When you work in animal rescue, you see some horrific things. Fortunately, there are also some incredibly amazing people who restore your faith in the goodness in the world.

Our rescue, Phoenix Rising Border Collie Rescue, recently heard about a puppy in a rural Georgia shelter that needed out. From her photo, she looked friendly, if not a little dirty. A shelter worker described her as stinky but sweet. Puppies can have all sorts of medical issues, but they typically don't have a ton of baggage. They are resilient and tend to come around pretty quickly.

But this puppy — who we named Willow — had lived some sort of unfathomable, miserable life. She wasn't just dirty; she was horrifically filthy. Her white fur was yellow and even deep brown in spots where she obviously had lived in her own urine and feces. She had wounds and injuries on her face and legs. She cringed when she first encountered people and dogs.

Willow shelter puppy Willow was very frightened and submissive when she was picked up from the shelter. (Photo: Phoenix Rising Border Collie Rescue)

We wish there was no imagining what happened to this little girl, but she likely had come from a hoarding situation where she was on the losing end of some serious scrapping for food. Maybe she was harmed by the humans whose attention she craved. There's even a chance she was a victim of dog fighting, since that's common in the area where she was found.

Yet somehow she has remained kind and gentle. Once she realizes you aren't going to hurt her, she wags her tail furiously, pressing her body against you and sinking into your touch. But it's obvious she still has miles to go. If you leave her alone, she howls and barks plaintively. She has a curve in her spine, likely from spending most of her life confined in a crate, and is dealing with issues that come from malnourishment. She still cowers when someone approaches her too quickly or when she hears a loud noise.

A time to heal, together

Willow the rescue puppy Despite whatever happened to her, this puppy still has a sweet and gentle disposition. (Photo: Mary Jo DiLonardo)

I picked up Willow last weekend from my wonderful friend who had taken the difficult first fostering shift while we were out of town. Gwen helped build her trust, teaching her that people can be pretty OK. I was worried that I wouldn't have what it takes to continue that task. My most challenging foster was a hoarding dog who was afraid of people but gave no signs of being abused. This little girl needed so much more.

I'm fortunate that one of my best friends is Susie Aga, a dog trainer and behaviorist. Each time I get a foster, I rush over to her farm, asking her to evaluate the dog and give me a pep talk. When I showed up with Willow on Sunday, something clicked between them.

"When she came walking up to me and she was kind of shy and her tail was wagging, I was like, you got me," Susie says. "Just her walking up to me with that sweet face and the cuts all over her. I felt like she needed somebody who understands. Something just connected."

Willow, of course, loved her. She watched everything Susie did, responding to her words, tail wagging constantly. When it was time to go, she wanted to stay.

Later that day I got a text from Susie that she wanted to adopt her. Susie had recently lost a very close friend and was grieving deeply. She knew she and the puppy would be able to help each other heal.

"She's going to bring me peace," she says. "She's rescuing me. I need something to put this love toward. There's nothing like unconditional love."

Susie Aga and her new puppy Susie and little Savior will help each other heal. (Photo: Mary Jo DiLonardo)

When Susie came to my house to visit her a few days later, the puppy crawled into her lap and stared into her eyes. The bond was indisputable. Her new name, fittingly, is Savior.

"She is my savior. She really is. I am broken. It’s just going to take time. I need another soul in my life and she’s it," says Susie, who shrugs off what she will be able to do for this little four-legged soul who truly needs some healing herself.

As this puppy's foster, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find someone who would understand how much patience, kindness and understanding she will need as she struggles to heal. People might be sucked in by that cute face and not realize that she truly is a special needs dog. Now she will go to a home where she will be overwhelmed with love by someone who needs her as much as she needs them.

"She'll get security and feeling safe and having fun, experiencing different things, erasing whatever she had of bad times and bad situations and neglect and making her whole again," Susie says. "I'll give her everything. I just want her happy."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

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