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An Animal Control Officer’s Journey with a Shelter Dog

I was an Animal Control Officer in 2010 when a small feral puppy from our local utilities company’s substation came into the shelter. He was filthy, had mange, ear infections, internal parasites and was terrified of everything. We put him in the a quarantine kennel in the quietest section of the shelter, but it didn’t seem to help. Any time we entered the room he would be against the back wall with his face buried in the corner and he would defecate on himself.

Jenga's first day at the shelter
Jenga’s first day at the shelter.

It broke my heart and I so wanted to help this little guy. So I fostered him and named him Jenga (JEngA). I knew it was going to take a long time before he was ready to be adopted, but he deserved that chance. He would go home with me in the evenings and when I was at work, he stayed with some of our volunteers at their home. They would work with him on how to live in a home while I was at work.

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His progress was extremely slow and after several months, we knew he needed to be with someone accustomed to special needs dogs. He was going to require many more months, if not years before he was what most would consider a “normal” dog. Many came to the shelter to meet him, but I rejected all of them. I knew him better than anyone and knew none of them were right for him. So I adopted him.

In the following months he ripped the curtains down 3 times, pulling the rod completely out of the wall. Took a dinner plate size piece out of my couch. He didn’t understand the sounds of the home and had no idea how to deal with the stress or over stimulation. I had a crate for him in the back of the house that stayed open all of the time with toys or a treat or two always in it.

Jenga and Donna
Jenga and Donna

He eventually learned this was a safe and comfortable space. But that was just 1 small milestone, there were still so many to go. It took weeks for him to readily walk out the front door. 4 years before he would walk past the driveway during the day. 6 years before he walked up to someone he didn’t know without hesitation. I remember these moments like people remember their children’s first steps or word, because I know how far he’s come and how difficult his road has been.

That road hasn’t gotten any easier. In August of 2019, when he was 9 1/2, he was diagnosed with an extremely aggressive oral melanoma. Thankfully we caught it early, but because of it’s location and how aggressive it was, he would be fighting it for the rest of his life. I was told with treatment he could have 1 – 1 1/2 years with normal quality of life. We did surgery, but did not get clean margins. Radiation and immunotherapy.

Jenga's radiation graduation
Jenga’s radiation graduation.

Jenga never missed a beat. As I would tell people, “He doesn’t know he has cancer.” Every 3 months we would go back to the oncologist and would celebrate when he got a good report. I wasn’t wasting any time being sad. I was appreciating every day I had with him. Then on Sep 24 2020, the oncologist found a very small dark thickening spot on his tongue. Right where the cancer had been. Without the biopsy results we knew the cancer was back. It was small and less aggressive, so I opted for a second surgery. He handled and recovered from this surgery great and still hasn’t missed a beat.

He just turned 11 in January and Feb 6, 2021 will be 1-1/2 years since diagnosis. He has reached the high end of his “expected normal quality of life” and is still enjoying every day. He still doesn’t know he has cancer and I’m not going to tell him.

-Donna Kelley