These special dogs with unusual stories all have one thing in common: they’ll steal your heart.
Written by Joey Kennedy
Photographed by Beau Gustafson
When the photograph of a strange-looking dog at Birmingham’s Do Dah Day in 2014 appeared on Facebook, the debate began. Without doubt, some commenters claimed, that photograph was Photoshopped. No living dog could look like that. It turned out the dog, named Pig, a mixed-breed puppy owned by Helena’s Kim Dillenbeck, was, indeed, exactly as the photograph, taken by Christine Prichard of Viewtopia Pictures, depicted. A living, breathing, happy puppy with a condition known as short-spine syndrome.
Pig’s story went viral across the world. Her Facebook page, Pig the Unusual Dog, has more than 95,000 followers. She’s been the topic of television specials, including one by National Geographic. And while Pig may be the most famous dog of Helena, she isn’t the only one, not by any count. There is Lazarus, a shepherd mix rescued by Two by Two Animal Rescue after surviving two euthanasia shots. And KitKat, a dog that starred in the 2012 movie The Campaign, starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. And there’s Woody, a dog so disfigured by Scarcoptic and Demodex mange that people weren’t even sure he was a dog. These famous dogs of Helena each have their own special story to tell.
Pig basically rescued herself. She was living in a forest outside of Atlanta with her feral mom and two sisters. She started barking, alerting a nearby resident, and was rescued. Dillenbeck, visiting family in Georgia, met Pig and adopted her. Dillenbeck had previously served as a hospice foster for other animals that didn’t have long to live, and veterinarians didn’t believe Pig, with her organs crammed inside a scrunched-up body, would live long.
Pig is more than 2 years old now and thriving. Pig is being trained at Creative Dog Training, and Dillenbeck hopes at some point she will become a Hand in Paw therapy dog. She certainly has the right personality for it. And while Pig is definitely differently abled—her neck is fused to her spine, so she can’t turn her head—she hasn’t a clue she’s anything but a fun pup to be around.
Pig runs and plays, she loves wallowing in water, and she’s a crowd-pleaser wherever she goes. “She’s not fearful in large groups, as long as she’s not being detained or circled,” Dillenbeck says. “She wants to have the freedom to move around.”
Since being “discovered,” Pig has been the subject of a sculpture and at least two books, one a coloring book featuring the 25 most famous dogs on Facebook. When Dillenbeck, a contractor, visits Home Depot with Pig, she always draws a crowd. Pig also is a feature at many fall and spring dog festivals.
Dillenbeck has established the Pig’s Foundation to help support people who rescue animals. “I’m still very cautious how she eats,” Dillenbeck says. “But I’m not nearly as timid about her doing her thing. She is such a trooper. She’s still not big, but she’s fluffy.” Dillenbeck works hard to keep her weight down (one of her sisters weighs more than 50 pounds) to about 18 pounds. Pig’s veterinarian believes her current weight is perfect for her tiny body. “Being overweight would be a challenge to her,” Dillenbeck explains.
Pig’s condition is rare. About a dozen other short-spine dogs have been identified across the world. Sadly, most of the time dogs with this condition don’t live very long. But Pig is beating the odds. Dillenbeck believes Helena attracts so many famous dogs because the city is “dog friendly and family friendly. We’re just lucky.”
Lazarus’s time was up. Surrendered to an animal shelter in Ozark last year and not adopted, Lazarus was on the kill list. So a veterinarian gave Lazarus the shot.
But Lazarus still had a faint heartbeat. So the vet gave Lazarus another shot and declared him dead. The next morning, when workers came to the shelter to remove the bodies of the animals euthanized the evening before, Lazarus was sitting up in his kennel, as alive as ever.
Helena’s Two by Two Animal Rescue immediately took Lazarus in—he was going to get the shot again the next day—and the rest is history. Lazarus wasn’t this shepherd mix’s name in the shelter, but when Sonya King, founder and executive director of Two by Two, took the dog out of the car at her house, she immediately named him Lazarus.
The dog had other issues. He was high heartworm positive. He was recovering from being hit by a car that tore off the pad on one of his paws. But now, the only failure in Lazarus’s life is he’s a foster failure. Jane Treadwell Holston and her husband, Rob, fostered Lazarus. For a couple days. It didn’t take long for the pup to make his way into their hearts, and now Lazarus is a Holston, too.
How did Lazarus survive two euthanasia shots? “They really don’t have an explanation,” says Jane Holston, “except the medicine may not have been put in his veins. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the dogs die.” And today? “We can’t imagine our life without him,” Holston says. “He’s just perfect.”
Lazarus gets along with their Labrador mix, Tucker, and toy poodle, Misty. “After the third day, I said I’m not cut out to be a foster,” Holston says with a laugh. “We loved him and, on top of that, Tucker loved him.” Lazarus’ story was big news in animal circles. And he and King were guests on The Doctors TV show last fall.
Lazarus, who is between 4 and 7 years old, is heartworm free and healed. “He shakes sometimes,” says Holston. “Sometimes if he’s sitting up, his front legs will shake.” But Lazarus is “a happy boy,” Holston said. And he’s got lots of love and the time to experience it.
This pug, owned by Rian Alexander and husband John Evon, is a movie star. And a movie star associated with famous company: Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis. KitKat was one of the two pugs in the 2012 comedy movie The Campaign.
KitKat didn’t come to Alexander’s and Evon’s Helena home until a little more than a couple years ago. New Orleans breeder DeAnne Little, who had KitKat when the movie was shot, is like a sister, Alexander said. As she started scaling down her breeding operations, she transferred KitKat to Alexander and Evon, who are also well-known, high-quality pug breeders.
When the production company for The Campaign got to Louisiana to film the movie, they wanted to know who was the prominent pug breeder in Louisiana. Little was identified, and they went to her house to “interview the pugs,” Alexander said. They used two of Little’s pugs, but KitKat more prominently. “They joined the Screen Actor’s Guild, the whole thing,” Alexander says. “Once on the set, there was a trainer there with them. [KitKat] was the featured pug. She was the most photogenic of the two. She’s been a show dog, too, with some success.”
But KitKat’s show days are over, though KitKat sometimes still acts like a star, Alexander says. “She’s very gregarious with the other pugs,” he explains. “She’s a diva with the other pugs, but not with us.”
When Sonya King took Woody into Two by Two Rescue, many people weren’t even sure he was a dog. “He was not recognizable as a dog,” King says. “People would ask: ‘What is he?’ One lady thought he was a baby elephant. ‘Is he a goat, a sheep, a dog?’”
Woody is a dog. A Woulfhound mix. He’s still being supported by donations from around the world. “He has a little man in Rome, named Pierre, who donates to him monthly,” King says. “We’ve had donations from Venezuela and British Columbia and from all over the United States.”
King was at the gym working out three years ago when her phone “started going crazy.” A woman from the Hayden area had emailed Woody’s photo to her, asking her to help. Woody was in a ditch; his sister had just died. The photograph was shocking. Woody had no hair. His body was contorted and wrinkled. “When we arrived the next morning, he was on death’s door,” King says. “The absolute, most rewarding thing with my job is when you know you are the first kind touch to an animal. Something spiritual happened. I was feeding him in the back of our Tahoe, I knew he was contagious, and I didn’t care. I started stroking him. He stopped eating, and with what little strength he had, he nudged closer to me. I will never forget it, and I’ll never be the same.
“He chose me at that moment,” she says. After returning to Birmingham, King and her husband got Woody to the vet. “His skin was so infected, so calloused from the mites eating it away,” she says. “But I’m loving on Woody in the back seat. It smelled so bad from the infection, my husband had to hold his head out of the window to drive. Three years later, [Woody] is still fighting ear infections.”
Woody has been with King now for two years—“his two-year anniversary of what we call life.” There’s simply no telling how old Woody is. Double digits, King says. Not only was Woody infected with the more common Demodex mange, but he also had the highly contagious Sarcoptic mange. He, too, was heartworm positive. “Because he’s had such a hard life, his teeth are worn down below the jaw line,” King says. “It’s hard to gauge his age.”
Today, Woody is a beautiful dog. He’s healthy and happy and enjoying life not as an abandoned stray, but as a family pet. Woody is what rescue is about, King says. A group of women in Wisconsin who ran a humane society stopped killing dogs with terrible mange because of Woody. And a woman in this area emailed King that she was going to commit suicide, but saw what people were doing for Woody. “She said, ‘I’ll give it one more day.’ Because of Woody, she had hope.
“If all we did was rescue dogs, that’s good enough,” says King. “I truly let God just guide me. For Woody, He made it clear: You will change things in Wisconsin with this story; you’ll save a life in Birmingham with this story; you’ll create hope.”
And that’s what happened.
Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes the back page column, B—Curious, for this magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.