Johnny Cash is old, covered with scars, and most of his teeth are broken and jagged.
“To us, Johnny Cash was beautiful, but the average person would say he was an very unattractive dog,” said HCHS assistant manager Julie Baker.
“So when people came to the shelter looking for a pet to adopt he got passed over time and time again.”
Last week during the shelter’s “Home for the Holidays” program Johnny Cash enjoyed a reversal of fortune.
During “Home for the Holidays,” the public was invited to take home a dog for the long Thanksgiving weekend at no cost, and with no strings attached. When the weekend was over, the dog would be accepted back at the shelter.
During the week of Thanksgiving, the HCHS “loaned out” 32 dogs — nearly half its population. After Thanksgiving, only seven of those dogs were returned.
The other 25, including Johnny Cash, now have a new home and a new family.
Brandy Miller of Johnson City said she brought Johnny Cash home for Thanksgiving for the simple reason that he was the most unadoptable dog at the shelter due to his age and appearance.
Miller already had two rescue dogs. She said the only way Johnny Cash wasn’t staying permanently was if he didn’t get along with the other pets and family.
“He’s covered with scars, all of his teeth are ground down, and his tongue hangs out,” Miller said. “He is a mess, but he’s a really good dog. They said he was house trained. Good with cats. Good with kids. Good with other dogs. I have two other dogs and a cat. I felt if I didn’t take him home no one would.”
The vet estimates Johnny Cash to be between 9-12 years old, but aside from his scars and his teeth he is in good health.
It didn’t take long for Johnny Cash to get into a routine at the Miller residence.
“He knows the sound of the wrappers for the dog treats, and the sound of the dog treat container when we take off the lid,” Miller said. “He knows that when my daughter is getting her lunch made in the morning, to come out and sit in the kitchen because he’s going to get bread crumbs and crust. He’s down with the program now. He’s a very fast learner.”
She added, “At first he was scared and didn’t really know what was going on. Now when you come into the house he makes a funny howling noise because he’s glad to see you. I think he knows he’s there to stay.”
Home for the holidays was advertised simply as a temporary “fostering” program. In reality shelter manager Sandy Behnke and her staff were hoping all of the borrowed dogs would end up like Johnny Cash.
“The public thought it was a really good idea because they got to spend time with the animals and could get to know the animals before they made a commitment to any animal,” Behnke said. “We love that part of it because people were saying, there’s no way I can let this animal go now after being with it. That was the goal.”
Not everyone who took a dog home for Thanksgiving had that same goal, however.
Faith Koh of Rogersville and her two daughters spent five days with Lab mix puppy “Rudolph,” after which she actually made it through the shelter door with the intention of returning him before she had a change of heart.
Bringing Rudolph home for Thanksgiving was the idea of Koh’s daughter Julie, a sophomore at Cherokee High School.
Julie is a dog lover and a member of the NJROTC; her goal is to someday be a dog trainer for the military.
When they picked Rudolph, he was sharing a cage with five sisters who had been dropped off at the shelter the same day.
The family already had two dogs and three cats, but Koh consented to letting Julie bring Rudolph home for Thanksgiving.
Julie took care of Rudolph for five days.
All the while, Koh knew that eventually Rudolph would have to go back.
This past Wednesday morning, they got up and said their goodbyes to Rudolph.
“My daughter was crying, and the whole ride back Rudolph was crying,” Koh said. “Then I started thinking, oh gosh, suppose his mother and sisters are gone. And he’s had a week of not being in the cage and learning how to go outside. It was going to be heartbreaking.”
By the time she arrived at the shelter she decided she wanted to adopt Rudolph, but she told Baker she couldn’t afford the fee.
Baker said if they really wanted to keep Rudolph there is adoption sponsorship, and Rudolph could be theirs.
“I brought him back home, and my daughter was crying again when I walked through the door,” Koh said. “The thought of him going back in the cage after he thought we had adopted him was breaking my heart. I didn’t intend on bringing a new dog home permanently, but we fell in love.”
Unfortunately one of the realities of every day life at the HCHS shelter is not everybody treats animals as kindly as the Miller and Koh family.
A good example is a year-old Plott Hound that the shelter staff named Duke.
He was found walking along Highway 11-W a week before going home for Thanksgiving with Sandra Valadares of Mount Carmel.
Valadares said it was obvious to her that Duke had been abused. He had two scars, one on his throat and one on his back, that appear to have been caused by an arrow.
They brought him home the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
“He was real skiddish at first, but now he sleeps on the couch, he sleeps in my bed,” she said. “He takes up my bed. It took him less than a day to fit in, and now he’s part of out family. He’s not going anywhere.”
But he wouldn’t answer to Duke, or any other name they tried. When Valadares asked him if he wanted a bone, however, he responded with enthusiasm, so the renamed him “Bones.”
In less than a day, they decided Bones was going to stay.
“He’s just as lovable as can be,” Valadares said. “I couldn’t put him back. Not that the animal shelter is bad, but he deserved a home. I’m at a place where I can give that. I have two other dogs and I love him to death now.”
It’s not hard for HCHS staff to become angry at times when they find animals that have been abused and/or neglected. Small victories like last week’s “Home for the Holidays” keep them going.
“Working here and seeing some of the conditions people keep their animals, you can lose your faith in humanity,” Baker said. “And then we see people come in and do this, and it restores it.”