Xena, Warrior Dog

She’d run out of ideas to help her special needs son. But God knew just what to do.

- Posted on Feb 17, 2015

Jonny and Xena are best buddies.

I picked up popsicle sticks from the den floor. I’d spent all afternoon writing words on them, trying to make it fun for my younger son, Jonny, to speak...or even just to repeat the sentence that my husband, Grant, and I had been practicing with him for months: “Do you want to play?”

It didn’t work. Nothing worked. Jonny knew how to read, though not at his grade level. He knew how to speak too, but no one could get more than a word or two out of him, if that. I’d tried every idea I could think of, talked to God about it the way I talked to him about everything. But Jonny was eight years old. If he couldn’t speak in sentences and hold a conversation by now, would he ever?

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It went beyond unlocking his speech. If Jonny could talk, it would open a whole world of possibilities for him. He would be able to connect with people, maybe make a friend. That was what I wanted for him more than anything.

Jonny didn’t hit the developmental milestones that our older son, Christian, had. Things that didn’t faze other kids, like picking up food with his hands or having someone stand too close to him, freaked him out.

He was two when we got the diagnosis: autism. I could hardly say the word. I avoided telling people. I didn’t want them to judge him. We tried physical, speech and occupational therapies. Special diets. Medication. Nothing changed.

Jonny was content to be with his family, but he ignored everyone else, even our two gentle old dogs. It broke my heart to see him retreat into himself, playing all alone. In some ways that was harder to take than his other behavioral extreme—uncontrollable meltdowns.

I never knew what would set him off. Once in the deli line at the supermarket, he’d started hyperventilating. Was it something he smelled? The sight of the deli meats? People crowding him? “Jonny, focus,” I said. He stared through me. Then he fell to the floor, kicking and screaming.

“Is he okay?” other customers asked. I’d hurried Jonny out of the store. I didn’t say what I was thinking. No, he’s not okay. He probably never will be.

I felt ashamed for thinking that. I hadn’t given up hope for Jonny, but I’d run out of ideas to help him. I was so discouraged, so exhausted. I flopped now onto the couch. The local news was on.

A horrifying image. A fawn-colored puppy on a veterinarian’s exam table, covered in scabs, so emaciated it was hard to believe she was alive. The reporter mentioned that the rescue group had set up a Facebook page under “Xena, the Warrior Puppy.” They were hoping she would pull through.

I grabbed my laptop and went to the page. “Xena appears to be a four-month-old Lab mix,” the post read. “Her nose scabs are likely from trying to escape a locked crate where she had no access to food. Her chances of survival are less than one percent.”

My heart went out to the little dog. “Please let Xena live,” I asked God. Like I said, I talk to him about everything.

The next morning before the boys woke up I checked Facebook. “Xena made it through the night and she’s eating!” Yes!

From then on, I checked her page several times a day. Grant teased me about my new obsession. I wasn’t the only one. Xena had more than 9,000 followers. Little by little, she grew stronger.

It might sound strange that I got emotionally invested in a dog I’d never met, but Xena was so inspiring. She’d been given almost no chance of surviving, yet here she was, thriving. A warrior, all right. I wasn’t holding out for something that miraculous for Jonny, but maybe there was hope for him yet.

I saw an update one afternoon saying there would be a meet and greet with Xena in November, about two months after I’d seen her on TV. I told Grant. “Isn’t that for people looking to adopt her?” he asked.

I nodded. “I know it’s crazy to take on another dog now,” I said. “But we would give her lots of love.”

Grant’s expression softened. “Okay,” he said. “Just don’t get your hopes up. I’ll bet tons of people want to give her a home. And there’s no guarantee she’d get along with our dogs.” He didn’t have to add, What about Jonny? There was no telling how he’d react.

A few days before the meet and greet, I found out something else that gave me pause. A Facebook update said that Xena wasn’t a Lab mix after all. She was a pit-bull mix. I’d seen scary stories on the news about pit bulls attacking people. Could they be trusted around kids, especially one as unpredictable as Jonny?

“I don’t know about this anymore,” Grant said.

“Me either,” I admitted. But then I thought about how I didn’t want people to judge Jonny because he had autism. How could I write off an entire breed of dog? “Maybe we should just see what she’s like.”

“Fine,” Grant said with a sigh.

The meet and greet was packed. People milling around, even TV news crews. I tensed. What if Jonny freaked out? “Don’t worry,” Grant said. “We won’t stay long.”

We were there maybe five minutes. Just long enough for me to thank Chrissy, the woman who had rescued Xena, for bringing me so much hope the past couple of months. And to see Xena make her entrance. She seemed totally friendly, darting up to people, unafraid despite her history of abuse. That made me want her all the more.

At home I filled out an application to adopt Xena. There were no questions about family members with disabilities. If they weren’t asking, I wasn’t telling. That night, as I made dinner, Grant turned on the news. “Linda!” he called. “It’s the meet and greet.”

I ran to the den. There was Xena. “She’s running straight to Jonny! Did he actually smile at her?”

“I can’t believe I forgot to tell you,” Grant said. “It happened so fast, and we were in such a rush to leave.”

Three months went by and I didn’t hear from the rescue group. All I could do was keep praying and checking Xena’s Facebook page.

Finally, I got a call from Chrissy. “We considered the applications carefully,” she said. “We think your family would be a good fit. Would you like to take Xena for a trial visit?”

I shouted yes so loud I think God might have needed earplugs in heaven.

Xena was dropped off that Monday morning to meet our other dogs before Jonny came home from school. The dogs sniffed each other, then ambled around the house together. Well, the other dogs ambled. Xena bounded.

Time to pick up Jonny. I opened the van door and Xena hopped right into his booster seat. “Make yourself at home,” I said, laughing.

The carpool line seemed to take forever. Finally Jonny slid open the door.

“Remember Xena?” I said.

His eyes lit up. Xena hopped out of the booster seat. Jonny got in. His seat belt clicked. Then I heard something else.

“Mom, look! She has four legs! And two eyes. And two ears. And she’s brown and white. And she has a booboo on her nose.”

My breath hitched. Did Jonny just talk? In complete sentences? How could that be? After all these years.…

“That’s right, honey,” I said.

“She needs a Band-Aid for the booboo,” Jonny declared.

Now I was the one who couldn’t speak.

Xena jumped into Jonny’s lap, crowding him. He giggled, not minding one bit.

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Xena became a part of our family. She’s gotten Jonny to open up in many ways. Not only did he get over his phobia of touching food, he makes her dinner every night. He chatters nonstop and even got an award at school for his friendliness. He marches right up to people at the supermarket and says, “Give me a hug!”

I took over Xena’s Facebook page. I proudly tell thousands of people about Jonny’s autism and the incredible difference Xena has made.

“What kind of dog is Xena?” I like to ask Jonny.

“She’s a warrior, Mom!” he says.

“That’s right. Just like you.”

Miracles too, both of them. That’s what I talk to God about these days.

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