Left for dead, rescued pit bull becomes therapy dog
April 8, 2018
During a chilly winter morning a hiker called into the town of Truckee Animal Services to report a stray dog on Donner Summit.
Such calls aren't all that uncommon, but the circumstances of this one made last year, and what happened next, were anything but ordinary.
"It's not abnormal at all for animals to be abandoned in our community, we bring in strays that are unclaimed into this facility on a very consistent basis," said Stephanie Nistler, Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe executive director. "Her condition is something we don't see all the time … it was certainly on the extreme side."
Officers brought the dog, a female pit bull, into the humane society that morning, but her condition was dire. She had an open wound on her head, was severely underweight, and had been exposed to the elements for an unknown amount of time.
One thing was clear, however, the animal had been treated terribly.
"She was in really rough shape. She was emaciated and had a head wound that was consistent with some kind of trauma," said Nistler. "So she came in here and we immediately started her on a road to recovery, provided treatments, and started giving the TLC she needed so that she could become well."
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During procedures to address her wounds, Nistler said the pit bull, then named Angel, was extremely relaxed and put up little resistance with the staff, giving the humane society hope she would one day be put on the adoption floor.
'Truly meant for us'
Brittany Dowda and her fiancé Matt Risse had decided they wanted to add another dog to their family.
Dowda already owned a male pit bull/American bulldog mix. So the two made a trip to the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe to see if they could find their dog a running mate.
"We knew we wanted to start looking for another dog. We walked past her cage, and she had like a cone on her head and had a red tag on her window that said, 'Not ready for adoption,'" said Dowda. "And so we weren't quite sure. Does she have aggression issues? Is she OK? What's wrong with her, why isn't she ready for adoption?"
As it turned out, the dog had only recently been deemed ready for adoption by the center, and the tag just hadn't been removed.
"We asked the adoption specialist there and she gave us her story. It was truly meant to be for us," Dowda said. "When we walked into the little kennel she was in, she literally melted in my fiancé's arms and he's like, 'This is her, this is it.'"
The pit bull didn't look like much at the time said Dowda. Her ears had been cropped by a previous owner, she had the head wound, she was also still underweight, and struggled with vision and hearing. The dog also constantly leaned her head to the right, which inspired a new name from her owners.
"We thought she was going to be like that forever, which is why we called her Leana," said Dowda.
With all animals that are adopted from the humane society, owners are encouraged to quickly take their new pets to a veterinarian.
Upon arrival at the veterinarian's office, the couple found out Leana leaned her head to the right because of a severe ear infection. The wound on the top of her head was discovered to be even more nefarious — the result of a gunshot.
Fragments of the bullet are still lodged in Leana's skull, and they are the reason Dowda believes Leana has a hard time with her vision and hearing.
Though the young pit bull had suffered untold trauma and would require a lot of work to nurse her back to health, the couple was set on giving her a chance. There was something special about Leana.
"We brought her home and just tried working with her, because she really didn't know how to be a dog," said Dowda. "She didn't know how to live in a house, she didn't know how to play with anything."
Still, Dowda said Leana quickly found comfort in her other dog, using him to gauge unfamiliar situations and surroundings.
"He's really helped in training her and showing her the ropes," she said.
Dowda suspects Leana had been involved in pit bull fighting in her past, because of genetics, cut ears and how she first acted around other dogs.
"She was clearly bred to look this way. She came from somebody who knew what they were doing, so to speak, when they were breeding because she has all of the characteristics that somebody who wants a true pit bull would look for," she said.
"She was always on edge around other dogs, because she thought they were going to attack her or something. Once we started socializing her and putting her around other dogs, that went out the window. Now I can take her anywhere around other dogs and she doesn't do anything."
There have been a number of dog-fighting rings, according to stories from CBS and NBC, which have been broken up by California police in recent years.
"We know she wasn't treated well, and we know someone tried to end her life," said Nistler. "Those are the facts, those are the things we know. She did have a terrible life leading up to us, there's no question about that, so it's wonderful that she has such a great life now."
Dowda and the humane society also suspect Leana at one time had puppies due to her large nipples.
Giving Back to the community
Despite a traumatic early life, Dowda said Leana is as kind a dog as any, and because of that she and her fiancé began searching for ways Leana could give back.
"My fiancé has a little nephew, who has special needs, and they brought him over," Dowda said. "She was so drawn to him and really just stayed by his side the whole time and catered to him. That's when we realized, maybe she could be a therapy dog."
The couple reached out to the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe and enrolled Leana in training in order to get certified to help at schools and hospitals.
"They were amazing, they walked us through every step," Dowda said. "They saw huge potential in her and helped us with getting her training, and then she was given the CGC test, which is the Canine Good Citizen test, which she passed. From there we went to schools and hospitals, and now we do presentations sharing awareness of rescuing."
The training was extensive according to Dowda, but Leana passed each step with flying colors and is now helping to give back to the Truckee community.
For the past few months she has been participating in the humane society's reading program Read Up For Fun (RUFF), which pairs dogs with children who are struggling with reading. Instead of reading to adults, which can be overwhelming, the children instead practice reading to Leana.
"Every Tuesday she does reading therapy at a local elementary school," Dowda said. "For kids who have a harder time reading, she does one-on-one with them, and they sit and read to her. It's less intimidating than reading to people."
It's through Leana and programs like RUFF, Dowda said she hopes to dispel stereotypes surrounding pit bulls and rescue dogs, while encouraging people to adopt dogs and possibly in turn use them to help out in their communities.
"Just because your dog is a rescue dog doesn't mean it's subpar. You can utilize these dogs to give back to the community and that's what we want to do. We gave her a chance, and now she's giving back to the community that saved her," said Dowda.
"All of these dogs have back stories, but a lot of these dogs want to give back. They want a job … there's going to be a lot of rescue dogs that aren't meant to be a therapy dog, but there's a lot that are as well."
For those at the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe there are few stories better than seeing a rescued dog go to a good home, and then have that animal come back to help serve the community.
"We're just so lucky that she was able to be saved, and that's thanks to Truckee Animal Services, Placer County Animal Services, the Humane Society, and of course her new adopters, who gave her a chance. It takes a village sometimes," said Nistler.
"There's hardly anything that makes our hearts swell more than seeing a dog who didn't have a great start to life, make it to our shelter, we turn their life around, they get adopted by these wonderful people, and then they spend the rest of their life giving back."
For information on adopting a pet or the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe's pet therapy programs visit HSTT.org.
"We have a prolific program in our community," said Nistler. "We offer a lot of really cool programs for therapy dogs, and many of the dogs in the program are directly adopted from our shelter."
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Truckee Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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