ZEPHYRHILLS — Whenever Beth Fortner needed help crossing busy streets, she could always count on her dog, Tushcanay.
"She's saved me so many times," said Fortner, 54, who suffers from ataxia, a condition that causes uncontrollable movements. Fortner took in the stray husky/shepherd mix puppy 10 years ago while living in Kentucky. She had her trained and considers her a service dog. "There would be a car coming around the corner and she'd block me," said Fortner, who also has trouble seeing. When Fortner needed help getting in and out of her wheelchair or getting up stairs, Tushcanay, nicknamed Tush because of her large, furry backside, would bear Fortner's weight on her 80-pound frame.
So Fortner thought nothing of risking her own safety to save Tush on Jan. 20 when two roaming dogs attacked as Fortner escorted her 8-year-old niece to her school bus stop.
As the dogs tried to clamp their jaws on Tush's neck, Fortner flung her own body over her pet. She told her niece to run and get help.
"I put my hands in the dogs' mouths," she said. "They were killing her."
Aided by adrenalin and concern for her pet, Fortner managed to fend off the dogs, whose jaws she described as "vice grips."
Despite Fortner's heroics, the dogs managed to nearly tear off Tush's left front leg. Fortner guided her pet to the house and wrapped her in a towel to help stanch the bleeding.
It was then that she looked at her arms. They were covered in bite marks. Fortner doesn't know what happened to the dogs after the incident. She's unsure who owns them and said she chose not to report the attack to authorities.
Her main priority was getting Tush to a veterinary hospital. A neighbor tried to help put her in a van, but Tush wouldn't allow it. Only when Fortner put her arm on Tush would the dog cooperate.
"She had to think she was helping me get in the van," Fortner said.
Neighbor Tabitha Starlin teared up she saw it.
"Her first concern was to get Beth out of the house," Starlin said. "She went down the ramp and put her in my van, and then Tush got in the van in the front seat."
The group ended up at Bluepearl Animal Hospital on Busch Lake Road in Tampa, where Tush underwent surgery to fix her fractured leg.
Fortner was taken to Florida Hospital Carrollwood, where doctors treated the cuts to her hands and arms and several gashes in her leg that nearly went through to the bone.
On Thursday, Tush remained in intensive care. She was getting morphine for pain and antibiotics to prevent infection in the soft tissue that was damaged during the attack.
"Fortunately most of the damage was confined to the leg," said Dr. Miryam Reems, the critical care specialist for Bluepearl. She said Fortner's intervention in the attack and the fact that she sought immediate medical care for Tush likely helped save the dog's life.
"A lot of people don't bring their dog in until it's too late," she said, explaining that even though injuries might not look too severe on the outside, tissue damage can lead to deadly infection.
For some people, Reems said, expense may be a barrier for seeking timely treatment, which often costs upwards of several thousand dollars.
But the hospital has a special program to help patients whose owners can't afford it. Frankie's Friends, established as a nonprofit organization to help pets with cancer, now helps those with unexpected injuries or illnesses who have a good chance for full recovery.
So far more than $4,000 has already been donated through Frankie's Friends for Tush's treatment. Fortner hopes to raise more to help her pet and others.
On Thursday, she cuddled with Tush at Bluepearl. Tush wagged her bushy tail and appeared to smile as Fortner spoke softly in her ear.
"We're going to go home. We're going to paint your nails. We're going to have girls' night."
As for her service days, they are likely over.
"She's retired," Fortner said. "She can be an auntie or a grandma."