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Dogs Bring Comfort in the Wake of the Virginia Tech Tragedy
Throwaway dogs provide comfort in frightening times

Mr. bones was only a few days old when someone left him and his littermates next to a dumpster behind a grocery store in Fairmont, W.Va. Fortunately, the squirming box of Beagle-mix pups was discovered before the trash was mechanically compacted and trucked to a landfill. We met the timid puppy a few weeks later; he cowered in the back of a stainless-steel kennel at the Marion County Humane Society & Rescue and yelped in fear when we tried to coax him out. Then, trembling, he managed to wag his white-tipped tail. We took him home.

Seven years later, on a Friday afternoon in April 2007, these memories returned as I watched a student with a blonde ponytail stroke Bones’ soft ears. Her blue eyes, bloodshot and ringed with dark circles, filled with tears as she frowned and said, “I really miss my dog at home.”

That afternoon, 20 or so dogs spread across the grassy lawn next to Ambler Johnston Hall, a dormitory on the Virginia Tech campus. Like Mr. Bones, they sprawled in the sun and gladly accepted hugs, pats and treats from the loose crowd of students. An aged Chihuahua in a maroon-and-orange jersey with “Hokies” printed across the back scrounged for biscuit crumbs. A fawn-colored Boxer mix bounded from one group of students to another. Nearly every dog was dressed in Virginia Tech–themed gear; Mr. Bones wore a maroon bandana with a black ribbon pinned to it.

Four days earlier, on April 16, the worst mass shooting in United States history had begun inside the gray limestone walls of the dormitory that towered above us. A 19-year-old freshman and a 23-year-old resident advisor had been fatally shot by a fellow student; two hours later, across campus, the same disturbed student shot 45 people — 30 of them fatally — inside classrooms in Norris Hall.

The names of the dead and injured had slowly been released; graduate teaching assistants, athletes, international students, world-renowned scholars, fathers, an ROTC cadet and even a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor were among them. Everyone had lost someone. I had lost a favorite student, a focused, kind, intelligent 18-year-old biology major with enormous potential and a smile that could brighten even the most boring class. She died studying Intermediate French along with 11 classmates and her professor.

The university cancelled classes for the rest of the week, and by Tuesday or Wednesday, most students had gone home, back to their grateful parents. But others remained, either by choice or because they had no way to leave or nowhere to go. It was for these hollow-eyed, sleep-deprived students that we gathered outside the dorm with our dogs.

I squinted in the April sun as more and more rumpled, dazed undergrads trickled out of the dorm, some singly, some in groups of two or three. At first they seemed surprised to see a pack of maroon-clad canines, but after a moment or two, they cautiously approached and finally found themselves cross-legged on the grass, stroking the sun-warmed fur of a friendly hound.

“My dog at home looks a lot like this one.”

“My mom is coming tomorrow. I hope she brings my dog.”

“I really missed my puppy this week.”

“Who brought all these dogs?”

Earlier that morning, an email had circulated through Virginia Tech’s veterinary school, where my husband Jesse was about to begin his fourth and final year of study. Members of a student organization, the Animal Welfare Club, had an idea about how to help the traumatized students who remained on campus, and a few hours later, we assembled.

Southern Virginia’s rural shelters are often overcrowded and operate on shoestring budgets; euthanasia rates are staggering. Veterinary students involved with the Animal Welfare Club fostered dogs and cats from the local shelters, extending the animals’ lives. Often, the fostered animals became permanent companions to the future veterinarians. Many former shelter dogs now milled around on the lawn: a yellow Lab mix with three legs and soulful brown eyes; two or three brindle Pit Bull mixes, tongues lolling; stubby-bodied Chihuahua crosses; a leggy black Greyhound mix. The majority, however, had obvious Beagle heritage.

A student in a maroon tee shirt with a maroon VT painted on her cheek approached and knelt in front of Mr. Bones. He looked up at her, blinked against the sun and sniffed the air. She ran her hands over his ears and he wagged the tip of his tail. She brushed her black bangs out of her eyes and stared at him seriously, without smiling or crying. After a few moments, she stood, looked at Bones and sighed, then spun and hurried down the sidewalk, folding her arms over her chest. Another student soon took her place, and another after that: Bones would look, sniff, wag; the student would pet his ears, his neck or his white chest, then smile, cry or sigh.

Like these students, Mr. Bones had persevered through difficult times. He almost didn’t make it past puppyhood; he survived being thrown out with the trash, and then he survived weeks at the shelter. And then, as soon as we got him home, we realized he was sick. He vomited his meals and continued to dry-heave, his small rib cage expanding and contracting. He developed diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. His eyes dulled and he became lethargic. We rushed him to the vet, who diagnosed our new little puppy with parvovirus, a highly contagious and often deadly disease of the intestines.

Mr. Bones had to be hospitalized and rehydrated with subcutaneous, then intravenous, fluids. He lost muscle mass and could barely stand. When we’d visit him, he could only move his eyes and the tip of his tail, which twitched when he saw us approaching. I sat on the tile floor outside his hospital cage and wept. I could count his ribs. I could see his tiny hipbones jutting under his smooth black-and-tan fur. He was only 10 or 12 weeks old and had already suffered so much.

“We know you’ll do what’s right for Bones,” our wellmeaning family members said. They meant, “We think you should have Bones put to sleep.”

But after a week in the hospital, he began to show interest in food again. He wolfed a bowlful of chicken and rice and kept it down. Then he could stand. And soon he found his voice, his Beagle-y woo woo wooo! We took Mr. Bones home, and in no time he became the shoe-eating, couch-destroying, puppy-breathed monster we’d expected.

As the afternoon grew warmer, more dogs and more students made their way to the lawn. Another Beagle mix in a Virginia Tech football jersey joined us, as well as a small black Terrier in a gray baby-tee. As I watched the wagging tails and shell-shocked students, it occurred to me that there had been no dog skirmishes, no growling and very little barking. These were not “service” dogs; some had been well trained, of course, but none had an official title. There were no therapy dogs or assistance dogs or dogs who could lead the blind. Most were dogs who had been thrown away — abandoned on the side of a highway, left tied to the door of an animal shelter, turned out of a kennel after years of breeding. Maybe some, like Bones, had been treated literally like garbage — left by a dumpster, not even worth the effort of being driven an additional two or three miles to the county shelter.

A few nights earlier, I had thrashed myself awake after a violent dream. Like many, I hadn’t slept soundly since the shooting, and I wasn’t sure if I’d been sleeping or just replaying horrifying scenarios in my subconscious. Either way, I stared at the ceiling in our dark bedroom and started to cry. Soon I was sobbing and shaking. When I began to choke, I sat up. I couldn’t catch my breath. Jesse woke, too, and Mr. Bones uncurled himself and sat in front of me on the bed, his ears half-lifted. “Breathe,” Jesse said, putting his arms around me. “It’s OK. Just breathe.” When I stopped hyperventilating, Jesse got up to find some tissues. Bones calmly stared into my eyes as though waiting for me to do something; I stroked his ears and then his shoulders. Then I hugged his whole body. He rested his chin on my shoulder and I felt him sigh.

I won’t claim that Mr. Bones is perfect. He’s skittish to a fault, chases squirrels and often employs selective hearing. He attempts to roll in or eat (or both) other creatures’ feces. He barks at the neighbors. But Mr. Bones possesses a gift — certainly not a unique gift — perhaps a gift common to all dogs: he knows how to help heal. And he does it effortlessly, without the promise of reciprocation, without uttering a word. His patient brown-eyed gaze, graying muzzle, silken ears, smooth black back and, of course, his white-tipped tail can salve even the deepest, rawest hurt.

The shadows were lengthening by the time we left the dorm’s lawn. Mr. Bones padded along the sidewalk beside us, pausing every few feet to sniff lampposts and flowerbeds. He would glance up at me, wag, then resume. His maroon bandana still hung around his neck. I had never been more proud of him.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 64: Apr/May 2011
Katie Fallon has taught creative writing at Virginia Tech and West Virginia University. She is the author of the nonfiction book Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, which will be published in the fall of 2011 by Ruka Press. katiefallon.com

Illustration by Robin Spowart

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