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Saving Blake

“I think I need Blake as much as Blake needs me.”

I still can’t tell you exactly what first attracted me to Blake, a black pit bull at the shelter where I volunteer. Certainly he was a handsome dog, with a regal stance and a ready wag of his tail. And there was a look in his eyes that just drew me to him.

He quickly became one of my favorite dogs to walk. He was very business-like about it, not interested in playing with balls, and when we rested under a tree, he didn’t cuddle with me like most dogs. But he watched me like a hawk, kept up with every move I made, and when I put him back in his kennel, he’d briefly rest his head against my leg as though to say thank you. He had a dignity about him, almost an aloofness, that made him different from other shelter dogs I walked. Perhaps it was a trust issue, but as time passed he became a lot more relaxed and even happy to see me. I knew we’d bonded when he started hugging and kissing me, and even the staff noted that he was more lively when I came to see him.

When Blake was moved to a newer building on the shelter grounds, I didn’t worry much about him. He had started coming out of his shell, and he would get more attention and socializing, thus a better chance at being adopted. So I continued working with the pits in the other building.

But after a few weeks, I started hearing disturbing things. Blake was growling at the kennel staff, he had to be kept separate from other dogs, and showed no interest in the potential adopters who walked through. Some of the staff was afraid of him.

I went to see him, and though he seemed glad enough to see me, he was quieter than usual. I put him back on my list of dogs to walk, determined to bring at least a little joy to his day.

But Blake only deteriorated. I never once saw the aggression the staff had reported, but what I did see was even more worrisome. When I came up to his kennel, he only looked at me from his bed, not wanting to get up. He went on walks grudgingly, not enjoying himself much.

What finally scared me was the day I took him out and saw how his eyes had changed: they were blank, with a far-away look. Until now, I’d been able to get him somewhat cheered up after a long walk, but that far-away look told me he was somewhere else.

Blake was going kennel-crazy.

It was the worst possible thing to happen to Blake. Black dogs are difficult enough to get adopted, and him being a pit bull only made it that much harder. I’d known all along he would be hard to place in a home, but as long as he had no overt problems, there was always that chance the right person would come along.

Now what chance did he have? I even wondered if putting him down would be best—it seemed cruel to contain a dog that was losing his mind.

But I had to try. I got the shelter’s permission to take him to a trainer to have him evaluated, and he spent a day with Ashley Shelburne of Shelburne’s Pet Center in Shelbyville. Ashley specializes in pits, and I was willing to accept whatever she thought best.

I was on pins and needles all that day, and when Ashley called that night, I wasn’t prepared for what she said.

“Paula, there is nothing wrong with Blake. He can be saved. He’s not aggressive, he just needs training and socializing. He’s a good dog. I can help him.”

I happened to be having dinner at a swanky restaurant with my colleagues when Ashley called, and I admit I caused a small scene with my crying and laughing. Then we all toasted to Blake and his new beginning.

So the next day, I visited Blake, paid for a month’s boarding, and thought to myself, “Now what?” Now that Blake was in a place where he could get help, my first concern was money to keep him there. I just had to figure out how to get it.

It’s good to have friends. Michelle Bruner, another volunteer, was quite fond of Blake herself and wanted to do something to help him. Using her motto, “Don’t judge pit bulls by their scars. They don’t judge you by yours,” she made a video of him Blake video explaining his plight, a video that to this day reduces me to a puddle of tears. Then she set up a ChipIn fund and put the link on Facebook, telling the story of how we were trying to save a very special pit bull. Blake’s board was $300 a month, and while he was paid up for the moment, we figured it would take a while to raise the money for another month.

In two days, we raised $420. I was astounded. Soon after, a lovely soul donated another month’s boarding. The money came from all across the U.S.; we even heard from a woman in Great Britain. Before we knew it, Blake had his own fan club cheering him on:

“Will you send me updates on Blake?” asked one donator. “He shouldn’t have to leave boarding until he gets his forever home, and I would like to keep supporting him.”

“Pits deserve the same amount of loving as every other breed of dog,” wrote another fan, “and I wish people would see that.”

A pittie rescue group posted, “So wishing he gets what he needs. I’m going to keep doing all I can. Please keep me updated on this stud muffin!”

Thus, with the money issue amazingly taken care of, it was time for the real work to begin: rehabbing Blake.

Shelter life is extremely stressful on dogs: it’s incredible to me how well most dogs handle it, and maintain a cheerful attitude. Blake simply wasn’t that kind of dog. But with Ashley, he led a completely different kind of life. The atmosphere was more peaceful, quieter, with activity but not the frenzy of a shelter. Ashley introduced Blake to other dogs she had rescued through her organization Tyson’s Chance, and taught Blake to socialize with others. He learned to love and trust the staff, and they all fell in love with him. He started opening up, even playing, and grinned at everyone who passed by.

But everyone agreed that he was at his happiest when I came to see him. He went berserk whenever I walked through the door, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a dog love me so much. I’ve heard it said dogs know they’ve been rescued, and now I was seeing it for myself.

Every day that I could, I picked Blake up and took him to a local park. I kept him on a long line normally used for horses, so he’d have room to run. For the first time in nearly a year, Blake got to chase birds, play in a creek, poke around in the woods. He rolled in the grass, and gave my face a thorough licking at the end of every walk.

And that was the only thing that bothered me: Blake and I had become so bonded, I worried it would be a problem if and when he got adopted. I would have given anything to take him for myself, but I couldn’t give him the home he needed. I already had several animals, including an alpha dog I knew would never accept Blake. Blake would have had to have an isolated kennel. He also could not live with cats. And he couldn’t be left alone due to his severe storm phobia. I lay awake nights wondering how I was going to find a home that met all his needs.

Meanwhile, Blake was blossoming. He greeted everyone we met at the park, asked to play with other dogs, and when I took him to a feed store, his eyes bugged at the sight of all the people to be patted by and all the wonderful things on shelves to sniff. He loved drive-throughs: he got treats at the bank, the liquor store, McDonald’s, and the coffee shop. I enrolled him in obedience class, where he promptly became the top student. I sent regular reports to his fan club on Facebook, and people everywhere cheered his progress.

I wish I had something better to say than a cliché about this time, but it was true: Blake’s transformation was nothing short of magical. To go from a kennel-crazed dog, and a pit at that, to a loving, joyous dog was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed. It created a bit of a transformation in me too: at one time, I would have agreed to have this dog put down, never dreaming what love, time, and attention could do.

So it was a life-changing time for both of us, but it was also time to get serious: Blake had been in boarding for several months, and while Ashley assured me that Blake could stay as long as he needed, I was getting anxious. I was having visions of five years from now, still taking Blake to the park and the feed store.

Ashley recommended I start taking Blake to animal-rescue events, to show him to the public. So when Saving Sunny, an organization in Louisville that rescues pits, had their annual fund-raiser, it seemed a logical place to take him. It was a fairly large affair, and another good test for Blake to see if he could handle all the hustle and bustle. And he did handle it well for about three hours, when he started getting anxious.

I had just told Ashley and the other volunteers that I was leaving when I heard a voice behind me say, “Can I see your dog? Is he up for adoption?” I turned to see a young man standing there. I said certainly he could see my dog, and he knelt down in front of Blake.

And that’s when it happened.

Blake flew into the young man’s arms, wrapped his front legs around the man’s neck, and proceeded to kiss him to death. I was astounded: for all of Blake’s newfound friendliness, I’d never seen him do anything like this. I looked around at the other volunteers: they were gawking too.

The man introduced himself as Austin Sheehan, a college student who worked at a local TV production company, and had lived in Louisville about a year.

“I’ve been wanting a dog for a while now,” he said, “but I was waiting for just the right dog. I’ve been watching Blake and, well, he seems like the dog I’ve been waiting for.”

After talking to him some more, I raised a questioning eyebrow at Ashley, who gave me a small nod.

“Austin,” I said, “you need to know how special this dog is to me. If you adopt him, you adopt me too. If that doesn’t scare you off, how about Blake and I come to your house and do a home inspection?”

I went through every corner of the house and yard, asked a million questions…and could find nothing wrong. Austin had had dogs in the past, so he knew about training and routine. He shared the house with two other men, who promptly fell in love with Blake also. A min pin lived there, and Blake liked him fine. Most important, there were no cats, and with three occupants, Blake would rarely be alone. Watching Blake and Austin interact, I was convinced it was a lovely match. A couple people had expressed interest in Blake before, but they didn’t feel right to me. This one felt right.

When Blake went home with Austin, I’m pretty sure I was in shock. All the worry, all the drama…and he just waltzes off into the sunset? Just writing these words now, it feels like a dream.

Austin and I texted each other until late that first night. Blake, he said, was going through the house like he’d always lived there, and he sent me pictures of Blake playing with his new toys. I couldn’t help but cry with happiness: this dog who had imprinted himself on my heart finally had the home he so deserved.

It was with great triumph that I was able to post on Facebook that Blake had found a home. The cheering response was overwhelming: Blake had become something of a poster child for pits, and it was fantastic news for all the pit lovers that, yes, it can be done. There were so many people congratulating Blake and me that I asked Austin to say something to everyone:

“I have been very blessed to have met Blake. From the moment I met him, I felt connected,” Austin posted. “If it were not for all the hard effort from Paula and Ashley, this would not have been possible for Blake. I want to give him nothing but love and happiness, and all of you made that possible. Thank you all again for everything you have done. I know Blake appreciates it, and my heart is touched. I promise to show as much care and dedication to being a suitable father for Blake.

“I think I need Blake as much as he needs me.”

Paula Sparrow Adeline Vaughn

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