published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Cook: Maya's best friend

The little dog? She sure doesn't look like a Hall of Famer.

An abused shelter dog, with no pedigree or papers. Pointy ears. Barely bigger than a $4 sirloin. About as tough as one.

Yet three Saturdays ago, a roomful of veterinarians cheered and wept and took pictures like paparazzi, as little Maya -- a black and tan Chihuahua from Hixson -- was inducted into the Tennessee Animal Hall of Fame.

Sure, she kinda saved the life of this person. And that person. Another person.

But the real reason the Tennessee Veterinary Medical Association chose this maybe-6-pound pooch to join the Hall of Fame ranks alongside bomb-sniffing police dogs and therapy horses?

Her heart.

About as big as Oregon, crammed into that little Chihuahua body. Like God got her heart confused with a lion's. And it beats loyally, day in and day out, for one person.

"She is always at my side,'' said Linda Prabish.

Linda and her husband, Ben, live in Colonial Shores. Linda, who grew up on an Illinois farm where cats, horses and a stray goat named Gwendolyn were more like family members than pets, went looking a few years ago for a new dog.

Stumbled onto the website of an animal shelter just up the road; stared for a long time at the photo of a Chihuahua that wouldn't make eye contact with the camera. Her face downcast. Like that of a victim.

Called the shelter. Workers said they were about to euthanize the dog.

"It's not friendly. It's not loving,'' they told Linda.

The dog had been abandoned by a breeder. Weighed 3 pounds when they found her. Locked in a cage her whole life.

"She didn't know what a bowl was,'' Linda remembered. "She didn't know what grass was.''

The Prabishes demanded to buy the dog. They named her Maya, had her neutered, and in the 24 hours following surgery, Linda never let Maya touch the ground. Held her, hugged her. Whispered to her. Planted seeds of trust.

And that is how Maya came to love Linda.

And how Maya helped Linda get her life back.

"I have PTSD,'' Linda said.

So bad that Linda, who loves to travel, was once home-bound. When the post-traumatic-stress-disorder attacks come -- and they can be crippling -- Maya senses them approaching like a faraway storm.

She'll distract Linda. Bark. Pretend to be hurt. Or curl up in her lap, open those brown eyes and pour as much dog-love into that PTSD wound as she can.

"I think she has the same stuff wrong with her as I do with me,'' said Linda, who wound up training Maya as a service dog.

When she drives, Linda buckles Maya up in her lap. Like a canine GPS, Maya stares ahead, to the left, to the right, listening. Linda, who can't hear certain pitches, isn't always aware when sirens or ambulances are near.

"She'll nudge me. Put her paw on my arm,'' Linda said.

When Ben, like any of us, gets agitated with things and his blood pressure rises, Maya will run over and hop in his lap.

"You can't be mad when you're petting an animal,'' he said.

Once, when they visited Ben's mother in the nursing home, Maya jumped on the nursing home bed, and laid down on her legs.

And didn't move.

"We pulled back the covers. Her legs were swollen like footballs,'' said Ben, who then immediately called for help.

Once, on another trip to the nursing home, Maya snuck into the open door of a stranger's room and jumped into the arms of a man she'd never met.

And laid on his chest.

"That afternoon, he had a heart attack,'' said Linda.

Once, a friend was visiting, talking with Linda and Ben in the living room. Maya jumped up on the friend's lap and started sniffing her arm.

One particular spot on her arm.

Days later, the woman went to the doctor. Who examined her arm. And that one spot.

"Skin cancer,'' Linda said.

Yeah, I know. A Chihuahua. From a shelter.

This Tuesday morning, the Prabishes and Maya will be on WRCB's "Three Plus You." The Prabishes want you to know that training a service dog doesn't have to cost a lot of money. If you see a service dog in public, don't rush up. They're hard at work.

"Like a cop, guarding a bank,'' Ben said.

All right, all right. Your dog may never make the Hall of Fame. Guarding the bank? It only guards the food bowl.

But is there anything sweeter than the love of a good animal? The tail that wags like it's on a motor? That loyalty that would cross every desert on Earth just to get back home to you?

"It's one of the few places in life where God gives us a face as to what unconditional love looks like,'' said Dr. Randy Hammon, Maya's vet.

They say all dogs go to heaven.

Maybe they give us a glimpse of what it's like before we get there.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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