Lessons I learned riding next to a Demodex-plagued rescue dog

Demodex dog Ellen

Ellen at the vet after medicated bath

I am always a bit skeptical of stories about how a dog somehow taught some human an important lesson. These tales seem like huge overreach, making a big deal out of something that actually isn’t all that special. One person’s profound spiritual experience may not be anyone else’s.

Nevertheless, I feel spending two hours riding in a car, sharing the back seat with a dog suffering from severe Demodex mange taught me something important about dogs, people and myself. And I’ve just learned that Ellen — her new rescue name — is only four months old! She is just a puppy (note huge paws) and, no, this condition is not an abuse symptom. We’re are also guessing that she may be a Dutch Shepherd.

Here’s the story — important to me, but probably not so much to you.

Last night I was involved in transporting a rescued dog from a high-kill Central California shelter to a rescue located north of the San Francisco Bay area in Santa Rosa. We drove a middle leg, taking this vaguely German Shepherd-looking young female as well as a mom and her three Yorkie-mix puppies from Madera to Livermore, about a two-hour trip. There were five or six drivers involved in the mission, which began in Porterville and ended at Dogwood Animal Rescue in Santa Rosa. If you aren’t doing rescue transportation, you should be.

Ellen when she arrived in Madera

I met Ellen when we linked with the previous driver at a Carl’s Jr. restaurant in Madera.

Her skin was very crusty with pieces of dead skin dropping off the animal and matting what hair she had left. She was red and bloody in large places. Though not actively bleeding parts of her felt moist and very warm. She was shy but did not object to being carried to our car. It was decided she should ride on a blanket in the back seat, with me next to her.

She was wrapped in another blanket and kept to herself for the first half-hour. I did not know how much handling and petting she would stand. As inflammed as her skin was and as much hair as she was missing, she’s got to be in pain, right? Yet, she stands and wags her tail and seems friendly.

Slowly, I began petting her. Which really startled her, especially when approached from above (duh!). I almost stopped except she started responding by closing her eyes and lifting her head to meet my hand. She did the same thing when I rubbed her snout. She licked my arm. I put my arm around her and we continued like this for the duration of the trip, with lots of petting on my part and nuzzling on hers. I kept expecting to touch her and receive a nip in return for causing her pain. Rather, she looked me in the eyes.

I am shortening the story considerably. She stopped being startled and by the end of the trip was pushing her head under my arm so I’d pet her more. A dog that probably had no human touch in the shelter and maybe even a while before that, became a calm, friendly, attention-seeking dog. Just like my dogs at home. We had become friends and trusted one another.

“Crusty” Ellen prior to her bath

She arrived at the rescue in a few more hours — after midnight — got fed, watered, pooped, and put to bed. First thing today she got a medicated shampoo, lots of old crusty skin and Demodex went down the drain, and she went to the vet for a day of exams and treatment. Lots of dead skin and foxtails removed. Antibiotics for secondary infection. Needs better nutrition. I later saw a video of her looking a bit better, walking around, wagging her tail, and being the friendly pup I know her to be.

Treatment will take months and while she should fully recover from the Demodex, some scarring is possible. We think she is a maybe a Dutch Shepherd (see below). And her coat is a beautiful mix of brown and black. Her foster is a very experienced vet tech and when she is ready to be adopted I believe there will be a line of potential parents for her.

After a narrow brush with death at the shelter — where I feel certain she would have been euthanized if not quickly rescued — Ellen has a really great life ahead of her. I am proud to have played a very tiny role in making that happen. Again, if you aren’t either fostering or helping with rescue transportation, why aren’t you?

What did I learn?

  • A dog is a dog. Forget that when I met Ellen, the Demodex made her look as much reptilian as canine. But, if it wags its tail it must be a dog (or cat) so stop being grossed out and treat her like she’s your loved pet. It was not my sense it would happen, but in touching her I was ready to accept a nip if I happened to hit a sensitive spot. That never came close to happening but it was a chance I was happy to take to give Ellen attention she seemed to crave. She seemed so grateful that someone was paying attention to her that I quickly came to trust her totally, actually putting my face up next to her’s. Listen to what the dog is saying to you.
  • Take a chance. Educate yourself. Demodex is not easily transmitted to humans and is generally considered non-transmissible. Ellen, who turned out to be just a puppy, was at greater risk from not being loved than I was from catching her Demodex mites. Forget the dog’s disability or how the animal looks and if it is safe to touch the animal, show it some affection.
  • If it’s a good dog, be a good human. I don’t know her social history, whether an owner surrender (neglect probably) or a stray street dog, but Ellen was only shy, never the least threatening, and once she got used to being touched, she approached me and responded as most puppies would (when not feeling their best). Every dog benefits from human companionship and love. It’s part of our shared evolution. And we benefit from their love and companionship, too.
  • Going forward, I will try to judge companion animals by their potential rather than what I can immediately see. Ellen has the potential to be a wonderful companion, but it will take some effort to get her there. In approaching me and wagging her tail, Ellen showed a willingness — eagerness, even — to do her part. I am helping raise money for her care and will take an ongoing interest in her well-being. Yes, I do totally trust her rescue but want to help where I can.

The huge ears, short snout, coat color, pattern, and big tail of this Dutch Shepherd match features of our lovely Ellen.

All of this is true about people, too. In a world that is so divided along so many lines, companion animals remind us the value of kindness and of the importance of the willingness to meet pets — and people — as they are, where they are. How the being able to take a chance on someone can pay huge benefits. And how good it feels to help save an animal — especially such a good dog — from a near certain death.

Going forward, I will, thanks to Ellen, pay more attention to animals likely to have been overlooked and those with special needs. And I will try to do the same for humans.

It feels good to have helped Ellen, which restored some of my faith in good-over-evil and the power of the human-canine bond. It reinforced why I do rescue, despite the frequent losses and sadness. I am better for the time we shared and my small role in her progress. I feel like Ellen benefitted, too.

In a real sense, this is another case of “who rescued whom?”

Ellen’s progress is being documented on the rescue’s Facebook page. Please consider a donation to her care.

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