Pet Loss Grief Support Animals in our Hearts  Animal Communication Teresa Wagner
  • "On this globe there is almost endless diversity. Nevertheless, the greater fact is that when it comes to the treasures of the soul, differences vanish. In the place of the heart, only one light shines. This light is the same in all beings."

    -Gurumayi Chidvilasananda

Animal Communication


I live in Oklahoma City, but holiday season often takes me to the home of my brother, who lives in the country far to the southwest of the city, off a state highway, down a county line gravel road. Last year, on Christmas Eve I went to visit my brother and his wife. It was 21° F and snowing, the air made even colder by a sharp wind, which buffeted my little two door Honda Accord as I made my way towards their home. It would be the first white Christmas Oklahoma City had seen in 30 years.

Driving down that gravel road flanked by empty alfalfa fields about a mile from his house, my headlights lit up an animal’s eyes in the distance. I slowed down thinking it was a deer, as there are many in the area, but was surprised to find that it was a big German Shepard standing on the road staring me down.

She was a female with semi-full breasts, who had obviously just had pups. I slowed to a stop to get a better view of her and saw that she was not in good shape. Covered in mud, she began to move nervously around the car. When I rolled down my window and called out to her she barked at me and moved away, each bark leaving a long vapor trail in the air. She didn’t have a collar that I could see but I could make out her beautiful black and brown markings. As she backed into the frozen night I lost my focus on her against the darkness.

That was my first meeting with Heidi.

I went on to my brother’s house and asked if he had seen the Shepard. He said that he had seen her the day before. “She probably belongs to a neighbor,” he said. But I still wondered. I then spoke to my sister-in-law, who also said that she had seen the dog and was sure she was a drop off. “I’ve seen her the past couple of mornings,” she said. “She’s always sitting there by that small red and white cardboard box. Probably someone abandoned her there and she’s waiting for him to return. People dump their dogs out here all the time. We’re always feeding them or taking them to the rescue shelter.”

She spoke with authority. She and my brother had rescued numerous dogs over the years. Every holiday when I would visit them they’d have a new dog, or would have lost one. She said that the people in the area are always taking abandoned dogs over to Pets and People, the rescue shelter in Yukon that is famous for giving these poor animals, as well as those saved from the city pound, a new lease on life (see them at

I spent a restless night at my brother’s and went back home on Christmas day. On the gravel road outside his house I saw the small cardboard box but didn’t see Heidi. I left some food and water for her there that my sister-in-law had prepared.

On Christmas night the wind was howling as I came back out to my brother’s house. Heidi was there at her post, the little cardboard box, waiting for that son of bitch who dropped her off, while freezing in the cold.

At dinner we talked about her and I continued to worry for her welfare. My sister-in-law suggested I again take something for her to eat on my way out. “At least she won’t be hungry tonight,” she said.

My brother went with me up the road that night so I could show her to him. We looked all over for her but she wasn’t at her box. She had eaten all the food I had left the night before, so I left more food and water for her and hoped for the best. After dropping off my brother back at his house, I returned home. On the way I once again passed Heidi’s spot and this time I saw her eating the food I had left there only minutes earlier. I stopped my car about 20 feet in front of her so that my headlights would light up the area and got out to see if she would come with me.

The wind cut right through my coat as I squatted down across the road from her in order for her to see me in the headlights. She just barked at me, a very loud and mean bark. I soon realized that trying to make friends in the dark did not have a high likelihood of success, and anyway I was freezing, so I got back in my car and went home.

That night back at home, I spoke to my wife about Heidi. Our two dogs, both rescues themselves, were curled up on the sofa (their sofa) as we spoke. “If you’re worried about her, let’s go tomorrow and see if we can get her in the car and take her to Pets and People,” she said. “Maybe in the daylight she’ll be more trusting.”

So, the day after Christmas my wife and I went to my brother’s house to see if we could rescue Heidi. On the 45-minute drive, we didn’t talk much, both of us a little apprehensive. When we arrived she was there waiting, curled up next to her little box. My wife was surprised how big she was. I pulled off the road up onto a ridge and we got out to meet her.

Heidi seemed to be more afraid of me than of my wife so I waited in the car with the passenger side door open and the front seat folded forward hoping that Heidi would voluntarily get in the car. Dropping treats closer and closer to the car, my wife finally had Heidi taking treats from her hand. My wife, nearly frostbitten, got into the back seat and called to her to get in the car.

Heidi stuck her head into the car and sniffed around. I’m sure she picked up the scent of our other dogs in the car as well as ancient fries and breadcrumbs hiding in the tiny spaces a vacuum cleaner nozzle can’t go. She finally put her two front feet into the car. Standing on the passenger side rear floorboard she stretched out her neck to get to a treat my wife had placed on the back seat. She took it, lifted her head up and looked right into my eyes as she chewed.

Her head was as big as mine and it was wearing a poker face. For what seemed like a very long time, I wondered what would happen if she were to wrap her jaws around my head real quick, like a pair of pliers on a pecan. But she simply stepped back out of the car. Another treat and another call to her brought her back in, front feet only again, but this time she sniffed me and gave me a little lick on the hand. “I like you, too,” I said.

But when we tried to close the door, she gracefully backed out, not yet sure of what was happening. She walked around the car, her shoulders reaching up to the window of my car door. She moved around in front of the car and stood up on the hood with her two front feet, looking into the front window as if inspecting us. Big dog.

After she got down off of the hood, she slowly went back down to the road, looking up and down it as if to see if that son of bitch might be coming back. While she was there I got out of the car and tied a rope onto the passenger side door handle so that I could close it from the driver’s seat without reaching over and startling her. We called her back and tried the treat on the back seat once more. She stepped in with all four feet this time but just as quickly stepped back out. So, another treat was placed on the back seat and we called to her again.

This time Heidi ignored our calls, walked to the back of the car and stared out into the distance. I watched her out of the rear window as she sniffed the wind. She then let out a long, mournful howl. The kind of howl you hear in the movies. Head raised, eyes closed, a break-your-heart howl. “She’s crying out for that son of a bitch who left her out here,” I thought. “What loyalty.”

Finished with her howl she lowered her head and slowly walked back to the open passenger side door. We called her into the car with the treat and she slowly crept in. First the front two feet, then her right back foot. Her left back foot was stuck on the ground for a long time as she chewed the treat. My wife called to her, “It’s OK sweetie, come on in.” She slowly raised her left foot into the car and as she did I closed the door.

After a tense second or two, she just sat down in the rear seat directly behind me, her head almost touching the ceiling. My wife and I were jubilant. I carefully backed the car down off the ridge and back onto the gravel road, happy knowing that at least tonight she wouldn’t be sleeping in a drainage ditch out in open country in freezing weather.

Just as were approaching the highway I spotted my sister-in-law coming down the road from the opposite direction. “So, you got her! Congratulations!” she said as we pulled up alongside each other, our windows only halfway down to cut the wind chill. She continued, “I think that box contained her puppies, you know. That’s why she wouldn’t leave the spot. Whoever dumped her probably dumped her puppies there also so she wouldn’t try to follow him back home. Coyotes probably got to them.”

I was too cold and happy at the moment to digest that thought so I simply said, “Well, she’s OK now. We’re going to take her to Pets and People.” We exchanged some other news and said so long. I rolled up my window and checked to make sure the heater was on high.

As we got off of the gravel road onto the state highway the car became quiet. I could see Heidi’s face in the rearview mirror, her ears gone floppy. My wife asked from the back seat, “What did she say? I couldn’t hear.”

“She said that whoever dropped her off also dumped her puppies. That’s what was in the box. That’s why she wouldn’t leave that spot. She was waiting for her puppies to return.”

“What happened to the puppies?”

“She said that the coyotes probably got to them.”

“How pitiful, “ my wife lamented.

Then it hit me. She wasn’t howling back there to her son of a bitch master, she was howling to say a last goodbye to her puppies. She had waited and waited but they never returned and she couldn’t find them. She knew we were taking her away and this was her last chance to say goodbye.

In the rearview mirror I could see that my wife was also crying. We drove slowly with the windows slightly cracked so that Heidi could have some fresh air, and to air out the car as she had a really bad smell.

Finally, I said, “Let’s keep her. Let’s take her home. I don’t want to just drop her off at Pets and People.” My wife agreed and we went straight home with her.

She rode in the car sitting in the back seat like she had been doing it all her life. Not even slightly nervous, she licked my wife’s face and sniffed the back of my head, then gave it a lick. “She’s a beautiful dog,” my wife observed. “Clean teeth. Nice markings. She sure is stinky though.”

When we got home my other two dogs were intimidated. Their meeting did not go well. But first things first. We wanted to take her to the vet and get her checked out. So, I got her back in the car and took her to PetsMart to visit the vet there, Banfield Pet Hospital.

The staff there knows my dogs and me very well, as we seem to visit them monthly with some ailment or another. When checking her in they asked me her name. I hadn’t even thought about naming her. “Heidi,” I said. The name just bubbled up in my mind from out of nowhere. Heidi, the little German girl I remembered from that movie so long ago. “Heidi’s her name.”

They allowed me to take her back to a large, indoor run they have for big dogs. They laid out some blankets and put food and water out for her. I closed the gate and told her I’d be back in a few hours. The vet, Dr. Meyers, said she’d be able to check her out in a little while so I went on home.

I came back to Banfield some hours later to see how things were going. Dr. Meyers came out to see me. She wasn’t wearing her usual smile. “There are some complications,” she said.

My heart sank and I sat down.

“Heidi’s been sprayed by a skunk and has also been bitten on her face. She was so covered in mud that we couldn’t tell when you brought her in. We cleaned her up a bit and found the face wound. I have to assume that the skunk that sprayed her also bit her and that she has a very high risk of rabies.”

Rabies? I never even considered it. Old Yeller’s miserable death came to mind.

“Skunks are the major carrier of rabies and if the skunk that bit her was rabid and Heidi has not been vaccinated, she’ll have to be put down.”

Put down – that terrible euphemism. Those two words made me turn my head away from the vet so she wouldn’t see my eyes.

“Because we don’t know anything about her history, we can’t assume anything. Being a stray, we have to assume she hasn’t been vaccinated. I’m sorry but I have to tell you that her chances are slim. There is nothing we can do for her if she has been infected. We can’t even get her cleaned up because the groomer requires the dog to have been vaccinated. So, in this case perhaps the best thing to do is to euthanize her. It’s your choice, of course, as you brought her in.”

What else could go wrong for this poor creature? Dumped by a heartless owner in the freezing cold along with her puppies, who were taken by coyotes for a meal, she then got sprayed and bitten by a rabid skunk while looking for them or for food. She’s such a good-natured dog. Why has such misery been visited upon her?

I am overwhelmed and can barely speak. “Is there no other way? Is it money?” I ask.

“Well, the only way to make sure that she is not rabid is to observe her for a couple months or more. Then if she doesn’t develop any symptoms, it is safe to assume that the skunk wasn’t rabid.”

“This dog is going to live,” I declare. “I want her to have whatever she needs and want for nothing. If she only lives for one week, it will be the happiest week she will have ever had. I’m not giving up on her.”

“OK,” Dr. Meyers deadpanned. “We’ll treat her wounds and put her on antibiotics. We’ll give her a rabies booster vaccination, just in case she was previously vaccinated, her immune system will get pumped up a notch. And let’s hope for the best. Leave her here for a few days until we’ve stabilized the mouth wound, then you can take her home.”

I went back to the run where they were keeping her. When she saw me she sat up, showing me that poker face. I opened the gate and got into the run with her. In that small area the work the skunk had done was almost overpowering. I squatted down to pet her and she nuzzled her head into my chest. All of this suffering and she still could trust, I thought. Tears streamed down my face. “Don’t worry, girl, you’re safe,” I said. “The bad times are over. You’re with me now.”

I sat down and let her lie down with her head in my lap. She was exhausted and sleepy, having just finished off a big bowl of food. She closed her eyes for a couple of minutes, then suddenly raised her head up away from me and let out a long whine, almost a howl. Then she looked me straight in the eye.

“I’m sorry, Heidi, I don’t know what happened to them. But you did your best to protect them,” I said. The vet had shaved the fur off of her left cheek to expose the wound for treatment. It looked bad. But I also saw bite marks on her legs. I think it was coyotes, not a skunk that attacked her. There were probably 4 or 5 coyotes in the pack. While she was fighting them off, a couple of others probably grabbed the puppies and ran off. Once they had the puppies the attackers dispersed leaving her wounded and bewildered.

I wasn’t sure how the skunk fit in, other than to make a bad situation worse. Maybe she was infected with rabies. Or maybe the face bite belonged to the coyotes and the skunk had just sprayed her. I could never be sure. But watching her resting there on a blanket in that little run, wounded in body and spirit, I could be certain of one thing: I had some deep, inexplicable attraction to this unfortunate dog. In a way unlike with my other two dogs, something was drawing me toward her.

She had the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen. I’d noticed them on that first night. Big, deep, reddish-brown eyes and ears the size of a first baseman’s mitt. She put her head back down in my lap and sighed. I stroked the side of her neck as she gazed up at me. Like a surviving warrior who had returned from the battlefield, she was wounded but alive.

What a tragedy. How could such a beautiful and loving dog be repaid with such suffering? The more I thought about her situation the sadder I became and I could see that it was making Heidi feel worse. So, I bucked up and tried to raise her spirits. She listened to me for a while and then, without a sound, got up and put her head deep into my chest again. “I love you, too, Heidi.” I said, never having said those words so earnestly.

I finally left her there and went back to see the vet. “I’d like to stop by as much as I can to take her for walks.”

“That’ll be fine,” said Dr. Meyers. “Come whenever you like.”

So, over the next few days I took her out for walks a couple of times a day. Whenever I’d show up she’d get excited and stand up on her back feet like a bear and hug me, smiling a big smile. She was so easy to walk, never pulling the lead and quickly coming to heel. I couldn’t tell whether she’d been trained or simply had good instincts, but she made it feel as though I had raised her from a pup.

Each day there was a marked improvement in her. Her appetite had grown, her breasts had begun to shrink back up and our walks became more energetic. After five days the vet released her to me to take home and observe. By then the entire staff at the vet’s had become attached to her. “She’ll be fine,” they said. “She’s got a great spirit.” That she was released on December 31st was fitting, I thought. She would start her new life on New Year’s Eve.

But she still reeked of skunk. My wife and I gave her a bath and a final rinse with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda and Dawn dish soap. We got that mix off the Internet. It worked wonders. She ended up smelling like a flower. A flower with big brown eyes who was possibly infected with rabies, marking time until her petals would all fall sadly to the ground.

Rabies is serious business. I called the State Health Department and learned all about the disease. “Well, we’ve only had a few cases of rabies in dogs this year,” said John Bos, the head rabies guru in Oklahoma City. “Skunk bites are the reason in 99% of the cases.”

Once again my heart sank.

“But if she was bitten in the face area, you should see developments within 10 days. Rabies attacks the brain and a bite near the brain moves faster than one on the leg or tail. In any case, it should take no longer than two months from the date of the bite. If the dog has shown no symptoms by that time, the chance of her developing rabies is almost nil.”

“What are the symptoms? Foaming at the mouth?”

“Well that’s the Hollywood version. Sure, that has happened and it usually correlates with aggressive behavior – the Old Yeller template. But in most cases, it is a rapid degeneration of muscle facility and high level of mental confusion. It will happen quickly. There will be little doubt. If you’ve ever seen a dog kicked in the head by a horse, it’s similar to that.”

“And is there the possibility of cross infection to us or to our dogs?”

“Most definitely. The highest probability would be via a bite: saliva-to-blood contact. But a saliva-to-saliva contact is also possible, though it has a lower probability. But if your dogs are vaccinated they are 100% safe. We’re very certain about our rabies vaccination. It is extremely rare for a vaccinated dog to become infected with rabies, thank goodness. But humans are at risk.”

“So after 10 days we’ve past a major milestone but we really can’t be certain until after two months.”

“Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. I wish you the best. Sounds like you’ve got a winner on your hands, though.”

With that encouragement I hung up the phone and looked at Heidi. “Five days to go, sweetie.” She just smiled back.

And so we began to carefully monitor Heidi, watching for symptoms. Her water bowl was always separate from our other dogs’ water, and we avoided her licks. The real possibility of infection was to my wife and I. So, behind our dread that we may lose Heidi to the disease was the specter of our own infection.

Each day passed slowly as we monitored Heidi. Each night left us grateful for an uneventful day yet left us anxious of the next. She passed the 10-day mark without displaying symptoms and I returned with her to the vet for a check up. “She’s doing much better,” said Dr. Meyers. “She’s stabilized and the wound is healing nicely.”

Indeed, as the face wound cleared up and her fur grew back in, she looked even more beautiful. All the staff came over to her to give their regards. “She’s a great dog,” said one. “I’ve never seen a Shepard with such a good disposition,” said another. “She’s happy because now she has a home.” Their enthusiasm lifted my spirits yet I knew we still had six weeks to go before we could really celebrate.

Our walks together continued whenever I had time. Watching her walk was like watching the movements of a panther or lion. She walked with such grace, crouched low, shoulder blades alternatively knifing the air over her back, her head low to the ground sniffing out information. Her ears, like phased-array radar, pointed instantly at any sound. The slightest threat put her into a front tackle’s three-point stance, rear legs at 45° angles with front legs and neck perpendicular to the ground. When viewed from the front she looked twice her size. A whispered command from me brings her to my side, standing at ease with her radar-ears at ready.

She’s a man-sized dog, a man’s dog, and men who see her show an instant interest in her. Women shoo their children away with “That dog could eat you for breakfast!” warnings. But men treat her differently. At first they stop, a little intimidated by her poker face, and show her respect by standing still. But the apprehension soon turns to a warm glow in their eyes. “Nice dog,” they say, without fail.

Perhaps they once had a Shepard and know the breed or perhaps they can feel her strength and are showing admiration. Either way they always give me a nod and move on, passing up on the desire to come over and pet her, sensing that they cannot come between my dog and me.

It is on our walks alone, away from people and distractions, that I feel that unusually strong bond. Sometimes she is at my side and at other times she is investigating a sound or scent. She neither follows nor leads but always seems to go where I want to go. In sharp contrast to my other dogs, who are constantly distracted and excited about being on a walk, Heidi’s interest seems solely to be in me. She is always on duty, always standing by, weapon at ready.

During our walks I would look for any sign of the advance of rabies – confusion or muscle twitches – all the while praying that no sign would appear. Each day I greeted our walk with trepidation, hoping that the day would bring her new strength and not weakness.

On one such walk we came around the corner of a building and were startled by two gangbanger wannabes coming the other direction, in standard uniform including the baggy pants and $200 sneakers. They made eye contact with me first, showing off their well-practiced sneers. But then their eyes lowered and they caught sight of Heidi. She had already sensed their vibes and moved in directly between us, her neck straight up, body in the three-point stance, radar ears locked on target. Absorbing the situation, the wannabes froze in their tracks, pupils of their eyes reducing to smaller and smaller dots, as the whites surrounding them grew ever larger.

For a few seconds, everyone stood motionless, the young men holding their breath. I let the situation hang long enough to see Heidi’s reaction. Her hackles up, she was prepared to launch at the slightest sign of a threat. I then gently pulled her lead and softly said, “It’s OK, girl. It’s OK.”

With that her targets snapped themselves back into character, putting the sneer that had fallen so suddenly from their faces back on as quickly as they could. But the expression didn’t adhere well and I could see twitches at the corner of their mouths, the adrenaline still demanding that they either fight or flee. They shuffled off, their pride (and their underwear, probably) still suffering the indignity of their confrontation with Heidi.

Heidi kept her flanks toward me and the business end of her body pointing at the quickly retreating threat. Not until they were half a football field away did she respond to my tugs on her lead. She then swung around and rubbed against my leg as she trotted ahead. A lump rose in my throat in response to Heidi’s instinctive reaction to protect me. She is for me. And I am for her.

Please, oh please, God, don’t let her die.

The four-week marker passed by and there were still no signs of rabies symptoms. My guard began to come down as Heidi settled into her routine at our house. We had to keep her separate from our other dogs for fear of infection, but also because Heidi showed a distinct hostility to them. Whether out of jealousy or desire to become the alpha, she was a real danger to our dogs.

Because of this my wife and I took pains to insure that she was in her kennel anytime the other dogs were out, and vice versa. In spite of our best efforts, however, one night she somehow flipped the latches of her kennel, escaping into the living room. She went directly to our male beagle and attacked. I was in the bedroom when I heard my wife’s screams coming from the other side of the house. I blew through the hallways out to the living room where I saw Heidi clutching the beagle by the neck while the beagle was struggling to somehow counterattack. I grabbed Heidi by the collar and tried to pull her away, but her body had turned into a single piece of steel, heavier than a motorcycle.

The dogs were screeching, my wife was screaming and Heidi was growling through her clenched jaws around the beagle’s neck. I got her into a headlock and starting twisting her collar to cut off her airflow. I yelled into her ear for her to stop but she was running on full instinct now, oblivious to all but the beagle. Everything in slow motion, I kept squeezing her into a tighter vice in the crook of my arm while twisting her collar with my other hand. After what seemed like a long nightmare, she released the beagle and my wife quickly took him and our terrier behind a closed bedroom door. Only after an all clear from my wife did I release my grip.

Heidi bounded away, hackles up, breathing heavily. She circled the room a few times to burn off the adrenaline. As I caught my breath and surveyed the damage, I noted that during the entire struggle, during all the wrestling and punishment she received, she never so much as looked at me crossways. Not a snarl, nor a growl to me. In fact, she was panting at me in a smile as I stood there, perhaps wondering if she would get to go another round.

I was in awe of her strength. I was over twice her weight yet I could barely move her during the fight. Had she not let go when she did, I was not sure I could have held on. I was exhausted, bruised and bleeding from being clawed by the other dogs; while she was like a boxer who had just KO’d his opponent, circling the ring in a jog, heart still pumping in overdrive.

I called her to my side and lead her back into her kennel. Showing perfect manners, she followed me and entered the kennel without complaint. I tied down the latches for insurance and went to assess the damage done to the beagle. His neck was cut and bruised but otherwise he was just shaken up. If she would have wanted to she could have just bitten his head off at the neck.

I returned to Heidi and thanked her for not killing my beloved beagle. Her tongue was hanging from the side of her mouth as she panted heavily. She kept contact with my eyes through the kennel wires for a while, and then looked off into the distance.

“This is what I am,” she seemed to say. This was her nature. Violence wrapped in obedience. Fury directed by affection. “I am for you.”

“And I am for you,” I replied.

Six, seven, finally eight weeks passed. Heidi had made it across the most literal of finish lines and never displayed any symptoms. I took her to the vet who gave her a rabies certificate and tag. Now she was legal. My prayers were answered. She would live.

The vet’s staff all celebrated with me while Heidi looked on smiling. They took turns giving her dog biscuits and hugs. She was now a local celebrity.

As we walked together out into the parking lot we met an older man coming into the store. He stopped for a second and stood motionless as Heidi relaxed at my side. Behind him the sun was almost down, setting fire to the cloudless sky.

“Used to have a Shepard myself. A female, too,” he said, eyes glowing. “Best dog I ever had. I still miss her after all these years.”

Heidi’s tail wagged, sensing the goodness in the man. I nodded to him and smiled. He walked on toward the store, perhaps as a flood of memories washed across his heart.

He was for her and she was for him.

I opened the car door and Heidi jumped in, waited for me to unleash her, and then sat down in the rear seat behind me, just as she had done on that cold December morning two months earlier. As I buckled up, she sniffed the back of my head and gave it a lick, then rested her head on my left shoulder as we moved into traffic on our way home, both feeling lucky, maybe even blessed, to have found each other.

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