Maggie May was a short, corpulent gal, with weirdly shaped, stubby little legs and an overall appearance that can best be described as “she had a great personality.” When she first came to the senior living facility, the residents made fun of her weight and awkward demeanor. Fortunately, their jeers fell on canine ears.
“They just laughed and wanted to know who this little chubby one was,” says Linda Ackerman, Maggie May’s owner. “But she would just wag her backside, walk up to people, and literally smile at them. She won everyone over.”
Part papillon and part every other breed on the planet, packed with personality and teeming with animal magnetism, Maggie May successfully charmed everyone at the center. On her next visit, she was greeted with a chorus of “Maggie’s here! Maggie’s here!” as seniors poured from their rooms in hopes of spending just a moment with this little dog. From then on, she was a favorite visitor and coveted rec room companion.
Linda’s time with this peculiar pooch began when a family member died and Maggie May was left homeless. For two and half years, the pair were inseparable, and when Maggie May collapsed and was subsequently diagnosed with renal failure, Linda was devastated.
Her heartbreak, sad but unsurprising, is evidence that dogs are much more than merely our pets. They are our trusted allies, our confidants, our cozy coverlets, our breathy buddies, and yes, our best friends. And when they die, they leave a hole in our soul so large it feels like we will never be whole again.
“This was a dog that just melted my heart,” says Linda. “She brought joy to everyone around her, and I had a really, really hard time when I lost her. I just couldn’t get over it.”
Enter Toby, a sick, abandoned black lab mix, whose original home will forever remain a mystery. When a close friend suggested they take a trip to the rescue facility where Toby was recuperating, Linda initially refused. “I just didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “I had my heart torn out and stomped on. I didn’t think I could go through that again.” But her friend insisted and together they drove, “just to look.” What happened next was magical. “He came right over and nuzzled me,” said Linda. “This dog knew; he just knew.” Toby knew Linda needed a dog to love.
As they started the process of healing each other, Linda and Toby faced a few challenges, beginning with that first fateful night when Toby ended up with a mouthful of fur after attempting to “groom” Sassy Peach, Linda’s Persian cat. The cat and the dog did eventually sleep curled up together, and have done so ever since, although Toby now leaves the grooming duties to the cat.
“Toby has one problem,” says Linda. “He’s afraid of dogs.”
Toby’s distrust of his canine brethren makes a visit to the dog park, one of Linda’s favorite haunts, difficult. Originally, no amount of coaxing could convince him to leave his favorite place in the park — a patch of grass under a picnic table. But he has since started to inch out from under the boards, and while he may not have made any doggy friends yet, he no longer seems averse to the idea. “He doesn’t know the rules or signs of play,” says Linda. “But other dogs instinctively get along with him.”
One such prospective paw pal approached Toby with the traditional downward dog position, a clear invitation to frolic, but Toby didn’t know how to respond. Like a puppy pet therapist, the other dog finally just sat with Toby and licked his ear. “He’s a dog with some issues, but he is so sweet,” says Linda. “Toby has taught me how much these animals can read people and how dogs can actually read each other.”
All dogs are special, but “mutts” often have an extra something that makes them unique; whether it is that they are literally one-of-a-kind or that the wider genetic pool allows for a diverse spectrum of personality quirks, mixed breeds have an uncanny ability to accomplish feats rarely told about pure breeds. Emily Lumpkin, a Columbia-based animal rescuer, is in full agreement.
“This is about doing the best we can to protect these creatures that God has clearly given us to bring so much joy into our lives,” says Emily. “They love us unconditionally.”
Emily depends on tips from other rescuers, social media posts, friends, and friends of friends to help her locate these four-legged souls. And she was alerted on all fronts concerning Churches, a female terrier mix who was abandoned as a puppy outside of a Church’s Fried Chicken establishment on Two Notch Road.
“She was a celebrity,” says Emily. “People would come to Church’s just to see her. She’d go to the window and bark, then people would throw food to her. She was so pitiful and alone; you could tell she wanted to be with people.”
And yet Churches wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to touch her. Animal control had been notified several times, but they were unable to capture the little terrier chicken lover. Emily and other rescuers went out night after night, using all sorts of creative contraptions in an attempt to bring her in.
“I finally took one of my own dogs out there, and Churches took a shine to him,” says Emily. “After about a month she was close enough that I could grab her, and I just didn’t let go.” She still hasn’t let go. Being, in all probability, unadoptable, Churches joined her canine fast food companion and found her forever home with Emily.
“She’s a monkey for sure,” Emily says. “I had surgery at one point, and the dogs are not allowed on my bed without permission. I woke up and, despite knowing that it was breaking the rules, she was cuddling with me. When I opened my eyes, her precious little face was just looking at me like, ‘Mommy, are you okay? What can I do?’ These animals are so special.”
Kate Wells and her husband, Andy, adopted their first mixed breed dog several years ago. Having heard that dogs respond best to two syllable names ending in a vowel sound, Kate selected a name that both fit the criteria and matched her favorite selection off any wine list.
“I love pinot noir,” says Kate. “So Pinot was the name we came up with. Then we noticed that everyone who came over to the house would bring us bottles of pinot noir, and we thought, ‘This is amazing! We need to stick with this if we ever get another dog.’”
During Pinot’s first Christmas with the Wells family, on a trip to Virginia to visit Andy’s family, Kate let Pinot out of the house to use the great outdoor facilities. But rather than get down to business, Pinot bolted, running full tilt across the lawn.
“It took me a moment to realize what was happening,” says Kate. “She was chasing the neighborhood deer!”
Worried she would get lost in unfamiliar territory, the family jumped into their cars, frantically searching for Pinot. She was found about a mile away, splayed out on the grass with an ear to ear puppy grin, looking like she had found dog heaven.
“My mother-in-law still tells people that she did not see a single deer in her yard for more than a year after this incident,” says Kate, “and that Pinot is a welcome house guest anytime!”
Pinot needed a companion and perhaps the Wells family needed more gifts of wine, because Carménère, whose name comes from the cabernet lineage of grapes, has recently joined Kate, Andy, and their two preschool children.
“I feel very lucky that we were able to get her,” says Kate. “She was so nervous at the rescue facility that she literally lived in the director’s office all the time instead of a kennel. When people came to visit, they would never see her.”
Kate credits Pinot with helping Carménère adjust to life with the Wellses, showing her the ropes, and demonstrating to her canine friend that neither of them need be afraid. And while Carménère still has many nervous habits, she has come to love and trust her new family.
“Both dogs know that we read our young daughters stories before bed,” says Kate, “So they’ve started coming into the girls’ room and lying down on the rug in order to be part of story time. If one of the girls is sitting on the floor and I have to turn the book to show the pictures, I make sure both dogs get a look, too!”
Older mixed breeds, like Carménère, are often a very good fit for young families because more mature dogs don’t chew, tend to be calmer than puppies, and, best of all, come housebroken. If someone is really new to pets, Kate recommends they consider a pet who is at least older than a year. “Carménère really does have the most amazing personality,” says Kate. “She is just beautiful. I call her my arctic fox.”
A female hound dog named Emmie, starved, sick, and suffering from paw infections caused from years of being on the run, found her second chance with Susan and Larry Siegel. Emmie has since settled in with three other dogs and seven cats. Initially, she was afraid to go into the house, particularly the kitchen, but has since relaxed and allowed her inner hound to emerge with a vengeance. “This dog loves to hunt,” says Susan, “We have to give her lots of exercise because she was born to track.” Susan strongly believe that mutts make wonderful pets, and while they can come with some problems due solely to the hardships they have endured, those issues can be overcome with time and patience.
Linda agrees. “Every dog has possibilities, and every dog sort of picks you,” she says. “They are all capable of giving you so much love that you won’t even know what to do with it except to give it back.” And while she still misses her precious Maggie May, Toby has brought the sunshine back into her world. “They love unconditionally and give you back so much more than you give them,” she says.