After Unimaginable Cruelty, How Toefu Became a Dog Whisperer to Help Others

Can dogs learn from their misfortune? Here’s the story of Toefu the spaniel, who overcame her own abuse to help other dogs bounce back.

Courtesy ASPCA

As animal control officers pounded on the door to the small, one-story home in Knoxville, Tennessee, invisible fumes wafted up their noses, down their throats, and into their lungs. It was ammonia, the suffocating by-product of waste and decay.

No one answered. The officers muscled the door open. Blocking them was excrement, half a foot thick. Through the small crack, the officers could see filth, a couch covered in cardboard, and a television. Cheers was on.

Light streamed into the dark space, illuminating the eyes of countless dogs. The dogs rushed toward the officers. They were frenzied, crawling on top of one another, growling, snapping, and fighting for freedom. The officers yanked the door, trying to close the gap, but dogs squeezed through. Two pushed past the officers and raced off. Officers tackled two more and secured them. They pushed the others back in.

The owners were home. That was obvious. The officers continued to pound on the door and shout through the crack. The fumes were overpowering and unbearable; one officer suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized.

Finally, an elderly woman came to the door. She stepped outside and stood on the lawn, looking shocked and embarrassed as she watched officers don protective suits and breathing apparatuses to enter the home. One by one, the dogs were noosed with poles and dragged out of the house. Seeing sunlight for the first time, the dogs squinted and pulled back. They were emaciated, some with just hide over bones.

As each dog was brought out, it was numbered.

One … Two … Ten …

Morning gave way to afternoon. Forty … Fifty …

Darkness began to fall. Sixty … Seventy-five.

The elderly woman and her brother, who lived with her, were charged with aggravated animal cruelty. They were put on probation and agreed to counseling and unannounced home inspections.

The dogs were taken to Young-Williams Animal Center, where veterinarian Becky DeBolt and a team of others treated them for mange, anemia, worms, and dehydration. Most had extra toes on their hind legs; some, a pronounced underbite.

These dogs sure have a short family tree, DeBolt remembers thinking.

This was especially true for dog number 16, who looked like a cross between Gomer Pyle and a vampire bat. The brown spaniel trembled, her ears back and tail tucked, as volunteers shaved her matted fur. By the time they finished, the dog was bald except for her head, her paws, and the tip of her tail. The power of these brave dogs will inspire you. 

“She looked ridiculous,” DeBolt says.

Three weeks later, number 16 and 48 other dogs had been nursed back to health. The rest were in such bad shape, they were put down. But important questions remained. Who would adopt a dog that couldn’t stand being leashed or repeatedly threw up from fear? Could the dogs be house-trained? Allow themselves to be petted and cuddled? No one at Young-Williams knew the answers, so they asked the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help.

Kristen Collins with toefu
Courtesy ASPCA
Kristen Collins with Toefu soon after her rescue

When ASPCA animal behaviorist Kristen Collins walked into Young-Williams, her presence set off the dogs. Their barking was deafening. She walked past run after run, eventually coming to the one occupied by dog number 16. The Gomer Pyle spaniel was asleep in a tight ball on top of a larger dog.

“She didn’t even look like a dog,” remembers Collins. “She looked more like an Ewok from Star Wars. I’d never seen such a pitiful-looking animal.”

Dog number 16 lifted her head. Her eyes focused on Collins.

No, she told herself. Don’t even think about it. No.

No turned into yes, and a few days later, Collins carried the spaniel to her car for the ten-hour drive home to Illinois. She named her adopted dog Toefu, symbolic of the spaniel’s extra toes.

For a year, Toefu’s entire world had been walls, squalor, and other dogs. She’d never even seen grass. So Collins drove Toefu, along with Juno (the pit bull she’d adopted years earlier from a vet tech) and Wink (a Border collie from a shelter), to a secluded park. Toefu fearfully plastered her body to Juno’s. Slowly, she lowered her nose to the ground and inhaled the fresh scent of grass for the first time. Her entire demeanor changed—her tail shot up, and joy seemed to course through every cell of her body.

Collins helped Toefu overcome other anxieties. She was petrified of cars, so each day, Collins placed dog food closer to her car. Soon, Toefu climbed into the motionless vehicle to eat. Then she tolerated a ride around the block. Collins did the same with the other things Toefu feared—the blender, the vacuum, umbrellas, even small children.

In just a year, Toefu was behaving like a typical dog. Each morning, she woke, exploded out of her crate, and wiggled her entire body with enthusiasm. Whenever Collins opened the back door, Toefu raced outside, scooped up a deflated soccer ball with her teeth, and fiercely shook it back and forth as the ball made loud thwapping noises. When she wanted attention, she’d bound up to Collins, place a paw on Collins’s chest, and lightly tap her face with the other paw.

Phase one of Toefu’s restoration was complete.

toefu and juno
Courtesy ASPCA
Toefu (right, with Juno) has helped a number of emotionally distressed rescue dogs.

A year later, in 2013, Collins moved to Madison, New Jersey, to take a challenging job overseeing the new ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. Shelters around the country sent her their most fearful rescue dogs. One was named Hillary.

On the floor of the center, the blue-brindled Chihuahua trembled, her eyes enormous, her brow furrowed, her mouth gaping as if she couldn’t get enough air. She darted to the left of the center’s vestibule. Reaching the end of her leash, she jerked back, then raced to the right, frantically trying to escape.

The Chihuahua had been rescued from hoarders who’d kept her and 19 other dogs in an outside pen, isolated from the rest of the world. The most traumatized of her pack, she was feral and showed no signs of being able to bond with humans.

For six weeks after her arrival, Hillary barked and snapped at her handlers. She cowered in the farthest corner of her run, refused to eat if people were nearby, and, when someone touched her, abruptly flattened herself onto the ground as if she’d been hit with a bat.

“She was crashing and burning,” says Collins. “We were stalled.”

Then Collins had an idea.

She moved Hillary out of her run and into a small penned-in area in the office. Because dogs rescued from hoarders feel more comfortable when surrounded by a pack, Collins brought Toefu, Wink, and Juno to work one day and left them in the office with Hillary.

Later that day, Collins checked on the dogs. Toefu bounded over, wagged her entire back end, and snaked her body around Collins’s legs and torso.

“How are you?” Collins sang to the dog.

Collins glanced at the back of the crate, assuming she’d see Hillary’s trembling body through the slats. But the space usually occupied by the terrified dog was empty.

Her eyes shifted forward to the front of the crate. There was Hillary, peeking out, watching.

Toefu continued to wag and wiggle her body.

Hillary walked to the edge of her wire pen.

Toefu thumped her tail against the floor.

Hillary’s tail began to wag.

Then, from Hillary’s mouth, came a strange high-pitched yodel. It sounded as if the dog were singing.

Toefu continued to connect with Hillary, often passively lounging on the ground as the Chihuahua dive-bombed her, nipped her ears, and raced over and around her body. Other times, Toefu curled up next to Hillary, wrapping her larger body around the tiny, shivering dog. At any point, Toefu could have dominated her. Instead, Toefu remained low to the ground and moved slowly, allowing Hillary the upper hand. When Hillary fled under the couch, Toefu pawed the ground but never pursued. She let Hillary come to her.

“Rehabilitation is about making decisions about when to pay attention to these dogs and when to give them space,” says Collins. “The same is true during interactions among dogs. Toefu makes these social decisions easily, seemingly intuiting what these dogs need.”

One day, as Collins knelt to greet Toefu, a little nose emerged from under the couch. Then a whole head. Then a whole body.

Hillary tentatively walked toward Collins. Just inches away, she stiffened, pulled her ears back, and walked back toward the couch. Toefu continued to soak up Collins’s attention, her tail happily thumping against the floor. Hillary did another about-face, tentatively creeping toward Collins again. Then, as before, she retreated. And that was it for the day.

A few days later, Collins was sitting on the ground with Toefu stretched out on her lap. Hillary approached Collins, but this time, she didn’t pull back. Toefu reached her front legs toward Hillary, pawing her. The Chihuahua’s ears perked up. She pawed Toefu back. Toefu stretched her jaw wide. Hillary did the same. The two dogs emitted guttural growling sounds. Now their heads were side by side, pushing each other back and forth, as Hillary happily emitted her high-pitched yodeling sound.

Collins’s hand was just inches from Hillary. Would Hillary let her touch her? Collins slowly moved her hand closer. Hillary’s body remained relaxed, her focus on Toefu.

Now closer.

Collins could feel the dog’s fur against the back of her hand. The dogs pressed their heads together, pushing each other from side to side and back and forth.

Collins slowly edged her hand up Hillary’s back. The dogs continued to growl and paw each other.

Collins slid her hand under Hillary’s collar and scratched. Hillary abruptly stopped. She looked confused. Then “she got this dreamy, squinty, this-feels-so-good look in her eyes,” Collins says. “It was magical, and it would not have been possible without Toefu.”

Partly because of where Toefu came from and partly despite it, her gentle but persistent manner and intuitive understanding have helped not just Hillary but other dogs who have come to the ASPCA rehab center.

“People say that dogs live in the present,” says Collins. “But they also make associations, and some of Toefu’s earliest associations came from living in crowded conditions with some 75 other dogs. She had a very large family, and she knew a lot about them. Had she not learned to artfully read their body language, she might not have survived, and she might not be the dog whisperer that she is today.”

Hillary is currently in a foster home. To find out how to adopt her or other dogs from the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center, e-mail [email protected].

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