Kennedy: Chattanooga shelter dog saves new owner’s life

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Don Bickford and his adopted dog, Maggie, pose at the East Ridge Church of Christ Benevolent Center on Tuesday.
Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / Don Bickford and his adopted dog, Maggie, pose at the East Ridge Church of Christ Benevolent Center on Tuesday.

Sixty-two-year-old Don Bickford has had a difficult year.

Since last summer, the retired Chattanooga police officer has had a mini-stroke, plus surgery to repair his heart and aneurysms in his aorta.

In the meantime, he's gone from a 48-inch pants waist to 36 inches and has dropped about 180 pounds.

A few years ago, a doctor told him he needed a heart transplant, but Bickford balked.

"I said, 'I've lived a great life. I'm not doing a heart transplant. Give it to somebody else,'" Bickford recalled in an interview.

But in the past year his mindset has changed. His body is healing, he's reconnecting with his Christian faith and he met and fell in love with a little dog named Maggie.


Clara Register is a volunteer at the McKamey Animal Center on North Access Road who looks after senior dogs. One of the hard-to-place animals there for months was Maggie, who looks like a Chihuahua/terrier mix. Maggie has big, buggy eyes and a chin-in-the-air attitude. Maggie is very particular about the humans with whom she associates.

"It just took a lot of love and time to gain her trust and teach her manners," Register recalled in an email. "When strangers came to her, it was important that they just put out their hand and not move, and let her come to them. She would do well when sniffing as long as their hand was still and they did not go over her head to pet her."

Maggie doesn't like to be picked up because her ribs hurt, but she can jump like a champ.

Register said she took Maggie home for visits and led her for long walks and restaurant outings. Slowly, Maggie began to come out of her shell.

To help even more, Maggie was moved to the staff office at McKamey.

"She loved to hide under desks and just relax in her little bed," Register said.

Then one day a tall stranger with a gravely voice came into the center and asked about Maggie.


Bickford, who lives alone, had seen the little dog on the McKamey website and thought she might be good company. But when he got to McKamey he immediately realized it would be a courtship, not a quick pickup.

"She was very standoffish," he said. "I would go once or twice a week and take treats to try to befriend her. They'd bring her in the room, and she'd just sit and look at the door until they came back to get her."

Then, slowly, the ice began to break.

After a few visits with treats, Maggie would allow Bickford to stroke the hair on top of her nose with his finger. Eventually, she showed signs of bonding with him.

Then, one day, Bickford noticed Maggie's picture had disappeared from the McKamey website. He was happy for her, but a little disappointed, too.

Still, he developed a habit of delivering frayed blankets to the animal center that he got from the East Ridge Church of Christ benevolent center, where he volunteers sorting and cleaning donations.

One day when he stopped to drop off some blankets at McKamey, he heard a familiar bark coming from behind the counter.

"She heard my voice, and I heard her pleading," he said.

"Yeah, Maggie is back," confirmed one of the workers.

Don decided to go home to think and pray. He wanted to adopt Maggie; but others had tried, too, and they always ended up bringing her back to the shelter.

"She was was obstinate. Stoic. A diva," he said.

Still, Bickford had two things that Maggie deperately needed, time and love.

What she would give him in return was up to her.


On the first night he brought Maggie home to his Chattanooga apartment, she settled in on the foot of his bed. Then, after he had drifted off to sleep for a few minutes, Bickford felt her scratching on his neck, desperate to get his attention.

Minutes later, Bickford heard his diabetes alarm go off. His blood sugar was dropping dangerously low.

"My sugar drops so fast sometimes that the meter doesn't even catch it," he said.

Another time, he was driving on an interstate highway and Maggie began to scratch at his arm. When he pulled over to let her out, a police officer stopped, thinking Bickford might need assistance.

"What is that alarm?" the officer asked.

"What alarm?" Bickford asked, then realized it was his monitor again.

In that instance, her alert might have actually saved his life, Bickford said.

Christie Payne, a volunteer at the benevolent center in East Ridge, saw Maggie in action one day when Bickford's blood sugar got dangerously low.

"She was just inches away from him and on high alert the whole time," she said.

Science has shown that some dogs develop an almost mystical ability to detect blood sugar fluctuation in humans through smell.


About two months into the adoption now, Bickford believes Maggie has found her forever home.

"She has been a great blessing to me as far as a companion," he said. "I think it's an act of God. I think God put us together."

Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.

  photo  Staff photo by Mark Kennedy/ Don Bickford and his adopted dog, Maggie, pose at the East Ridge Church of Christ Benevolent Center on Tuesday.

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