Faces of No-Kill: 3-legged dog earns her military stripes

Ruthie the dog with three people (two in military uniforms) in front of a large vehicle
Ruthie went from a scared, injured puppy in a shelter to bringing joy to combat veterans who defuse bombs for a living.
By John Polis

The Faces of No-Kill series highlights stories about pets who have become a statistic in the best way. These are just a few of the many pets who once slipped into danger; they lost their homes, they had health or behavioral challenges, their families couldn’t care for them, or all the above. But each one of them got assistance, and today they are thriving thanks to an animal shelter program that helped them rather than killed them. Best Friends’ goal is for every animal shelter and every community to reach no-kill by 2025. The story below is just one example of why it’s so important.

There's a verse inscribed on the collar of Baby Ruth — a chocolate brown, three-legged charmer of a puppy — that fits her to a T. Adopted from Best Friends last spring by Chris and Rebecca Cunningham of Layton, Utah, Ruthie loves everyone. And everyone loves her. And like a true guardian angel, Ruthie seems to always be at the ready to soothe a troubled soul.

That’s just the type of dog the Cunninghams envisioned could help Chris with his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acquired from many years serving in the military and law enforcement. They were right. Since Ruthie moved in with them six months ago, Chris is feeling better, and the empathetic dog seems determined to pay her blessings forward to everyone she meets.

It’s really quite a coincidence,” says Chris. “She's missing her left rear leg, and my left leg doesn't work like normal anymore (from years of jumping out of airplanes).” It’s more than a coincidence, says Rebecca. It’s a perfect match.

A detour to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Last March, the Cunninghams were on their way to a retreat in Arizona for people dealing with PTSD when their plans suddenly changed after going the wrong way and winding up in Flagstaff. “We were just feeling so completely stressed out about going the wrong way that we decided to change our plans and just spend some time alone together,” says Rebecca.

That’s when she thought of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, located in Kanab, Utah, an easy reach on the way back to Salt Lake City. “I looked online and saw this dog they called Zap (Ruthie’s name when she was at the Sanctuary), and we noticed she had just three legs. We both looked at each other and agreed: We just gotta meet this dog.”

[Three-Legged Dog or Cat: Tips for Adopters]

Ali Waszmer, director of Dogtown, fostered Ruthie for four months beginning last February when the pup arrived at the Sanctuary from Valencia County Animal Shelter in Los Lunas, New Mexico. Ruthie had arrived at the shelter when she was only a few months old with a broken leg. She underwent major surgery to amputate her leg and then came to Best Friends to recover and eventually be placed in a home.

Many things in life scared little Ruthie, especially slick floors that made it hard for her to keep her balance as she adjusted to life on three legs. But over time her true personality emerged. She just wanted to be around people, and she made it clear to everyone that she had a lot of love to give — to whomever she was around.

Love at first sight

Chris and Rebecca set some boundaries for themselves on their stopover at Best Friends. And to seal the deal, they repeated those famous last words uttered by so many on their way to meet an animal they spotted online: “We’re just going to meet her. We’re not gonna take her home today.” But once they met the 8-month-old, 38-pound bundle of joy, Rebecca says, “We were like ‘Ooh, this is our dog.’”

Chris and Rebecca were true to their pledge. They didn’t take Ruthie home that day. They went back the next day and got her.

Since becoming part of the family, Ruthie’s loving and naturally chill nature has been the perfect tonic for Chris, an explosive ordinance disposal technician for the Utah Air National Guard in Salt Lake City. His unit locates, recovers, disarms, and disposes of bombs and other dangerous weapons that threaten people, property, and natural environments.

“Since the day she came home with us, she’s shown how much she loves people — especially Chris,” says Rebecca. “She’s a family dog in a lot of ways, but she’s bonded to Chris and provides him with a great deal of support.”

Turns out Ruthie, the people lover, also loves the company of other dogs, especially her two new “siblings” — Esther, who could pass as Ruthie’s twin, and Brando, who’s darker in color and much bigger than either of the girls.

The three dogs get plenty of exercise out in the Cunninghams’ enormous backyard. Ruthie likes to get out and run ― at least until Chris throws the ball for Brando. When that happens, Esther runs after Brando. And Ruthie goes for Esther’s legs. “Every single time,” says Rebecca. “Ruthie just grabs her leg and trips her to get her in a wrestling match.” It’s all in good fun, and Ruthie already understands the difference between playtime and work.

Bomb squad therapist

Ruthie’s daily routine starts at 4 a.m. when she gets up with Chris. She moves sleepily around until she sees Chris get her training vest out — a clear signal it’s time to go to work. From that point onward for Ruthie, it’s game on.

“It doesn’t matter what she’s doing,” says Rebecca. “She might be romping around in the morning with her sister if she doesn’t have her vest on. But as soon as you put it on her, she’s all business.”

Chris says Ruthie has made a big difference in how he feels and how he deals with stress on the job. She seems to know when he’s stressed and lets him know she is there for him by coming up to him and offering a paw over his knee or even a snuggle.

Her calming presence is a welcome addition to the well-being of the 10 other people — most of them combat veterans — assigned to the unit. “About half of them have PTSD in some form,” says Chris. “And Ruthie loves everyone and seems to help everyone.”

[Quirky dog brings joy to adopter coping with PTSD]

Once she gets to “work” at the base, there’s no lying around. Ruthie is free to go where she wants to say hello to everyone — in the individual offices, in the bay where all the heavy equipment is stored, in the base gym. With a purpose, Ruthie greets everyone as if it’s her assigned duty to look in and see if everyone is OK.

“If anybody at the shop is feeling down, she goes right up to them,” says Rebecca. “She’s very empathetic.”

Especially fond of Chris’ boss, Tim, Ruthie recently went into Tim’s office while he was out. “She noticed Tim wasn’t there,” says Rebecca. “So she sat right by his chair and kept spinning it around with her paw, wondering where he might be.”

Therapy training for the future

The Cunninghams are planning to get Ruthie formally trained as a therapy dog to work with veterans in hospitals. “The hospitals around here require very specific training,” says Rebecca. “And because she has only three legs, she has some difficulty on certain types of flooring. So that’s something we’ll be working on in training.”

Chris is especially looking forward to having Ruthie visit the Veterans Affairs hospital, so she can be of comfort to his fellow veterans. “That’s really important to me,” he says.

Looking ahead, the Cunninghams are also excited about their own new venture: Psalm 71 Ministries. “Our goal is to provide Christian counselors for people suffering from trauma, including combat veterans. We’re just getting it off the ground.”

The ever-present Ruthie, who’s already helping people in the Air National Guard, is poised to go to work in the new venture. “She’s going to have her own blog on our website to make everything a bit more lighthearted,” says Rebecca. “My daughter will be writing it as if Ruthie was talking.”

Meanwhile, Ruthie continues to make the rounds at work, spreading peace and joy among the airmen, whose daily job is to defuse explosive materials. And the verse inscribed on her collar, a simple “Ruth 1:16,” prompts all who see it to look it up: “Do not persuade me to leave you or go back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live. And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”

Chris, Rebecca, and the folks down at the bomb squad — all recipients of Ruthie’s grace-filled consolations — can surely relate.

Let's make every shelter and every community no-kill by 2025

Our goal at Best Friends is to support all animal shelters in the U.S. in reaching no-kill by 2025. No-kill means saving every dog and cat in a shelter who can be saved, accounting for community safety and good quality of life for pets. 

Shelter staff can’t do it alone. Saving animals in shelters is everyone’s responsibility, and it takes support and participation from the community. No-kill is possible when we work together thoughtfully, honestly, and collaboratively.

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