On May 20, Hillsboro resident Jessica Maxwell and her mother, Leah Aliff, could hear what sounded like distressed barking.
At first they thought the barking was coming from an abandoned barn across the road, but a quick drive helped her pinpoint that the sounds were coming from somewhere near Maxwell’s property. Maxwell and her mom walked around Maxwell’s property and discovered that the barking was coming from the direction of a nearby natural spring, which Maxwell described as a creek with a portion that flows underground before returning to the surface.
“As soon as we headed over there, we saw a hound dog and briefly saw a white dog — I don’t know what kind of dog, but he was there and then he vanished, and we never found him again. The hound dog continued to make this awful bark and cry,” Maxwell said. “She was digging and because she was a hound dog, we kind of thought, ‘She probably has a fox or a rabbit that she had run down into a hole,’ but the longer we stood there, we heard a little tiny whimper and automatically assumed there was a puppy in the ground.”
Maxwell called the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, who sent Highland County Dog Warden Lanny Brown and two firefighters to the location.
“We came to the conclusion that the puppy was walking in the natural spring and just happened to go underground,” Maxwell said. “We thought it had to be stuck under there because there were a lot of big, mucky tree roots.”
Brown and the two firefighters dug for what Maxwell estimates was about an hour and a half.
“They knew where to dig because the mama dog was digging in the same spot over and over, and when they would ask her to move over to let them dig, she would. She would move over and just watch them dig, and when they’d stop and take a break, she would dig, so they were taking turns,” Maxwell said. “She had to bite through some of the roots because we couldn’t get through them.”
Though the rescuers were able to break through the small roots using their shovels, some of the roots, Maxwell said, were at least three or four inches thick, and they were unable to break them. During the humans’ breaks, the mama dog chewed through the thicker roots.
After around an hour and a half, Brown laid on the ground and stuck his arm in the hole.
“He yelled up that he had something by its ear and it was fighting him back,” Maxwell said. “I thought he had the wrong animal, so I backed up in case he was going to pull out a fox or a crazy raccoon, and he pulled out a puppy.”
Maxwell estimated the puppy was around 3 months old, due to its size.
“The mama dog licked all over the puppy, and Lanny handed the puppy to me. Then the mama dog started doing it again,” Maxwell said. “She started barking and whining but digging in a different place. We all kind of looked at each other and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there has to be another one down there.’”
The new spot was worse than the first spot they’d dug through, Maxwell said — the roots there were twice as thick — but for 45 minutes, Maxwell, her mother, the dog warden, and the two firefighters took turns digging with the mama dog in the new spot.
Then the mama dog went underground to look for what Maxwell and the others assumed was another puppy.
“We could vaguely shine flashlights in there. We couldn’t see through the hole, but we could see that there was about four inches between the top of the water and the bottom of the ground that she could breathe, and it was deep enough for her to swim in,” Maxwell said. “She went under there barking, crying and carrying on, and we kind of assumed she was just going to grab this puppy, if it’s another puppy, and pull it out.”
Instead, the mama dog went silent.
“We thought she was drowning,” Maxwell said. “I was recording on my phone, so I stuck it in the hole. I couldn’t see anything, so I was mainly listening. All the sudden, I could hear her breathing. I told Lanny, ‘She’s breathing, but I can’t reach in here. If you can reach in here, I think you can grab her.’”
Brown, who had continued digging after the mama dog went underground, went to the hole, laid on the ground and attempted to reach her.
“We were all trying to talk to her, saying, ‘Come on, mama dog,’” Maxwell said. “Lanny said she was going into hypothermia because she was so exhausted from digging and carrying on and more than likely she was giving up, and he didn’t know if he could save her. There was no way we were going to get through the muck and roots in time.”
After a few minutes, though, Brown said he had the mama dog.
“He pulled her out, and her eyes were in the back of her head,” Maxwell said. “She was sopping wet and shivering, and as soon as Lanny pulled her out, he just held her and said, ‘Oh, mama, don’t give up on me.’”
Maxwell helped Brown wrap the mama dog in Brown’s jacket.
“We kind of called it,” Maxwell said. “There was nothing more we could do if there was a puppy down there — we still don’t know. It could’ve been a puppy or it could’ve been a wild animal; we’re not sure, but we knew that we had to get her secure as soon as possible.”
Brown carried her across the field to his vehicle.
“She looked really sad, defeated, but kind of relieved at the same time,” Maxwell said.
While Brown helped the mama dog get situated in his vehicle, they decided to name her Hope.
Maxwell said the experience amazed her, not only because of the mutual understanding between Hope and the human rescuers during the rescue but also because of Hope’s determination.
“Mama dogs and animals in general are born knowing how to take care of their babies. They know when it’s time to wean them and let them go do their own thing in life,” Maxwell said. “This puppy no longer needed her. It was old enough to be eating dog food. But it was trapped in the ground, and she was still determined to save this puppy that didn’t even need her anymore. The part that sticks with me is watching a dog show such unconditional love and determination to rescue her puppy or puppies. We just don’t expect animals to go to that degree. We expect that from humans, but most animals stop caring for their babies when they’re sick. To experience a dog being that devoted to her babies that are able to live without her — it’s just unforgettable.”
As of Monday, Hope and Denny (a.k.a. Digger) were available for adoption at the Highland County Dog Pound.
To meet them — or any of the dogs at the Highland County Dog Pound — call the dog warden at 937-393-8191 to make an appointment. The Highland County Dog Pound is located at 9357 SR 124 east of Hillsboro.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.