Toledo police Officer Dave Avalos with Dakota, a stray shepherd that he took in after having found her in an empty lot.
Dakota didn’t know what it meant to be loved. The 18-month-old black-and-tan shepherd with a piercing gaze had spent two-thirds of her short life living in a vacant lot near Bancroft and Isherwood streets in Toledo.
Having been abandoned by her owner at about 6 months old, she was terrified of people. No one could catch her. But Dave Avalos, an officer with the Toledo Police Department, wouldn’t give up on her.
“She’s a beautiful dog,” Officer Avalos said. “I felt bad for her, being out in the elements. You just kind of know when it’s right. I felt a connection with her and really wanted to give her a home.”
The 19-year department veteran received the first call about the skittish dog in January. He found her curled in a ball, sleeping in the snow in the middle of the lot.
“The snow was falling on her, and I could barely see her under the snow,” he said.
But when he approached, the frightened dog vanished.
“I came back the next day, and there she was in the same place,” he said. “Every day she was there.”
He learned from a resident who lives in a multitenant house adjacent to the lot that a previous tenant had moved away and left the dog to fend for herself. Officer Avalos began bringing her food and fresh water every day, twice a day, hoping to gain her trust.
“It was about a month before she would take food from my hand,” he said. “She got to the point where she knew my vehicle and would get up and wag her tail and come over. But if I had a leash or anything like that, she’d stay three or four feet from me and would back up if I tried to get closer.”
Area residents also cared for the dog, feeding her and giving her water and keeping track of her health and appearance. They stopped Officer Avalos when he made his daily visits to ask if they could help.
Dakota's story played out on the Toledo Area Lost and Found Pets group Facebook page as people took notice of her plight. The officer posted updates about her status and received feedback.
The Lucas County Canine Care & Control tried to capture Dakota in a live trap a number of times to no avail. Officials shot her with a tranquilizer dart several months ago, but she quickly disappeared and slept off the drug.
“Street dogs are very savvy,” Director Julie Lyle said. “They know all the great places to hide. If you lose sight of them, they’ll take cover, and you’re not going to find them.”
As Dakota’s second winter with no shelter approached, Officer Avalos began to lose sleep thinking about her.
“There was that night where it got down to about 8 or 10 degrees, and I don’t think I slept at all,” he said.
Officer Avalos rounded up volunteers from the Facebook page and coordinated another rescue effort with Ms. Lyle on Dec. 10. Dakota had to be darted again, which he knew would scare the dog into running away. Having a multitude of spotters on hand to track her movements was necessary.
“We lost her for about 20 minutes,” the officer said. “Then someone found her under a bush, but she was fighting the drug and hadn’t gone down. They darted her again, and she ran to the house she had come from and tried to get inside.”
The dog was trapped on the porch until the drug took effect, and she was captured.
“She was completely terrified,” Officer Avalos said. “She wasn’t aggressive or anything, didn’t bark or growl. It’s like she was in a depression. It was tough on her.”
Ms. Lyle said her staff was careful with Dakota. Knowing Officer Avalos was going to adopt her, they refrained from performing the usual battery of medical and temperament tests.
“We try not to stress dogs unnecessarily,” she said. “Her interactions with us out in the field were not positive ones for her. She was very frightened of us because we tried to catch her every time she saw us.”
Dakota couldn't technically be adopted out from the county because she would not pass basic temperament testing because of her fear and shyness, so Ms. Lyle reached out to area rescue groups who could facilitate the transfer to Officer Avalos.
Planned Pethood stepped up. On Tuesday, the group took legal guardianship of Dakota for a few minutes before immediately transferring her over to the officer.
Before taking her home, Officer Avalos took her to a vet to be checked out. Despite being alone for so long, Dakota had no medical issues, not even fleas, and she could go home.
Officer Avalos and his wife, Megan, have three other dogs, two black Labs and a shepherd mix.
They get along with their new sister and have been leaving her alone while she is settling in. The couple keep her crate door open for periods of time, but she’s content to stay inside for now.
“She will have her head and paws at the edge and the dogs check on her from time to time,” Mr. Avalos said. “She's staying low-key, but I think she’s adapting pretty well. It’s overwhelming for her right now, so we’re being careful and taking it slow.”
Mr. Avalos has set up a Facebook page, “Dakota’s Journey,” to share updates and photos of her as she adjusts to her new home.
“I'm pretty confident she’s going to come out of her shell,” he said. “She’s going to be a really good dog.”