Opening heart to new dog is adopter’s antidote to grief

Mackenzie Wilhite sleeping with Nikki the dog on her chest
After her dog of 16 years passed, Mackenzie found sweet, happy Nikki and turned loss into a new beginning.
By Lindsay Hutton

As soon as Best Friends Lifesaving Outcomes Supervisor Valentina Costa saw Nikki, she was struck by two things: 1. this was a super cute, happy-go-lucky dog and 2. the long fur around his ears flopped from side to side as he pranced around, making him even cuter.

Nikki came to the Best Friends team in Houston from a partner shelter and right away was scheduled for neuter surgery. But during the pre-surgery exam, the medical team saw he was congested, had a runny nose, and seemed lethargic. He couldn’t be put under anesthesia until he got well, so the medical team switched gears.

Best Friends’ goal is for all shelters to reach no-kill in 2025, and that means working together with other animal welfare organizations to save pets’ lives, giving each one what they need to move out of the shelter and into a happy new home.

Reviving a sick dog’s spirits

The medical team started Nikki on antibiotics right away. Two to three times a day, for about 10 minutes each time, staff brought a humidifier into Nikki’s kennel, covering it with a blanket to trap the warm mist inside and help relieve his congestion. They monitored his appetite because he didn’t want to eat and tempted him with as many tasty treats as they could. They brought him toys as well to try to bolster his spirits and keep him entertained.

But for the first few days, Nikki’s droopy demeanor was a clear sign that he didn’t feel good. He was reserved, slow to warm up to his caregivers. Then, gradually, after a few weeks of his treatments, he began to recover.

[Skinny, sick dog finds new hope, new life]

Once he started to really feel better, Nikki was wiggly, attention-seeking, affectionate, and very happy. He often barked and hopped around, calling for someone to come and play.

For Valentina, seeing Nikki’s personality shine through after having been so buried by illness was incredibly rewarding and hopeful. He was ready for a home of his own.

Happiness and healing come with adoption

Mackenzie Wilhite saw Nikki’s picture online and called Best Friends to ask about him because he looked like such a happy dog. And happiness was something that she’d lost.

Mackenzie and her dog Angel had been together since Mackenzie was in sixth grade, 16 years ago. And when Angel died, Mackenzie thought about how she should respond to the grief and depression; she was tempted to close herself off. But the more she reflected, the more she saw that she needed to help another animal to help heal herself — and to honor Angel.

[The shape of our grief]

When Mackenzie met Nikki, he showered her with his sweet, fun, affectionate self, keeping his eyes on her and soaking up all the petting. He was exactly the right size to come traveling with her. He was adorable. She thought it over to make sure she was ready to adopt. She ordered new dog toys. A few days later, she picked him up.

Rain poured down on the car as Mackenzie drove Nikki home. Unperturbed, he sat calmly — curious, it seemed, about the windshield wipers. Once they got to the house, Nikki found his way to the bed, plopped down, and made himself comfortable. Before long, he was so comfortable he snoozed on his back with his paws in the air.

That’s how it was from the start between Mackenzie and Nikki: comfortable. Nikki stays by her side while she works. Their days together include snuggle time, time to dash around the 2.5-acre yard, midday snacks of blueberries and carrots, walks, visits with neighborhood kids, fetch, and an evening TV show. The rhythm of the days has been easy. And as the days have gone on, Nikki’s happy, adventuresome personality has soothed Mackenzie’s grief.

He also got a new name to fit his personality (he went by a different name when he came from the shelter). The floofy black fur on his ears reminded Mackenzie of big ’80s rock band hair. A fan of Nikki Sixx and Motley Crue, she decided to call him Nikki for his rockin’ ear fur. Still full of puppy energy, Mackenzie says he acts like a typical rockstar and gets himself into a little trouble here and there, running around the house and looking for action. He likes the exciting times, playing with Mackenzie’s parents’ dog Charlie. And he likes to release a ridiculous little belch after every meal.

Now, Mackenzie and Nikki are moving to Wyoming, and she’s excited about sharing the mountains, camping, and hiking — all the fun things — with Nikki. He’s exactly whom she needed to start this new journey. As she prepares for the trip north, she carefully packs Angel’s belongings. They’ll ride in the car with her and Nikki. A reminder that what seems lost may not be completely lost, only more distant and so able to be a guiding star.

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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