This is the story of a dog named Woody. Or Chance. Or Hobo. Or whatever the strangers feeding him at the time choose to call him.
He’s a vagabond pooch right out of “Lady and the Tramp.” Maybe you’ve seen him roaming the streets of Belleville. Despite multiple attempts to rein him in, this 50-pound shepherd mix keeps putting one paw in front of the other. Until he can’t. And then he limps.
“He’s been hit by a car,” my friend Dee Eglseder of Belleville told me in a frantic phone call late last summer. “He’s down to three legs. And someone said they saw blood in the corner of his mouth.”
People chased him. No one could catch him. Dee spent the night driving around looking for the dog. She finally found him, but he wouldn’t let her near him. Fortunately his leg wasn’t broken. And within a few weeks, he was running again.
“As far as I know, no human has ever touched him,” said Dee, who hopes to tame him one day. “He loves to run with other dogs. He’s very friendly with them. But if humans try to pet him, he bolts.”
A professional pet sitter with a heart of gold, Dee first befriended the dog last spring. He was roaming west Belleville with his now deceased girlfriend back then. The girlfriend was hit and killed by a car — but not before the pair had puppies that were rescued and placed in good homes.
“I just saw him and my heart went out to him,” Dee remembered. “I used to leave him bowls of food and water. He’s so sweet you can’t help but fall in love with him.”
Many people have fallen hard for the pooch. In west Belleville, they call him Chance. In south Belleville, they call him Woody. In Swansea, he goes by Hobo.
Several of his admirers met and became friends through Facebook posts. His picture often pops up on the St. Clair County Yard Sale page, where people share information about missing pets.
“I get two or three texts about him almost every day,” explained Gay Arnold, of Belleville, who is devoted to the dog. “People will ask me if I know how he’s doing or tell me where they’ve seen him last.”
Gay first learned of the dog from her daughter, who saw him in the parking lot of Shop ’n Save on North Belt West in Belleville. Soon after, he showed up in Gay’s subdivision. She calls him Woody because he likes to travel through woods that adjoin neighborhoods.
“He roams for miles,” she said, as she sat in her living room with Kris Vineyard, of Swansea, another of the dog’s guardian angels. “Everyone feeds him. Now even when I try to give him ‘the good stuff’ he’ll turn his nose up. Last week, it was cold and I took him warm hot dogs. He didn’t want them ’cause he was full.”
Kris Vineyard concurred: “He came through my neighborhood and I tried to give him beef tips and noodles. He ate a little and then he laid down and took a nap.”
Multiple attempts have been made to capture the dog. More than once, he has been lured into a garage or fenced yard before making a Houdini-like escape. Even after being been professionally tranquilized with a dart gun, he managed to elude a half dozen people.
Dee and veterinarian Noelle Miles of Columbia tracked him in a car that day.
“He’s wily and he’s smart,” Noelle said. “I gave a (sedative) dosage that would take down an 80-pound dog. His adrenaline kicked in, and he was not going to be caught. We followed him for two hours to make sure he was all right.”
At one point, St. Clair Country Animal Control got involved, setting traps when people complained he was roaming unleashed.
“Woody was too smart to go for the bait,” Gay said. “We’ve been in contact with Animal Control, letting them know he is very much cared for.”
In recent weeks, the dog has fallen for a pretty Lab mix just south of Belleville and her owners have allowed Gay, Dee and others to set up a doghouse complete with a heating pad on their property. Another family who lives on a farm outside Belleville is also serving as the dog’s home base, so a heated doghouse has been set up on their land too. He comes and goes as he pleases.
Gay makes sure he receives monthly heartworm, flea and tick medication, a cost she shares with Dee. “He’s really picky, so I have to soak his medicine really good in cat food before he’ll eat it,” Gay said.
One day soon, the women hope to gain the dog’s trust enough to catch him and have him heartworm tested and neutered. Dee plans to keep him at her home for his recovery period.
He then will be placed in a good home and trained to stay within the safe perimeters of an underground fence.
But first the women have to catch him.
“We absolutely don’t want strangers to get involved and try to grab him,” Dee said. “If you see him, don’t pursue him. We and others have been working very hard to get him to trust us. Gay has gotten to the point where she can sit and talk to him, and he’ll come really close to her.
“When strangers chase him, it just scares him. Then he runs and goes into hiding and it takes a long time for him to calm down again. Chasing him just puts him in more danger.”
Gay agreed. “People don’t realize how long it’s taken us to get his trust,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever been touched by a human, and if he was, it wasn’t a good touch. He’s in survival mode. If we couldn’t catch him when he was on three legs or when he was tranquilized, a stranger isn’t going to do it and they shouldn’t try.
“We’re going to get him,” she added. “It’s just going to take time. We’ve had to be patient. But he’s worth it.”