Back in May, Stephanie Smith-Justus got a call from a worried neighbor. He had just seen a dog who was in dire need of help and he didn’t know what to do.
Smith-Justus, who works for her local city shelter and also runs the no-kill Buchanan County Humane Society in Virginia, grabbed her husband and ran down to the end of her street where the neighbor said he had seen the dog.
After scouring the wooded forest area, she was ready to give up. But just then her husband found the dog, lying in a patch of weeds at the end of the road. “He said, ‘Stephanie, I don’t think he’s going to live,’” Smith-Justus told The Dodo.
“At first he looked like he’d been scalded,” Smith-Justus said. At just 4 months old, the puppy was covered with a serious case of demodectic mange that he likely caught from his mother. “It was so severe,” she explained. “Just imagine like a second-degree burn.”
As luck would have it, a vet had just moved into a house down the street, and Smith-Justus and her husband gathered up the little dog and ran there. “We didn’t even knock on the door,” she said. “I just ran in her house with him.”
The vet took one look at the dog, who was later named Watkins after the street where he was found, and knew it was bad. “She told me he was dying,” Smith-Justus said.
They rushed him to the vet’s clinic, where they realized his skin was just the beginning. He had been shot repeatedly with a pellet gun. He weighed just 34 pounds, and had gone so long without eating that his intestines had collapsed.
And because he had been so malnourished, his ankles hadn’t developed properly. “His tendons had lost their elasticity,” Smith-Justus explained. “He couldn’t stand up on on the pads of his paws. He sort of flopped down on his wrists … it was just painful to watch him walk.”
The mange had taken such a hold that his little body was about to give out. “He was just oozing with fluids,” Smith-Justus said, explaining that there was an 8-inch wet patch surrounding him wherever he sat. “He was just so swollen.”
Smith-Justus was heartbroken by Watkins’ condition and wanted to save him, but her top priority was doing what was kindest.
“If he’s that bad, if you need to euthanize him, I understand, but I want to do what’s best for him,” she told the vet. “And she said, ‘Let’s save him.’”
But it wasn’t easy. Just a short time after being rushed to the clinic Watkins’ bowels twisted and he was rushed into emergency surgery, which the vet didn’t expect him to come out of.
“She told me he wouldn’t live, and to say goodbye, and I did,” Smith-Justus said. “And the next morning, he was going strong.”
But a few weeks later he took another turn for the worst. He stopped eating, dropping from 34 pounds down to 17, and had to have a feeding tube implanted – which he then chewed off. “It was like a comedy of errors,” Smith-Justus said of his recovery.
Watkins spent a total of 119 days living at the vet’s office and, briefly, at Virginia Tech’s ICU. And as he slowly fought his way back to health from his rough start in life, something equally touching began to happen.
Smith-Justus began to receive an outpouring of support from people all over the world who had heard Watkins’ story and wanted to cheer him on his way to recovery. Blankets and dog beds began to pour in from all over the U.S. and even internationally; one family even came from several states away to visit him.
Of course, he wasn’t quite free of doctors yet. Every Tuesday he had to go to the vet to be treated for an ongoing ear infection, and every Thursday he had to do a sort of “puppy chemo” to wipe out the demodectic mange .
But he continued to surprise everyone with his determination. When his legs still weren’t working properly Smith-Justus made an appointment to get them looked at. But right before she took him, Watkins took another huge step – literally. “He just got up and started walking like he was supposed to,” Smith-Justus said. “I have no explanation for it.”
Over the next several months Watkins took bigger and bigger steps forward – and though he’s still recovering today, he’s much closer to a happy, healthy 10-month-old puppy than anyone would have thought possible.
And he’s continually rewarding Smith-Justus and her friends and family with his ongoing improvement. For example, he used to be afraid of cars and weed eaters but now he loves car rides. He’s gaining back confidence and has already gotten stronger from running around in the yard – which he learned to do without crying just a few weeks ago.
“He’s such a joy; he’s such a pleasant dog,” she said. “He grew stronger, his skin started improving, his ears started improving.”
He also found a best friend in his stuffed lobster, which Watkins likes to keep in his water bowl until it’s bedtime and he fetches him to cuddle with.
And considering Watkins’ tough start in life, he’s surprisingly full of love. When Smith-Justus recently took in a group of soot-covered kittens and their mother who had been injured in a house fire, Watkins stepped right in to adopt them as his own, cleaning them as their wary mother looked on.
Watkins still has a long way to go, and he currently takes Prozac to help with the stress of his medical treatments. But each passing day reveals more of the little puppy who was buried under all the trauma that Watkins experienced in his young life.
“The doctors at Virginia Tech told me that they hoped and prayed for him, but they were not giving him a very high chance of survival … he surprised us all,” she said. “He’s a miracle, he really is.”