A Perfect Dog


The old working show standard for the Border Terrier, the dog in the story below, says that any part of the dog that has been injured while working quarry is to be deemed "perfect" by the judge.


From The Roanoke Times & World News
July 4, 1999

When it came to the contestants in our Ugly Dog Contest, Nellie was clearly the pick of the litter.
One look at that warped face, those fangs and that ... that ... well, what was that anyway? A nose? Yes? No? One look, and ''Whoa, Nellie!'' We just knew. This was one weird-looking pooch. She was a border terrier, or was that border terror? She looked like she had been bred with ... well, a bat or maybe a cat. Her face was misshapen and flat.

The impressive photo package sent in by her owners, Anne and Garry Gordon, included profile shots that made it appear that Nellie had no nose. All that was left to do was to write an ugly-dog story, which seemed like it would be a fairly simple exercise in stringing together a bunch of dog puns - ''doggone ugly,'' ''the face that launched a thousand yips,'' ''somebody call canine-one-one!'' - putting a headline on it - ''Ugly Dog Has Its Day'' - and that would be it.

That was before we heard Nellie's story. It is a dog tale of pain and suffering and of a little animal whose unyielding will to survive will make even a cat person misty eyed.

You see, there is a reason Nellie appears to be noseless. She is noseless.

''She's an American Noseless,'' said Anne Gordon, who grew up in Roanoke. ''They're very rare.'' Nellie got this way by taking a pretty good beating from a raccoon or an opossum or some other ill-tempered varmint. Weeks of suffering and teetering on the edge of survival were followed by a remarkable surgery and recovery.

Nellie was 6 weeks old when the Gordons bought her for $ 400 from a Midlothian couple in 1993. She was the Gordons' second border terrier, joining Paddy who was 2 at the time.

Border terriers are a sought-after breed because of their background as hunters. Border terriers were bred in Scotland to work with fox hounds. The hounds would chase the fox into a hole and the smaller terrier would dive in to root out the fox. This instinct would come back to haunt Nellie.

Anne and Garry Gordon live on a 112-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley town of Mount Sidney just south of Harrisonburg. Their dogs, two horses and a donkey have plenty of room to roam and frolic.

Nellie and Paddy were notorious for chasing critters into holes or under the floors of a barn. Often, Nellie would scrap with a groundhog or some other creature, usually just by chasing it and barking at it. She had a little mean streak in her when it came to people, too. She was aggressive and yappy.

Back in the fall of '94, the Gordons were visiting their friend Gerald Garber on his farm in Weyers Cave when the tragic event that altered Nellie's life and features occurred. Nellie chased something - the Gordons still don't know what kind of animal it was - into Garber's shed. The varmint scurried underneath the wooden floors and Nellie followed it. Outside, the people heard several seconds of high-pitched barking.

Then, silence.

The Gordons thought Nellie had given up the chase, but when minutes passed and Nellie didn't come out of the shed, they began to worry. Garry borrowed Garber's chainsaw and cut a hole in the floor where they heard Nellie whimpering. Garry saw her first. Anne, seven months pregnant with their first child, wanted to see.

''Don't come over here,'' Garry warned. ''Go get a towel!'' Nellie's face and head were covered in blood and she was in shock. They couldn't tell if her face had been clawed or bitten, but she was horribly injured. They cradled her in a towel, called their veterinarian and raced off to the Ashby Animal Clinic in Harrisonburg.

''Is she alive?'' Anne asked as she drove up Interstate 81. ''Is she still breathing?'' Their vet, Dr. Sarah Whitman, met them there and worked into the night on Nellie, whose blood pressure was so low, it took several attempts to get her hooked up to an IV. There were so many bite wounds on Nellie's face, Whitman surmised that Nellie must've gotten stuck and was unable to retreat, giving the other animal unrestricted opportunity to attack her.

Whitman said Nellie's face ''looked like Swiss cheese.'' ''I must admit, I had to take a deep breath before working on her,'' Whitman said. ''She looked so bad. But there was something about the way her eyes looked. There was life there. You could tell she was a fighter. A lesser dog wouldn't have made it.''

Another vet who worked with Whitman stopped short of saying that Nellie should be put out of her misery, but the insinuation was hard to ignore. Because bite wounds are contaminated with more bacteria than other kinds, Whitman could not use stitches for fear of contamination. She simply cleaned the wounds and kept them moist to stave off infections.

Still, ''I only gave her a 50-50 chance,'' she said. The Gordons didn't know what to do. They decided to wait and give Nellie the chance. Anne looked at the injured little dog hooked up to numerous tubes. ''Oh, Nellie,'' she said through tears. Nellie flapped her little tail. The dog hung in there.

A week after the accident, Whitman let the Gordons take Nellie home for a short visit. Anne thought it might be the last time she would have Nellie home. Even Paddy, the older terrier, was affected by Nellie's accident. When Anne brought Nellie home, Paddy took one look at Nellie's wounded, bandaged face and went into convulsions. Anne found herself back on the road to the vet, this time with Paddy, who had never had any type of seizure before and hasn't had one since.

Nellie returned to the vet to continue her recovery, but Whitman had done about all she could to help the dog. She needed special attention to repair some of her wounds. Whitman, a Virginia Tech alumnus, put the Gordons in touch with Dr. Mark Smith, a veterinary surgeon who would perform a skin graft on Nellie's face at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg. Smith and Dr. Maria Fahie removed the remaining cartilage that was the only remnant of Nellie's nose, then removed part of her severely damaged upper palette, including the first four teeth.

That's why it appears that Nellie has two long fangs - there's not much of her upper lip and mouth left to hide them. She still has two little nose holes, so her sense of smell is intact. Then, in a revolutionary surgical procedure, he reconstructed Nellie's face using a flap of skin from her forehead. It was a measure that allowed Nellie's face to look better than it ever would have had it been allowed to heal naturally.

After she awoke from surgery that night, Nellie was able to munch on doggie biscuits. She was finally on her way back.

Four-year-old Lucy Gordon doesn't know what Nellie used to look like. She was a couple of months from being born when Nellie was hurt. It doesn't matter. Nellie is her dog, and she loves her.

Nellie is good with Lucy and her year-old brother, Jack. In fact, she's sweet and demure around all people, which is a change from how she used to be. Even Anne's parents - John and Polly Shumate of Roanoke County - who are not the biggest dog people in the world, are amazed at how gentle Nellie is around people. Maybe Nellie saw her life flash before her eyes that night in the shed. Maybe she's just glad to still be here and she wants to be good to the people who were so good to her. Other characteristics haven't changed. She still likes to chase critters and she's not afraid to follow them into a hole in the ground. The Gordons still hear cracks from friends who look at Nellie and say things like, ''You should take her to Hollywood. She could be Freddy Krueger's dog!'' They take it in stride.

''When you live with her,'' Anne said, ''you don't notice the way she looks.'' Anne's sister, Suzanne McClung of Roanoke County, called her up when The Roanoke Times announced its ugly dog contest. ''I don't know exactly how to put this,'' McClung said, ''but there's a contest you should enter Nellie in.''

Anne agreed. ''We said we would never profit from Nellie's misfortune,'' she said, ''but this was only 20 bucks.'' Actually, it's a $ 20 gift certificate to a pet store. The Gordons are donating their prize to the local SPCA. Nellie doesn't seem to mind getting attention for her looks. ''Besides,'' Gordon said, ''we told Nellie we were entering her in the Most Unique Dog Contest."


By Ralph Berrier, Jr
From The Roanoke Times & World News
July 4, 1999