Special Report: Operation Rescue
After many of the Woodley rescues had already found foster homes, Steve was chosen for a spot in an obedience class donated by a respected dog trainer. The hope was that he would become more appealing if he was better behaved. Because the sessions were in Chapel Hill, McClure agreed to transport Steve and attend class with him, then keep him overnight before returning him to Sanford.
McClure and her longtime boyfriend, Dana Daum, weren't planning to foster a dog. But what happened next threw them off-guard. When McClure returned Steve to the Halls of Hope, the cocksure terrier grabbed her and looked up as if pleading not to be left behind. "He hung on to my leg with his little front paws," McClure says. "It was like, 'Get me the hell out of here. I've been in your house.' And it tore me up." After two more home visits, Daum said to McClure, "He was kicked down for the first eight or nine years of his life. Let's make a difference now." She needed no additional convincing.
Audio slideshow: Watch Katy and Steve's story
Steve required time to adjust to his new surroundings. He had to learn to walk on a leash. And to feel safe enough not to bolt when someone tapped a spoon against a cereal bowl. Spoiling has helped: Every Sunday Daum cooks salmon for himself, along with Steve and their cat. They pile onto the sofa, eat dinner together, and watch All Creatures Great and Small.
Still, Steve has quirks. He guards McClure fiercely, occasionally growling at Daum. He flees strangers and flash cameras. He can be a scrapper, so the dog park is off-limits. "In his most relaxed moments, he's like a playful pup," McClure says. "But he's also part ex-con. And he can be a real weirdo. That's because of his background. To me, he's far more interesting because he's got these complexities."
Finding foster homes for the Woodley dogs went smoothly at first. "Then all of a sudden we're looking around, and there's about 50 dogs nobody wants," says Wagman. So ALDF began contacting rescue groups around the country. In February 2006 an e-mail message reached the Arizona group MinPinHaven, which promised homes for any of the unclaimed miniature pinschers. Soon Jackson, the cop, was helping load seven of the Woodley min pins—"the ones that were most severely damaged," she says—into a van for an icy midwinter road trip.
Waiting in Phoenix was 32-year-old Alissa Austin, who had picked out a timid black-and-tan dog named Gracie with bald spots on her tail and ears. Austin planned to rehabilitate Gracie, who was about 7, then place her in a permanent home. "This'll be great," she thought. "In a couple of months, she'll absolutely adore us." As the parent of an autistic 12-year-old daughter, she understood patience.
But Gracie was terrified of her new surroundings. After living in a crate all her life, open rooms disoriented her. "Going outside was scary. Grass was scary. Rocks were scary. The sky was scary," Austin says. Worse, Gracie wanted nothing to do with the family. She cowered in a corner, bit Austin's husband, Chris, and urinated on the carpet. Alissa wept in frustration. "I wanted her to love us as much as we loved her," she says.
While rescuers all over the country were trying to coax traumatized dogs into understanding they were finally secure, Austin would lie on her stomach and coo reassuringly. She taught herself dog massage. She bought a plastic kennel with opaque walls, Gracie's "cave" for times she felt vulnerable. Months went by—until out of the blue one day during the second year, Gracie jumped onto the sofa and settled in next to Austin. "Things were like dominos after that," she says. "Gracie started lowering her defenses—one after another, they would tumble."
The dog still avoided Chris, who worked nights as an engineering technician. He initially blamed himself, believing his schedule somehow prevented Gracie from bonding with him. "You feel like a villain," he says. "To think that a creature so innocent has such a vehemence toward you—it made me feel less of myself." He tried to remain patient. "But there were times I wondered, 'Is this worth it? Will it ever change?'"
A trainer explained that Chris needed to become the bearer of all good things, especially all things edible. When Gracie accepted her first treat from Chris's hand—it took weeks—he shouted to his wife, "She did it! Call your mom!" Now Gracie dances for handouts and sits with Chris when Austin is away. Even her taut muscles have relaxed. With Gracie settled in, the Austins ditched their original plan and decided to permanently adopt her. "We didn't want Gracie to go through this with a whole new group of strangers," Alissa says.
And then a year ago, human and canine switched caretaking roles. Austin was diagnosed with a complex of debilitating conditions—interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, and spinal problems—that now prevent her from leaving the house except for brief outings. Sometimes she can do nothing but lie on the sofa. Gracie stays by her side, doling out kisses, returning the attentiveness she once needed herself.
"With an illness that keeps you homebound, you lose sight of goals," Austin says. "She always gives me something to look forward to, so I don't feel like I'm just taking up space and air. I think she knows that we're in it together."
Audio slideshow: Watch Alissa and Gracie's story