Pet Besties
Reader's Digest US|October 2021
Meet the winners of our first America’s Best Pet Pals contest. Warm fuzzies guaranteed!


Dakota and Indiana

FOR FOUR MONTHS, puppy Indiana miraculously survived in the woods with a shattered shoulder. She’d been mistaken for a wolf and shot while running wild with her mother, Dakota. An animal control officer said they were the most intensely bonded pair he’d ever seen and refused to leave each other’s side, even while trying to evade capture.

As a result of the gunshot, Indiana lost not only her leg but also her mother, as the two were sent to different adoption groups. While Indiana was learning to walk on three legs down south, Dakota was 1,000 miles north in New England. The first family to adopt her returned her two days later. They said she couldn’t bond with humans, kept them up all night, and wasn’t suitable to live in a home.

Dakota found her forever home with me on Long Island. I have experience with Nordic breeds, and Dakota, a husky-malamute mix, just needed attention and someone who understood how to approach her. I always let her come up to me. I gave her the time and space to explore and feel comfortable. She soon let me put a leash on her and would jump onto my bed and lie on the sofa with me.

When I first read Dakota’s Petfinder bio, it mentioned that the puppy she’d been running with was shot, and, I assumed, killed. I’m a broadcast news journalist, so I did some sleuthing and came across a story from a South Carolina TV news outlet about a puppy that recently had her front leg amputated because of an old gunshot wound. There was no mistaking it—she was a spitting image of Dakota. Her puppy wasn’t killed by the gunshot, just badly injured. I vowed to bring the three-legged puppy home.

As I learned throughout my journey to reunite mother and pup, they both needed each other. Back home, Dakota would let out these downright mournful howls on the deck, as if she was calling for her puppy to come back. And potential adopters for Indiana were required to have a six-foot fence because she kept jumping the one at her rescue in South Carolina.

When I finally adopted Indiana, the reunion was magical. Dakota was ecstatic. She couldn’t stop licking her puppy’s face. The love between them is as heartwarming as their story is heartbreaking. Dakota has since stopped her mournful howls. Indiana has never tried to jump my fence.

They play and run around nonstop. The puppy cameras in my house turn on in the middle of the night because the two dogs are playing. They sleep entwined, with each one’s nose resting on the other. If one rolls over for a belly rub, the other rolls, too. They romp around on the beach and love to say hi to other dogs. When Indiana is tired, Dakota lets her pup rest her one front leg on her back. Every day I play the same good-morning song and they come running in and dance with me, jumping on their hind legs and giving me their front paws (or paw).

These once-feral dogs now jump onto my bed, lie on the sofa with me, curl up in my lap, and lick me constantly. Despite their having lived in the wild, the dogs have no aggression whatsoever. I am constantly amazed by how sweet and gentle they are. —Nonnie Gerber The Hamptons, New York


Blue, the Big Yella Fella

MY DOG, BLUE, came into my life because I have posttraumatic stress disorder. For me, the condition is a result of three significant conflicts as a Marine and 20 years of humanitarian work in Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

A soul-crushing illness, PTSD drags victims into nightmarish voids of shame, fear, and chaos. Initially, the clash between my ego and reality made me hesitant to want a trained companion. Walking around with a large animal wearing a vest announcing “Service Dog” felt like public admission of an illness I wanted to hide. But the Southeastern Guide Dogs motto hit home: “Serving those who cannot see and those who have seen too much.” Managing PTSD involves learning to accept the past. “Those who have seen too much” fit.

When asked during the interview process what kind of dog I preferred, I answered, “Imagine standing in the exercise area for dogs. In the distance, one dog is romping with his friends. You’ve been concerned about placing him. He’s huge! He’ll fill up a house, apartment, or truck. That’s my dog!”

Then, on my first evening at the Southeastern Guide Dogs campus, our trainer told me, “Since the beginning of this school in 1984, your dog is the largest Lab ever born in this facility. You’ll meet him tomorrow.”

The next day, a 90-pound yellow Labrador retriever with ears the size of dinner plates closed the 25 feet separating us in a flash. I dropped to the floor, and my face was met by a wet tongue moving in sync with an ever-wagging tail. My worries vanished. I fell in love with the “big yella fella.”

Blue was trained for 23 months prior and knew his job. Over the next 12 days, the training focused on understanding his abilities and temperament, and bonding. We were together 24/7. When I move, he moved. If he couldn’t follow, he strove to maintain line of sight. If a closed door separated us, he lay outside until I appeared.

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