Hall of Fame inductee not just another rags-to-riches tale

ovma Rusty photo courtesy Senior Dog Rescue of Oregon.jpg

Rusty’s chances were fading when he was placed in the right place at the right time. . .

And everything changed.

Imagine being a teenager again, a time when your focus should be on passing Algebra or hoping you’ll get your driver’s license. Instead, your life derails and you find yourself incarcerated with 25 others at a locked facility where every moment is watched, every day regimented. Each morning you awake to the reality that you have many, many more days before you’ll ever return to a “normal” life. You know your family might not call, write or show up on visiting day. It’s easy to lose hope.

Now imagine being a 10-year-old dog who finds himself abandoned and hungry on the streets. A ride in the animal control truck ends at a concrete cage in a shelter. At first, you rush to the gate each time you hear someone approach, convinced it’s your family — but it never is. One day at mealtime, a sweet young staff person pats your head and says “Euthanasia is the kindest thing for you, old boy.” You watch her walk away. Then you curl up in the corner of your run. Hope is gone.

. . . or maybe not.

In the fall of 2009, Rusty was sent to begin his new life as the first dog enrolled in “Canines At The Creek,” a program designed by Senior Dog Rescue of Oregon and the young women on Aspen Unit of the Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility. The program has two main goals: 1) to enhance adoptability of senior dogs by providing foster care, obedience training and socialization; and 2) to help provide the youth on Aspen Unit with the skills needed to succeed when they return to society.

Aspen is one of three units at Oak Creek, housing 25 girls and young women, many whose release dates are years away.

Within days of Rusty’s arrival, staff notes begin to mention “a remarkable mellowing of the atmosphere on the unit and the girls’ behavior.” Rusty has an instinctive ability to calm agitated behavior, buoy a sad demeanor, and — when necessary — to put himself in a place where he can’t be ignored. Staff journals show that morale and behavior of the residents continue to improve each day that Rusty is on the unit.

Residents who previously refused to leave their beds rush out each morning to feed and walk their big brown dog. It’s clear that Rusty’s presence has a profoundly positive effect on the young women on Aspen and on the entire Oak Creek program.

One resident relates how Rusty pushed open the door of a staff office to tend to a young woman in crisis. Shooed out by staff, Rusty immediately returned to stand stubbornly at the young woman’s side, even  though he knew he was breaking the rules. Security personnel report fewer calls from Aspen and cite remarkable improvement in some of the most difficult residents.

This gentle dog is one in a million. Like a parent who instinctively knows which child needs attention, Rusty cares for ‘his girls.’ He is a master at recognizing sadness, calming an agitated girl, and knowing the difference. Even during the most dangerous situations when an out-of-control youth is taken down by staff, Rusty stays calm and close. He knows his place is not in the midst of the chaos, but as a comfort to the girls afterward. He is at his best when he quietly places himself within touching distance of girls who need reassurance but are timid about approaching him.

Because Rusty had such an extraordinary impact on the lives of the young women on Aspen Unit he has been granted permanent status at Oak Creek and will live out his life with ‘his girls.’

His title is Therapy Dog, but he is so much more to these young women: a symbol that spring will come again into their lives. He is their lifeline in times of trouble. In return, he has been given a second chance for a new life filled with the wonder of young people. He received the “Companion Award” and was inducted into the Oregon Hall of Fame March 2010. 

Each year, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association and Oregon Animal Health Foundation honor animals who, through unselfish and courageous accomplishments, exemplify the affection, loyalty, security, public service, and value of the human-animal bond. 

The Companion award recognizes animals who have provided a benefit to their human companions or their community.

The Oregon Animal Hall of Fame™ is the second-longest running awards program among veterinary organizations in the country. Since the program began in 1988, the OVMA and the OAHF have recognized dogs, cats, an animal welfare group, a horse therapy group, horses, and one llama. Animals are inducted during the annual Oregon Veterinary Conference held in March.

[Modified and reprinted with permission from The OVMA]