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Cover Story - Posted January 26, 2018 9:25 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

Rescue Me

“Man’s best friend” isn’t just an empty description. For most of us, the companionship animals provide humans is the primary reason we treat pets like part of the family. We give them food and shelter. They give us unconditional love.

But we continue to hear about people with rescue pets who seemed to have developed an even deeper bond. With Amarillo’s shelters and pet-rescue organizations always overflowing with animals needing a home, we decided it was time to tell a few of those stories. On Facebook, we asked readers to share their experiences with the impact of rescue pets.

We’ve done this kind of thing before, but the response to this question was the highest we’ve ever received for such a crowd-sourced feature. It touched hearts, and emails and messages began to pour in as pet owners told us how rescues had literally changed their lives.

Here are a few of the stories that we thought deserved a larger audience.


Britt Foster and Ronni

From 2009 to 2013, Britt Foster was stationed in Hawaii as an active-duty Marine, where he served as a handler of USMC working dogs. The military’s version of police dogs, these canines are trained to detect bombs or narcotics and provide base security.

Britt, a native of New Deal, returned to civilian life in 2014. Living in Amarillo, he and his wife, Kristen, looked into adopting Zeus, the German shepherd to which Foster had been assigned in Hawaii. Unfortunately, Zeus passed away just a couple of weeks before he was able to retire. Britt was devastated.

But soon after, Kristen was browsing dogs available for adoptions through Mission K9 Rescue, a Houston-based organization dedicated to finding homes for retired working dogs. She came across a German shepherd named MWD Ronni M083, USMC (that’s “Marine Working Dog” Ronni, followed by the dog’s serial number). Ronni had retired after being stationed in Hawaii.

“She said, ‘Do you recognize this dog?’” Britt remembers.

He definitely recognized the dog. Ronni lived two stalls down from Zeus at Britt’s base. “He wasn’t my dog in the kennels, but I worked with him a lot,” Britt says of Ronni. “I was his decoy, a person in a bite suit who gets attacked.” Britt and Kristen didn’t hesitate. They adopted Ronni and brought him home in May of 2017.

The transition from military working dog to domestic pet is a slow one. Ronni recognized Britt immediately but – as he’d been trained – acted aggressively upon meeting a stranger like Kristen. He had to be restrained during the drive home.

“It was a rough transition for two or three months,” Britt says. “If you adopt a dog that does patrol work or attacking, if they see something running, they want to go after it. They’re trained for [responding to] any sudden or aggressive movements. If anyone comes up and slaps you on the shoulder, they’re going to take that as an attack. They’ll try to defend you.”

Eventually Ronni grew to love Kristen. “For maybe the first month and a half, he would growl when she came into the room or if she’d get near me,” Britt says. “Now he’s fine.” It helps that Kristen was always giving him treats. “It wasn’t good for his waistline, but it helped them build a rapport with each other. He accepts her.”

Still, the couple remains cautious with Ronni. Britt notes that while he personally only served for five years in the Marines, Ronni was on active duty for a full decade. “He’s worked hard all his life and never had a chance to really be a dog,” Britt says. “Like anybody else, he needs that time to have a couch to sleep on and to enjoy retirement. For me, it was about giving him that opportunity.”

Most dogs have a favorite toy, but in his retirement, Ronni takes that loyalty to another level. He rarely puts his toy down. Britt explains why it’s one of the biggest joys of his retirement. For military canines, super-durable Kong chew toys are used as a training reward for successful detection. “If they find bombs or drugs, you pay them with a Kong,” Britt says. “But then you immediately take it away from them.”

As a result, the dogs crave the toy. They are intently focused on earning a few precious moments with it.

Now that he’s retired, Ronni has been given his toy for good – and he’s not about to let it go. “He won’t ever put it down unless I tell him to,” Britt says. “It was always taken away from him before. Now he doesn’t want to give it up. He doesn’t have to work anymore.”


Donna Johnson and Daisy

Widowed for 25 years and with her children grown, Donna Johnson had enjoyed more than a decade of companionship from a beagle. When that dog died, she began looking at dogs in the local shelters. It was six years ago when Johnson saw a photo of a mixed-breed dog that seemed to have some rat terrier heritage. “I’d had a rat terrier as a child and thought I’d go check on it,” she says.

The 2-year-old dog was located at the shelter in Borger, and there Johnson found a frightened, shivering mess. “She was such a scared little outfit,” she says. “They told me that she had been [at the shelter] so long because she was so timid.”

Johnson, who is 71, took a chance on the little terrier and took her home, naming her Daisy. An employee at Eat-Rite Health Promotion Center, Johnson had gotten into the habit of working all day and then coming home to sit in her recliner with a heating pad. “I have arthritis in my knees and toes and hands. My toes are locked up so I walk like a robot,” she says. But Daisy didn’t understand. “She’d just look at me with those sad eyes, wanting to do something. She made me get up and get going and take her places.”

She started with places that would provide some socialization for Daisy, taking her to the park and places like PetSmart. Eventually, she enrolled Daisy in obedience lessons. “I could have trained her myself,” Johnson says, “but I just wanted to get her around people and dogs as much as possible.”

She started lessons at the Amarillo Obedience Training Club, where her instructors saw potential in Daisy. “They kept encouraging me to get into agility [training],” Johnson says. Thinking herself the opposite of “agile,” Johnson was more interested in watching dogs run the A-frames, see-saws and tunnels of agility courses than actually getting out on the course herself. “I didn’t think, with my condition and age and physical disabilities, that I could do it.”

She was wrong. It turned out that Daisy was a natural at agility training, and forced Johnson to overcome her own hesitations. Before long, the duo was traveling as far as Lubbock and Clovis for agility competitions. In the process, Johnson discovered that the best treatment for her arthritis was an active, talented dog. “They say exercise is good for it,” Johnson says of her joint problems. “It was painful, but for Daisy I just kept going. I’m sure it’s helped me.”

After several years of competition, Daisy has begun having joint problems of her own –they say dogs and their owners take after each other – so Johnson and Daisy are now transitioning to rally obedience competitions. In these, dogs and handlers proceed through a course with up to 20 different stations. At each, the dogs must show obedience of specific commands.

“She’s really doing well,” says Johnson of Daisy. “It tears me up that, as good of a dog as she is, you don’t understand why she ended up at the shelter in the first place. If I hadn’t gone to get her, she might have been put down.”


Dana Niemi and Wilbur

The first things most people notice about Wilbur, an American Staffordshire terrier, are his eyes. One is brown, like most dogs of his breed.

But the other is blue.

Wilbur’s owner, Dana Niemi, says that Native Americans used to believe that an animal born with two different-colored eyes were spirit animals. “They had the spirit of another inside them,” says Niemi. “You can see it in Wilbur. He’s an old soul.”

Niemi has had Wilbur since he was born. In 2014, she was active in animal rescue, fostering dogs and a few cats from the Dumas shelter, where one of her friends worked. When the shelter took in a pregnant Staffordshire terrier, Niemi agreed to take in two of its puppies. She named the brothers Theo and Wilbur. (The mother eventually had to be put down.)

A few months later, Theo accidentally ingested parts of a chew toy and became sick with peritonitis, an inflamed abdominal cavity. Unfortunately, he died before reaching 6 months of age. “Wilbur was really missing his brother and I was missing Theo,” says Niemi. “We really bonded through our grief.” She began working diligently with Wilbur’s obedience training, and as he began to excel at the work, Niemi decided she would train him to become a service dog.

Niemi, a grandmother of eight, is disabled. Every day she endures the effects of a traumatic brain injury, fibromyalgia, and back issues that have resulted in six different surgeries. She suffers from anxiety that intensifies as her pain increases and has occasional bouts of syncope, losing consciousness when her blood pressure drops.

She has trained Wilbur to assist with all of these maladies. “He picks things up for me,” she says. “If I have issues with syncope, he does syncope recovery and helps wake me up from that. He knows when I’m not feeling good and helps with my anxiety.” She has also trained him to perform pressure therapy, lying across her pelvis and lower stomach in a particular position that triggers pressure points. Wilbur’s position brings Niemi relief from her back pain.

“I actually went off my anxiety medication because of him,” she says. “He’s so smart. He picks up on everything so well.” She says they’ve been through hours of training together. “With any service dog, you never stop training.”

She describes his personality as perfect for a service dog. “He’s really mellow and laid-back. He’s really stoic.”

That’s exactly what you’d expect from an old soul like Wilbur.


Angie Paquette and Yaya

The popular dachshund breed is known for its sausage-like shape, but these dogs’ long backs and short legs occasionally lead to health problems. “Double dapple” dachshunds have even more health issues. A unique gene combination gives these dachshunds a striking, multi-colored spotty coat, but the gene producing this pattern puts dogs at risk of eye and ear problems. In other words, attempts to breed double dapple dachshunds may result in blind or deaf dachshunds.

That’s what happened with Yaya, who was rescued three years ago by Angie Paquette of Pampa. Yaya is at least 12 years old, and maybe older. She was born with an open eye socket on the left and a right eyeball that “looks like you’re looking into a galaxy full of stars,” as described by Paquette.

“She’s an old girl, she’s little bitty, and she’s blind,” says Paquette. “But that doesn’t stop her much.”

Paquette, a correctional officer, says dachshunds are her favorite breed and she has fostered nearly 20 over the past few years through Lost Pets of Amarillo. When she saw a photo of Yaya shared by the Amarillo Panhandle Humane Society, she saw a dog that most people would never, ever choose. That’s why Paquette was so drawn to the pathetic-looking pup. “She just looked so sad,” Paquette says. “She had an open wound under her left eye socket and her teeth were rotting. They had picked her up walking the streets somewhere, which is amazing to me that a blind dog was walking around and didn’t get hit.”

She intended only to foster Yaya – “she was the first blind dog we’d ever had” – but Paquette took one look at the dachshund in person and knew Yaya would become part of the family. “She’s old but she’s a happy girl,” Paquette says. “She loves McDonald’s french fries. Since she’s old, that’s her treat. If she smells McDonald’s, she’ll start hopping around like a bunny.”

Yaya isn’t the only special-needs dog in Paquette’s home, which she shares with her children Tito, 11, and Marita, who is 9. The family also has another blind double dapple dachshund, a deaf English bulldog, and two regularly abled dachshunds. “There’s nothing holding them back,” she says of the blind dogs. “They’re just part of the pack and act like our other dogs.”

She said the family took it slowly in introducing Yaya to the family’s “pack,” but Yaya turned out to be the easiest dog they’d ever had. “Dogs are great stress relievers,” Paquette says. “They love you no matter what you look like or what you do. In fostering, you’re saving a dog’s life. You just have to show them patience and love and let them be dogs, not living in a concrete cage and not getting to play.”

Paquette says she encounters purebred dogs like her dachshunds and English bulldog at the shelter all the time. “If you’ve always been interested in different breeds, foster one,” she says, because it’s a great way to learn about the needs and personalities of breeds that normally would be very expensive.

Besides, Paquette says, “Amarillo is in dire need of fosters.” You might find another dog like Yaya and her eye full of stars.


Jean Sexton and Wolf

Jean Sexton moved to Amarillo after retiring from her librarian job at The University of North Carolina-Pembroke. She was facing a new city and an empty home but had an employer – Amarillo Design Bureau, Inc., which designs licensed games for the Star Trek universe – that would allow her to bring a dog to work.

So in February 2014 she visited the Amarillo SPCA looking for a dog small enough for her apartment. “They brought out a little dog they’d named Chaz,” Sexton says. Part Chihuahua and possibly part papillon, Chaz had long hair and, at first, a quiet personality. “He was little and scrawny,” she says. But slowly, a more confident personality emerged. Sexton decided to change his name to Wolf. “We became his ‘wolf pack’ at work.”

At the time, Sexton says she was in bad physical shape, the product of a lack of exercise and three decades sitting all day at her former workplace. But living in an apartment, Wolf needed to relieve himself outside. Sexton began taking him on walks.

“We started on short walks, then longer walks,” she says. “At first I struggled to even get around the apartment complex.” But slowly, Sexton lost a bit of weight and found her stamina improving.

Then came a setback. In 2015, a cancer diagnosis required Sexton to have surgery. In the process of recovering, she developed sepsis, a dangerous blood infection that caused her heart to stop twice and left her in the hospital for two weeks. Friends took care of Wolf during her hospitalization, but when she finally got home in January of 2016, Sexton knew she needed to get better – for his sake.

“I was pitiful,” she says. On oxygen around the clock and bed-ridden, Sexton called on friends and neighbors to take Wolf outside when he needed to go. But she hated seeing him trying so hard not to disobey while he waited. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get better,’” she says. “I got up out of the chair, put him on a retractable leash, and staggered out the front door. Then I started pushing myself to walk around my building, pushing my little oxygen tank with me.”

Her doctors had ordered her not to pick up anything over 8 pounds. Luckily, Wolf only weighed 7 pounds. “He would snuggle with me and be there while I was feeling so despondent that I’d never get better.”

Gradually, her recovery walks with Wolf grew longer. By February, she came off daytime oxygen – something many women in her situation never accomplish. “I wasn’t tethered to the oxygen tank anymore. I could actually walk Wolf.” When summer arrived, the two began walking beyond the apartment property and down to the next street, covering more than a mile. “When he turned the corner on our long walk, I knew I could make it, too,” Sexton says. In the process, she lost 30 pounds.

Today, she is no longer on oxygen, no longer has to take blood pressure medicine or medication for diabetes. With Wolf at her side, Jean Sexton now walks 10,000 steps a day as her health continues to improve.

“I did it all for him. He’s such a cheerful little dog. He got me walking and kept me laughing and gave me hope,” she says. “I could have easily just sat in that chair and rotted. He saved my life.”


Stephanie Tuey and Taz

“We have such a trust between the two of us. It’s really neat when you have such a strong bond with a horse,” says Stephanie Tuey from her property south of Bushland. In the equestrian community, riders use the term “heart horse” to describe a horse that feels like a once-in-a-lifetime match – a relationship that goes far deeper than a riding partner or a pet.

Tuey believes Taz is her heart horse. “He saved me and I saved him. He’s my boy,” she says.

A rider since she was a child growing up in the Seattle area, Tuey had planned to participate in a benefit trail ride in the spring of 2016 for Panhandle Safe Hayven Equine Rescue. Safe Hayven was founded by Terri Gammage and helps rehabilitate abused or neglected horses. Tuey asked to borrow Gammage’s horse for the ride and loved him.

“Her horse was quite a handful,” Tuey remembers. “He was young and barely broke and needed an advanced rider. Terri said, ‘If you can handle him, then I’ve got just the horse for you. I need to send him to training for three weeks, and then I’ll drop him off at your house to foster him.’” The horse Gammage was referring to was a troubled, abused Hackney named Montana. “He couldn’t just have any home. He needed a home that would understand that it was going to take him some time to come around.”

The horse had been confiscated in 2015 from a property in the Dumas area. Law enforcement discovered seven neglected horses at that property. Two were in extremely bad shape – and Montana was the worst. After three weeks being trained by a cowboy, the Hackney got dropped off at Tuey’s in June of 2016. He didn’t look like much. “He was still skinny and his coat was dull,” Tuey says. “I remember my kids looking at him and going, ‘Mommy, is that the horse you want?’”

It definitely was. She renamed the horse Taz. “I knew within the first couple of weeks that I’d fallen in love with him,” Tuey says. Within a few months, she had Taz riding with the Randall County Sheriff’s Posse in the Veteran’s Day Parade. Tuey and Taz joined its Mounted Search and Rescue Team. She began trail riding and barrel racing with Taz and is currently getting him in shape for an upcoming 30-mile endurance trail ride with the Crown of Texas Arabian Horse Club. “He’s sure-footed and simply amazing on trail rides,” she says.

At these events, Taz gets noticed. “Texas is known for quarter horses,” Tuey says. “So you come in with this Hackney and nobody knows what kind of breed he is. It’s a lot of fun.” One of the 10 rarest horse breeds in the world, Hackney horses and ponies originated in England and were originally bred to be carriage horses. “They’re more popular in Tennessee and Kentucky,” Tuey says. “A lot of the Amish use Hackney horses to pull their carts.” DNA tests confirmed that Taz was a purebred Hackney and papers are forthcoming from the American Hackney Horse Society.

“How a Hackney horse landed in Texas is beyond me,” says Tuey.

Despite the trials he faced and the years of neglect, she’s grateful that Taz somehow made his way to the area. “He’s a funny boy,” she says. “When he’s hungry or thinks he needs to be fed, he’ll go get his food dish and carry it around like a dog.” A freight broker and dispatcher for truckers, Tuey works at a home office in a shop next to Taz’s pasture. “When I get really busy, he knows right where I’m at [in the shop]. He’ll literally knock or bang on the door until I come out to feed him.”

Though Hackneys are primarily used to pull carriages, Tuey says Taz is a quick learner and doesn’t shy away from any task. “I feel there isn’t anything I can’t do with him. It’s quite a partnership between the two of us. It’s just been amazing.”

Taz and the Big Flappy Thing
Local author Natalie Bright has written a children’s book about Taz as part of her nonfiction Rescue Animal Series. “Taz and the Big Flappy Thing” tells how, in 2016, Taz learned to carry an American flag in the Veteran’s Day Parade. The book is available on Amazon.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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