Navy veteran with heart for strays forms bond with wayward dog

Navy veteran with heart for strays forms bond with wayward dog

Jim had compassion for the many stray dogs he encountered during naval humanitarian missions. So it was no surprise that a wayward dog in his own community would steal this Navy veteran’s heart.

Born to serve

In 2005 Jim retired from service after 24 years in the Navy. His military career remains a meaningful chapter in his life.

“I joined as an enlisted man at the age of 18 and retired from active duty as a commissioned officer at the age of 43,” he says. “I would have stayed longer, but I did not want to relocate to the opposite coast and haul my life all the way across country.”

Jim was prepared for his transition from military to civilian life. He bought a wonderful home and had a great new career in the wings. And while he is no longer in service, he recalls vividly the meaningful humanitarian missions he made over the course of his Navy career.

“In 1993 and 1994 I spent many months both those years deployed to Somalia. The country had been through a civil war and was a big mess,” he explains. “There were lots of children running around, many parentless, and lots and lots of stray dogs, too. Our mission was to bring them food and water and that’s what we were doing.”

The memories of all that suffering have stuck with Jim to this day. He did whatever he could to ease the misery around him.

“I made three separate trips there, always leaving with hardly anything I came with because I would give what I had to the children on the streets,” he shares. “I also fed many of the stray dogs there and befriended so many of them.”


Jim has always had dogs in his life, often a few at a time. In 2017 he lost one of his beloved dogs when she passed away in her sleep. The petite pup was a huge presence in Jim’s household.

“She had a very good life and she was all of four pounds soaking wet, but had the energy and determination of a Rottweiler.”

The retired veteran knew that he would adopt in due time, but did not feel ready. The Fourth of July came and went. Across the country – including Jim’s hometown of San Diego – shelters cope with the largest single influx of stray dogs than during any other time period.

“The fireworks cause anxiety and havoc on family dogs, and some break free and end up on the street,” he explains.

So the following weekend Jim visited County of San Diego Department of Animal Services in San Diego with his son and grandson. They just wanted to play with as many dogs as they could to bring them a little joy.

Jim had no plans to adopt a dog that day, but fate would bring him and one particular wayward dog together.

Sleepless nights

The trio made their way from one end of the shelter to the other, interacting with each dog along the way. But when they got to the last dog in the very last kennel they met a dog whom Jim could not forget.

“She immediately grabbed our hearts – mine mostly – and I could not sleep that night thinking of her,” Jim recalls. “The next day I called and they said she had not been adopted yet and after work that day I drove straight there to adopt her.”

The wayward dog had been put on a two-week hold to give her previous family an opportunity to claim her. But because she was not chipped there was no way to contact her family. She did not even have a name.

Pets for veterans

Jim was undeterred. Each day for the next two weeks he visited the brindle beauty. He added his name to a list of potential adopters.

It was during one of these visits that the retired Navy veteran was told about Pets for Patriots and our companion pet adoption program for military veterans.

“I learned about Pets for Patriots by another military person at the shelter and he actually went and grabbed me a brochure. I did not think I would qualify for the program because I was retired from active duty for several years by this time, but I was wrong.”

At the time three county facilities participated in our free shelter program. Since then, the county’s San Diego location merged with San Diego SPCA, another of our animal welfare partners. County shelters in Bonita and Carlsbad continue to participate.

The Navy veteran was delighted to learn that he was eligible for our program, which he had assumed was only for active duty personnel. In fact, we serve veterans from WWII to those still in service, from all armed forces.

“I hope shelters across the United States have the same brochure to hand out to fellow active duty and retirees like myself.”

Life changing

Jim was approved into our program the same day that the wayward dog became available for adoption. She was already well over 40 pounds at just six months of age. Jim was thrilled that she would be joining his multi-dog family.

One of the first orders of business for Jim was giving his newest charge a name: Ahwahnee. Needless to say, her name has a fabulous backstory.

“From the moment I made eye contact with Awanni she changed my life. I even knew her name would be Ahwahnee from that time on,” Jim shares.

“We call her Awanni because it’s easier to say and spell, but her name comes from the Ahwahnee Indians, which are the indigenous people of the Yosemite Valley. I visit Yosemite every summer for a few days because that beautiful place changed my life – and so has Awanni. She is so loving and caring it’s just amazing.”

Meant to be

The Navy veteran admits he felt destined to save Awanni. He did not need another dog nor did he think he was ready; he was still grieving the loss of his eldest pup. In addition, Jim was unsure how a big and growing puppy would fit into his resident dog family.

“I already had two dogs when I adopted Awanni,” he says, “one was 16 years old and the other was five years old – a big age gap. I had no intention of adopting another dog yet, but I knew I had the home capable to care for and love another dog.”

It did not take the Navy veteran long to realize that he made the right decision in adopting the wayward dog.

“She has enough energy for three families, but she is very protective of the one she has. She’s full of spirit and just a goofball at the same time. I can’t imagine my life without her.”

Jim has remained enthusiastic about our mission since the day he adopted Awanni. He appreciates the support and benefits we provide, and encourages other veterans to adopt through our program.

“She is 100 percent love”

As of this writing Awanni is nearly seven years old. Some time ago Jim did her DNA profile. He learned that she is mostly Labrador, mixed with Pit Bull and other breeds. But to the Navy veteran she is more than the sum of her biochemistry.

“She is 100 percent love and a happy pain in my backside,” he jokes.

Awanni has charted her own path in a house that has been home to many dogs. In at least one respect she seems a fitting match for her Navy dad, perhaps due to her strong Lab heritage.

“She is also the first and only dog I’ve had that likes the water and will go swimming with me,” he says.

In fact, Awanni is always up for almost any adventure. She is a spirited dog with a genuine zest for life. It is almost as though each day she realizes that she has been saved – even if it was years ago.

“I think the thing I love most is her personality. She could go anywhere, and she loves everyone and everything,” Jim says.

“All my dogs are like this, but Awanni is nearly 70 pounds and her love is harder to not see and share at 70 pounds. She is a pretty darn good swimmer and I’m just in love with her brindle colored fur, straw colored eyes, and pink nose.”

Wayward no more

It is tragic that each year the days following the July Fourth holiday are marked by the largest stray influx to shelters.

Each year there are news stories about this stubborn trend, with the same pet safety tips being shared yet too often ignored.

Sadly, many animals fleeing holiday festivities are run over or fall prey to wild animals. Dogs like Awanni who end up in shelters are given another chance at life.

And what a life it has been for the once wayward dog.

“She affects and changes my life every single day with just her greeting,” Jim shares. “She always has to gently bite my hand and then lick me as if to remind me how much she loves me.”


  1. Mary Eaton

    This is a “feel good” story with well written words. Thank you for your many years of service in the military and caring personality in your overseas assignments. A very kind gesture in going to the shelter after the holiday. There is little doubt in my mind that your grandson may carry the memory into adulthood and the experience just may be passed on. Awanni is one lucky four legged furry in good hands.

  2. Alyson A.

    Thank you for your service. I’m so glad that you and Awanni found each other – it was meant to be. Love the photo with her graduation cap on!

  3. MJ Shute

    I hope you and Awanni have many more loving years together.

Give with Confidence

candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
candid platinum transparency 2023
Petco Foundation

Shop 1800PetMeds for all of your pet’s health needs and we’ll get 10% of your purchase!

Shop BISSELL for your home cleaning needs and they will donate 10% of your purchase to us!

Because a shelter is not a home

Long-term shelter pets available for adoption