On a morning in September 2005, an 81-year-old woman walked into a restaurant and told the owner she didn't want to live anymore. She was hysterical, weeping, shaking. The 4 foot 9, 100-pound woman walked nearly a mile from her house to the restaurant in Holiday. She said her son beat her and her dog all the time. He used the dog to control her, threatening to kick him if she didn't give him what he wanted. That morning, she said he slapped her about the head to get her to sell her house, so he could have the money. "I can't live like this anymore," she said, according to records.
The restaurant owner called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and a deputy arrested the son. The woman went to a hospital until her other sons took her up north.
But her dog couldn't go with her.
Kathy Cornwell, one of two victim advocates who came to the house to check on the woman, ended up taking the 2-year-old Catahoula Leopard home with her. He was big, 60-something pounds with white with brown spots and splotches, but he trembled.
She and the dog were in her bedroom when her husband came home. At the sight of a strange man, the dog leapt onto the bed and laid his body across Cornwell.
Later, after Cornwell talked with the victim, she learned the dog always tried to protect her from her son, covering her body to absorb the blows.
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It took more than a year for the dog to get used to life without fear. He had never been socialized. Rarely went outside. He flinched at men. He still gets nervous when he is away from Cornwell, 63, who works with victims for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas. He won't eat until she comes home from work.
As a result of the beatings, he had permanent nerve damage in his eyes. He had an indent as big as half a baseball on his head. He wears goggles when he is outside because his pupils can't dilate. After therapy, the depression on his head reduced, but it's still there.
Cornwell said she believes his sweet-natured temperament saved him from the abuser.
"If he had tried to fight back, he would have suffered much worse," she said.
The son — whom the Times is not naming to protect the victim — was convicted of scheme to defraud for forcing money from his mother and served six months in jail. The domestic battery charges were dropped because of the mother's mental state, but the son is now serving a four-year prison term for an unrelated charge of aggravated stalking.
Cornwell keeps in touch with the victim and her other sons. She is now in a nursing home. When therapy dogs come to visit, she says, "I have one of those." She hasn't forgotten her dog.
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In public, Cornwell calls the dog Little Horatio, in a nod to Shakespeare.
He's not little. He's gained weight from treats and muscle from running around Cornwell's 5 acres with her other dog. He still sleeps in the bed every night and he's fine with her husband being there now.
Cornwell takes him to visit hospice patients as a therapy dog. His other title is Pasco County's "four-legged victim's advocate." She and Jane Occhiolini, 67, the victim advocate who was there the day she got Little Horatio, take him to forums on abuse. Abuse can be a scary topic for people. Little Horatio helps them connect.
"He gives them hope," Cornwell said. "This dog has gone through so much. And look at how happy he is. He's not stuck in the past.
"It shows people that it's hard, but you can move on."
Cornwell said Little Horatio is one of many animals who have suffered domestic abuse. She said abusers often threaten to hurt pets to control their victims. She remembered a case where one person killed a puppy every time the victim disobeyed. There were several puppy graves in the back yard. Or another case where the abuser slaughtered the family dog and had his victim clean up the mess.
Cornwell said there are foster families in Pasco who can care for pets if a victim decides to leave an abusive situation and no pets are allowed at the shelter.
Cornwell said Little Horatio gives her hope every day when she comes home from work, after hours of wading into the terrible things people do to each other. If he can be happy, so can she.
"To me," she said, "he's my hero."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.