How the Dog Nobody Wanted for 17 Months Became a School’s Unofficial Mascot

When Higgins was found, he had been dumped on the side of the road and appeared aggressive—but with some TLC and lots of love, he became one school's pandemic therapy pup.

Higgins was dumped along a roadside in Memphis with another dog, who was struck by a car and killed. He sat by his friend’s body for over a week until someone was able to catch him and get him to a veterinarian’s office. The staff there was a bit concerned because he’d shown some aggression, so they called local dog trainer Jeff Tawater for help.

As a positive reinforcement force-free dog trainer, trainers like Tawater don’t usually get called in for aggression cases, he confesses. “The assumption is usually that aggressive dogs need a firm hand,” he says. “But in reality, kindness and gentle care are what dogs like this need.”

Higgins was sitting with his head down, staring at the ground when Tawater arrived, fortunately with a McDonald’s bag in hand. Tawater thought Higgins needed someone he could trust. He sat down and began slowly feeding Higgins through the bars, until 30 minutes and six burgers later, Higgins let Tawater leash him. After Higgins was guided through his veterinary exam, he headed back to the Tawater residence.

RELATED: How A 2,500-pound Bull Became the Neighborhood Therapist

“He was traumatized by his ten days on that Memphis roadside and whatever had happened to him before that,” shares Tawater. “It turned out there was absolutely nothing aggressive about Higgins.” After spending a month readjusting with the Tawaters, Higgins was headed for a shelter in Revere, Massachusetts, where he’d hopefully soon find a permanent home.

Find a permanent home soon he did not. Higgins was at that shelter in Revere for 17 months before Stacey Place saw his ad on Petfinder: “Adopt Higgins, the sweetest 80-lb lap dog looking for a home where he can play with all his toys and run around in the yard without a care in the world! After you pet his crooked ear you’ll be in love.” Place’s greyhound had passed in February 2020 and she was browsing the site for another. But after reading Higgins’ story on Petfinder, she just had to meet him. He soon came to Place’s home for a visit.

The people at Higgins’ shelter in Revere loved him, and Higgins loved the ball pit and trampoline there. But Place thought he seemed way too happy during the home visit, zooming around her fenced-in yard and flopping over for belly rubs. She knew she couldn’t leave him in Revere.

When COVID-19 hit, Place was suddenly teaching music to elementary students from home, with Higgins right by her side. Class couldn’t start without someone asking where Higgins was, who would often get out his toys for a little show-and-tell. While breaking the kids up into small groups, Place realized one group only had one boy in it. He kept telling Place that actually, there were two boys since Higgins was also present.

collage of Higgins with a laptop, vote for Higgins stickers, a student with Higgins on a tshirt, and a happy Higgins on the couchCourtesy Stacey Place

Suddenly, the dog that nobody wanted for 17 months was a pandemic therapy dog. “He didn’t love hearing all the instruments at first, but now he only cries if we play the same song too many times,” Place jokes. When students neglected practice and had to repeat lines during class, Place encouraged students to rehearse if not for her, for Higgins at least, so he would no longer wail after hearing the same song over and over again. For Higgins, they practiced.

When school reconvened in the fall, Place would use Higgins to help teach lessons about bullying and being patient, outlining how many people have preconceived ideas about Higgins because he’s a pitbull. However, she explains, Higgins is a farter, not a fighter, and how he appears on the outside has nothing to do with Higgins on the inside. Students should apply the same logic when meeting new people.

Higgins quickly became the school’s unofficial mascot. One student calls herself “Higgins’ Biggest Fan,” and now everyone else calls her that too. During the election, the “Vote for Higgins” campaign trail swept through Metcalf Elementary, leaving posters and stickers all through the halls. On Valentine’s Day, a student Place didn’t even know brought a Valentine treat for Higgins.

“I always ask him if he gets sick of wagging his tail,” says Place. “The answer seems to be no.”

Reader’s Digest is on the prowl for the most touching, adorable, or hilarious friendships involving a pet. Submit your story and photos (and video!) for consideration. We will honor the best in many categories of friendship online, in the magazine, and on social media.

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