Sometimes you find a dog. Sometimes a dog finds you. Join Erin on this ten year journey after she discovered the dog who would come to be known as “Ellie May” by happenstance on the side of the road in rural Tennessee.
One October Sunday, while driving out in the Tennessee country looking at the pretty fall leaves, I started to slow my car down in case the cat that was sitting on the side of the road ahead of me decided to run in front of it. But as I got closer, I saw that it was not a cat, but instead a skin-and-bones little puppy with pointy ears and a long tail.
I stopped my car on the side of the road to get a better look. She had no collar. Obviously not eaten in quite some time. She had hardly any fur, scabs all over her body and face, fleas and bugs crawling on her, and some shiny wound on her side that looked odd.
I got out of the car, walked up to her slowly and said, “Hi puppy, what are you doing here?” She looked up at me and slowly wagged her tail. I walked back to my car and opened the trunk to get a towel.
I turned around, patted my leg and said, “Come here little dog” and motioned for her to follow me. She trotted across the road and I wrapped her in the towel and picked her up. I put part of the towel underneath her and sat her in the front passenger seat. She whined for a second, started turning around in a circle (like dogs do when they’re making a bed) and laid down. Within only a minute or two she was asleep.
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She spent the night in my bathtub while I waited for Sunday to turn into Monday and I could take her to a shelter. My current lease said no dogs allowed and I wasn’t financially prepared to take care of her.
The shelter didn’t usually intake new dogs on Monday, but I said she was sick and possibly injured so they said over the phone they’d make an exception. When I got to the shelter they looked her over. Pretty quickly said they couldn’t take her because she was so sick. Monetarily they weren’t able to provide that amount of care and her mange could be contagious to the other dogs.
They said if I left her, there was only one other option. That option made me immediately tear up.
“But,” I said, “she still seems pretty happy considering she’s so sick.”
“She is pretty alert,” they admitted.
So I made the decision to take her to the vet and figure out the money and “no dogs in the house” lease situation later. Ugh.
When we got in to see the doctor, he determined she was about three or four months old, weighed eight pounds, had a pretty bad case of stress-related mange, an eye infection, fleas, and worms.
And that shiny wound on her side? Buckshot. In fact, she had quite a few pellets still imbedded in her.
He said he wanted to be honest and say that while she’s very sick there’s a chance she could pull through. But that I could also do all the right things and she still not make it. So once again I had a choice. And once again, I started to tear up.
“I want to try. I can’t not try.”
So he gave her a deworming shot, told me about the medicine for the mange I would have to give her, the shampoo she would need to use, and the drops for her eye infections. We optimistically scheduled a surgery for down the road for her to get spayed along with a few in between check ups.
Now…what to do about the lease situation…
“So…I found a puppy…” I told my landlord. Turns out he had three rescue dogs of his own and had no problem with me keeping her as long as I took care of the place.
So I took her home to give her her first mange-be-gone bath. Because she was so skinny and shivering so badly afterward, I wrapped her in a towel and held her like you’d hold a tiny baby. It didn’t take long before she fell asleep on my chest.
It was around that time I started to think of names for her. I wanted to call her something different or give her a full proper name like they do in dog shows. The number eleven popped into my mind and I thought, “Well, Eleven could be part of her name but she would need a nickname.” At that moment The Beverly Hillbillies came on TV and since I’d found her out in the country, the “little puppy that could” became Ellie Mae.
The next day I had to return to work so my friend let me borrow her cat crate for Ellie to stay in while I was gone. I was trying to contain the fleas to one area (if she had any) so the crate stayed in the kitchen.
For the first few days, without fail, I would let Ellie out of the crate and a buckshot pellet or two would be left inside. I’m still not sure if she was pulling them out herself or they were working their way to the surface.
It took a solid two months for her to get the “mostly clear” from the vet, even though she still had hardly any hair. There was a chance the mange could come back if she got really stressed.
But boy was this tired little dog starting to get some energy. It seemed like she was making up for lost time. So after another month or two of her healing I started to take her to what I told her was “puppy class.”
Turns out that not only was this dog a fighter, but I discovered she was pretty smart too. (I mean I’m her mom so of course I’m going to say that, but I promise I’m not lying…)
She picked up things really quickly and the trainer called her “the Ambassador” because she could get any dog to play with her. Even the one dog who didn’t like any dogs, and had been deemed dog aggressive was comfortable around Ellie.
At home she figured out how to open my bathroom door by pulling on my robe that hung on the back of it, how to lift the toilet seat, get out of a wire crate without opening the door, and conversely unlock the door to get into the crawl space. (The latter is not my favorite trick. I’ve had to crawl in after her a few times.)
I learned that she’s great with kids, loves dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, bus rides, car rides, walks, hikes, and loves running on the treadmill way more than I do. Sometimes I think about how much she (and I) would have missed out on had she not gotten the chance to get better. But then after I think that I do my best to just enjoy where she’s at now.
You’d never be able to tell by looking at her, but as of this writing she’s almost ten years old and has been such a great joy in my life.
In my work, being there with people through transitions, I believe change and healing is possible. And I think it’s the same for dogs. They just need a chance and people to support them. I plan to continue giving more dogs a chance and I hope Ellie may have inspired you to do so as well. I mean, just look at that face…
Erin Pauling, a transplant from Chicago, is a life coach based in Nashville and is Secretary on the Tails of the Trail board of directors. She loves asking questions, trying new things, singing like a cartoon chipmunk, and whispering to dogs.