I was somewhere between Omaha, Nebraska, and Rapid City, South Dakota, when I checked the rearview mirror for possibly the fiftieth time since beginning this road trip to see how Theo was doing in the backseat. He was stretched out and snoozing, head resting on a stuffed horn I had tossed him after our last rest stop. We were about halfway through a nearly 3,000 mile cross-country trek to meet up with his adopter, Ben. Looking at Theo’s peaceful face, I felt the tears well up (again) and let out a heavy sigh.
This was a really special trip, and I was excited for what the future held for this wonderful boy I had fostered for nearly two long years; but didn’t stop the tears from flowing every now and again. This frankly wasn’t a trip I would make for just any adopter. In fact, the rescue very rarely made placements outside of Western, NY. But Ben had only moved to Seattle, WA, three months earlier and had established a special bond with Theo while volunteering for Pitty Love Rescue in Rochester, NY, long before he moved for a great job opportunity. It wasn’t simply that Ben was sensitive to Theo’s soft nature, or that he could afford the medical costs he was sure to incur as the dog matured for his hind leg pain; it was that Ben and Theo simply adored one another and deserved to be together.
There is a lot of time to think when you are alone and driving through endless miles of rolling hills, and I found myself reflecting on Theo’s journey from the start: how many people played a role in his life and how few dogs with his beginnings were afforded the opportunities he’s had. He was just two days old the first time I held him, his entire body fitting in the palm of my hand. We had been called to the address on Miller Street in the city by our friend, Matt Piccone, to help with a difficult situation. Matt is the founder of PAWS of Rochester, a non-profit outreach organization focused on assisting under-served communities with their pets. He has since moved on to work for Emancipet in Texas: a spectacular loss for our own community, but a tremendous gain for them. Matt’s communication style and mission differed from the rest of our local animal welfare community. For him, it was about building trusting relationships with people, sharing information and resources in a non-judgmental way, and offering assistance to people to help them care for their pets. More on Matt one day soon.
We were already quite familiar with the Miller Street address, as there had been plenty of angry posts on social media reflecting countless unanswered calls to the local cruelty department. The louder the shaming from the armchair crowd, the worse the situation seemed to get. It wasn’t until PAWS stepped in that any progress was made, as was typically the case in these situations. In the yard of a home ruined by fire were two chained dogs. They were the last in a long line of “resident dogs” that produced litter after litter while never being let off those chains – not in the brutal winter months, nor in the scorching summer (the latter of which we were in the midst of, with temps reaching 104 degrees with intense humidity). These were extremely fearful, unsocialized animals, and Matt had only recently begun to develop a relationship with the property owner. The owner had agreed to let Matt spay and neuter his dogs and would be receiving other free services, like food, vaccinations, and dog houses to protect them from the elements. The female was about to again give birth, so PAWS immediately issued the doghouse. On this particular day, the owner had reached out to Matt and told him mom had given birth; she was killing the puppies and placing them outside of the doghouse. The owner wanted the remaining puppies removed, and we were there to take them.
The litter went to then volunteer, Jen Goss. Goss wasn’t a stranger to bottle babies; and although her modeling schedule was demanding, she made good use of her time. The Miller puppies went everywhere with her in a laundry basket, even getting in on some of her photo shoots. I continued to provide the homemade formula and enjoyed seeing them plump up. As they moved into their second month, heavy socialization ensued. Goss had lots of dog/dog opportunities for them, and volunteers were only too happy to step up to interact with them. When it came time for them to move on, Theo went to a foster-to-adopt home and spent roughly three months there. He came to me at around nine months of age when he began finding their cat a bit too interesting.
To say that Theo was an easy foster is an understatement. He was a dream for housetraining, loved other dogs, and immediately befriended each new person he met. That isn’t to say he didn’t have his share of problems, not the least of which was his tendency to startle. While the recovery was always fast, Theo spooked to louder sounds or sudden movements. If you merely walked past him too quickly, he would yelp and cower. A squirrel running along the top of the fence line would cause him to hit the ground and freeze back then. He wasn’t the only offspring from that pairing with this problem, and it wasn’t really much of a surprise. Fear is fantastically easy to come by in dogs. In fact, there are three ways in which puppies can acquire fear long before they’ve even been exposed to the world around them: genetics, maternal stress during pregnancy, and maternal behavior; all three avenues being really good reason to never breed a fearful dog. Of course there are other ways, including bad experiences; but the Millers were luckier than many backyard bred dogs, as they’d been removed from that situation early. In spite of the best efforts to prepare them for the world, however, those early conditions inevitably set the stage for the fear and anxiety most of the Millers would develop as they reached maturity.
A few of these dogs also suffered the aforementioned physical discomfort that, despite extensive medical workup by multiple veterinary professionals, yielded no definitive diagnosis. This was also the presumed result of poor breeding. Theo’s intermittent pain was well managed with medication as needed, and a careful approach to physical exercise.
Given their genetic profile, I often wondered about their fate had early intervention not occurred, provided they survived at all. I imagine they would be like so many of the dogs we get as juveniles and adults who spend those critical developmental stages in less than desirable environments with little exposure to anything. The Millers were lucky. They had been given a best-case scenario, and they were thriving. These pups were all well socialized and carefully nurtured from their first foster mom on, receiving humane behavior support, loads of enrichment, quality medical care, and ongoing social opportunities with people and dogs; all of them enjoying a very good quality of life as a result.
Already a juvenile when I began fostering Theo, the adoption applications were few. While searching for a permanent home, he became a favorite of the volunteers of the rescue. Lots of people participated in his life by bringing him to adoption events and foster training each week and looking after him whenever I needed to go out of town. Many adored him, but none more so than Ben. Ben knew quite early that he wanted to adopt Theo. He had been kind enough to foster a dog in need and allow Theo to stay with me, where he was the only dog my other foster, Quinn, liked. Quinn loved Theo. He still had enough puppy license for her to afford great tolerance in his youthful play style when they first met, and they would go on to spend almost two years in a close relationship. Some of my tears on this road trip have been for her and for the loss they would both suffer of one another. Their bond was significant. But holding out for an unlikely home to take both was impractical, and this new home was just so right for him.
Theo made this road trip pretty darned easy. He warmly greeted people in each of our hotels with a happy face and wagging tail. When my friend, Rachel, flew in to meet us for the last few days of the journey, he greeted her with a dozen welcoming kisses and happy grunts, pleased there was another person to share in our travels. He even got us out of a speeding ticket just by being himself, as the officer fell in love with his gentle nature. I spent the last night of our time together in Bozeman, Montana, snuggled up with Theo in the bed of our cozy lodge. I fell asleep with a heart that was both heavy and happy. Theo was finally getting a home of his own. This had been a long journey for him, and I don’t just mean the road trip. Ben would arrive the following morning, and Theo’s reaction to seeing him in the middle of the Rocky Mountains would be the greatest moment of the entire trip. It was with sheer joy that they celebrated their reunion, and together they would go on to Seattle to join with Ben’s girlfriend, Laura, and their two dogs. Theo has his family.
I was lucky to have Theo in my life and have loved him from the first moment I held him as a newborn in that miserably hot city lot. While I’ve fostered many dogs over the years, fostering Theo has been a gift that I wouldn’t trade for the world. He is simply the sweetest, happiest dog and has touched so many lives. Something we hear far too often in the rescue and shelter world is the negative opinion that “People Suck!” It’s an all too common statement, reframed over and over again via graphics and memes and angry posts on social media. In truth, I often wonder which lends itself more to compassion fatigue: the difficulty in addressing the homeless pet population or this culture of conflict that paints such a negative landscape for us all.
For me, Theo is an example of the incredible power of humanity. How many people extended empathy and kindness to (and because of) him, starting with the property owner, who didn’t want to see the puppies die? If not for the incomparable Matt Piccone, who offered that owner help instead of hate and established a relationship of trust, what would this sweet boy’s fate have been? Goss, Ben, and everyone else affiliated with Pitty Love at that time that showered him with positive attention and provided him wonderful opportunities out in the world. Our vet and trainers, who generously provided their services. My Kevin, who tolerated an additional dog in the home for almost two years and helped me to shoulder the considerable financial burden that came with that, even though it wasn’t his cause. I’m a particularly big fan of the officer who let me go with a warning for speeding because it was such a pleasure to meet Theo, and he appreciated our mission. I cannot begin to describe the awesome adopters of the other Millers, who have a private Facebook group to share their joys and concerns with one another.
Every single person this dog has encountered in his short life has contributed something uniquely kind to his world; yet none of it could have happened if not for the thoughtful approach of Matt and his mission. I hear so many people say they are the “voice” for animals. And that’s a lovely concept. But we need to be asking ourselves how we use that voice and how we might be more productive. I’d like to ask that we stop chanting these awful mantras about how awful people are and start opening our eyes to the good in the world, especially in the world of animal welfare: That’s all Theo has ever done, and I’m certain he has the right idea.