This is the tale of a small, brave poodle. It might be a long tale and for that I apologize. I wanted to mark this day with a special post about Toby.
A year ago today I woke up and thought 'I wonder if I'll ever see Toby again?' Now all I have to do is glance over my shoulder and see him curled up on the studio futon waiting patiently for breakfast. A small, quiet ball of white fluffiness. Toby.
He came into our life Thanksgiving week, 2013. Sounds a long time ago, now. A lot has happened. So, on the anniversary of the day Toby came home I'd like to share his story (and how he's affected my life and career in children's books).
In fall 2013 a family of nine abused poodles were seized from a breeder in Aroostook County, Maine and taken to Houlton Humane Society. Heather Miller, (the director), sought foster homes for the poodles. These dogs had been kept in a dark basement, in carrying cages for all of their lives. Filthy, terrified, unable to socialize on the most basic level they were going to be extremely hard to place in homes. Seeing the call for help on Facebook I sent an email to the shelter saying we'd take one. We'd rescued many dogs previously and I knew we could help until a permanent home could be found.
Enter, Toby. We'd no idea which dog we would receive. In a Tim Horton's car park near Bangor, Maine we met with a couple transporting the foster dogs and took the carrying cage from them. Toby was curled up tight in a white blanket. He didn't raise his head to look at us. He was rigid, shaking like an earthquake all the way home.
Our old dog, Lita, sniffed him over as he lay quivering in his bed. We placed him in a quiet corner, with newspaper to pee on and a toy rabbit to cuddle. Lita placed herself nearby and became his custodian. She was his go-to safe place. He'd curl up next to her even sit on top of her. For weeks he ate in his bed, crawled out to pee and hid whenever we came close. Physical contact was hard, and only possible because he was so scared. He can still only tolerate being touched for a little while, but now he follows me all day long. Back then I wondered if he'd ever be able to deal with the real world, take a treat, chase a ball, have fun. Toby had never been outside in his one and a half years of life. At night he howled and howled. My husband slept on the sofa near him for the first week or so. We let Toby have his time and little by little he came out of his shell. When we went to bed at night we'd hear him careering around the living room like a dervish, flying over the furniture, round and round, relishing the freedom to run and be un-caged. Now his favorite thing is to zoom around the garden at top speed chasing his squeaky ball. I can't imagine how it feels after being confined for so long. He still prefers the darkness of the evening to full sun.
Weeks and months passed. My facebook friends were convinced Toby was a permanent fixture. I admit the thought of Toby being sent to another home became less of a possibility. Not only because we'd fallen in love with him, but because of all his issues. We knew some of the other poodles were ping ponging back and forth to the humane society. I just couldn't do that to him. Sometime after Christmas we adopted him. Facebook said 'we told you so!'
Toby began to learn what it was to live with people. His following on social media grew. Any picture of Toby would bring many 'likes' immediately. He was, for sure, full of charm!
I was busy working on book projects. At that time I began to look for an agent in earnest. It'd been 4 years since I illustrated my first children's book and I'd had my fair share of agent (and publisher) rejections over those years. I submitted some art samples to Ginger Knowlton of Curtis Brown Ltd, NYC, who'd seen some of my work at the beginning of my career and expressed interest. I was sure she'd have forgotten me. But - nothing ventured. To my delight Ginger responded positively, but said she really wanted to see something I'd written. Like many people I've a drawer stuffed with projects that are not quite ready to submit. Ginger kindly said I could submit again when I'd something ready. I looked in my drawer and felt uninspired.
Soon after this I was chatting to editor Harold Underdown at a conference and told him I needed to get a project polished to send to an agent. 'Well', he replied, 'Why don't you write about Toby?'. 'Who wants another story about an adopted dog?", I replied. But I went home and thought about it. So many people responded positively to Toby. Maybe I should write a story about a dog who gets adopted? In between finishing proofs on a book and waiting for the edits, I sat down and bashed out a dummy about Toby. Sometime in the spring I sent it to Ginger Knowlton and waited. And, to my surprise, she sent it back with some suggestions. And in early June 2014, I signed with Curtis Brown!
I did a manic, happy Snoopy dance and Toby watched me from under the dining room table. 'We did it, Toby!' I squealed. Now I hoped a publisher would buy the book! My first publisher of choice was Candlewick. I'd talked to a couple of editors there in the previous year about another manuscript. So Ginger sent the book to them. And I waited.
Summer had come to Maine. Unfortunately our lovely dog, Lita, had passed away in the spring. Toby missed her a lot. His behaviour had regressed a little, but we put no pressure on him. We also had a dilemma. In fall we were due to go on holiday. Our previous dog sitter was no longer available. We looked for a kennel. Oh, if I could have that moment back again, I would! I found what I thought was a good kennel, about 25 minutes drive from us. I went over to meet the owner, who wasn't there. But the kennels looked clean and well kept, not too big. Mike talked to the owner on the phone. We booked Toby in for a daycare visit. Just to see how he would react. The owner said she would be there to meet us.
That morning Toby knew something was up. He let us put his harness on, but he wasn't happy. In the car he sat wrapped in his blanket, shaking. Cars are not his favorite thing. He was not walking on leash, but would let us carry him around. When we arrived at the kennel, the owner wasn't there again. Right then I should have turned around and left. The young girl who took Toby from us put him in his cage. 'I don't want him to go outside,'I said, trying to explain to the girl about Toby's issues, (which I really needed the kennel owner to understand). Too late, she put Toby through the kennel door into the outside enclosure and shut it behind him. 'I'll let him in shortly, we are just cleaning,' she said. I nodded reluctantly. I should have gone and got him and driven home. I should of. Toby didn't even go out in the garden at that time! We went outside. Toby was in the kennel, he seemed ok, looking out at the world, other dogs either side. 'He'll be ok for a few hours', I thought. Wrong!
We got in the car and drove away. All I could see was Toby's sad face gazing at us as we went down the drive. We drove towards home. The mobile rang. Just ten minutes after we'd left. I saw Mike's face drain of colour. Every cliche came into play. All he said when he rang off was 'He's out!' All hell let loose. I've never been one for hysterics, but I found out what they meant right then. Mike broke the speed limit getting back to the kennels. The young girl was frantic. Apparently she'd gone into the outside enclosure to put Toby's blanket and toys in the kennel and he jumped through the open gate. There was an outside fence. Toby would have been fine, if at one side of the boundary fence there hadn't been a gap of about 8" between the fence and building. A very easy space to fit through, if you're a small poodle. I ran into the tree line calling frantically, knowing it was hopeless already. I always knew if Toby got out he'd run. He'd no recall. He'd never been out in the world. Here he was in the middle of miles and miles of farmland and woods. He would avoid people and cars and everything that might help him. Suddenly I knew how people who lose a child feel.
The days were a blur. Toby had been there and then suddenly - Toby was gone. My heart felt like it'd been taken out and nailed to a post. We searched. All day and into the evening, we searched. We called, we shouted, we squeaked the squeaky toys.
I posted the bad news on Facebook. Within hours it seemed to go viral. People from all over Maine spread the news, in days it seemed the world was rooting for Toby, from San Diego Zoo, to the UK to Australia. Kindness and hope poured in from all sides. In the locality of the kennels a search sprang up. Everyday we met people searching on foot, with their own dogs, on bikes, in cars, in kayaks. A kernel of helpers got together organizing posters, house calls, newspaper articles, radio, social media ... anything they could do to help. My belief in humanity was strengthened.
After 4 days there was no sign of Toby. Mike and I and everyone else had walked miles and miles. We'd been rained on, bitten, had blisters. We'd dropped mountains of pepperoni, stapled hundreds of posters to trees and leaflet-dropped endlessly. There was no doubt, everyone in that area of Maine knew Toby was lost.
We hired pet tracking dogs, suggested by a fellow author. For a day they tracked Toby, through woods, down railway lines, through farms. Mike and our friends were scratched and exhausted. They drew a dead end at a river bank.
That night saw one of the worst storms of the year, the end of a hurricane. We lay in bed, thunder booming and thought of Toby out, alone. We didn't sleep. Tears poured from me. During the night I prayed that Candlewick wouldn't buy the Toby book. Because if I didn't get Toby back, how could I possibly illustrate a book about him? And when you've wished so long for something ... but what was a book compared with the life of my dog?
The world seemed huge. We set humane traps at a farm where a small dog had been heard in the night (barking at coyotes - not a comforting thought!). All we caught were cats. By day 7 there was still no sign. I told myself that sometimes it could take weeks, months for a dog to be found. And at least it was summer. But my life was falling apart. How long till we had to stop looking every hour we could and return to normal life?
People sent money to help with the search, so much generosity! We were able to use it to publicize Toby and enable us to rehire the tracker dogs WHEN we got a lead. In the end all the money we received was sent to Houlton Humane Society.
During the furore I realized Elizabeth Bicknell, editor at Candlewick, was following all the Toby news on Facebook! 'Toby' the book had been sent to another editor at Candlewick so I was pretty sure Elizabeth didn't know about it. In a quick message I let her know the situation. Liz went to look at the manuscript. She let my agent know right then that she was interested and would like to look at it for a while, (after okaying it with the other editor). This was amazing! At any other time I would have been ecstatic! But I only had thoughts for Toby.
Day eight of the search dawned. Mike and I were as down as we could get. We WERE the bottom of the barrel. Mike went to work. I don't know what I did. Tried to think about life from that point on. The first thing that happened that day was Mike got a phone call about a white poodle that had been picked up about half an hour from the kennels. He drove the 2 hours like a banshee, to find it was not, in fact, Toby. He didn't tell me until he was on the way back to his office, in case it was a false alarm. We knew this might happen often in the future. My worst fear was a call about a dead white poodle on the roadside. But I musn't think about that!
The second thing that happened was another phone call in the middle of the afternoon. This time from the kennel from which Toby was lost. Mike did call me this time. 'They have him!' he said and that was about all he could say. "Are they SURE?' I cried. Once again, Mike drove like a crazy person. 'Please don't crash!' I thought. Surely this wasn't another false alarm? HOW had the kennel got him? I walked the house. I'd called another friend who worked near the kennel, he got there before Mike. He called me and asked me to identify the dog's collar. It sounded like Toby. IT WAS TOBY!
Mike brought him home. The kennel told us Toby had been sitting in the field near the kennel and they managed to get him into the garage. Whatever had happened, Toby had gone back to the last place he saw us. We estimated he'd travelled about 15 miles. A dog who had never been outside. (Even now he still looks at the back door carefully when he's in the garden, just to check he is not 'trapped outside').
Joy spread through the Toby search community. He was back! We could all return to normal. I am still amazed at the reaction to our little dog and the outpouring of love. Toby is indeed a special dog! We celebrated with a party for the search team at a local restaurant (Toby had to stay home, but sent love and licks). For weeks afterward I hated even leaving him in the house in case, for some bizarre reason, he would be gone on my return. And he still hates thunder storms.
And what of 'Toby' the book? Candlewick editor Elizabeth Bicknell was away in Australia on business for two weeks. She said she'd give her answer on her return. My agent said it was hopeful. Now that Toby was back I desperately wanted his book published with this wonderful publisher and editor! His fans were clamouring for a 'Toby' book and I could say nothing. I kept everything crossed, and so did Toby. For many of you it comes as no surprise that Elizabeth Bicknell did indeed buy my book. Our book, I should say, for Toby is adamant that he has played a big part in it. And so he has!
I've a lot of people to thank for this journey with Toby ... the rescue society to begin with. All the people who helped in the Toby search. Harold Underdown for suggesting I write about Toby. Without Toby I may not have been signed by such a fantastic agency as Curtis Brown and have such a wonderful agent as Ginger Knowlton. Without Toby I might not be anticipating my first book as author/illustrator. I might not have had my faith in humanity restored by all the small kindnesses we received during the time Toby was gone.
Toby is philosophical about it. He's a clever dog. He's still very fearful of many things, but he is an endless source of inspiration. I may never be able to take him on book signings and school visits or even SKYPE with him - but I will be able to share Toby's story of resourcefulness and bravery with readers and children for as long as I can.
'TOBY' will be available from Candlewick Press in September 2016 wherever you find good books!
NB: The one thing I did learn from this experience was to NEVER think things 'will be alright' where the safety of an animal is concerned. I should have made sure I met with the owner of the kennels and if anything had seemed a bad fit, not left them in charge of my pet's safety. Sometimes we feel we are being troublesome. But it would have been a whole lot less trouble than losing Toby. I am sure they did not wish to lose our dog, and I am thankful he was returned to us, but that is not the point.
So if you are reading this, please, always check and check again with regard to wherever you are leaving your pet. Ask questions, get reviews, even ask people in the locality! Believe me they will give you the truth and possibly save you time and heartache.
Find Hazel on Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/HazelMitchellBooks
Pet Tracking Dogs - http://www.lostpettrackingdogs.com/#intro