Melissa Fay Greene

Melissa Fay Greene is an award-winning nonfiction author whose upcoming book, Wonder Dog, based on her New York Times Magazine article, is about a service dog academy in Ohio that places dogs with children with invisible disabilities. 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Finding Amazing Service-Dog Candidates in Shelters
Excerpt from The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene
Shelter Dog, Shepherd, Trained as Service Dog

A German Shepherd mix slated for euthanasia watched Karen Shirk from behind the bars of his cinder-block cell in a cacophonous county animal control building. With his long black muzzle and imploring brown eyes, he looked at her with that heartbreaking shelter-dog mix of worry, fear, confusion, and hope. “This is a good-looking boy. Do you know anything about him?” Karen called from her wheelchair to a nearby worker. “Can he sit? Can you sit, boy? Sit.”

The dog sat. His haunches trembled with the sincerity of his “Sit.” He tentatively raised one paw a few inches above the floor, in case the stranger also wanted “Shake.” She didn’t say “Shake,” so he lowered his paw quietly and put his whole focus back into his excellent “Sit.”

He was an “owner-surrender,” though there was no coercion or “surrendering” about it: his people, for reasons unknown to the shelter, had brought him here to be disposed of. In crowded shelters, owner-surrenders are among the first to go: without the required ten-day “stray hold” bestowed upon lost dogs or cats for whom someone may be searching, the owner-surrenders quickly join the ranks of the sick, the injured, the elderly, the pregnant, the nursing mothers and their newborn litters, and the defamed pit bull breeds—no matter how gentle—to be euthanized one by one by one, usually by lethal injection …

The scrape of shovels and splash of water and the homesick yelps of imprisoned dogs ricocheted around Karen and the German Shepherd mix as the dog sat for her on the cement, making worried eye contact, in the most important and possibly last audition of his life. Did the shelter dog understand on any level that he had won Karen’s attention, however briefly? As he gazed unflinchingly and longingly into her eyes, was he aware that he’d captured the attention of a human being, something in scarce supply in a county animal shelter? Of course he knew. He was begging her, with his eyes, not to leave him.

“I’m going to give him a try,” Karen said to an employee. “Let’s take him outside.” The worker stepped into the pen and clipped a leash to the dog’s collar.

On the way down the cement hall toward the steel exit door, the shepherd, leashed, stayed beside Karen’s wheelchair, but his paws moved double-time, like a speeding cartoon character whose legs accelerate into wheeling blurs. Outside, the dog blinked in the sunlight and barely knew which way to run first. Just in case, he briefly sat again, tremblingly, joyfully. When the passenger door of the van opened to him, he bounded into the seat, wiggled in happiness, settled in, and never looked back. He moved into the cabin with Karen and her own dog, Ben, and soon began training for Karen’s first child client, a twelve-year-old girl with paralysis. Soon two rescued Golden Retrievers joined them, one for each of the adult women who’d requested dogs. It was a happy messy life for Karen, the start of her finding a way toward the life she wanted. The hospitalized preteen squealed with joy when she saw the German Shepherd mix for the first time and named him Butler—“because he’s going to be like my furry butler!” When his mobility training was finished and he was placed with the family at home, Butler broke the no-child barrier among service dog agencies, among the first service dogs in the world to be trained for a child.

He was a great success! He heeled beside her wheelchair, slept on her bed, and always sat up extra straight and tall when told to sit, since this was evidently his winning skill. The girl’s laughter rang through the house again whenever Butler, unable to contain his love and happiness, stood up, propped his front feet on the armrest, and leaned into the wheelchair to lick her cheeks.

“Am I too old for one of your dogs?” strangers phoned to ask Karen. “Is my child too young for one of your dogs?” “Am I too disabled?” “Am I disabled enough?”

Karen told everyone the same thing: “If your life can be improved by a dog and you can take good care of a dog, I’m going to give you a dog.”

A couple with a ten-year-old son with autism phoned to say that their boy constantly ran away and they’d hoped a service dog might keep track of him, but the service dog agencies had all denied them. This was again new territory. Karen knew that placing service dogs with adults with invisible disabilities, like post-traumatic stress disorder or seizure disorder, was the cutting edge of service dog work, but it hadn’t yet been tried with children. It was a tall order, quite different from training Butler for mobility work with a child.

Back to an animal shelter she went. Despite the forbidding prison-like appearance of the place and the collective hysteria of the stressed and frightened dogs, Karen knew there had to be animals there with high intelligence and fine dispositions. The problem was that their panic at the harsh, crammedin, and grating conditions of captivity concealed their true natures. The confinement in cement cells with industrial drains in the floor made the dogs seem ferocious, impossible to tame, even insane. They bared their gums and barked in fear, scaring away adopters.

As Karen wheeled through the cat room on the way to the dog kennels, cats stuck their forearms through the bars of their stacked-up cages, waving their paws around in blind search for human contact. Karen stopped to stroke the arm of one cat; the lean middle- aged tabby instantly withdrew his arm and flipped onto his side in the cage in winsome appeal. He’d waited so long for a tummy-rub! He stretched out and began to purr. But Karen couldn’t reach that far into the cage and had to move on. She knew that virtually none of these adult cats would see daylight again.

Tail lowered, ears flattened, face downcast, Patches, a Beagle mix, managed just a couple of tentative halfhearted tail-wags from the back of his cell. His overtures hadn’t beguiled anyone in the nearly twenty-one days of his captivity and his time was up. Karen positioned her wheelchair outside his cage for a closer look. Every morsel of emotion rushed into the dog’s moist trembling nose. He approached and shyly pushed his nose through the chain-link barrier.

“Okay, boy, I see you,” she said. When he was led out of his cage by a handler for one-on-one time with Karen, the little dog was so excited, shaking so hard, he couldn’t avoid peeing a little on the cement f loor. Like Butler before him, he left the shelter riding high in the passenger seat of Karen’s van, his mouth wide open with happiness, his ears rippling in the wind he hadn’t felt in a long time.

Before pulling onto the state road, however, Karen sighed, stopped, wheeled around, pulled back into the parking lot, and called out her window to a staffer to bring her the middle-aged tabby cat.

Patches, the rescued Beagle mix, became one of the first dogs in the world (similar work was beginning in Canada at that time) trained in autism assistance. He may have become the first dog in the world trained to track a single child. Now when their son disappeared, his parents cried: “Patches! Find Kevin!” And Patches took off to find the boy, wherever he was. One night he tracked him to a stranger’s backyard three blocks away. The land sloped down to a stream; Kevin, in his pajamas, was peering into the water when the dog interrupted his reverie. “Patches just saved our son’s life again,” the parents emailed Karen.

The cabin filled up with rescued dogs. “It’s a wonderful feeling when we see one of our animals adopted by 4 Paws!” said Mary Lee Schwartz, executive director of the Humane Association of Warren, Ohio. “We’re happy when a dog gets adopted to a normal home, but when one gets adopted to a home when he’s going to help someone, we’re thrilled! I can’t think of a more exciting thing to happen for a dog, especially one on Death Row.”

Another shelter worker commented: “People are surprised that we have such highly talented dogs coming through our shelter, capable of performing the functions of service animals. But of course we do.”

All shelters have them: indescribably marvelous animals just waiting to be given a chance.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Is it possible for a dog to help in a recovery?

That first weekend, we weren’t sure we were keeping him. It was a trial placement.

As we drove the excited little Terrier away from his foster home—the two foster dads waving fondly from their front step—he dashed frantically around our car’s interior, clambering over everyone, scratching our legs, trying desperately to reach an open window—not to escape, it turned out, but so he could experience head-on the full 45 mph smash of wind in the face. In the front passenger seat, the scruffy brown mutt perched on my husband’s right thigh, curled his front paws over the lowered window, angled himself toward the side mirror, and stretched his torso and neck into the gale. The airstream peeled back the fur from his face, the lips from his teeth and the unshorn bangs from his eyes until the wild-eyed dog with airborne ears looked like a demon flying beside the car.

At our house, the little demon—a knee-high, wire-haired Terrier mix (something like a Cairn, I thought, though the foster dads thought Yorkie), two or three years old—streaked up the hardwood staircase and stumbled back down and flew back up and tripped back down. He flushed the two cats from their hiding places and chased them until they vaulted to furniture above his reach; he nosed the two elderly, bewildered dogs as they lay curled together in a dog bed; then he ran upstairs and downstairs some more. He’d been captured by Southern Animal Rescue at a Wal-Mart parking lot, where he’d lived and foraged as a stray. Evidently, neither the Wal- Mart parking lot nor the foster home had included stairs, for his interest in them was boundless. I was down there! Now I am … wait for it … up here! Bark bark bark! Watch out—I’m coming down! Bark bark bark!

He was enthusiastic about everything. He yapped at a peeved cat sitting on top of the piano and then pursued the other cat up the stairs lickety-split. He was getting good at stairs! The two elderly dogs, rousing themselves from their autumnal haze, raised their heads and knitted their eyebrows in looks of concern. Theo, an 11-year-old miniature Wire- Haired Dachshund, had pursued a lifetime career as first lieutenant to Franny, the stout, freckled, 13-year-old Rat Terrier. Now, imagining he needed to put a stop to these shenanigans (though Franny likely felt no such thing), Theo sprang into aggressive action and hurried to the bottom of the stairs where the new pup was playing Chutes & Ladders with himself. Teeth bared, Theo tried to take a snarling bite out of the young Terrier’s leg on his next trip to the bottom. The new guy yelped and ran back up. A few of the humans suddenly couldn’t remember why anyone had thought getting a new dog was a good plan.

In the fall of 2012, we had five teenagers living at home (ages 15, 16, 17, 18 and 18), two elderly dogs and two amiable cats. Our 24-year-old son Lee—the third oldest of our nine children (four by birth and five by adoption at older ages from Bulgaria and Ethiopia)—had just been diagnosed, to everyone’s astonishment, with a late Stage III colon cancer, so he had moved home. His beautiful girlfriend, Maya Selber, flew down from Philadelphia to join us on the surreal Long March into cancer treatment. This made for seven young people, two middle-aged people, three frequently visiting young adults and four animals under one roof. There was also the deadline (for me) of a book contract, and the pressure (on both my husband and me) of trying to keep everything and everyone afloat financially and emotionally.

“Stay away from the Internet,” the cancer survivors among our friends warned us. “The projections, the statistics, won’t do you any good. They won’t apply to your son anyway.” Our son was a statistical outlier—a 24-year-old with a disease that typically appeared among people in late middle age.

I had no trouble avoiding cancer websites. But I did have trouble working. It wasn’t just the demands of medical tests, consultations and hospital visits, as Lee bravely and compliantly began chemotherapy, radiation and daily self-injections, and faced two surgeries in the not-distant future. It was the fact that, even if I found a free hour, I couldn’t think about anything other than cancer. And the fact that, as a family, we were sliding into a group depression.

Lee happens to be an ebullient, generous, playful fellow. He excels at happiness and at including everyone in the fun. From a young age, he has been our family camp counselor, holiday planner and coach. He tells us when it’s time for touch football, when it’s time for charades and when it’s time to sit down and watch the Atlanta Braves on TV. He knows when we need to buy tickets and go to Turner Field instead. He knows when we need company (always), when it’s time to decorate the den for the start of the Falcons season and when I must buy the Settlers of Catan Expansion Pack for Additional Players. He knows when he and his siblings need to go to late-night bowling.

His professional life reflects his flair for play. He is a teacher and coach at a school for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. Over the last few years, he has organized sports and games for Ethiopian orphans, for children hospitalized with heart defects, for teenage Sudanese and Eritrean refugees in Israel and for destitute children in Haiti.

In the summer of 2012, Lee and Maya created a children’s recreation program in the town of Kenscoff, Haiti. When they returned, Lee, always slender, startled us because he’d lost more than 20 pounds. He insisted he was fine; he must have lost weight from eating nothing but plantains all summer and from some gastrointestinal bug. Everyone agreed it had to be an amoebic infection. Until it wasn’t.

The day the GI doc phoned with the definitive diagnosis of an enormous malignant tumor, I found Lee sitting in the dark in the living room. “How are you doing?” I asked.

“I just feel so … lucky,” he said.


“If I were Haitian, I would die of this. If I were Ethiopian, I would die of this.”

That was his stance: gratitude—for family and friends, for Emory University Hospital, for Obamacare (that allowed us to carry him, at 24, on my husband’s law firm’s insurance policy)—and humor. The day the surgeon estimated that the tumor must have been growing for a decade, we pondered the news over dinner. “Lee,” I said. “This means that middle school, high school, working in Ethiopia, gap year in Israel, college at Oberlin, college in Israel, working in Haiti, everything you have done, you have done with cancer. Now you’re starting treatment. Sometime next year, you’ll experience life without cancer for the first time since you were 13 or 14.”

“My Major League Baseball career! It’s not too late!” he cried.

“Maybe you’ll have musical or artistic gifts!” I said.

“I won’t be the slowest of the six brothers anymore!” he yelled.

But Yosef, 15, our almost-six-foot-tall Ethiopian son, corrected him: “No, Lee, you will still be the slowest.”

Lee, already a Fantasy Football League player, created additional leagues that fall so that far-flung siblings, cousins and friends from Haifa, Jerusalem, San Francisco, Oberlin, Columbus and Detroit could remain in daily touch without mentioning the one topic he didn’t want to talk about. But, as chemotherapy and radiation took up more and more of his time, his energy flagged. Little by little, he passed on pickup football and front-yard soccer and driveway basketball. Then he began declining board games. Constantly obliged to fast or to follow a liquid diet, he stopped telling us when it was a good night for pizza, when we needed fresh bagels and when he hoped I would make lasagna. Because our younger children had experienced great loss in their young lives— the four Ethiopian children had been orphaned by disease, had lost siblings to disease—sorrow ran through our house. Behind closed bedroom doors at night, teenagers were crying.

I began searching the Internet for information. Not for information about colon cancer in 24-year-olds. For information about rescue dogs. It was pure fantasy to look at their pictures and to imagine leading one away to a life of love and happiness, dogs and teenage athletes, fields and woods. Searching the shelter and rescue websites every day for an adoptable, medium-sized dog became my great escape. Like Fantasy Football, it was Not Cancer.

For an animal lover, there are few harder things to look at than photos of dogs behind bars, especially those at county shelters with significant kill ratios. I don’t know which are sadder: the lackluster eyes of dogs who have abandoned all hope, who sit with slumped shoulders gazing down at the cement, or the still-bright eyes of dogs who, with pricked ears and lifted eyebrows, believe someone is coming for them. Photos of dogs in foster homes pierced me, too, because the pups lolling across someone’s lap in a back yard, with wideopen smiles, clearly thought they had a family, when in fact they were still in limbo, their futures uncertain.

“Do you think we should get another dog?” I asked my husband one night in a high-pitched voice as though expressing a sudden passing thought.

Despite the fact that we were in the midst of a major medical emergency, my husband, Don Samuel, a criminal defense attorney, the man who had agreed every step of the way about adding another child until we ended up with nine, said yes.

“Three dogs aren’t too many dogs?”


“Franny and Theo nap most of the time now.”

“They do.”

“And they say dogs are a great consolation for people going through cancer treatment.”

“I’ve heard.”

“You know Maya never had a dog? This would be such an amazing experience for her, something fun to come home to after a long day of sitting in the chemo infusion room.”

“Definitely,” he said, wondering why I offered so many supporting arguments for an idea he’d liked instantly.

I returned to the Internet the next morning with zest. I studied the names, genders, backstories, estimated ages and guessed-at breed mixes of scores of dogs. I attended weekend pet-adoption events. But I came home with only pet food.

I didn’t rush into a commitment, because actually bringing home a dog would mean I’d have to give up my fantasy life of browsing for a dog. I wasn’t sure an actual dog could replace this vicarious escape.

Then I saw a picture of the little brown Terrier. The photograph was blurry in the foreground—because he was pushing his trembly, wet, black nose too close to the camera—and blurry in the rear—because his tail wagged so fast. He looked boyish, mischievous, something like Lady and the Tramp’s Tramp. There he is! I thought.

Typing quickly, I emailed the rescue group (from which we’d adopted our black-and-white kitty the previous summer) and said, “We’re interested! Is he still available?”

I held my breath. How could someone so cute still be available even 60 seconds after his photo went up? He was still available!

“Do you want to go meet a dog?” I asked Lee.

“What??!! Really?” he cried. “Really?”

All the kids yelled: “Really? We’re getting another dog?!”

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” I said. “We’re just going to meet one.”

That Sunday at the foster home, the first thing I saw was a curious black nose busily poking here and there through the slats of the backyard fence. I recognized that nose! And here he came, tearing into the front yard, frisking through the grass to meet everyone.

It wasn’t love at first sight for me. For me it was more: Okay. And something like: He looks nicely proportioned.

It wasn’t love at first sight for anyone. “What do you think?

What do you think?” we all asked one another.

“Let’s give him a try,” said Donny.

“Do you have a clue how he is with cats?” I asked.

“Take him home for a week,” said one of the foster dads.

“The rescue group knows your family. See how he does with your cats.”

So we led him into the car and he squashed over everybody trying to get his head out a window.

He rampaged through the house all weekend. He sprinted into my bedroom, saw me reading on the bed, jumped up and bounced off the bed, and tore out of the room. He was a steel ball in a pinball machine. We were the levers.

“Are we keeping him?” we asked one another.

“If we’re keeping him, he needs a name,” I said. I felt unsure. I felt: not in love. I felt: I can’t even fall in love with him if he doesn’t have a name. I felt suddenly aware of the work involved in assimilating a stray dog into the household. The two cats and the elderly Dachshund had already signaled thumbs-down. Only the 12-year-old Rat Terrier, Franny, approved of him; she had accepted his polite licks and gestures of youth and respect. But then, Franny was a saint. I wasn’t. I thought: Can I—should I—really take him on at this time?

But he needed a home. We had one.

God knows we needed an infusion of joie de vivre. He offered that.

“Let’s keep him,” I said.

“What are you thinking? Of course we’re keeping him!” my husband laughed.

Lee and Maya assumed the responsibility of choosing a name. By Monday night, the little fellow became Bodie. By Tuesday morning, it was as if he’d always been Bodie. Maya touched him only gingerly at first; his rough fur felt greasy to her. (She’d grown up in one of those families in which a parent pretends to be allergic to dogs; she’d never been this close to a dog before.) She startled when Bodie nestled against her leg, or when he sat up and looked her straight in the eye, apparently asking for something. To be petted? She touched the top of his head cautiously, with one finger, and he settled back down with a groan of contentment.

When Lee bathed Bodie for the first time, Maya stood back, taking pictures with her iPhone. She laughed at his slicked-down, mournful look in the bathtub, screamed when he escaped and scattered water through the house, and marveled when his fur dried to a remarkable and colorful silkiness. (According to a later doggie-DNA test, the foster dads were right: there was no Cairn in him, but one parent was purebred Yorkshire Terrier). He wasn’t a monochrome brown dog: he was streaked with hues of wood-brown, gray, khaki and gold, growing lighter from his back to his front as though he’d been held by the nose and dipped in chocolatebrown pigment, which then ran off the length of him. The soft down on his narrow chest was champagne-colored.

He adapted easily to home life, to family life. He was naturally housetrained; the modest type, he preferred to conceal himself behind a distant tree or bush for elimination. He made peace with the Dachshund and the cats within the week. He waited for permission before jumping up on our beds: he sat, hoping for a word or gesture. If you forgot to invite him up, he gave a few soft reminder yips. He joined the teenagers on their soccer fields and stole the ball. His dog manners were excellent. Somewhere I’ve read that stray dogs are often the best socialized. He was instantly popular at dog parks, glad-handing everyone, chatting everyone up. He could have run for office.

When Lee was laid up for hours or days, Bodie snuggled loyally with him. He laid his face across Lee’s sleeping body with a melancholy look and refused to leave the bed. When Lee felt a little better, he pulled himself together in order to take Bodie for a walk; through the months of intense treatment, Lee’s walks were dedicated to Bodie’s health and happiness, as if they had nothing to do with his own. He had major surgery in March 2013. On the fourth day after surgery, Lee was able to leave his hospital floor and ride the elevator down to a small park on the hospital grounds. We brought Bodie to visit him. Such joy all around!

Maya fell head-over-heels in love with her silly pup. Watching her made me wonder if it was almost worthwhile to grow up without a dog so that, at 24, you could fall in love with your first one so boundlessly and breathtakingly. Whatever he did became her little nicknames for him: “You little licker,” she cooed. “You little barker. You little muddyface.” He was smart and eager to learn. She taught him to sit, to stay, to come, to shake, to fist-bump and to roll over.

Bodie was happy all the time. He trotted, smiled and wiggled with happiness. He loved every person in our family. In parks, he ran so fast, with such freedom and joy, that he nearly took flight. From the prick of his ears to the loft of his tail, Bodie had Not Cancer written all over him.

One night, Lee announced: “We don’t think it’s possible to love anyone more than we love Bodie. Are you saying people love their children more than this?”

“Hmmm, probably,” I said.

“That’s not possible. Bodie is the cutest thing on earth,” he said.

I agreed completely! Bodie is the cutest thing on the planet! My very first instinct—my lightning-fast reaction when I first saw his photograph—had been accurate. How on earth could I have thought only, “He’s okay” and “He’s proportional” when I first met him? How was it possible, that first weekend, that we hadn’t realized we were in the presence of someone so adorable and so incredibly gifted and special? Love was absent then, so we couldn’t see clearly. Now that we’re in love, we understand that Bodie’s gifts are just like Lee’s. He lives to make friends, to have fun, to share his extraordinary sense of everyday joy.

Lee’s cancer is in remission now, the 14 months of struggle, pain and treatment nearly finished. He, Maya and Bodie moved to their own apartment (situated on a dog park and next-door to a park and jogging trail). Bodie visits our house every day and (when Lee and Maya are out late with friends) he sometimes sleeps over. Thanks to his doctors, family, friends, Maya and Bodie, Lee feels that the past year—on balance— has been a great one.