A Story About Pretty Girl, the Stray Dog We Couldn’t Give Up On

Never give up on anything, least of all a dog.

december january 2016 WOLIRuss and Reyn for Reader's Digest

Her name was perfect. She came to them in the dead of night, in the cold. She was more than half dead, starved down to bones, her hair completely eaten away by mange. She had been run off from more than one yard when she finally crept into an empty doghouse in the trees beyond my mother’s yard. At least she was out of the wind. They found her, my mother and brother, in the daylight of the next day. They could not even tell, at first, she was a dog.

“And it broke my heart,” my mother said.

They did not call the vet because she knew what the vet would do. The dog was too far gone to save; any fool could see that. My mama lives in the country and has to run off two wandering dogs a week, but this time, she said, “I just couldn’t. She couldn’t even get up.” How do you run off a dog that cannot stand?

The broke-down dog had stumbled on two people who hate to give up on anything, even a month-old newspaper. They save batteries that have not had a spark of anything in them for a long, long time. My mother keeps pens that stopped writing in 1974. My point is, there is always a little use, a little good, a little life left in anything, and who are they to decide when something is done for good (the power of these brave dogs will inspire you.)

My brother Mark looked at her, at her tragic face, and named her. “Hey, Pretty Girl,” he said.

It was as if he could see beyond the ruin, or maybe into it. I don’t know.

Her hips were bad, which was probably why she was discarded in the first place, and her teeth were worn down. Her eyes were clouded. But Mark and my mother fed her, gave her water, and bathed her in burned motor oil, the way my people have been curing the mange for generations. They got her looking less atrocious, and then they called the vet.

The vet found she had heartworm. She was walking dead, anyway, at her age. It was then I saw her, still a sack of bones. It would be a kindness, I told my mother, to put her down. She nodded her head.

A month later, I pulled into the driveway to see a beautiful white German shepherd standing watch at the front of the house. It was not a miracle; her ailments did not magically cease. But together, my mother and brother had tended her and even let her live in the house. She ate people food and drank buttermilk out of an aluminum pie tin. She was supposed to last, at most, a few weeks or months. She lived three more years—decades, in dog years—following my brother to the garden to watch for snakes and listen for thunder.

“I prayed for her,” my mother said. “Some people say you ain’t supposed to pray for
a dog, but …”

And then after the gift of years, Pretty Girl began to fail and died. She is buried in the mountain pasture.

The garden is already planted. Some things were planted according to science, according to soil and weather. And some things were planted according to lore, the shape of the moon, and more. That is fine with me. There are things we cannot explain, things beyond science, like how a man could name a ravaged and dying dog and have her rise inside that, somehow, to make it true.

rick bragg my southern journeyFrom the book My Southern Journey by Rick Bragg. Copyright © 2015 by Rick Bragg. Reprinted with permission by Oxmoor House, timeincbooks.com. Read more and buy the book here.

Dog owners, keep your dog warm this winter. 

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Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.