"Gentleness was this dog’s truest nature..." | Towpath's story

Danielle Petch

Kathy and her husband, Will, had the course of their lives totally altered one fate-filled morning while out on a run. Here, Kathy shares her tale of “wonderpup” Towpath  the story of a brave little soul with a heartbreaking past, that will send you on an emotional rollercoaster...

"Towpath has gone from a critically wounded waif on the C&O canal to a heartthrob with fans across the land. The daily web of correspondence has grown to the point that many of Towpath’s more recent admirers barely know the character they’re rooting for. 

Nor do they know of the amazing team of doctors, technicians, and attending angels at Shenandoah Veterinary Hospital in Martinsburg, WV, and South Paws Emergency Center in Fairfax, VA, who comforted not only Towpath but his bumbling new foster parents in their most desperate times of need. So, as promised from day one — for the eternally curious or insomnia-plagued — here’s a fuller account in words of our brief but life-altering odyssey with Towpath...”

“Towpath was standing sideways in the middle of the C&O towpath along the Potomac River near Shepherdstown, WV when I came upon him during my morning run. He didn’t move as I approached; it was enough that he was still standing. He was a fawn-colored pitbull puppy, twenty-something pounds, with big sad eyes, no collar, and a sturdy little body that look as if it had been through the wars. 

His left flank was tiger-striped with gashes, his hind left knee was blackened, and the underside of his skinned tail was glistening pink. Yet for all the carnage he’d suffered, he stood licking my shin as I phoned home for a ride. The ferocity of this little dog’s wounds seemed strangely contradicted by the depths of his kindness. 

He lay quietly cradled in my arms as we waded through a thicket of stinging nettle and poison ivy and stumbled over fallen logs to reach the road. And as we sat on the shoulder waiting, he rested his head on my lap, exposing an undercarriage that had been skinned from chest to groin to the tip of his tail. 

Doctors of medicine might explain this stoic behavior as a classic symptom of shock. But as we’d learn in the coming days, gentleness was this dog’s truest nature…”

Photo credit: Kathy and Will, @towpath.thewonderpup

“Towpath — as my mate, Kathy and I took to calling him — made his first visit to the Shenandoah Veterinary Hospital in Martinsburg that same afternoon, where doctors and technicians (otherwise hardened to the goriest displays) gasped at the sight. Their best guess was that he had been skinned by asphalt — as in one thrown or dragged at high speed from a car. The possibility of acid burns was also mentioned. By the darkness of certain scabs, he had been wandering wounded at least a day, perhaps several. 

But, Towpath’s most immediate threat was sepsis, a bacterial infection of the bloodstream fed through the massive breaches of his skin. Already his wounds were reeking of creeping decay. We were consulted on the possibility of skin grafts and long-term recoveries, at best. We were told he would be lucky to see the next morning. Had we been professional poker players or triage surgeons relying on cold logic and the laws of probability, our decision would have been easy and our story would have ended there. As it was, we checked Towpath in, kissed him on the head, and told him we’d see him tomorrow...”

Photo credit: Kathy and Will, @towpath.thewonderpup

“And the next morning, there he was! With those saucer eyes alive and alert, odds be damned. So with a slew of antibiotics, painkillers and fortified food, he came home with us to begin repairing the wreckage. 

We were warned that the sepsis still lurked, and the crash could come anytime. We were also warned that he would look worse before he looked better, the scale of which none of us could have then imagined. In the days to come, the swaths of exposed tissue began to expand, big patches of furred hide peeled away.

To keep him from chewing at his wounds, we took to donning Towpath with the e-collar, caging his head in a bonnet of plastic. The ridiculous contraption, like a ruff of giant ears, transformed him into a baby white elephant, a role he embraced. I would carry him to his toilet appointments in the grass, only to watch him stumble and stagger on a determined course for my prized garden of coneflowers and coreopsis, thrashing with his giant head through the jungle.”

Photo credit: Kathy and Will, @towpath.thewonderpup

“The little daily comedies took a serious turn at Towpath’s next check-up. The grisly sloughing of skin to which we had become hardened to, rang alarms for those who hadn’t seen him in a week. Such massive exposure of flesh, with its searing pain and heavy assault on the immune system, was taxing his organs, eating away at his reserves, even as he gamely played the happy puppy. 

His therapy radically shifted. Abandoning their hopes of natural healing, his champions at the hospital intervened with a treatment more typically prescribed for victims of third-degree burns. They would remove Towpath’s dead and dying tissue by a sounding process called debridement. With fresh new wrappings and treatments every other day, this was going to hurt even beyond the physical. 

Towpath came home, heavily sedated and swaddled in baby blue — a deceiving picture of temporary peace. As the anaesthesia wore off, the crying began. Pain pills and a skin patch delivering a steady flow of opiates to the bloodstream seemed to bring as much nausea and agitation as it did relief. Rest and quiet came in rare and meager stints. Nights became marathon ordeals of shaking and thrashing and heartrending wails. We took to lying beside Towpath, in our bed, on the couch, on the floor, hoping to absorb some of his pain, waiting together on those elusive moments of sleep. By day, our minds and bodies went numb, and professional duties suffered in turn. Nerves frayed and tempers flared. But the worst was imagining the pain of the little one looking to us for help.”

Photo credit: Kathy and Will, @towpath.thewonderpup

“In our moments of exhaustion came temptations of surrender, when we muttered the unthinkable, of ending Towpath’s suffering by the only sure way we knew. His tail had become symbolic of the struggle. We found a two-inch length of it lying on the floor, like some oddly misplaced fishing lure. The doctors decided to amputate. 

On the eve of his operation, we started a Facebook page: a tribute to Towpath’s courage and a cathartic exercise of our own blind hope. Within minutes of his launch into cyberspace, Towpath had a burgeoning base of fans and well-wishers. Some, of course, were friends of ours. But a baffling majority were complete strangers, who knew nothing more of this battered little stray than a thumbnail portrait and a paragraph of text.

His message board began ringing to a familiar chord, of people sending their love and offering money to see that Towpath pulled through. We set up the Hugs-for-Towpath Fund with a preliminary goal of $2000. By the next morning, as Towpath was going under to have his tail shortened to a two-inch stub, we found more than $200 waiting in his hugs fund. He came home that afternoon, decked in a new jumpsuit of green bandages and groggy from the drugs, and for the rest of the afternoon and through the next night, he slept blissfully. It was the first full night of rest that any of us could remember.” 

“Meanwhile, we were astonished to find that Towpath’s audience had swelled into the hundreds. By that night, his fund had quadrupled, and by the next morning, I opened his account to find more than a thousand dollars!

In a moment of panic, I sent out a cease-fire on the incoming pledges, fearing the embarrassment of our cup running over. Truth be told, there were moments in the next two days when the worst seemed to worsen, when the crying would rise to a nerve-grating crescendo and we’d again think those dark thoughts about ending Towpath’s pain. But by now, we should have known better than to bet against this dog. 

As his cast of followers ballooned into the thousands, his crying subsided, and his appetite returned. We had grown used to tending to his simplest needs, the most basic of which was helping him lay him down to rest (a feat apparently too painful for him alone).

For the first time, we watched him circle and gingerly lay himself down on his bed, unaided. If you can imagine our elation at that epic little effort and not scoff, then there’s really nothing more that needs mentioning about Towpath’s resurrection. Except, there is. As we finally find ourselves exhaling, and cautiously proclaiming Towpath on track for the good life, we also find ourselves with the luxury of looking back. And it is not a wholly pleasant view…”

“Discomforting questions remained, the most unshakeable being how Towpath first came to his suffering. The answer matters much, not only for how we approach his psychological rehabilitation going forth, but also for how we look at ourselves as members of a questionable society. Is it possible his injuries were the simple results of incredibly bad luck? Is it possible, just maybe, that he was an accidental stray from an otherwise loving family? But then, why no apparent search or heartsick postings along the path for a little lost puppy? 

Though I would hope to find some comfort in these explanations, I’ve yet to see beyond the mountains of evidence contradicting them. My biased view amounts to a verdict of neglect and mistreatment: the missing collar, the absence of housetraining. And those horrific injuries.

For the first several mornings after I found Towpath, I retraced the steps that had brought me to him, with that slim possibility in mind, looking for signs along the road, listening for the barking of any would-be siblings from the homes along the lane. When those searches turned up nothing, I went back to focusing entirely on Towpath’s recovery. It wasn’t until weeks later, after Towpath had finally begun to emerge from his tunnel, that I inadvertently made that morning run one more time. I was navigating subconsciously in a daydream until I awoke to find myself at the very spot where I’d first met Towpath on the edge of death. I stopped, and was startled to discover I was there sobbing like a fool, for all the pain that Towpath had endured. 

Nowadays, it’s all too easy to forget that by all accounts, he should be dead. As he tosses his little rag toy and paws curiously at a tennis ball, in his unabashed ecstasy he flaunts the now healed scars on his chest. And not forgetting his new little sausage of a tail, once a symbol of dying hopes, now wriggling in the universal puppy language of pure joy.”

With thanks to Will, Kathy, and Towpath for sharing their story of hope and rescue with us. To find out more about Towpath and his brave and inspiring journey, head to Towpath’s Facebook page.

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