My Latest Foster Dog Is Something of a Mystery


There’s an old Chinese parable that goes something like this:

A farmer gets a horse, which soon runs away. A neighbor says, “Oh, so sorry for the bad news.” The farmer replies, “Good news, bad news, who can say?”

The horse comes back and brings another horse with him. Good news, perhaps.

The farmer gives the second horse to his son, who rides it, then is thrown and badly breaks his leg. Ack! Bad news! “Well,” says the farmer. “Who can say?”

A few days later, the emperor’s men come and take every able-bodied young man to fight in a war. The farmer’s son is spared. So, good news!

The message of the story: “Good news, bad news, who can say?” We can never know ahead of time how things that may appear to be good or bad will turn out.

I’m thinking about this at the moment, because I am fostering a puppy with a “Good news, bad news, who can say?” sort of back story.

(Yes, I said I am going to stop fostering, for my old dog Otto’s sake. Soon. And I mean it. But not yet.)

How I came across my latest foster pup

As I’ve written about before, I’ve been volunteering at the emergency shelter being provided to evacuees of the North Complex Fire, one of many that erupted in California following a dry lightning storm on August 17. My local animal rescue group, the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, opened the shelter on September 8, when a windstorm pushed the North Complex fire 30 miles overnight and right into our backyard (10 miles from my literal backyard). And an army of volunteers have been caring for hundreds of dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, llamas, donkeys, chickens, ducks, you name it ever since.

I was evacuated for a few days, myself. When my husband and I (and our dogs, of course) were allowed to go home, the first thing I did was report for duty at the shelter to walk and feed dogs.

The emergency shelter is a temporary facility; dogs are kept in crates, so they HAVE to be walked multiple times a day. Not an easy task, when they are in close quarters, the air is full of smoke, there are dozens of strangers walking among them, their crates are packed close together next to those of other stressed dogs … It’s a very tough situation.

On my first day of volunteering, I was assigned to work in two rooms at the shelter – which is located in a series of rooms in the bowels of a former county hospital. (One of the rooms used to be the county morgue! The building stopped being a hospital sometime in the early 1970s.) One of the rooms I was overseeing was the “isolation” room, where puppies who were likely to be as-yet unvaccinated were being kept. Among them were three pups who appeared to be siblings, about 5 months old. (Hey! Good news! Their owner evacuated the fire zone and brought them to an appropriate place for care!)

All three of these puppies were terrified of people and of being held in the crates. One, who appeared to be the runt of the litter, would shyly wag his tail at people, but the other two didn’t want to make eye contact and avoided touch. And one, the only female, appeared to have something very wrong with her back end; she was limping or crippled or something. (Yikes, bad news, right?) Hard to tell in the crate. They were going to be especially challenging to care for.

A day later, I learned that the female pup had been placed under a 10-day quarantine. She had bitten one of the volunteers who was trying to get her out of her crate for a walk. Terrible news, right?

A mystery condition: what’s wrong with her back legs?

The county animal control officer overseeing the shelter contacted her owner, informing him of both the bite and quarantine, and also informing him that the pup needed to be transported to a veterinarian for medical care; what was going on with her rear legs? Citing the difficulties of his situation (I believe his home was burned in the fire), the owner relinquished her to the county. (Bad news? No, actually, good news! The county can pay for her to be seen by a veterinarian!)

“Coco,” as she is now known to be named, was transported to a local veterinarian. She was so incredibly scared, the examination was rather perfunctory. A soft-tissue injury was suspected, pain meds were prescribed to see if they help, and she was sent to the local permanent shelter to serve out the rest of her quarantine. Hard time! Bad news?

Well, no: Upon intake to the permanent shelter, she was vaccinated, like all “stray” dogs and dogs who are relinquished to the city or county by their owners. A week later, at the emergency shelter, it was reported that seven owned dogs who were being cared for at the emergency shelter had developed parvovirus. Oh my gosh, this is terrible news for those dogs – and I didn’t yet know whether it was Coco’s brothers who were infected, or some other dogs, because I hadn’t been to the shelter in the past week (busy getting the November issue of WDJ to the printer) – but being sent to the permanent shelter was great news for Coco, who got to miss being exposed to parvo, and who received the benefit of what may have even been her first vaccination.

I was keeping track of Coco’s incarceration, because I made it known that I would be happy to foster her when she was released from her quarantine; I knew she needed further medical care, to see what was going on with her back end, and was afraid she’d get lost in the shuffle. It just seemed to me that she had gotten a really poor hand of cards so far in life. Following her last day in quarantine, I started pushing the animal control officer in charge of her case for information about her vet care, and asked if I could foster her. Happily, the officer agreed that we couldn’t know for sure what was ailing the puppy unless she had x-rays taken, so he made an appointment to go back to the vet and I volunteered to transport her.

My Latest Foster Dog Is Something of a Mystery
Coco on her way home from the shelter and the vet’s office.

After 10 days in a kennel at the shelter, she was both more habituated to loud, barky surroundings and seeing people. She still looked tense and scared, but the shelter vet tech was able to pick her up and carry her to my car without having to put a muzzle on her. At the vet’s office, of course, they did put a muzzle on her, so they could safely sedate her for x-rays.

The radiographs came back without offering a single clue as to the source of her problem: Spine fine, hips fine, pelvis fine, knees fine. Good news?

At this point, it must be said, nobody had been able to see Coco move about freely, to really study exactly what was wrong with her. As she moved around in a crate or kennel, always trying to avoid contact with humans, all you could tell was that she couldn’t really stand up or walk properly.

Woody to the rescue once again

So, I brought her home! In the car, I put a soft, padded harness on her – carefully, gently –and attached a long line to it. I own two fenced acres and two dogs who are experienced with foster puppies and strange dogs.

It took about an hour for my five-year-old “fun uncle” dog, Woody, to convince her that no one was going to try to murder her at our house. It took only another hour and many Stella and Chewy’s freeze dried chicken Meal Mixers (my dog training secret weapon) to convince her that I was safe, she didn’t want to go anywhere (I could take off the harness), and that Woody was her absolute crush. I mean, honestly. It’s a little embarrassing.

My Latest Foster Dog Is Something of a Mystery
“I might survive if I can be near you, Woody!”

Over this past week, while I’ve been tied to my home office and computer, Coco has gone from terrified to terrific – at least as far as being comfortable with humans is concerned. (She likely was fine with her original human family, but the abrupt move under emergency conditions into a crate in a crowded facility just blew her little mind.)

And all this week, I’ve been taking pictures and video of Coco on the move. Good news, bad news, who knows? It’s a mystery.

She certainly can move; she can run and jump and go up and down stairs – but her rear end doesn’t move right – I mean, properly. She hops like a bunny behind; both hind legs move as one: hop, hop, hop. She does not – can not? – move her back legs independently of each other. If you hold a treat in front of her nose and try to get her to move forward just one leg at a time, she will step, step with her front feet, and streeeeettttchhh with her back feet, and then hop with both. If you hold one of those back legs (gently) to see if she will step with the other one, she just falls down.

I really, really wanted to see what Coco would do in water. Would the non-weight-bearing environment make her comfortable enough to move her legs in a normal movement pattern? Would her brain be “reset” by the need to swim into paddling her back legs independently? A friend and I took her to a local reservoir that has a shallow, soft bottom. I carried her out to a depth where her feet could just barely brush the ground, supporting her with one hand under her chest and feeling with the other hand under water to see what her hind legs would do.

They paddled independently.

This made me so happy. There is hope! She is happy, she is able, she is not in pain … She is not right, but there is hope for her.

My Latest Foster Dog Is Something of a Mystery
They sleep like this daily.

I got an unofficial consult from a friend who is also a NVADG volunteer (except she’s a BEAST on the animal evacuation team, who goes into the fire zone rescuing animals) and an equine massage therapist when our county is not on fire. Tamara came to my house and met Coco, watching her hop and run and play with Woody. She also massaged and stretched the little dog, and she agrees: Coco’s condition is weird, but there’s hope. We both think Coco needs more swimming time, and time on an underwater treadmill. Acupuncture? Massage? Stretching? Physical therapy? We think she needs all of it.

So, sorry, Otto, we’ve got one more project puppy we need to help. Though, frankly, if I can find an underwater treadmill and a PT specialist to help me with Coco, I will sign up Otto for therapy, too! At 13 years old, he would benefit from this sort of care just as much as I think Coco will.

Wish us luck! And I’ll keep you posted.


  1. Love this story; you are so kind and generous. My daughter adopted a stray puppy and is in love with her. She always wants to bring her over much to the dismay of my smaller 12 year old dog. How do I tell when it is “to much” stress for my dog? She really doesn’t want to have anything to do with the puppy (they have met 3 – 4 times) Thanks!

  2. Nancy, I presume you know about Penn Valley Equine Aquatics (it’s really equine AND canine)…Alyssa is absolutely wonderful, and extremely knowledgeable. The bad news is that according to the web results, they’re temporarily closed (likely due to COVID), but it might be worth it to give Alyssa a call anyway at (530)432-9531, or email her at Good luck with Coco!

  3. I had a rescue (Riley) that hopped on his back legs when he ran. He was examined and no one could find a problem with his back legs. Later in life he started having seizures. Coco looks like she may have some Weimaraner in her… her expressions are priceless!

  4. Are you sure Coco doesn’t have a spinal injury? After my dog Libbie had a severe spinal cord injury, she moved her rear legs together. Underwater treadmill therapy and other PT at home were a huge help to her although she never fully recovered.

  5. Coco is adorable! You have such a big heart, and I’m so glad you persisted with the emergency shelter and animal control to get her the help she needs. Such a good dog could have languished, frightened and without medical care if it wasn’t for you. I know that Otto is your heart dog (and he’s so handsome!), but every time you post pictures of Woody with a foster, I’m in awe! I foster dogs for a rescue group and my dogs are very welcoming to them, but Woody is the best dog ambassador I’ve ever seen. He must speak with them subliminally, since they all end up loving and playing and snuggling with him. Who will ever forget Woody and Odin together? You made a fantastic decision when you kept him from that litter of foster pups!

  6. Nancy, you are so fantastic…and your family, both dog and human, for taking on yet another not-straightforward foster. On top of everything going on! Wishing you and her, all the best, and will look forward to further updates.

    • Hi Sandy, I’m sorry for the delay in responding to you! I wasn’t sure which organization to direct you to… but allow me to give you information about the two groups who have had custody of Coco so far, and you can choose.

      The North Valley Animal Disaster Group ( is the group who provided sheltering for Coco at the start of the fire, and paid for her first two vet visits (neither all that productive, as she was so socially withdrawn that neither vet was able to see her move).

      The Northwest SPCA is the local shelter I usually foster for and she is legally their ward now. They will be paying for any ongoing care Coco needs (that is, care I don’t end up paying for myself). Their website is

      Both organizations have donation links on their pages, and have done/are doing heroic work caring for the many “stray” (unclaimed) dogs and other animals from this most recent, terrible fire. On behalf of Coco, thank you for your concern!

  7. What a wonderful story! You and Woody have truly worked wonders with this puppy! I just wondered if it would help investigating the mystery if someone – one of your vets? were to contact the former owners, assuring them that she is getting all the care she needs and will be assured of ongoing necessary treatment, to ask them what they might know about early injuries, or if she was born with an abnormality. In the case of spinal or neurological issues, it might be a big help to get this kind of information. Those poor people must wonder how she is faring and it would help them to provide information that might help her.

    • I found that clinic after some Googleing, and contacted Kristen to make an appointment. I’ve sent her video and am waiting. (I think her clinic may have been affected by the fire in THAT area?). She sounds AMAZING. — NK

  8. God will truly bless you (if he hasn’t already!) for all of your work with the fosters, including lovely Coco! It sounds like there is truly help for her in the works! With you they have a caring person who has the brains, knowledge, and skills to effect a change for the better with these poor, needy dogs. Keep up the great work – well done.

  9. I wish Coco a full recovery and you to find a suitable house for her and help from other volunteers. It could be that she spent most of her life in cage and just didn’t learn how to properly walk.

  10. She looks like she’s mostly Dobie. Dobies are prone to getting a horrible affliction called Wobblers. It’s a hereditary disease that Dobies suffers disproportionately from. That might be how it acts with a young dog.

  11. Our now 12-1/2 year old Labradoodle ran like that for some time after we got him. For the first 7 months of his life, he had lived in a puppy mill, rescued in a raid by our local Humane Society . He just kind of bounced in a bunny hop style whenever he tried to run . I was interested to see that someone else said that their dog went on to have seizures as has Winston who started them 5 years ago.
    Having said that, our previous German shepherd mix, Georgia, who had degenerative myeleopathy showed bunny hopping as one of her first signs of that. Here I go continuing with your good news/bad news theme.
    Once again, I am full of such admiration for all that you do and your giant heart. Woody is indeed a wonder! and Coco is a very winsome sweet …and lucky….girl.

  12. Nancy,

    I have, over the years, fallen in love with Woody!! What a guy! All of your fosters seem to gravitate to him, and he seems so accepting of them all. It just warms my heart. You’re so lucky to have each other!

  13. Good morning Nancy!………… I am a DOG LOVER,! and This story has truly touched my heart! people such as yourself should be commended, recognized, and acknowledged for their extraordinary ENORMOUS HEARTS!
    Taking in a rescue dog is a “risk” no matter what the breed, age, and how “adorable/cute/sweet the dog may appear, the person who is fostering or adding a dog into their family MUST understand that, only the dog truly knows what HE/SHE has already been through!……..I wish You ALL THE BEST with COCO, and I want to tell You that “THIS STORY” was just what I needed to hear today!……… I am sure that You have heard this before……..
    Dogs love Us UNCONDITIONALLY…… does GOD!…… and when We spell “DOG” in reverse……We get “GOD!”
    NANCY, thank you so much for sharing your story, I will keep You and Your pups in my thoughts and prayers!

    NANCY, thank you so much for sharing your story, I will keep You and Your pups in my thoughts and prayers!