Mason the Pit Bull on a hike

In November 2009 I was stuck on perhaps the single most miserable project of my career. I’m a construction project manager for a masonry contractor in and around Philadelphia, and this was just one of those projects that dragged on and on. I would have been pleased to never look back on it again. But then something happened that made it all worthwhile.

Meeting Mason

On this particular afternoon I was in my pickup truck, leaving the jobsite for the day. From the dense, dark woods that edged the driveway came a pack of six or seven wild, ragged dogs. From the opposite direction trotted two Pit Bull Terriers: one a black, older-looking female; the other a scrawny brown-and-white male, emaciated and dragging a leash behind him.

I slowed to a stop as the two groups of animals approached each other and began to fight. The two Pit Bulls, badly outnumbered, were quickly losing the battle. The smaller brown one was taking the brunt of it. I rolled down my window, honked the horn, then got out of the truck and yelled at the dogs. They scattered quickly. I’d been working in Fairmount Park for years, and although I was aware that wild packs of dogs were common in the city, I had never seen anything like this.

Concerned about the well-being of the Pit Bull with the leash, I got back in my truck to follow him and try to get close enough to see if he had any tags. Perhaps someone was looking for him, I thought. I got out and approached carefully. The female growled and took a defensive, guarded posture but didn’t appear to be preparing to attack. The male only seemed curious. He allowed me to reach out and check his collar — no tags. He was bleeding in several areas, and now I could see that he was extremely skinny. The leash was tattered and looked like he had been dragging it for ages. If this dog had once had a home, he’d been gone for a very long time. Someone had probably dumped him out here and hadn’t bothered to remove the leash. Dumping dogs in Fairmount Park is all too common. This dog had no ID and needed medical attention.

I felt awful for the guy, but I had a toddler daughter, young son and two smaller dogs at home. We have almost daily visits from friends who also have young ones. I could not imagine bringing a stray Pit Bull home — I thought it would be dangerous, even irresponsible. But I didn’t want to just leave him as he was. He’d have a bit more of a fighting chance, I thought, if I removed his leash and collar and released him unencumbered. He let me take them off without any resistance. Then I said something like, “Good luck out there, fella,” and got back into my truck.

Mason Makes a Choice

Before I could settle into my seat and close the door, the dog made a sudden move. He sprang right over my lap in a single bound and into the passenger seat of my 4×4. I now had a wild Pit Bull in my truck. I quickly got out and closed the door.

After a minute of bewilderment, I walked back to the jobsite and asked the foreman to come back with me and stand by, ready to help — or at least call for help — if anything happened as I tried to get the dog out of my truck. I opened the door. I grabbed the dog and pulled him out. The dog just stared up at me. His eyes begged for help.

“Nope. No way! Not happening, mister,” I told him. With a heavy heart, I bade him farewell and started down the road. The inside of my truck now smelled. There was blood all over the tan leather seats, and my canvas lunchbox had been torn open. He’d ripped a bag of potato chips to shreds, and he’d devoured all my other leftovers. He was so hungry. I felt horrible.

Less than a minute down the road, I remembered there was a drugstore nearby and pulled over. I returned shortly afterward with a pack of paper bowls and some food. I drove up and down the streets until I spotted the dog trotting along after an old man. The man kept cussing and screaming at the animal to stop following him, kicking at him repeatedly. Still the dog followed. He was willing to latch onto anyone who would give him companionship. I whistled loudly. The dog stopped and turned, then immediately started back toward me. I laid down a bowl of food. He inhaled it all in seconds. I filled the bowl again, and again he ate it all. Then he sat down and looked up at me, right into my eyes. I looked back at him.

Mason the stray Pit Bull

The Moment Everything Changed

After a moment of contemplation, I said, “OK, let’s go, I guess.” And with that, he jumped back into my truck and sat on the passenger seat.

I drove with him across the bridge back into New Jersey, where our office is. I fashioned a leash out of a bit of utility rope and brought him into the break room. I knelt down with him on the floor and wiped away some of the blood with a damp towel as I began to examine his condition. By now, one of his eyes had swollen shut, and I noticed that he had several deep cuts and scrapes, some older, some fresh. One of his canine teeth was broken and rotting; his dew claws had grown so long they'd curled back around, penetrating into his flesh; and his skin hung loosely on his bones. This animal was clearly in worse condition than I’d realized. His overall demeanor was pleasant, though, and he didn’t seem too bothered by the shape he was in. His youthful energy was about all that he had working in his favor. He was going to need some help, and he needed to see a veterinarian.

As I finished my office duties for the day, he lay quietly on the floor near my desk. Exhaustion was starting to set in. But that didn’t stop him from jumping into my truck once it was time to head home. I called my wife and told her that I was bringing a friend with me. She’s a sucker for dogs too, so she agreed to give him shelter as we figured out how to find him a permanent home.

On the long drive, the dog and I came to an agreement. I talked to him, telling him about my wife, my two children and my two other furry children and how much they meant to me. I told him that I would help him and that he could trust me, but if he ever stepped out of line with my family, I would have no choice but to send him to a shelter. To this day, I believe he listened and understood every word. We connected. He and I have a mutual understanding. He knows where he came from, and he understands that we saved his life.

Mason snuggles with the family dogs

Meeting the Family

When we got home I introduced him to the family, but before I brought him inside, I made sure he met Trace, a 30-pound Cockapoo, and Ginger, a 5-pound Yorkshire Terrier, on neutral ground. I leashed the three of them and took them for a walk around the neighborhood. They were perfectly fine. The Pit Bull stopped and drank from dirty puddles in the street as we walked along.

When we got back, we gave him a bath and treated his injuries. He must have been in pain, but he let me cut the ingrown nails and put antiseptic on his wounds. As we tended to him, my wife, Kelly, and I decided we would name him Mason because I'm a masonry contractor and I found him at work.

It took less than two days for us to decide to keep him. He fit right in with our family. We took him to the vet, who gave him the antibiotics and dewormers he needed. He also had his bad tooth removed. He didn’t digest food well for a while at first, but slowly he started to become healthier and stronger.

Mason snuggles with the kids

Bonding With Our Family

Mason formed an immediate bond with the children. We let our guard down fairly quickly, as it became apparent that he wanted to be one of the children more than anything and he was most content just being close to them. Our daughter, Cassidy, would often try to ride him like a horse. She would wrap her arms around his neck and just hug him and hang all over him. Within weeks, he took up permanent sleeping arrangements in our son’s bed. Every night, he climbed under the covers with Connor, his big head on the pillow, smiling contently. Mason always has this look on his face when he’s snuggled up to the kids that just says, “I’m home.” Connor doesn’t like to sleep without Mason now. He says he protects him from nightmares.

But for about the first year, it was Mason who was having the nightmares every time he slept. He would curl up in a tight ball, pressing himself into us. He would shake and cry and even growl sometimes. We would stroke him gently, and it would stop. It’s one of the saddest things we’ve experienced. It eventually became less frequent and ultimately stopped.

Mason is gentle with people of all ages. However, part of me feels a little more secure knowing that he’s there when I’m not. He’s big and strong, and that makes him look intimidating. If anyone ever tried to hurt one of his people, I don’t think Mason would allow it. The only time he’s ever shown aggression is toward cats. So we ended up taking in a homeless kitten we named Mickey and acclimating him to the strange animal. He now snuggles with the cat.

Mason the Pit Bull snuggles with Mackenzie

How Mason Makes a Difference

I never really wanted a Pit Bull. But since we found Mason, I’ve discovered that these powerful animals can be loving, loyal, gentle and kind. However, they are big, and they’ve been bred to accentuate very specific traits, particularly in urban environments like Philadelphia. Irresponsible breeding, training and handling have created some very dangerous animals. One must never automatically assume that all Pit Bulls are good-natured. I know enough to approach with caution if I don’t know a dog. This is good practice not just with Pit Bulls, but any dog. That said, Mason happens to be one of the gentlest, most sensitive creatures I have ever known, and I can’t imagine our family without him.

Mason adds joy to our lives. He likes to find a warm lap to lie across as often as he can. He also taught us that there is a place in our home to help animals in need. Because of their reputation — especially around Philly — Pit Bull Terriers often have a harder time finding foster and permanent families. We decided we wanted to be one of those families, and we now foster homeless animals, with a focus on Pit Bulls.

Our current foster is a female Pit named Mackenzie. She was abandoned and is scared to death of being left again. She tries to make physical contact with my wife constantly, and she suffers the same hard-snuggle sleeping with the shaking and crying that Mason used to do.

One by one, we will show these previously unwanted animals the love they need to be a happy addition to another family. And Mason is a big part of that. He seems to somehow help other dogs acclimate.

As I left that jobsite that afternoon, I came across a stray dog who’s the reason I’m grateful for that project — a dog I now call a cherished family member.

Has a special animal changed your life? Share your story with us at [email protected] for possible publication.

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