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What Saying No Means in Rural Tennessee

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing my pack. I may not be able to foster dogs right now, but I can still help by giving a voice to the voiceless. I hope these stories change a few minds about adopting shelter dogs and most importantly, I hope they help the next Floyd and Sara.

(Floyd and Sara)

(Floyd and Sara, 2009)

(Sara, 2009)

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.


We were driving home after a four-mile walk with our mutts when we saw the abandoned puppies. Our dogs had their snouts pushed out the station wagon’s windows. They looked like wind-riders, ears flattened against their heads, noses slick and working overtime to investigate the cacophony of scents rushing past. Ancient trees edged both sides of the road. Red, yellow, and orange leaves glimmered like jewels in the sky, some raining downwards from the branch-draped ceiling. It was nine years ago, but I still remember that afternoon because it was a perfect October day, too perfect for seeing two starved dogs ditched on the roadside.

The potholed pavement on our isolated, country road snaked like a slinky, forcing my husband Mason to slow down, so when we passed the puppies crouched at the road’s lip, I got a good, long look. The copper dog caught my attention first. Then I saw the tinier black pup leaning against the red one, as though she didn’t have the strength to sit up on her own. Both dogs wore the confused expression of someone who had been dumped in a foreign country without a dime or a voice to ask for directions.

I didn’t know how long they’d been living on the street, but judging by their physical appearance they wouldn’t last much longer. In our society, canines exist in a strange purgatory, trapped between two cultures, existing somewhere along the continuum of natural instinct and domestication. Dogs’ behaviors can still be very wolf-like. But after living with humans for thousands of years, they are dependent on us for their most basic survival needs, particularly food and shelter. Surviving in the wild is often as difficult for them as it would be for me.

“Did you see?” Mason asked.

“Keep driving,” I said.

It sounds harsh, even now, but the practicality of taking home two sick dogs at that time was nil. We already had a pack of four, plus in seventy-two hours we would be flying to Dallas, Texas for work. And those dogs were obviously ill. They needed to be quarantined or they could spread worms, fleas, or worse to our mutts.

“If we don’t do something, who will?” Mason asked.

That was the crux of the problem. Animal overpopulation is an epidemic in the rural south and agencies like ICHBA were nonexistent in Robertson County nine years ago. Of the nonprofits operating outside our county, many had waiting lists or restrictions on health and breed. The bottom line was if we picked them up, they were our responsibility.

We drove to the Farnival in an uncomfortable silence. Mason brooded, pulled the brim of his Nashville Predators hat over his hazel eyes. Thirty minutes after we got home, he marched inside my office.

“I’m going back to look for them,” he said.

I felt the word no rise in the back of my throat. Push the issue, Melissa. Explain the complications and cost of taking in two sick dogs. Say no. Even with all these perfectly legitimate concerns, the word never left my mouth. I couldn’t shake the image of that pathetic black puppy slumped against her brother. If we did nothing, it would be too late.

Mason returned a few hours later cradling the copper pup, who we later named Floyd. Floyd was six-months-old and emaciated, fifteen pounds stretched over a skeleton that should have held twenty-five. We found Sara two days later. Mace said that when he reached for her, she feebly tried to bite him. That image haunts me still, a tiny mound of bones and mangy fur making one last attempt to survive.

Sara suffered from starvation and mange like her brother. But she also had a broken tail and pelvis, and a black vulture or coyote had attacked her. She wore numerous gashes on her paws and stomach that oozed pus. They tellingly resembled claw and bite marks.

When my neighbor, a forty-five-year-old farmer, first saw Sara, he asked, “Y’all want me to shoot her?” He wasn’t asking out of cruelty. He was asking out of compassion and ignorance. And because in rural Tennessee, the only place he had ever lived, shooting sick, stray dogs is a normal part of the culture. It’s even legal.

Needless to say, Sara had a tougher time recovering than Floyd. He regained his energy after twenty-four hours, but for five days Sara’s survival was questionable. We poured all our energy into nursing Sara back to health. Every achievement, from urinating outside her crate to walking across the yard, felt like a victory. Her integration with our pack was the Super Bowl. When Floyd and Sara regained their health, we talked about finding them homes. A few people were even interested, but we always found a reason for saying no.

Socializing an Intelligent Dog: A Mellie Update


Before I get started, I’ll admit I have no idea what I’m trying to say in this post. So many thoughts and memories and frustrations have been rambling through my mind since Miss Mellie returned to the Farnival that I can’t seem to put them in any coherent order, so please bear with me.

Since ICHBA’s inception in 2012, Donna, the head honcho, and her foster network have homed 200 plus dogs.

Mostly because of aggressive or destructive behavior, ten out of those 200 dogs have been returned, and out of those ten returns, eight had been adopted out when they were puppies, meaning 12 weeks or younger, and given back four to six months later.

I’d say that ten out of 200 was a great record, except that when Donna and I are wrong about a family’s potential to raise an animal, then worse case scenario: it can cost the dog their life, especially if the animal’s frustration – for whatever reason – morphs into aggression.

Best case scenario: the dog can be socialized, trained, and re-re-homed to a family willing to work with an animal that has been abandoned twice and carries emotional baggage. And honestly, there are a lot of people out there that WANT to tackle the challenge of taming an un-socialized or abused animal, so right on for that little piece of hope.

The consistencies between these returned pups are too numerous to ignore. Families fall in love with the irresistible charm of a pup, welcome them into their homes and hearts, but fail to socialize the animal, thinking all dogs automatically become Lassie or Benji, an idealized movie star dog that behaves perfectly and looks good on a Christmas card.

What people who adopt smart dogs fail to understand is that socializing an animal is hard work. It’s an everyday commitment. It’s literally a lifestyle.

I admit not all un-socialized dogs turn fear-aggressive, but after rescuing forty-five dogs in thirteen years, I’ve noticed a pattern or maybe more appropriately a link between intelligence and aggression.

An intelligent animal must be socialized, and not once a week, but on a daily basis, meaning it’s essential that smart dogs are exposed to as much stimulus as possible from the time they are pups until they grow too old to care – particularly if the dog is also a large animal. If a big, smart dog isn’t socialized, then frankly, it’s irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

Thank the universe, Mellie, who is both smart and big, falls under the best-case scenario category.

I’ll write more about her over the weekend, but Miss Mellie is going to be just fine. I haven’t seen one ounce of aggression out of her. She’s just extraordinarily energetic and inquisitive. It’s almost like at some point Miss Mellie stopping mentally developing because she behaves like a puppy trapped in the body of a fifty-pound, long-legged, intelligent, hyper, ten-month-old dog.

Needless to say, Meadow is no longer bored 🙂