Marty, the island dog

My partner Scott said goodbye to our Manchester Terrier. We lost her to lymphoma – The Wick was her name, and she was our first baby. She really was perfect. Shortly afterwards, we finally became pregnant on our fifth and final IVF cycle.

Six months pregnant by September, friends offered us a place to stay for one week in San Maarten, an island in the Carribean. It would be our last vacation for a while. We weren’t into traveling without our baby after the birth – we had waited so long for this baby and knew we would be the sort of parents who couldn’t leave her with others while we vacationed. Like the Wick – where we went, she went. Where we go, baby would go.

Still mourning The Wick, noticeably absent while we enjoyed the beautiful new country of San Maarten, Scott and I drove around the island in search of cosy beaches and lazy spots to hang. From the moment we got off the plane, I hardly noticed much other than stray dogs. They were everywhere. Judging by the locals’ casual demeanor, this was the way of the island. The strays were skittish and skinny. And there were oh-so-many.

Sitting down to a meal at the local restaurant, I glanced at the menu. Despite the local vegetarian delicacies abound, I had no appetite. I ordered a bowl of pasta marinara – just a normal dish of spaghetti noodles in a white bowl placed before me. I stared at it as Scott began his meal. I forked it, spun it, twirled it. I couldn’t eat it. When Scott asked why I wasn’t eating, the floodgates were open. Tears poured into my pasta. I couldn’t do it. How can I, who had already had breakfast and a snack, dare eat this hot-cooked meal, when there was a white dog outside, waiting for the end of the night garbage take-out?!

My hormones were in overdrive.

This was all entirely unfathomable. My partner paused his forkful of food mid-way to his mouth – right, now I’ve made him feel like guilty about eating. More tears. The waiter came over to check on us. Neither of us were eating. I was crying. Scott said, ‘yes, everything is excellent.  Thank you.’ Poor waiter.

We packed those meals and suddenly, not a moment could be wasted. I had to get to that white dog with this food! Risking my life to carelessly cross the busy street in urgency, for a dog who was not going anywhere anytime soon, I tossed our open take-away containers towards the dog and backed off as she ate. Temporary relief. Yes, I was concerned about how the wheat may affect her belly if she wasn’t used to it… more guilt, but it was sustenance for a bit.

That was the beginning of an endless seven-day struggle to ever eat again without guilt while on the island. I began perusing menus for what would be most appetizing to a hungry dog. Our meals consisted of ‘order extra, pack it up, and find a dog’.

And did we ever find a dog…

The night before we left, we made a wrong turn on the island. Out of my passenger side window, I saw the blur of a grey emaciated dog, slouching with his head hung so low, he looked like a stegosaurus. Like a vision passing quickly through the night, the image was stuck in my mind as we continued to drive along. Gasping, I tried to keep my tears in. It wasn’t lost on me that I had made this baby-moon one of tears and consolation-giving by my partner. My hormones – his problem. But this time, I was quivering.

Scott: What did you see?

I told him. Thirty second pause, which felt like five hours.

‘Shall we go back then?’

‘Please’, I murmured snottily and quietly.

We both knew it really was the only thing we could do. I was completely done. I felt both relieved and anxious for what was to come, as we turned the car back. Having been around the small island a number of times that week, we had noticed veterinary offices here and there.  And there was one on the right. A green trailer on wheels, with a sign that said ‘vet’. We ran up the three metal steps to ask if we could bring the dog here. The door was locked. It was 8 pm after all. No hours on the door. We returned to where the dog was. Couldn’t find it. We were leaving for home (Toronto, Canada at that time) the next morning at 11 am.

Without needing to say much, we went back to our room. I got online to find a vet to make arrangements to bring this dog to them tomorrow when they opened. It was a sleepless night, as I telepathically talked to that dog… ‘Just one more night, just hold on for one more night, and we’ll help put you out of your misery. You’ll have a peaceful end, sweet dog’. We were going back to find this stegosaurus of a dog, come hell or high water!

Scott made a bowl of pasta in the morning – what was left in the hotel mini-kitchen. We picked up a baguette sandwich too. Just in case it didn’t like the smell of pasta?

I may have gone nuts by now.

We had two hours left of the rental car before having to drop it at airport. The fact that the chances were so slim that we’d ever find this dog again didn’t cross my mind. With determination and in silence, we packed our suitcases into the trunk, and drove off with a steaming bowl of pasta on my lap, and an open-face baguette.

We turned down the wrong-turn road from yesterday, my stomach was doing flips. Scott slowed down and was hardly stopped when I pushed open the door and jumped out.

There it was!

That grey heap of a dog was hiding under a blue parked car on this dusty road. I approached ever so slowly, crouched low and sideways so as to look non-threatening. In a high voice like a mama, I whispered, ‘good boy, good girl.’ Then in a moment of brilliance, recalling that this part of the island was French-speaking, I whispered in my grade-three francais, ‘bien garcon, bien fille’. I then realized that this dog has likely never heard ‘good’ anything before.

I held out the pasta bowl in one hand, with my bikini strap-turned-noose-leash in the other, ready to gently take hold of this poor dog. Finding this homeless pet was the first huge triumph.  It would be utterly merciless if I did not manage to get the dog to come to me for help, after all this!

But he did.

He crouched slowly toward me. Perhaps the idea that I could be unsafe wasn’t of concern for this poor soul, the risk being worth it where food was being offered. He came close and put his head in the bowl. I slowly, breathlessly, gently placed the Billlabong leash around his neck. Scott drove up and opened the back door of the car.  We were speechless to see the condition of this dog up close. He had no hair on his body. His grey scarred skin was covered with a cloud of bugs and mites of all kinds. His chest was a mess of scabs, puss and blood. Ooze discharged from his eyes, nose and penis. He was bone thin and so incredibly weak. We hoisted him in the back seat with me. While I realized I sat six months pregnant beside a stray dog trapped in the backseat of a small car, we also knew this dog was too weak to move much at all, even if he wanted to.

We found the vet and carried him in. While we knew this may be the end for him, we also knew that this was no way for anything to live – pure suffering. The vet went on to show us the dog’s teeth, many completely ground down to the gum from trying to gnash the itchy bugs away. He was just a living misery.

After a thorough exam and a negative distemper test, the vet told us – unbelievably – that this dog’s injuries were all external for the most part. Nothing that medicine and food and love couldn’t fix. We were over the moon! A second chance at life! We would pay the vet bill. We explained to the vet that our flight back home to Canada left in an hour, so could he kindly deliver the dog to a shelter when he was well enough to be placed in home. Another long pause.

The vet replied, ‘Well, we have no shelters on this island, I’m afraid. We can care for him until he’s well, but then we’ll have to re-release him outside to the street. Or, he can see snow someday.’

Utterly confused and a little frustrated, I didn’t understand why this vet was talking about snow at this tragic moment. This dog was clearly not a survivor and would not make it out there on the street.

Scott, however, in the unpregnant and unhormonal state that he was, knew exactly what the vet meant. This dog could be ours – fly back to Canada when it was healthy enough, and become our family.

Of course there are many homeless animals all over the world, including right in our very own city. But the fact that I happened to glance at this dog out of my passenger window when I did, and because of that, was able to find him the next day, we simply felt we couldn’t leave his survival to chance. That would be the plan.

The dog flew to New York three weeks later, where I picked him up. I drove him home across the border into Canada, and to our home. He slept with our hand on his chest for weeks, with gentle consoling touch and words. He began to bark and bounce. His hair began to grow in, and we learned he was actually black. He loved the snow! It was incredible to see what medicine and love can do to turn an animal’s life around in a matter of weeks.

His name, of course, is Martin. We call him Marty. He now lives with us in Los Angeles with our daughter Morgan who was born three months later. He is an island dog, through and through – super chill. And he still loves laying on the black asphalt in the middle of our quiet cul de sac. A street dog, yes, but a much happier one. And he doesn’t’ mind pictures of The Wick all over the house…. or snuggling his nose into my daughter’s sling… or being the absolute love of our family’s life. – Leanne 

*A practice I learned with experience is that wandering dogs respond to ‘good boy or girl’ with a wag and welcome, way more than they will to ‘come here’.  Not that I recommend approaching stray dogs.  But I just can’t help it.


  1. oh! I almost forgot, congratulations on the birth of your daughter, Morgan.

  2. What an amazing story. What a world would it be, if every human being would have such a big hart to save and to make such a difference. Finding Marty was a blessing for you, dogs are angels that come in to our life’s. By the way, your husband must be wonderful! having a man that understands an animal lover is a big plus.

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