It took a “love at first sight” rescued dog to help an Iraq war combat veteran overcome his grief following the unexpected loss of a beloved pet.
Christopher was deployed twice to Iraq as an Army Cavalry Scout during his four-year tour of duty. In 2011 and upon completion of his service, he returned to civilian life and found himself in need of a special companion, which he found in a tiny Chihuahua named Oscar.
The relationship between Christopher and Oscar, who became the veteran’s emotional support animal, was strong and immediate.
“I didn’t pick Oscar from a litter or anything; my mom brought him up from Florida,” he recalls. “He didn’t want anything else to do with anyone in the vehicle, but he crawled up in my shirt.”
From that moment forward the two were inseparable, and enjoyed a special bond.
“When Oscar knew I was having a bad day, he would stick to me like a second skin,” Christopher says.
A horrific night and the loss of two best friends
On Halloween in 2013, tragedy struck while Christopher was visiting his stepfather in the hospital. When the family returned home, they noticed that someone had messed with the fence around their yard. Since the family knew they were going to be gone for a while, they left the doggie door open for the animals to go outside.
The young veteran found Oscar’s body later that night; someone had hit the dog on the head with a hammer and left him to die on the side of the road. Even though he was a seasoned warrior with two combat deployments, Oscar’s death hit Christopher very hard.
“It tore me up pretty bad.”
To make matters worse, the couple’s yellow Labrador was hit by a car later the same night. It was more than Christopher could bear.
“We had been up and down the road multiple times looking for him, and we had been by the same spot three times, calling him,” he says. “I saw him, and everything inside of my head just snapped…I was on the ground crying my eyes out.”
Looking for love, in all the right places
Christopher and his fiancé, Lindsey, were already proud parents of two Pit Bull mixes, Julie and Athena, Chewy, a Jenday Conure Parrot, and Leonardo, a rescued turtle. Despite having a home full of companions, Oscar’s death left a huge void. Christopher decided that a new companion pet might help ease his pain and found out about Pets for Patriots during a visit to a local pet store in Tennessee.
As a self-described animal advocate, the Army veteran appreciated that the nationally operating charity focuses on the adoption the most overlooked pets: adult and special needs cats and dogs, and large breed dogs. Collectively, these animals face the highest risk of death or permanent homelessness.
Christopher applied and, after receiving approval, he and Lindsey took a look at the online profiles of dogs at their locally participating shelter, Loudon County Animal Shelter, which waives pet adoption fees for Pets for Patriots members in gratitude for their service.
At first, Lindsey was encouraging Christopher to consider large breed dogs.
“She was trying to guide me to a bigger dog,” Christopher says, “and I looked over and saw Dover and said ‘that’s the one I want.’”
Just a few weeks before Christmas, the couple went to Loudon County Animal Shelter to meet Dover in person – a meeting that Christopher remembers all too well.
“His look seemed to say, ‘is it me, is today my day?’” he recalls. ” [Dover] looked at me and then I looked at my fiancé and said ‘he is the one we want.’”
The combat veteran with the hole in his heart had hope.
“I found Dover and it was love at first sight.”
Leader of the pack
According to shelter staff, Dover was an owner surrender who only had a short time left to live if he had not been adopted. Like many shelters around the country, they face agonizing life-and-death decisions in an effort to balance humane animal rescue and adoption.
“I can tell by his energy that he is young,” Christopher says, “he has more energy than both [Pit mixes] combined.”
Besides being quite hyper, Dover also has a penchant for back rubs.
“He loves to have his back scratched,” says Christopher. “You can sit there and watch his face where he gets this look – where he is almost smiling.”
When he isn’t getting spoiled by back rubs, the little dog demands some belly rubs.
“If you rub right across his bottom rib, he’ll get his leg kicking real good and get that look on his face like ‘ah,’” Christopher describes. “If you stop, he’ll get up and smack you with his paw.”
Dover enjoys playing fetch with a ball and wrestling with Christopher, and when the day is done, he sleeps bed with the rest of the pack – two- and four-legged – where space is at a premium. And despite his diminutive size, Dover is the most protective dog in the house.
Healing at both ends of the leash
Anyone who has had pets knows that each animal will always occupy a special place in the heart, never to be fully replaced. With Dover lending a helping paw, Christopher is still trying to comprehend and accept the particularly tragic loss of his beloved Oscar.
“I still give Dover as much love and attention as Oscar, but once you have the one dog in your life it is tough to have that again,” says Christopher.
The little dog knows that he has big paws to fill, and Dover does all he can to help his grieving veteran.
“If I am having a bad day Dover will leave me alone for a little bit, but will come and check on me to make sure I am alright. If I am having a high anxiety day, he will lick my hand and try to play to get my mind off things,” Christopher says, adding, “There have been a few times he will be sitting there and I will get real depressed, and Dover will scoot a little closer and doesn’t go anywhere… he will be by my side and not get up.”
Although Oscar can never be replaced, Dover is doing his best to help heal the man who saved him.
Spreading the word about animal rescue
Christopher truly believes in the mission of Pets for Patriots and shares information about the organization every time he gets the chance. He has told friends about the program, hoping to spread the word. His message for any veteran considering a companion animal is straight to the point and poignant.
“I would tell my brothers in arms, it’s worth every bit of love you can give to adopt a new family member to help out with their struggles, and the struggles of that animal,” he says, and further draws a distinction between adopting versus shopping for a companion pet.
“Don’t buy from a pet store or a puppy mill, get one from a shelter,” he says, “Those dogs have been through hard times like we have, and there is no other show of love like you can get from a rescued animal.”
If you are or know a veteran who would benefit from a new pet friend, learn more about our companion pet adoption program today.