Stephanie Smith-Justus received a call from a concerned neighbor in May. He’d just observed a dog in desperate need of assistance and had no idea what to do.
Smith-Justus, who works at a city shelter and also runs the no-kill Buchanan County Humane Society in Virginia, grabbed her husband and dashed down to the end of her street, where a neighbor said he saw the dog.
She was ready to give up after combing the dense woodland region. But then her husband discovered the dog, who was lying in a patch of weeds at the end of the road. “‘Stephanie, I don’t think he’s going to live,’” he said. Smith-Justus revealed to The Dodo.
“At first, he appeared to have been scalded,” Smith-Justus said. At only 4 months old, the puppy was covered in a severe case of demodectic mange, which he had most likely inherited from his mother. “It was quite bad,” she stated. “Think of it as a second-degree burn.”
As it happened, a vet had recently moved into a house down the block, so Smith-Justus and her husband scooped the small puppy and dashed there. “We didn’t even knock,” she explained. “I simply raced in with him into her house.”
The vet saw the dog, subsequently named Watkins after the street where he was discovered, and sensed something was wrong. “She claimed he was dying,” Smith-Justus explained.
They took him to the vet’s office, where they discovered his skin was only the beginning of his problems. He’d been shot with a pellet gun many times. He weighed only 34 pounds and had not eaten for so long that his intestines had collapsed.
His ankles had not formed correctly as a result of his malnutrition. Smith-Justus said, “His tendons had lost their flexibility.” “He couldn’t even stand on his paw pads. It was unpleasant to see him walk because he flopped down on his wrists.”
His small body was on the verge of collapsing due to the mange. “He was literally pouring with fluids,” Smith-Justus recalled, describing an 8-inch wet area that surrounded him wherever he sat. “He was just so puffy.”
Smith-Justus was devastated by Watkins’ situation and really wanted to help him, but her first priority was to do what was kindest.
“If he’s so terrible, if you need to euthanize him, I understand,” she told the vet, “but I want to do what’s best for him.” “‘Let’s help him,’ she urged.”
It wasn’t simple, though. Watkins’ bowels twisted shortly after being transported to the clinic, and he was hurried into emergency surgery, from which the doctor did not expect him to recover.
“She told me he wouldn’t live and that I should say good-by,” Smith-Justus claimed. “And he was still going strong the next morning.”
But a few weeks later, things went from bad to worse. He stopped eating, losing 34 pounds and having to have a feeding tube placed, which he later chewed off. Smith-Justus described his rehabilitation as “a comedy of mistakes.”
Watkins spent 119 days at the vet’s office and temporarily in Virginia Tech’s intensive care unit. And, as he battled his way back to health after a difficult start in life, something equally poignant began to happen.
Smith-Justus began to receive messages of encouragement from individuals all around the world who had heard Watkins’ story and wanted to wish him well on his road to recovery. Blankets and dog beds began to arrive from all across the United States and even abroad; one family traveled several states to see him.
A Facebook page dedicated to documenting his experience now has over 12,000 followers.
“His photographs and his tale must have struck a chord with them in the same way that it did with me,” Smith-Justus said.
And, owing to Watkins’ army of supporters – and his tenacity – he was able to return home with Smith-Justus on July 11.
Of course, he wasn’t completely free of physicians. Every Tuesday, he had to go to the doctor for an ongoing ear infection, and every Thursday, he had to perform “puppy chemo” to get rid of the demodectic mange.
But his persistence continued to astound everyone. When his legs continued to malfunction, Smith-Justus scheduled an appointment to have them examined. But, just as she was about to take him, Watkins took another giant stride – literally. “He immediately stood up and began walking as he was supposed to,” Smith-Justus explained. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Watkins gradually improved over the following several months, and while he’s still recuperating today, he’s far closer to becoming a happy, healthy 10-month-old puppy than anybody could have predicted.
And he’s always rewarding Smith-Justus and her friends and family with his progress. He used to be scared of vehicles and weed eaters, but now he enjoys car journeys. He’s regaining confidence and has already grown stronger by running about in the yard, something he only learnt to do a few weeks ago without crying.
“He’s such a delight; such a nice puppy,” she said. “He became stronger, his skin improved, and his ears improved.”
Watkins also found a best friend in his toy lobster, which he keeps in his water bowl until evening and then fetches to snuggle with.
And, despite his difficult upbringing, Watkins is unexpectedly full of love. Watkins leapt straight in to adopt a bunch of soot-covered kittens and their mother who had been damaged in a home fire when Smith-Justus recently took them in, washing them as their mother gazed on.
Watkins has a long road ahead of him, and he is now taking Prozac to deal with the stress of his medical procedures. But each new day shows more of the tiny dog that was buried behind all of Watkins’ childhood pain.
“The physicians at Virginia Tech informed me that they hoped and prayed for him, but they didn’t think he had a good chance of life… he marveled us all,” she added. “He really is a miracle.”
If you’d want to contribute to Watkins’ ongoing veterinary expenses, you may do so here.
If you want to help guarantee that more dogs aren’t abandoned like Watkins, you may give one a permanent home; go to Adopt-a-Pet.com to find needy dogs in your area.