BELLAIRE — He’d had enough of being at the animal shelter, so Scout the dog climbed over one tall fence and then another, crossed a busy highway in the darkness, entered the automatic doors of a nursing home down the road, walked unnoticed into the lobby, hopped onto a couch, curled into a ball and quietly went to sleep for the night.
An astonished nurse there found him the next morning. She called Antrim County Animal Control, whose shelter happens to be just down the road. And they discovered that he’d escaped from there the night before.
Scout was a stray mutt. He had no identity, no history. The shelter staff gave him his new name, but otherwise they knew nothing about him, though they noticed he had the distinct demeanor of an abused dog. Somebody apparently once shot him too, with BBs or birdshot, because his jowl still had some kind of round pellets embedded in it. You couldn’t see them, but you could feel them if he let you touch him.
The sheriff came and took him back to the shelter.
But a few nights later there was Scout, back on that same couch in the nursing home lobby. Somehow he again scaled a 10-foot chain-link fence, then a 6-foot solid privacy fence, crossed a highway without getting run over, entered the front door unnoticed, jumped onto the same couch as before and made himself at home for the night.
A call was placed again. He was brought back to the shelter again.
Just a couple of nights after that, Scout was back on the couch for the third time. And the staff had a decision to make.
Lost and found
Meadow Brook Medical Care Facility is a long-term medical care residence about an hour northeast of Traverse City. It cares mostly for seniors, some of whom have terminal illnesses, or dementia, or simply nowhere else to go or nobody to look after them. There are 82 beds split between several smaller households.
For some reason, this is the place Scout the dog decided to make his home.
“I’m a person who looks at outward signs, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” said Marna Robertson, 57, the nursing home’s administrator. “He did that one time, two times, three times, and obviously that’s something that you should pay attention to. And I asked the staff, ‘Well, he wants to be here. Would anybody like to have a dog?’”
The staff formally adopted him. Suddenly the nursing home had its own pet. And the residents were delighted.
“I think it reminds them of being home,” said Rhonda Thomczak, 49, the administrative assistant at Glacier Hill, the household where Scout was first discovered. “When you’re home you have your pets, and you don’t get to have that here. Having a dog around makes it feel like home.”
Scout has free rein here at Glacier Hill, which houses about 20 seniors. He wanders the halls at will, lies down wherever he wishes and visits residents whenever the mood strikes him. He learned how to get into their rooms by jumping up and using his paw to pull down on door handles. And he knows which residents keep dog biscuits in their walkers to give to him.
“To each and every one of them, it’s their dog,” said Jenni Martinek, 49, the nursing home’s household coordinator, in whose office Scout has his bed and his toys.
Earlier this year, the nurses held a fundraiser in Scout’s honor. They put his photo on social media and asked for donations to the animal shelter that brought him in off the street, and thus to them. Hundreds of dollars came in from strangers who heard how he got there. Someone even came by just to meet this dog they saw online. And in February, he was named Resident of the Month. “We woof you!” said the poster announcing the honor, written by the staff. “Thank you for adopting us!”
It was just after lunch on a summer weekday, and Scout was making his rounds to see his favorite residents. He visited Butch Craig’s room, where the 80-year-old creates arts and crafts that are displayed along his windowsill. Scout comes here for biscuits, which he then buries in Craig’s chair for later use.
The dog then walked down the hall to see Bob Shumaker, whose room he enters in the middle of the night to wake the sleeping 84-year-old by pressing his wet snout against Shumaker’s sleeping face. It was startling at first, but now Shumaker likes it, so he pretends to be asleep while Scout repeats the snout press until Shumaker gives him a biscuit.
Scout made his way to the living room, just outside the dining area, where he found Shumaker’s sister, Shirley Sawyer, 82, who now lives under the same roof as her brother, just like they did as kids. And like the others he visited before, her face lit up when she saw him. “He’ll always let you pet him and lets you talk to him if you need someone to talk to,” she said, petting the dog. “It’s very nice.”
But Scout is still a mystery. Nobody knows where he came from, what his original name was, how he wound up a stray that was picked up and brought to the county shelter. And nobody knows what bad things happened to him.
“All they knew is he was abused,” Martinek said. “He was just very scared.”
Even now, his walk still has the slight hint of a cower, and his tail stays a little lowered even when it’s wagging. He’s frightened by loud noises. He’s leery in general of men who don’t live there. Even jangling keys get him nervous for some reason. And his expression is softly somber.
But most of all, nobody knows why he wanted to be here so badly.
“You know, it’s really hard to say,” Robertson said. “Maybe he felt like it was a safe environment. He certainly has a penchant for the elders. He’s very in tune with what they need, especially our very vulnerable population. If they have dementia or if they’re dying he knows that, and he will go and be with them and comfort them. He must’ve just felt like he needed to be here.”
Indeed, as soon as he was given a home, he appointed himself its protector.
“He’s always watching, making sure everybody’s OK,” Martinek said. “If somebody is in the passing process, he’s in and out of the room, checking on them. He’ll even want to climb in bed with them.”
“He can sense that,” added Stephanie Elsey, 42, the facility’s clinical care coordinator. “We’ve had a few in the past whose room he won’t leave. We had a resident that when he was passing away, Scout wouldn’t leave his room. He makes a good nursing home dog. He knows his job and he’s good at what he does.”
Scout came home with Martinek one time, the night the facility held a loud disaster drill that they knew would scare him. “I thought he’d climb in bed with me and sleep, but he laid in front of my bedroom door, one eye open, watching to make sure I was safe all night long, ‘cause he was protecting,” she said. “He was so exhausted by the time he came back here.”
A visitor rang the doorbell. Scout headed to the door, barked a few times and sat there waiting to see what who was trying to enter. He’s not big and he’s not menacing, but he goes through the motions anyway. “He just kind of knows who belongs or doesn’t,” Martinek said. “So if the doorbell rings he barks to let them know he’s guarding.”
Friends and family
Later that day, Craig inched his walker down the hallway until he reached Martinek’s office. She was out, and he looked concerned. “I’m supposed to have pizza,” he said to nobody.
Last fall, a friend he’s known since childhood told him that she’d come by on July 13 this year to have a pizza dinner with him. They could go outside, she said, and sit in the sunny courtyard and enjoy pizza together in the fresh air of summer.
On July 13, Craig waited for the doorbell to announce her arrival. The dinner hour came and went, but the friend never showed up. He called her at her downstate home. It turned out she simply forgot her offhand promise to him.
“But he didn’t forget,” said Martinek. “And so he has looked forward to this for months. Months and months. Since before Christmas. And he was devastated.”
The sight of him sitting in his room, alone and downhearted, was too much. “When you spend five days with them you become close with them and they become part of your extended family,” Martinek said of the residents. “And you don’t want to see them hurt.”
So the very next day, she threw him a pizza party of her own to show him he has friends who don’t forget about him. In fact, she was out getting pizzas when Craig came looking for her. But he didn’t know that. “I’m supposed to have pizza,” he said again, roaming the halls, leaning on his walker. It started looking to him like a repeat of the day before.
This time, though, he wasn’t stood up. Here came Martinek, his favorite nurse, with the pizzas she promised. Here came Shumaker and Sawyer, the brother and sister, who sit with Craig every day in the dining room at lunch, now summoned for the special party. And here came Scout, the dog that knows when someone isn’t feeling great, as if sensing yet again where he was needed the most.
They all gathered at a table under the shade of a wide umbrella. Scout sat at their feet. Someone offered him a bite of pizza, but he didn’t eat it. Maybe he had too many treats from the residents that day and wasn’t hungry, they speculated. Or maybe he was just content to be included in the party with his favorites. Instead, he laid his head down between his paws, resumed his somber expression and went back to guarding the people he adopted.
“I think he knows that this is his home and he is all of ours, so that gives him a sense of security,” Thomczak said. “And I think he just wants to protect that.”
John Carlisle writes about Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.