogs, a Pyrie, a Basset Hound, and a very elderly pointer mix.  We fenced the front quarter-acre all the way across for my dogs, leaving the remaining property for hers.  The move was chaotic for all involved, but it was done and we settled in, critters and all.


The first weekend of September we took Onyx to the Stokes Stomp, our annual fall festival here in Stokes County.  She did very well.  She met many new people, including a young teen with Downs Syndrome, with whom she communed for quite some time.  I wish someone had taken a photo – it would have been a perfect positive PR bit for the Pit Bull breeds.


The second weekend in September Onyx jumped on Maggie.  Once again, hubby was home and was able to stop it with nothing more than his verbal command that they stop.  Maggie only had one bad bite, to her thigh.  This time, though, hubby had had enough.


“She has to go,” he said.  “Today.”


He was adamant.  No amount of tears or pleading on my part could sway him.  At this point the SCHS Executive Director and one of our SCHS volunteers stepped up and started reaching out.  They found a rescuer who would take her.  The catch was, though the volunteer was familiar with the rescuer, none of the rest of us were.  I informed hubby that the rescuer was willing to take Onyx, but that we were going to deliver her there, and if I didn’t like what I saw we would be bringing Onyx home again.


We drove to Hamptonville that Saturday evening.  Hamptonville is between Yadkinville and North Wilkesboro on 421.  It’s about an hour & a half from us.  Yahoo! Maps says two hours, but Yahoo! Maps doesn’t take my husband’s lead foot into account.


It was dark when we pulled up outside the single-wide trailer.  I was apprehensive, but I refused to make any premature judgments.  I myself have lived in both single-wide and double-wide trailers, and might again.  I would NOT judge this person based on her home.


She came out to the car as we stepped onto her driveway.  She looked to be about 15.  “Amber?”  I asked.


“You must be Heather!” she responded with a firm handshake.  “This is my husband.”  She introduced us to her hubby and I introduced her to mine.  Then I introduced her to Onyx.


Amber, as it turns out, is 23 years old and very active in rescue.  She mainly works with the Pit Bull breeds, but she’s got others as well.  Including her own personal dogs she has facilities for ten dogs at one time.  Including my own dogs and Onyx, I had ten as well.  She had had an adoption the day before – that’s the only reason she was able to take Onyx.  I explained that Onyx is female aggressive; Amber was not concerned.  She said that’s typical with Pit Bull breeds.  She herself has one female aggressive foster and two of her own dogs are male aggressive.  She happily showed me around her place, and I confess myself impressed.  It’s not a shelter facility by any means… but neither is mine.  Amber at 23 is pretty much where I am at 35, and yes, I really am impressed.  She is young, but I feel she will go far in the rescue world.  After all, it’s about the dogs, and Amber, much like myself, has little care for anything besides the dogs.


I cried when we drove away without Onyx.  I doubt I’ll ever completely recover from her.   Every dog should make an impact on a human’s life… but every so often a dog comes along that is so miraculous the mark it makes is like a scar.  I know I’ll never forget her.  I’ll never be sorry for any of it, either.  And I can live my life knowing that I took an abused, unloved Pit Bull and showed her that human beings could be sources of love and kindness as well as pain and cruelty.  I hope she never forgets that.



Letting go…

I always miss my kids when they are adopted – Sandie, Scooter, Georgia, Lil’ Bit, Hershey & Po have all found homes – Sandie went home with a new friend whose daughter played soccer with Vannesa in the fall; Scooter, Georgia, Lil’ Bit, Hershey & Po were all adopted as a result of SCHS networking.  They’ve all gone to wonderful families, and the people who adopted Sandie, Lil’ Bit and Hershey are now my friends on Facebook, so I’m getting to watch my babies grow up, which is nice.  Scooter’s family emails me photos now and then, and I’ve gotten a few photos of Georgia via text.  I love technology.  I really do.

I’m used to having  a little time between adoptions to get used to one of my kids being gone before I have to part with another one.  That’s not the case this time.  Po was adopted by a very excited young vet student who took him home this past Saturday.  Merry & Pippin, my private rescues, are boarding a transport tomorrow morning for North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, NY.  I’m not used to Po being gone, and now Merry and Pippin are going too.

I’ve taken stock and this leaves me with Chunkybutt and Baby in foster care, and of course my own Max, Peaches and Maggie.  Chunky’s the last of Maggie’s puppies.  He’s a big, handsome fellow, with a wonderful long black coat and a laid back personality, and I’m baffled as to why he hasn’t been adopted.  Baby’s going to be with me for awhile yet – she has to have surgery to correct her bi-lateral luxating patella (that is, dislocating kneecaps in both hind legs) before she can be put up for adoption.

So what am I going to do with just five dogs?  Back when I still had five of Maggie’s pups and all nine of Baby’s, plus Max, Peaches, Maggie and Baby, I was running day in and day out and I was pretty sure I was crazy – or getting there fast.  Now my life is about to get back to normal (whatever normal is, when applied to the life of a canine foster mom), and I’m sitting here tonight unable to comprehend the fact that I’m ONLY going to have five dogs!

Am I going to take a break from fostering?  That’s a tough question.  I don’t know.  I think I should take a few weeks off – we don’t want my husband to get burned out, after all – I rely on his assistance in every aspect of my various insanities.  He lifts heavy stuff, drives long distances, helps with feeding, bathing, walking, and playing, and gives me his version of pep talks when I’m feeling blue.  (Think, “I hate all these animals in the house, there’s hair everywhere – but you’re really good with the dogs, they really love you.  You’re doing a good thing.  I hate all the hair.”  That’s the Mr. Camp version of a pep talk.)

Will my impulsive nature assert itself again?  Probably.  I definitely won’t rule out anything.  I’m pretty sure there are puppies in my future, and more than likely adult dogs as well.  In spite of the fact that Maggie’s the first black dog I’ve had in several years, and Baby the second (not counting Maggie’s black puppies), I’m partial to black dogs.  I’m also partial to large dogs, though small ones aren’t so bad as all that.  I foresee a future with many black dogs.  Of course I won’t limit myself to the black ones – I’ll take in a dog in need regardless of shape, color or size (or religious affiliation, sexual orientation, nationality or political preference).

I’ll be saying good-bye to Merry and Pippin tomorrow morning.  I’m going to miss them.  It’s going to be harder to let them go, I think, because I’m not used to Po being gone yet.

I’m typing this and a commercial is on – one of those Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercials – and I’m reminded yet again why it’s ok to let my kids go, even when three of them go within such a short period of time.  It’s so I can rescue again.  There are animals in the shelter that the ASPCA and the Humane Society and all of those other rescue groups can’t help, because there are more homeless pets than there are foster homes.  The longer I hold onto my kids, the longer a homeless pet has to wait for a rescue that might not come in time.

So I’ll be saying goodbye to Merry and Pippin tomorrow morning, and it’s too soon for me, but I’ll be ok.  I’ll probably cry, but I’ll be ok, because three less foster puppies means that some other dog or puppy is going to have a chance…  And that’s why I’m doing this, after all.

My younger daughter, who is 13, and my son, who is 16, have both expressed their sorrow that they always get attached and always have to say goodbye.  I told them both tonight that when we stop getting attached it will be time to stop rescuing – because after all, it’s not fair to the dog if we don’t love it for however long we have it.

I’m becoming a pro at letting them go.  I just hope I never get used to it.

Frogs, snails & puppy-dog tails

Prior to Maggie coming into my life with her eight newborn puppies, it had been a long time since I’d dealt with puppies at all.  Bo was our last puppy – he was a black German Shepherd; mom was AKC registered, and the owner had bred her with another AKC male but before her heat cycle ended she broke out & came home several hours later with a big male lab.  Since the owner had no way to tell which male’s seed had taken, he gave the puppies away, and I couldn’t pass one up.  Rosie taught Bo a great deal – she practically house-trained him for us.  Puppies really learn better when there’s an adult dog to guide them.  Bo and Rosie went for a run one day when Bo was full grown – he was as big as Rosie, but people were afraid of him and I suspect someone shot him.  At any rate, Rosie came home; Bo didn’t.  Rosie stayed home for several months thereafter before she started traveling again.  If you’ve ever had a Pyrie, you’ll understand what I mean by traveling.

Peaches was our next dog after Bo – she was six months old when our friends gave her to us.  Max came next – he was nearly a year old when we found him.

Maggie was a good little mama and took good care of her puppies.  Plus it was summer, and so we could move them outside during the day after they got to four weeks old.  They were still a handful, but they were well-behaved, and Maggie kept them in line and taught them the things a mama dog teaches her babies.

Baby’s puppies nearly drove me insane.  Within a week I understood exactly why her people couldn’t take it anymore (this doesn’t mean I approve of what they did, just that I understand how someone can reach that point).  They were uncouth, unmannered, filthy little blighters, and Baby stayed as far away from them as she could manage.  Add in the fact that it was November and cold outside, and you’ll understand what a nightmare those monsters were.  On the other hand they were the cutest little puppies in the world, and they were extremely affectionate and loved being handled.  In truth I didn’t hold their heathen-ness against them.  They’d have been much easier to deal with if Baby had been interested in them, or if there had been fewer than nine.

I swore when they moved to their next foster home that I’d never take a whole litter of puppies again.  It occurred to me that I’d be much better off sticking to older pups or adult dogs rather than young puppies.  I decided that I just wouldn’t do puppies at all except in the summer months, when I could put the pups outside for several hours at a time.

However, when several friends contacted me regarding Merry & Pippin, how could I say no?

(Yes, I DID name them after hobbits.)

I held off at first – I still had four of Maggie’s pups, plus Maggie, Max and Peaches, plus Baby.  But then Hershey was adopted, and Hershey’s new mama’s best friend wanted Lil’ Bit, and suddenly I was almost two puppies down.  I heard that the pups in question were outside in a crate with a thin blanket thrown over it & no bedding, and that they weren’t being fed regularly.   It’s cold at night in NC in January – too cold for puppies to be sleeping outside without their mama or any bedding.  Reluctantly I agreed to take them.

The woman who had them voluntary surrendered them to a friend of mine, who brought them to me.  They were bony, with bloated little bellies, and their hair was falling out and they were covered in a scaly rash.  My friend told me not to get my hopes up – she’d fed them and bathed them but the male was lethargic and his gums were very pale, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t make it.  I took a deep breath and took them anyway.

Lil’ Bit, Chunkybutt, and Po, the last three of Maggie’s pups, had a veterinary appointment the next morning for their rabies shots.  I carried Merry & Pippin along.  It’s not the first time I’ve shown up on my vet’s doorstep with a “medical emergency,” and no appointment – and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

My vet gave me a long look , agreed to see Merry & Pippin, and informed me, “I’ve come to the conclusion that both you and your mother are emotionally unstable.”

“And when have you met a woman who wasn’t emotionally unstable?” I retorted, setting the crate on the exam table.

“While I’m sure there’s a special place in heaven for people like you,” he said, avoiding my question, “for now, on this earth, you are part of my own personal hell.”

I love my vet.

His prognosis for the pups was very good – they would most likely live with the proper care.  He did a skin scraping and confirmed that the skin condition was mange – luckily it was sarcoptic mange, which is easily treated though highly contagious.  He did a fecal culture and found a high occurrence of yeast – “Most likely from eating a great deal of garbage,” he told me.  “Keep them isolated from your other dogs, give them these antibiotics, sprinkle this probiotic powder on their food, feed them a good high-quality food, and we’ll treat the mange with Revolution.  They will be just fine.”

“What a relief!  I was fully prepared to leave here without them.”  I slipped the pups back into the crate.  “And I’ll have you know that there’s a big difference between me & my mother.”

“And what would that be?”

“I rescue dogs with the intention of rehoming them.  Mama rescues cats with the intention of keeping them.”

“Inconsequential details,” Doc said.  “I stand by what I said.”

Tonight Merry & Pippin have had a bath and are now laying in the floor chewing on their toy flamingo.  They had their second dose of Revolution last week, and Doc had told me that after the second dose they would most likely no longer be contagious, so I have integrated them into the pack.  They’re so happy – they hated isolation.  In the house they play with each other and with Jackie Chan – Baby won’t play much with them, though she tolerates them.  All of my outside dogs are fine with them.  Max has gotten to where when I bring a new dog or puppy in, he just gives me this look – very much like the look Doc gave me the morning I showed up on his doorstep with two extra puppies.

As for me – I’m back where I was before Hershey & Lil’ Bit were adopted:  I have TOO MANY DOGS!  But I’m happy, and my dogs are happy.  Of the cats Jackie Chan is the only one who is happy – Cookie & Tudna hate dogs.  There’s a lady coming to meet Chunkybutt tomorrow, and I really hope she loves him as much as I do.  He’s a good dog.  Once Merry & Pippin have their third & final dose of Revolution next weekend, they will be put up for adoption as well.

Of course I miss them when they go – but I’ve been lucky enough so far that my pups have gone to people who keep in touch with me – I’m Facebook friends with three of them!  I have friends who tell me that they’d love to be able to do this, but they’d get too attached and not be able to let the puppies go.  I tell them that I get attached too, and letting the pups go is not getting any easier.  But I’m not in this to keep them.  I’m in this to find them good homes so I can go back and save some more.  I can’t save them all – but I will save as many as I can.  And that makes it more bearable when the time comes to say good-bye.  I love every puppy and every dog that has passed through my hands – I even love Baby’s demon spawn puppies.  If I ever reach a place where I don’t fall in love with every animal I rescue, then it will be time to stop rescuing.  Until then, I’m going to save the ones I can, and mourn the ones I can’t, and when I go to bed at night I don’t have a bit of trouble sleeping.

Max (or, we needed another dog like we needed a hole in the head)

Three years ago this month – that would make it February 2009 – we made one of our obligatory family trips to central Texas to visit the in-laws.  We’ve made the trip often enough that we have “favorite” gas stations & truck stops – and, yes, fireworks warehouses – at which we stop regularly.  It’s a long trip from NC to central TX, but we always push & do it in one rush – partly because my husband is impatient, partly because it’s an outrageous fortune to pay for five to sleep in even the cheapest motel, much less in a place where we can at least hopefully believe the bedding is clean.

It was past suppertime, the kids – who were at that time 14, 13 and 11 – were grumpy (ever noticed how kids tend to get grumpy on long car trips??), I was grumpy, our grumpiness had contrived to make Charles grumpy – shall we just say we were none of us at our best?  At any rate, we were in east Texas, about two hours east of the DFW metroplex, and we still had about six hours of travel to get to Brownwood (also known as hell).  My aunt & uncle, who live in Irving, were expecting us for supper; and several delays, the nature of which I have long since forgotten, had us running late.  My aunt & uncle are patient folks, and genially agreed to wait supper on us in spite of my insistence that they eat & just save us the leftovers.

We didn’t have time to stop.  We didn’t really NEED to stop.  Everyone had used the bathroom at our last stop, and we weren’t ready for gas.  (We ONLY use the bathroom when we stop for gas – the kids learned that lesson very quickly.)  But for some unknown reason Charles took an exit and pulled into a truck stop.

“What are you DOING?” I demanded as the kids began to whine.  (This doesn’t paint the kids in a very positive light – I promise they’re really not brats.)

“I’m getting GAS!” Charles retorted in exactly the same tones as I’d used.

“Well fine,” I snapped as he rolled to a stop at a pump.  “Get out,” I snarled in the general direction of the kids.  “We’re going to use the bloody bathroom here!”

“I don’t have to pee,” Bridget, the youngest, whimpered.

“I could give a damn,” I growled.  “You will go to the bathroom, you will sit on a toilet, and you will PEE!”

I got out of the van and slammed the door.  The kids dragged themselves out as well and just sort of meandered in aimless little circles around each other, making no moves toward the gas station door.  I was already simmering but was ready to come to a boil.

(Right here I need to let everyone know that I’m not going to lie in my own blog – I could, but I’m not going to.  Long car trips bring out the worst in all of us, and my parenting style tends to be a little in-your-face when things get stressed.  One time when Bridget was four I threatened to stop the car and leave her on the side of the interstate in Memphis.  Hey, sometimes the shock value of a threat can work wonders – especially if the kid believes you’ll follow through.)

Then Charles said the words that would change our lives forever:

“Hey, look at that puppy!”

I groaned.  It looked like a German Shepherd type mix, and might have been a tawny color under the gray dirt and muck.  It was really hard to tell much about it – it was across the busy access road at another truck stop, and was rushing up to cars and following the various people to and from the service station.  I could see right away though that this was no young puppy, in spite of Charles’ words.  Young, yes – puppy, not quite.

For some reason it decided to cross the busy access road.  “Go inside,” I told the kids.  “That dog’s going to get hit and we don’t want to see it.”

Only the dog wasn’t hit, and when we came back out (yes, Bridget used the bathroom) Charles was squatting on the sidewalk petting it.  Him, I should say, as was fairly obvious close to.  He was filthy, and when I put my hands on him I could feel his ribs, and all the ticks that were feasting away all over his body.  He reeked.

“Be careful,” I warned the kids.  “We know nothing about him.”

But they had to touch him as well, and he was so lonely and pitiful, and craving human affection – he almost melted right there at our feet.

“We should go,” I finally said.  “Mark and Amy are holding supper for us.”

The kids trailed back to the van, casting numerous concerned looks over their shoulders as they went.  I gave the dog one last pat and joined them.  Charles was the last back to the van, and as he slid behind the wheel he looked at me and said words that Charles Camp had never before uttered – words that almost made me ask when the body-snatchers had arrived.

“We can’t leave that dog.”

My husband, who can take a dog or leave it.  My husband, who still doesn’t believe dogs belong in the house.  My husband, who never had a dog as a kid, whose mother disliked dogs to the point of disgust –  My HUSBAND said this.

And in some really weird, twisted shifting of roles, I heard myself respond, “We can’t exactly bring him with us – we’re over a thousand miles from home, what will we DO with him?  Good grief, we need another dog like we need a hole in the head!  We’ve already got Rosie and Peaches, are you insane??”

Charles put the van in gear and rolled slowly away from the pump.  The dog chased after us.  Charles put the van in park and said, “Go get that dog.  We’re not leaving him.  He’ll follow us onto the ramp and get killed, and even if he doesn’t he’s going to get run over up here.  Didn’t you see how he was running back & forth across that road?”

So I got out, and the dog came to me – Charles was right, I could tell – he was more pup than dog.  I coaxed him to the van; he got scared at the last minute and ran a few feet away, then stopped and stared longingly at us.  I walked to him – he ran to a truck driver who was walking back to his rig.  The rig was cold, so I knew the trucker had been there awhile & knew he’d know if anyone did –

“Hey mister,” I called.  “Do you know whose dog this is?”

“Lady,” the trucker responded, “that dog’s been here all day and the fact he hasn’t been killed is a miracle.  You want that dog, you take him.  Ain’t nobody else showed any interest in him, and from the looks of him he’s homeless.”

So I picked the dog up and carried him to the van, where I manhandled him into the back with the kids.  I’ll admit, I had a very, very bad feeling – he was young, yes, but he was already big enough to do damage; he was scared witless; and I didn’t know what else to do with him – Should I put my kids in danger?  Or leave the dog to a certain death?  I touched the scar on my lip, then shook my head.  This, I told myself very firmly, was the RIGHT thing to do.  There was no other choice.

The poor guy bolted as soon as I shut the van door – but not like you’d think.  No, he leaped over the luggage to the back, where Damon & Bridget were sitting, and buried his head in Damon’s lap.  I took a sharp, painful breath.  That was a dog who had once had a boy, and lost him, and was ready to give himself to another boy just like that – no questions, no hesitation.  That was a dog who’d been looking for a boy – and found one.

We debated several names between that lonesome offramp and Irving.  Charles suggested Max, and we all agreed it was a fine name.

By that point we’d lost so much time that it was nearly ten thirty at night – CST – by the time we reached Irving.  I called my uncle before we arrived to let him know we’d have one more mouth to feed.  Mark, who has been known to pick up strays himself on occassion, didn’t bat an eye at my news and was ready for us when we got there – not just with supper for us & a meal for our newfound friend, but with beds for everyone.  We very gratefully spent that night with him.

We got to Brownwood early the next morning, which was a Sunday.  Our first stop was Wal-Mart, where I bought Puppy Chow, a collar, a leash, a dish for food & another for water, and flea and tick shampoo.  I don’t generally buy my dog stuff at Wal-Mart, but Brownwood’s not the sort of hole – I mean, town – that has a PetSmart or PetCo, so you work with what you’ve got, and what I had was Wal-Mart.  Next we went to the motel, which thankfully allows pets even today.

Max got his first bath in that motel room.  Indeed, under the filth he was a lovely tawny color, with black ears and a black mask on his face.  I thought he looked more Akita than GSD – but whatever he was it was mixed with something else.  Just as soon as Monday morning rolled around I took Max to a local vet for all of his shots and a quick exam – the vet estimated he was around nine months old, give or take.  Max spent the entire week in the room with us – we did tie him over at Charles’ dad’s house the few times we needed to make other arrangements for him.

By the time my mom flew into Abilene to drive home with the kids & me (Charles was staying an extra couple of weeks – that’s the trip when he bought his little Geo), Max was our dog.  He rode the entire trip home in the back of the van with the kids, and never gave us one bit of trouble.  That’s not to say he didn’t say bad words – he said quite a few very nasty things that first week, but it wasn’t out of aggression, it was out of fear.  It’s generally easy to tell the difference.  Once he realized we weren’t going to hurt him he calmed right down.

There was one small issue between Max and Rosie when they met – Rosie was an alpha, and Max, young fellow that he was, wanted to be.  I quickly settled the issue and Max had no trouble after that bowing to Rosie’s authority – in fact he grew to worship the ground she walked on.  You didn’t find Max without Rosie, or vice versa.  They were a team.

(Poor Peaches was left out – Rosie never did care much for Peaches, but she eventually grew on Max until they’re as tight now as he & Rosie were then.)

Max was our first rescue.  I’ve never been sorry for letting Charles bully me into bringing him home.  I still don’t know why we stopped at that truck stop, but I’m glad we did.  And I’m glad we found Max.   Sometimes you have to take a risk.  Max was definitely worth it.

Confessions of a (Canine) Foster Parent

Confessions of a (Canine) Foster Parent

I have been told there is a special place in heaven for people like me. I hope so, because God knows I do my best, as pitiful as my best is sometimes. And I’ll be in good company, because I’ve learned I’m not alone in this world. There is a whole underground movement of people just like me – I privately refer to us as “the suckers club,” but society calls us foster parents.

No, I don’t do children – I want to get that straight right up front. It’s not that I don’t like children, but I barely have the patience for my own semi-normal offspring. I wouldn’t begin to know what to do with damaged human young. As it so happens, I’m somewhat damaged myself, but rather than giving me compassion for other bipeds, it’s made me impatient, short-tempered, and all around mistrustful of people in general and children in particular. So no, I don’t, can’t, and won’t do children.

I’m a dog person. I’ve been a dog person for as long as I can remember. I’m not going to go into all the dogs I’ve known & loved – not here, not today, maybe not ever. There’s a lot of pain involved in going back and that’s not the story I’m telling today. Suffice it to say there were always dogs, from the time I was born forward, and even when I didn’t have a human friend to speak of, I had dogs.

I said I’m not going down that road today, but there is one stop I need to make before I do get where I’m going, and it’s a painful one, but it’s necessary. Let’s briefly touch down in the late summer of 1991. My mother had met a man that summer, and that man was a surveyor who worked for a multi-national construction company and travelled a great deal with his job. My mother had been looking for love and when she found this man she was willing to do what she had to do to stay with him – including and not limited to uprooting her teenage daughters and family pets and moving us all to a back-woods community the likes of which I’d never experienced in my life. He became my stepfather, and my children’s grandfather, and while he had his faults – some of them extreme – he was all in all a good man at heart, and like the rest of us, he did his limited best. Along for the ride on this first move were his brother, his brother’s emotionally unstable wife, and his brother’s equally unstable dogs. The dog that could have changed my story for the worse – but didn’t – was an Akita.

I don’t know how much you know about Akitas, but they are a breed that needs special handling, and my step-uncle and his lunatic wife were NOT the sorts of people who needed this sort of dog. They also had a sheltie, which is fine. Shelties are not Akitas. I don’t blame the dog for what happened. I blame a stupid fourteen year old girl (that would be me), and a dysfunctional married couple (step-uncle & deranged wife), and a move that was traumatic on all involved – including the dogs.

I had three lab mixes & a small terrier mix in those days, and the first thing the Akita did, after a long, trying, two-day car trip, was to attack my labs. The men broke up the fight, no one was hurt, and the Akita was tied out back. I know now he should have been put in one of the quiet upstairs bedrooms & left alone to calm down. None of us had the sense to know that then. He weathered a thunderstorm while tied to the clothesline, and after the storm I, being the fool I was (and still am sometimes), went out back to check on him, alone, with no idea that my headlong rush out the back door could be construed as a threat.

He bit me – he got my lower lip and ripped it nearly off, then lunged again, and would have gotten my throat had I not had the instinctive response of throwing up my arm after the first bite. I was taken by car directly to the local hicksville hospital, which sent me across the street to a family practice, which sent me – again by car – to a large city hospital two hours distant. I got shots, emergency reconstructive surgery, and stitches – lots and lots and lots of stitches – and spent the next several weeks eating soup. Lots and lots and lots of soup. To this day I have trouble with soup.

The poor dog was quarantined, and eventually euthanized. I still feel bad for the dog.

About three weeks after the attack, I headed out to explore our new woods, and mountains, and creeks. My labs were delighted to see me and insisted on accompanying me – they had missed me while I was shut up in the house. These dogs were around five years old at this point, and we’d had them since they were puppies. They jumped and frolicked and I was terrified of them, to the point I finally climbed up on a large rock and wept inconsolably. They sat down around the rock, understanding something was wrong, unable to comprehend what. I looked down at them, their smiling faces, lolling tongues, wagging tails, and loving, compassionate eyes – and I swore angrily at myself for being a fool. These were MY dogs, and they would NEVER hurt me.  Children would hurt me, other dogs might hurt me, but not these. Never these. I got down from the rock and sat on the ground, and my dogs swarmed all over me, licking my face, my neck, my hands, my bare legs & feet – they loved me, they loved me! I cried some more and hugged them all and buried my face in their fur. Later I picked lots of black and yellow hairs out of my stitches, and THAT hurt like anything – but it was okay, I didn’t mind that it hurt.

And so my life did change forever, but not like it could have. Someday when I get to heaven I hope that Sandy, Mandy, Scruffy and Pepper are the first dogs I see. I plan to let them swarm over my lap and lick me all over, and I’ll probably cry all over them again – but it will be fine, they’ll understand. They saved me that day down by the creek, and they didn’t know it then, but they’ll know it when I see them in heaven.

So I didn’t mean for that story to take up so much space, but I can’t think of how to make it shorter without losing the meaning, so I’m leaving it.

I want to talk about other dogs today. I’ll start with Rosie, who was a Pyrie mix, one of those “free to good home” puppies you see at ball games and K-Mart. It was my birthday, my 26th birthday, and I wanted a dog – I felt incomplete without one, something my husband, who is not a dog person, will never understand. Rosie was at a soccer game, and so was her mama, who was an AKC registered Pyrie with championship bloodlines – mama’s dog show days ended with this litter, and she was spayed. That’s kind of too bad in a way, but Rosie’s daddy, to whom I’ve always referred as “Sneaky Male Dog,” climbed an eight foot fence to impregnate mama dog, and so I think mama dog’s family made the right decision. Rosie came with an “about me” paper, a list of suggestions for puppy care, and the owners’ phone number, in case I decided I didn’t want her after all.

They had nothing to worry about with Rosie. She was my darling girl, in spite of all of her stubborn, headstrong ways. She cost me a great deal of money – vet bills are not cheap, and neither are door frames and windows – but she was worth every penny I ever spent on her. In June 2011, just two months shy of her ninth birthday, Rosie had some sort of medical incident – maybe a stroke, maybe organ failure, we don’t know. She fell down when my mom came to let her out to potty, and when she was finally able to get up, she went to my youngest daughter’s bedroom and stayed there. Mama didn’t think anything of it – Rosie was getting old, and Mama thought she’d just been in such a hurry to get outside that she fell & wore herself out. After supper that night, when Rosie still hadn’t joined us in the family room, Mama remembered and told me that she’d fallen.

I knew, then. I went down the hall and sat down on the floor beside her. She wagged her tail and licked my hand but made no move to rise.

“Don’t do this here,” I told her. “I know as well as you do that this is it – but not in Bridget’s room. Come to the living room and I’ll stay with you, and you can go whenever you’re ready – just not in Bridget’s room. Please.”

After awhile I left her and went to the living room to brood. Mama had gone home; Vannesa was at the beach; Charles & Damon were in Texas. It was just me, Bridget, and the dogs. Along about bedtime, when Bridget had gone to brush her teeth, I heard a terrible commotion from down the hall, several crashes and bangs – before I could even stand up Rosie had rushed, staggering, into the living room. She fell down at my feet & never got up on her own again.

I made Max & Peaches, my other dogs, spend that night outside. Bridget & I made pallets in the living room floor and spent the night with Rosie. None of us got much sleep. Rosie wasn’t in any pain, but she was scared. I could tell. I stroked her old faded cheeks and fondled her downy-soft ears and spoke to her softly, and she thumped her tail against the floor. Every so often she’d try to stand up and get scared all over again; I’d stroke her and talk to her until she calmed down.

Bridget & I took turns showering the next morning, so Rosie wasn’t ever alone. At seven o’clock I called Mama, and she came on over to help me get Rosie to the vet. I wasn’t worried about the trip stressing her – Rosie loved going places, and she adored our vet. When Mama got to the house, I set about picking up mine & Bridget’s bedding. That’s when I found the mouse.

Jackie Chan, my cat, had killed a mouse the night before. I saw him playing with it long before he killed it. He usually eats the head & top half of the body. We usually find the bottom half in someone’s shoe or under a chair. He had chewed the mouse in half, like he always does – but he’d brought the top half, his favorite half, and “given” it to Rosie that previous night, laid it right at her head where she could get it if she wanted it. I almost lost it then. Almost, but not quite.

I actually did really well. I carried Rosie to the car, and she was thrilled to be going for a ride. I rolled the window down so she could put her head out, and held her so she wouldn’t fall. When we got to the vet I carried her in – she said “hello” to all of her friends there. I didn’t cry until after she was gone. Then I buried my face in her neck and bawled like a baby. I told her she was and would always be my friend. Corny, maybe, but I meant it with all my heart.

She’s buried behind Mama’s barn, with many, many other good dogs & cats, and one horse.

We all fell into a funk after that, and couldn’t come out of it. Even Max & Peaches were sad. Don’t tell me dogs don’t grieve, because they do. Jackie Chan gave me more dead mice. Cats grieve too, just in a different way. I said I’d get another dog someday – but not yet. I said I’d rescue one from the shelter – when I was ready, but not yet.

Sometimes you find a dog who needs you before you’re ready to admit you need her too.

In July 2011 a person I only knew through Facebook sent me a message and asked if I knew anyone who could help. This lovely young lady has very young children, and was uncomfortable bringing an adult dog into her home – but there was a young black bitch with a litter of newborn puppies at the shelter, and the shelter staff had called her for help, because if no one saved this dog & these puppies they’d be euthanized. Ours is a poor rural county and our shelter has neither the space nor the funding to raise a litter of puppies to adoption age.

Now, I’d been seeing Rosie around our place – and I’d felt her there too. I’d see her in the evenings waiting for me at the mailbox when I came home from work. I’d speed up a little but she was always gone by the time I got there. She’d be waiting for me on the other side of the front door when I was unlocking it – but I’d tear the door down to get it open and she’d already have gone. She’d come stand beside me sometimes when I was cooking supper – but she slipped away between seconds. I was always too late.

So call me crazy – the ghost of my dead dog was hanging around and taking care of me, like she’d always done in life. It’s February 2012 now and she’s STILL sitting at the mailbox some evenings when I drive down the road. You don’t have to believe it – this story doesn’t depend on whether or not you believe it. All that matters is that I know when she’s around.

That night Rosie’s ghost came and put her head on my shoulder and whuffed at my hair, and told me, “I want you to do this.”

I didn’t sleep a lick that night, thinking about that dog and those puppies.

The next day I put in a request to leave work an hour early. Before it was even approved I called the shelter and told Sara that I would be there as quickly as I could to get that dog and her puppies, and would she wait for me if I was a little late?

She and Phil waited for me. Don’t tell me that animal control is staffed by a heartless bunch. I know better. I was five minutes late – my mom was there right at five, but I was late – and they waited on me. Sara was so relieved she cried. Don’t tell me they don’t care.

Maggie and her puppies lived in the house for the first four weeks, and then moved outside, where they absolutely flourished. I had to have one of the pups euthanized because of severe birth defects – he was messed up inside, but it wasn’t obvious until he was four weeks old. His name was Baggypants. I cried over that puppy just like I cried over Rosie. I buried him beside her. Of the remaining seven pups – five have been adopted, two seven month old males are left, and Maggie is mine. Rosie would approve. Rosie would say that Maggie is pack, and she’d be right.

Maggie and her pups caught the attention of the Stokes County Humane Society, who contacted me and offered to help me out if I would volunteer for them. I agreed and never looked back.

In November 2011, when I still had five of Maggie’s pups, that same Facebook friend contacted me about another dog with puppies – this one had nine four-week-old puppies, and her owners had surrendered her, just gave her up, along with the pups. I went to the shelter first thing the next morning to see them. I’d been lucky with Maggie – would I be lucky again?

Her name was Baby, and she’d been someone’s pampered princess. She was beautiful, if quite a bit overweight, and her puppies looked like a tribe of Ewoks. I told Sara not to do anything with them – I wanted to go home first and set up Rosie’s trusty old crate that had housed Maggie and her pups and now would house Baby and hers. Over the course of the next few weeks I learned a few things:

  1.  Baby is too good a dog to have been dumped at the shelter, puppies or no puppies.
  2.  I got lucky with Maggie, who was a good mama and took good care of her babies.
  3.  Sometimes litters of puppies are demon-possessed and exist only to make humans miserable.
  4.  Even in those cases they don’t deserve to be dumped at the shelter.
  5.  I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, insane and ought to be institutionalized.

Baby’s rear knees slide in & out of socket, and she’s going to have to have surgery soon. That’s the reason she wasn’t taking good care of her puppies. They hadn’t been neglected – they were as fat as she was – but once I figured out that they were hurting her I bought formula and taught them to lap it out of a dish. I also started making puppy soup for them using formula or goat’s milk, chicken broth, and soaking dry kibble until it was soft & mushy. I knew it was early but I started only making Baby nurse them three times a day – the rest of the time they got formula or puppy soup. Once they were seven weeks old we moved them to another foster home, and shortly thereafter Stokes County Humane Society arranged for them to be transported to North Shore Animal League – a long trip, from Danbury, NC to Port Washington, NY, but we knew NSAL would take care of them & make sure they went to good homes.

As for Baby – she’s spoiled rotten, self-centered, dog aggressive, and tends to pout if she’s NOT the center of attention. But she’s also a wonderful, people-oriented, loving dog who deserves to live a pain-free life as an only dog with someone who will care for her. Baby has broken my heart in ways Maggie didn’t – Maggie was a stray, a street dog, used to fending for herself. Baby was someone’s pampered princess, a loved family member, and for whatever reason she was abandoned. Maggie took awhile to trust us. Baby trusted us right off. Maggie’s been hurt by people. Baby has never been hurt by anyone – not physically, anyway. Sometimes I think she’s thinking about her family – she gets sad, and quiet, and will go lay down in her crate with her back to the door.

I had intended to write this blog about Baby, but this is bigger than Baby. It’s bigger than Maggie. I thought it started with Rosie – but when I started writing I realized that it’s older than Rosie, too. In some ways it starts with Dakota, the Akita who bit me – in others it goes back and touches every single one of those dogs I’ve known and loved. In some ways it’s about all the friends I didn’t have, and the dogs who took their place. And then again, in some ways it really does start with Rosie – because if not for losing Rosie when I did, I’d never have met Maggie, and if not for Maggie I’d never have taken the plunge for Baby.

This is about us. It’s about the suckers in the world who understand with our heads that we can’t save them all – but who know in our hearts we’re not going to stop trying. It’s about what we do and why we do it. And it’s about all the dogs we’ve known and loved, and the dogs who have hurt us and changed us in ways we never would have imagined.