For Love of a “Little Bit”

            “Little Bit”—- the name emphasized his determination to live beyond the “Little” part to become simply the “Bit” like a period at the end of an abbreviation, giving status to something common, but with enough staying power to warrant distinction.  He was here “on a mission”, as all of our beloved pets have been, in retrospect.  Little Bit grew up on a farm and earned his “Bit” badge traveling miles of Kentucky backroads and trails with his closest friend and caretaker, Steve Barbour, for over a decade.  He became one of the infamous friends-to-hikers along the Sheltowee Trace trail, riding long hours in shuttle vans and lounging by campfires when his bad paw couldn’t carry him the miles other dogs navigated with their companions. 

It became enough for him to survey campsights, wade in creeks, or submerge his compact black-lab body into easily accessed mud holes.  He wore a long lead and harness most days, because he secretly aspired to achieve sled dog status, while the Retriever in him preferred to bolt ahead of anyone starting out or appearing at a trail-head where he waited for their arrival. Hiker Challenge Shuttle rides afforded him greater mobility and a sense of adventure beyond a fenced yard or the isolation of a house without his human counterpart.  His friendly greetings at campsites, his “lean-to” body hugs, and portable heater qualities on cold winter nights made him a utilitarian fixture at hiking events.  He hid his shortcomings with an air of dignity. 

            Little Bit was a rescue in the noblest sense of the word, spared an abusive upbringing.  His initial assignment was to become a pet for the children of a large Amish family home-steading in northeastern Kentucky. His fate was to become something much more entertaining and therapeutic for those observing his playful antics and lavish affection, once he felt comfortable in a setting. This is the story of his rescue and a redeemed life among those who love a “lost life found” story:

As neighbors helping neighbors, we’d agreed to feed and water work horses and a new puppy of an Amish family traveling by horse and buggy out of town a few days.  We already had a reputation as animal lovers, since taking in three black lab mixed dogs, and rehoming others dropped on our property. We were a shoe-in couple, who’d do what was needed to protect the vulnerable and prevent coyotes from making unattended animals their next dinner.

 In the beginning, the small black “Puppy Mill” lab was named “Lucky”.  A hand-tooled name engraved on a small leather collar suggested he’d have a bright future.  The challenge to that future became evident the first morning I went up to feed and water our neighbors’ animals.  The small collar was cinched too tight and the shortness of the baling string used to tie him to a barn post left him in the summer sun with food bits scattered in a broken straw bale, next to a turned over water bowl.  He was whimpering and anxious to see someone coming to relieve his distress.  Finding a rusty pocketknife on a ledge nearby, I cut the line and picked him up to comfort the compact wriggling pup.  Holding him close with one arm, I went about scooping grain into buckets for the stalled horses standing on piles of manure, and filling slimy water buckets with fresh water from a worn hose connected to a hand-pump.  I had never seen animals kept in such deplorable conditions. It was then I decided to take the small black-lab puppy home for the duration of the family’s absence.

All adopted or fostered dogs on our farm had baths first, followed by fluffy towel massages, ear cleanings, and a good meal, before being given a fresh old blanket for sleeping on in the laundry room with a back door convenient for potty training.  Our other three dogs—Lucy, Willey and Tilley—warmed to him easily.  Let’s just say there were a lot of affection hounds vying for attention from that day forward, and it was a joy to accommodate them as we went about our daily routines on the farm. Cuteness and entertainment value had their perks.

The following days passed quickly, and one morning before we expected the Amish family to return, there was an urgent knock at a side door where all guests knew to enter.  It was three of the Amish children asking if I’d seen their puppy “Lucky”, who’d been left on a nylon string in the sun without shelter when they’d left town. Scooping him up from a spot in the laundry room behind a baby gate, I held him gently but took advantage of a teachable moment while I had their attention.  After giving them instructions about caring for a puppy so it could be their friend for a long time, I handed them back their prize with a slightly loosened collar and new leash.  We were hopeful “Lucky” would have a better life from that day on.

Our hope though was short lived when the same Amish children came running down the street and up our driveway the next morning with news of their Dad’s threat to shoot Lucky because he would become a big dog and eat more than the smaller lap dog they’d brought home from their visit to another Amish family.  It was such a foreign concept to me, I had a hard time responding until I saw the youngest boy silent and tearful behind his older brother.  (I didn’t say so to the children in front of me, but I already had a low opinion of their Father, who was a philanderer with too many people coming up to our small farm store asking where he was with the custom saddles they’d paid for but never received. Nor did I care for the way he treated his buggy horses, or other horses brought to him for training or shoeing. He was seldom at home, and largely ignored his wife and nine children when they appeared together in public.)

A suggestion was made that I avoid more drama, but this was a matter I couldn’t let go.  I told the young ones who’d come for intervention help. I’d walk back up the hill with them to reason with their Dad concerning Lucky. And I did, fueled by more adrenaline than a double shot of espresso could have produced.  Arriving at their house on the hill, I saw his wife standing in the kitchen doorway with her other younger children huddled around her long blue dress, and I asked to speak with her husband.  (Amish women do not typically confront men, but I was not raised to bow to gender hierarchies.)  She nodded that he was in his leather shop, so I called his full name three times until he appeared in the shop door opening.  “Is it true you threatened to shoot Lucky because he’s a puppy who’ll grow up to be bigger than the new little dog you brought back from your trip?” I asked. “What’s it to you?!” he chided. My response was unapologetic and firm: “A man who pleases God has respect for his animals. I don’t think you are pleasing anybody but yourself!  Lucky is a sweet puppy and your children want to keep him.  What’s your problem?!”

The sorry excuse for a husband and father, much less a responsible animal owner responded: “If you’re so good, why don’t YOU take him, since you seem to know better.  Take the dog and get off my property.”   Without hesitating, I lifted Lucky from the ground and told the horrified children they could come and see the trembling black puppy anytime they were allowed to come.  Before turning to walk back down the hill to my own farm, I looked the diminutive Amish man in the eye and said, “I ought to report you for animal abuse for the way you treat dogs and horses. They deserve better, and so does your family.”  (It was later suggested I was lucky he didn’t shoot me.  I responded, “It’s lucky for HIM I grabbed a leash and not my rifle before going up there! People who abuse animals should be put behind bars or somehow prevented from spreading their own misery!”  Until I could settle down, Steve reached for the young dog and held him close while I tried to channel the adrenaline of anger into starting a bath for our new pack member, before making dinner for us all.

Let’s just say “Lucky” was well named, until he outgrew his collar.  Because we always said he’d be with us just a “little bit”, as we grew fonder of him, he became “Little Bit”.  A few weeks later, while he was on a lead line out in the grass, playing with the other dogs, one of his front paws got caught in a line and damaged ligaments in a front foot.  From that day on, all the care we gave never seemed to heal it completely, and we knew it would be even harder to place him in another home.  He had already become part of a four-pack  running the fields with his playmates, and he did everything water-loving dogs will do on a hot day.  One afternoon I was going out to turn off water filling a large trough for the horse heading to get a drink, when a black head popped up from the center of the 3 ft. deep trough and clamored out over the hard rubber edge, startling the horse. As a result, Little Bit finally got his own Rubbermaid trough, closer to the ground for his own personal soaking pleasure.  The mare appreciated her  cleaner drinking water, and we appreciated not having to dump and refill the larger tub.  Despite his disability, Little Bit was an explorer and taught the others about gleaning bits of grain dropped on the ground as their equine friend ate her meals.  Fresh hay was for picking up and playing keep away like a stick or soccer ball left out in the grass for team sports.

One thing was sure: Little Bit was all Lab and all boy, and one who loved water anywhere.  His large paws splashed through creeks, launched him into a swimming pool to chase an old ball while visiting family in Florida, and routed out voles trying to scurry away into snow banks. At a campground where hikers had to cross over a stream on an unsecured log, Little Bit enthusiastically swam out to greet them and hoisted his front legs over the log, making it roll and dump off a new hiker into the chilly waters.  The husband of a seasoned hiker, David Hunt never complained, and acquired a trail name, “Smokin Boots”, as his socks and shoes dried out suspended over a campfire that night.  (As dog lovers themselves, Tali and David have adopted several dogs and brought them on hikes since then.  They never complained but hopefully, in retrospect, a smile comes to mind remembering that evening’s initiation as hikers of the Sheltowee Trace.)

“Little Bit” described the short length of time you were expected to stay; but we’re thankful you were with us a “Bit” longer.  You didn’t complain even when your body became less responsive to your adventurous spirit.  Your longer naps and wandering attention let the one who loved and knew you best, know you were ready for the last bridge.  You were a strong boy to the end, it’s been told.  Now it’s time to become one with the trails and woodlands of Kentucky that were your playground.  (We imagine you and Willey are recounting your great adventures just over the next hill, out of view, a few miles ahead of us.)

Safe in a new home

Body hugger

Ice Cream Dreams

Vole Hunting
Gleaning Grain
Keep Away
The Bit Tub
Sheet Shade
Field Friends
Yogurt Clean Up
Pack Guard
Sausage Biscuits?!
Little Bit on The Sheltowee Trace in Kentucky
Where did Wilson go?
Found YOU!
“Trail Brothers” on the Sheltowee (Willey & Bit)
The Bit Wallow
The of Bit on the Farm waiting for dinner
Always Loved and Remembered: Willey & Little Bit
(alongside Steve Barbour, Executive Director The Sheltowee Trace Asso.)

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