We found the Scott County Animal Shelter down the same driveway as the county dump. It was Labor Day and the last stop on our two-week tour of southern shelters. We planned to pick up six dogs and transport them on their ‘freedom ride’ north to foster homes. From there they would find ‘forever families.’
While driving through Tennessee the day before, I learned someone had just surrendered a pregnant dog to the Scott County shelter. I knew the rescue wouldn’t allow me to ‘pull her’ (rescue speak for taking an animal out of the shelter to foster) unless she had a rabies vaccine and a health certificate—the two things she’d need to cross a state line into Pennsylvania.
I rolled around all night trying to imagine a scenario in which I’d miraculously find a vet open on Labor Day in the mountains of Virginia. And then I envisioned just adopting the dog outright—for myself. Who would stop me?
That morning over breakfast, I’d told my husband Nick, “I’m taking that dog.”
He’d nodded and said, “I figured.”
At the shelter, we unloaded the donated food and supplies we’d brought. The county shelter did not do adoptions and did not pay an employee to come in on the weekends or holidays, so the Scott County Humane Society volunteers spent countless hours cleaning the kennels, feeding and walking dogs, taking pictures, and getting to know the dogs so they could find a northern rescue to save them.
The shelter was basically a large pole building with a cement floor. A drain ran down the center and two sets of kennels faced each other. The noise was deafening when the dogs got going and you had to lean close together to be heard.
I asked about the pregnant dog. She was small—only twenty-seven pounds, fully loaded with puppies. Speckled like a coonhound, she huddled against the corner of her kennel, cringing from the noise, her eyes closed. I went into her narrow kennel and ran my hand over her, talking softly. She didn’t move or acknowledge me. Her belly bulged.
There was no way I was leaving that dog to deliver puppies on a concrete floor amid the unbearable noise. “I’m taking her,” I said and then went outside away from the noise to figure out how. I called the rescue’s puppy coordinator, Barb, and she said, “Gimme a few minutes to figure this out.”
I didn’t know what Barb would figure out, but I was absolutely not leaving without that dog. For the past two weeks, I’d seen heartbreak after heartbreak and been unable to do anything except hand out a few donations and write about it. It was in my power to do something here. It was a chance to actually rescue, and I was sure as heck gonna rescue.
While I waited on Barb’s call, I toured the rest of the shelter and talked to the volunteers who worked hard to save every dog, and they nearly did. They were serious heroes.
Barb called back and told me there was a twenty-four-hour clinic in Purcellville, Virginia, about six hours away.
We loaded everybody up and said a hasty goodbye. I looked behind us at the sea of crates with our luggage tucked around it. My heart swelled. It wasn’t much, but like the heroes I had come to know on this trip, I was proud of the few we could save. As I watched the rolling hills pass by our window, I heard the words, “Take care of the ones put on your path,” like a commandment from somewhere deep inside me.
One dog on the van, Flannery O’Connor, was going home with us to foster. Whenever she heard us talking, she would start barking. If we stayed quiet, she stayed quiet. “Figures,” I told Nick, “the only noisy one in the van is going home with us.” And then we spent the rest of the trip trying to communicate with hand signals. There wasn’t much to say, though. We were tired. My heart was spun dry.
At the vet’s office, we discovered that something was wrong with Dixie’s leg. (I’d named the dog Dixieland.) Dixie had been so terrified at the shelter, she’d refused to move or even stand, so I’d carried her to the van and hadn’t noticed the problem. The vet thought the bent leg was probably an old fracture that was never treated. Dixie moved on the shortened leg surprisingly well.
X-rays verified that it was an old break; it also showed puppies. “A whole mess of them,” said the vet. Due in maybe a week or two.
At home, we installed Dixie in our puppy room and for several days she slept. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a dog so exhausted. When I checked on her, Dixie would thump her tail at the sound of my voice, but not move. She was gentle and sweet and so, so, quiet. She got up to eat when I fed her, but then lay right back down.
“It’s okay, sweet girl,” I told her. Watching her cringe at every sound and sudden movement, I ran my hand over her tiny head and assured her. “I promise, only love from here on out.”
Her labor began at 11 am on a Friday. Actually, it began (in my mind) the night before, at 1 am, when she got up and made a nest of the towels and blankets lining the box.
I saw the activity on our puppy cam and grabbed a book, pulled on some sweats, and joined her in the puppy room. She wagged her tail at the sight of me and hopped out of the box. We toured the yard in the dark and I reassured her (which was mostly reassuring me, since Dixie had definitely done this before).
I slept on the bench outside the puppy room, jumping up each time she got up for a drink or to rearrange the bedding. By morning there were no puppies, just one exhausted me.
Dixie gave me mixed messages—eating her breakfast while her temperature sunk even lower. (A pregnant dog’s temperature will dip drastically just before labor begins.) Around eleven, Dixie began whining. She wanted me near. Our two weeks together had secured our bond. She nudged my hand and lay down beside me when I climbed in the box.
The puppies arrived healthy and vigorous. Eight puppies. Eight beautiful, healthy puppies. The puppies were fine and Dixie was too. I told her all this as I fed her chicken and scratched her ears.
This sweet little dog, who flinched when you touched her by surprise and cowered at loud noises, who looked away in embarrassment when I cleaned up an unavoidable potty accident, who muttered softly in what seemed like gratitude when I rubbed behind her ears and leaned into me when I ran a gentle hand over her side, who gave birth to eight gorgeous puppies, whose leg was broken and fused back together, but whose heart was healing—this lovely dog. She deserved to have the best life.
And that’s exactly what happened. Dixie raised eight beautiful puppies and they were adopted by eight over-the-moon excited families. Then she spent another month with us recovering before she was spayed and then adopted too. And now, Dixie spends her days surrounded by music as she supervises the piano lessons her adopted mom teaches in their home. She is spoiled and loved and living the life every dog deserves.
Adapted From The Book: One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and A Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (July 2020, Pegasus Books)
Cara Achterberg is also the author of Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs, and the co-founder of Who Will Let the Dogs Out, an initiative of Operation Paws for Homes that seeks to raise awareness and resources for shelter dogs.