Nothing could have prepared me for that first sighting. Joan had warned me what to expect, but never having seen what was described, could my imagination conceive of such a sight. I was told he had been abused, malnourished, and was severely underweight. But translating that into a real live flesh-and-blood creature was something I had no experience in doing.
Have you ever seen a child's favorite stuffed animal that has been loved on for years? Often it is threadbare, has lost stuffing, so is "baggy," and has lost the sheen to its fur and the gleam to its eye.
And so it was with Dodger - only none of it had anything to do with love. I had gone to pick him up from the veterinarian's office, where he had been for several days getting routine vaccinations, being neutered, and starting heartworm treatment. The tech carried him out to me gently, cradling bones that jutted out through skin that was covered with far too little fur, and no coat to speak of. His tail looked moth-eaten; what fur there was had the texture of straw. There were marks on his muzzle which the vet suspected were cigarette burns, and he was missing the tip of one ear where it appeared he had a run-in with some other kind of animal. Oh, but his eyes! Someone once called the eyes the mirror of the soul. Dodger's soft eyes gazed at me steadily, straight into my eyes, without the wariness and looking away so common in a frightened dog in an unfamiliar situation. If his eyes indeed mirrored his soul, they bespoke a gentle and kind heart, unswerving devotion, and a willingness to trust that had nothing to do with his experiences with humans to date. Noni, the tech, held him as we talked about his needs and his care. I tried to give him a treat, but he had no interest. Noni told me, "He doesn't eat treats." Apparently, he'd never been given any.
Dodger had been an owner relinquishment. The woman of the house had called in tears, knowing that if he stayed there much longer, he would die. The "man" of the house had finally "allowed" her to find him a new home, and she had been put in contact with Houston Sheltie Sanctuary. Dodger was three years old, a pet store purchase, and the trip home had been his last car ride. He had never been to the vet, rarely been in the house, and was relegated to the bare-ground-with-patches-of-grass back yard, where no food, water, or shelter was seen when Joan picked him up. His demeanor spoke of having been hit, kicked, and otherwise abused.
Noni handed him to me with tears in her eyes. In the three days he had been there, she had already been taken with his tremendous willingness to trust others, and his attempts to do whatever was expected of him. I was soon to learn what it was that caused such instant devotion.
We walked to the car, letting Dodger take a potty break on the way. His sparse tail remained firmly tucked between his legs. He was clearly terrified of what was happening, but allowed himself to be led, trying desperately to figure out what we wanted so that he could comply.
He sat on my daughter's lap for the ride home. He alternately lay down and sat up to look out of the window. It was his interest in the world outside, together with stories from Joan, who had fostered him for a few days in order to get his strength back before his medical treatment began, and who told me of a frightened little dog who showed endearing little signs of spunk, that led me to hope that we weren't too late to save his spirit.
A large part of the reason our family was asked to foster Dodger was because our office is in the house, and someone would be home with him almost 24/7 for the duration of his heartworm treatment. So when we arrived home, we immediately went to what would be his den for the next thirty days - a crate, with its door open, in the office. While the crate was nice, in Dodger's estimation, he quickly took up residence in his preferred spot - the area under my desk at my feet. There he lay quietly, licking my feet.
From the earliest days, Dodger responded to rescue. He wanted desperately to figure out what it was his foster family was asking of him, and tried just as desperately to do it. It was in his movements, as he would dance at our feet, with a not-quite-wary, but also not-quite-secure look in his eyes. If we tried for more than about 5 seconds to get him to understand (trying to stay still for pictures comes to mind), he would fall to the floor and crawl to us, eyes pleading with us (I suppose) not to hit him. It was clear that he had been hit repeatedly for his "transgressions." We put any training other than housetraining on hold until that sad submissiveness was replaced by some confidence.
Feeding Dodger was the first huge hurdle. Having had no experience, I expected a malnourished dog to be starving, and to wolf down anything in sight. To the contrary, I couldn't get Dodger to eat. While he seemed interested in "people food," I wanted him to get on a healthy canine diet as quickly as possible. He'd need those nutritional reserves as his body went through HW treatment. But dry food was out of the question - he'd have nothing to do with it. Consultation with sheltie listers and the vet led to the decision to feed him the smelliest moist dog food we could find (we settled on Mighty Dog), mixed with an increasing amount of dry dog food as he would eat it.
We offered food four times a day. In those early days, he would eat less than a can of Mighty Dog and less than 1/3 cup of kibbles each day. It was hard to tell, as that was about what we would put down over the course of the day, but there was always something left. Gradually, though, he began to eat. The day he finished his food, and looked up expectantly for more, there were cheers throughout the house!
A world in which people loved him was clearly new. I'll never forget the first time I pulled him into my lap as we sat on the couch, about two weeks after he came to stay with us. He was all stiff legs and resistance, until he realized that the reward for vulnerability in our house was comfort and love. He relaxed and tucked his pointy little nose up in my armpit (feet and armpits - a strange dog!), and when he fell asleep in my arms less than five minutes later, quiet tears ran down my face.
As Dodger continued to progress, we all began to grow more confident. Toward the end of the thirty days of HW treatment, as he showed increasing strength and vigor, we ventured beyond the yard on walks. He took ownership of our home, barking at "intruders," and showed increasing signs of confidence and security. He wanted so much to play with our resident dogs, a Golden and another Sheltie, but we continued to postpone that until he was finished with treatment. He'd already made fast friends with the cat, tussling quietly and then curling up to sleep - both of them now laying under my desk.
Four weeks after picking him up, we went together to Houston Sheltie Sanctuary's annual picnic. It was Dodger's "debut" - his picture had not been posted up until then because of his condition. But he had put on about three pounds and his ribs were no longer visible, his fur was getting softer, and he was beginning to get a little coat. No one would describe him as eager or bouncy, but he was curious, and after some initial reticence, greeted people and furfriends calmly and with only a little hesitation.
The following Monday, we went for his final HW treatment, to kill the microfilarae. Dodger seemed to tolerate the procedure well, and I picked him up a little after 4:00 pm and took him home. It was exciting, as he was now "finished," and only needed a check a week later to declare him all clear. In the vet's office, he even pranced in response to admiration from another client, and we were all happy about this baby's outcome.
An hour later, Dodger began to act funny. He sat and looked at me, confused and disoriented, and his head "wove" back and forth, almost as if it was hard to hold it up. I started making calls to Joan, Linda, and the vet - what was going on? No, said the vet, it shouldn't be related to the treatment, but if I was concerned, I could bring him out there.
By this time, Dodger was lying on the floor, breathing hard and fast. I wasn't waiting to drive him twenty minutes to the HSS vet; he was going to my vet, five minutes away.
God bless him, Dr. White kept the door of his clinic open for us even as he should have been closing for the evening. "His lips and gums aren't blue, and his breathing doesn't show signs of immediate distress. If I had to guess, I'd say this was a reaction to the HW medication." "And?" "And, he should be just fine." "Should. What is the part you're not saying?" "I've only seen it happen once in 28 years of practice this late in treatment, but he might have thrown a clot. We'll give him some corticosteroids just in case. Do you want to leave him here overnight?" Leave him there? Why? So if something happens, I won't be around to see it? But then, no one would be around. That's not what I signed on for. Did I mention I had fallen in love with this baby when he gave me those first kisses under the desk? We went home, gave Dodger some baby aspirin, and settled in for a long night.
Joan called to talk me through it. She filled in the gaps Dr. White was reluctant to. For the lack of a $5 pill once a month, the treatment Dodger was undergoing made it very possible that he had thrown a clot that could kill him. It had happened to her beloved Ryan only a year before. But we had done what we could, giving him the steroids to break it up and aspirin to thin his blood. Now only time would tell.
We spent the night together, Dodger on his pallet, me on the couch with my arm dangling down next to him. Whatever happened, I wanted him to know he wasn't alone. We both slept fitfully, and the awful heaving went on most of the night. About four in the morning, it seemed to have eased - had he turned the corner? Then, around six, he sat up, a little weak, very unsure ("what happened, Mom?"), but breathing normally. Whatever it was, it seemed to be over. For about the twentieth time in the last month, I cried for Dodger - for where he had come from, for what he had been through. For the hundredth time, I whispered to him, "Never again. Never, never again."
From early on in the process, my greatest feeling in the face of Dodger's courage, his trust, and his willingness was humility. When updating the rescue group's e-list, I spoke of being in awe of his heart. And that tremendous heart had pulled him through. A lesser creature would have been shattered by half of what he had been through. And this one? He lay at my feet, once again, kissing them.
Dodger's in his forever home now. He stayed with us another month, healing some of the scars. They're still there, though fading fast. I trust his forever family to keep the promises that I made to him, and I trust his heart to flourish in his new home, allowing him to become the remarkable Sheltie he was made to be.
Dodger's Story by His Foster Mom, Connie