The last thing Phyllis McIntosh wanted was another dog.
Blackie, a Queensland blue heeler mix, died after a sudden illness on March 30 at age 10, and all these months later McIntosh starts to cry when she thinks of him — which is most every day since Blackie's litter mate, Roni, still roams the house near the Hernando-Pasco border.
McIntosh can't bear the thought of Roni dying, even though she knows it's all part of owning a pet. This is one problem with having a big heart. When it breaks, the pain is awful.
Here's another: That big heart makes you ignore your own advice.
Which brings us to Dec. 28. McIntosh, 65, backed her 6-year-old Nissan Altima out of the garage and headed east on Falkirk Lane in the Highlands subdivision. A medium-sized brown dog approached the road and McIntosh feared it might run under her tires. She stopped.
The dog seemed friendly enough. No collar or tag, but McIntosh noticed something she still has trouble getting out of her mind: "She smelled like she had just been bathed. Somebody had been taking pretty good care of her.''
Left to wander, the dog might make its way to busy County Line Road or Shady Hills Road. So McIntosh coaxed it into her vehicle and went back to the house.
Surely such a nice dog, one in such good condition, must belong to somebody nearby. McIntosh knew how she would feel if Roni went missing. So she set about trying to find the owner. She called all the places a stray might land. She made several signs and posted them on poles and the bulletin boards at a feed store and a nearby Publix. She called the St. Petersburg Times and placed a free classified ad.
She was calling again last week to extend the ad when she got me by mistake.
"I want to help, but I get so emotional,'' she told me. "I look in her face and I feel what she's feeling. Does that sound crazy? I love animals, but I'm so afraid of getting too close again. It can hurt so much.''
She figured whomever lost this dog felt the same. So she dedicated extraordinary effort.
No luck. Rain washed away the print on the signs. Her husband, Jerry, suggested she try again, only this time coat the print with hair spray. Her daughter posted a picture of the dog on the Internet. Phyllis took the dog to a veterinarian, who figured it was between 1 and 2 years old and about 50 pounds.
Meanwhile, the McIntoshes' 5-year-old granddaughter, Annaliese Lazzara, took a liking to the dog. She gave her a name: Abby. They played. Grandpa especially liked that.
"This is a sweet dog,'' Jerry said. "She loves children.''
Soon, they allowed Abby into the house. She learned from Roni how to use a doggy door on the screened-in back porch to reach the fenced back yard where Jerry raises homing pigeons and muscadine grapes. Roni had moped around since losing Blackie, and now he was romping with the newcomer. By New Year's Day, Abby understood that 9 p.m. is treat time. The McIntoshes welcomed her on the couch as they watched TV.
They let her wear Blackie's collar.
By the end of last week, nobody had claimed the dog. Phyllis, who admits to carrying dog food and water in her car occasionally in case she comes across a hungry stray, had almost given up on finding Abby's owner. But it sure seemed as if Abby had found a home.
Phyllis McIntosh still worried that accepting another pet into her life would eventually compound her grief. But Abby made her laugh. Maybe, she thought, it wouldn't be so bad if nobody claimed her.