Life as an Animal Shelter Worker: Finding Love in a Shelter Pet

Ajax, a stray dog with an unknown history, gave us almost a decade of unconditional love and happiness.

Allison and Ajax. By: Allison Loker
When I first adopted Ajax, I thought he was the lucky one. But the lucky one was me. By: Allison Gray

Self-control is an important characteristic of shelter workers — particularly those who don’t want a menagerie of adopted pets at home. But almost every shelter worker I’ve met has adopted at least 1 pet during his or her shelter career.

The day I was hired, I adopted Ajax.


Ajax was a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier with a big goofy grin and an even bigger slobbery tongue. He had an enormous blocky head, broad chest and muscly body. Considering his breed, Ajax was unlikely to be adopted. He was pretty lucky that I got hired that day.

Ajax wasn’t his name — not yet, anyway. In fact, no one really knew his name. He’d been brought in as a stray who’d had a run-in with a porcupine. With a face full of quills, DSTRAY06-0959 still maintained a positively cheery disposition and shamelessly begged for love from everyone.

DSTRAY06-0959, neutered, healthy and trained, was never reclaimed by his family. The staff dubbed him Bartholomew Quill, and I adopted him.

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Getting Comfortable

Ajax was renamed after a Greek mythological hero, and although he did a poor job of slaying Trojan warriors, he did admirably win over our hearts.

My fiancé and I brought Ajax to our apartment before the ink had dried on our lease. We hadn’t even furnished the whole place yet. But we had a 75-pound dog who insisted on sharing our full-size bed with us.

I adopted Ajax as an adult. Somewhere in his recent past, there was a family and a life that he was used to. There was another bed he slept in and another name he answered to. Someone else had taken time to raise him.


  • Knew basic commands
  • Was house-trained
  • Didn’t jump up
  • Loved belly rubs and sticks
  • Cowered when we lifted large objects such as skillets or milk jugs

Someone else had Ajax before us, but they abandoned him when he was an injured stray at a shelter.

Love and Loyalty

For years and years, Ajax helped shape my life.

  • He was my couch buddy when I was studying.
  • He was there when I graduated from college.
  • He was there to celebrate when my fiancé and I were married.
  • He helped us move out of our first apartment and into our first house.
  • He even moved from a small city in Pennsylvania to the Big Apple with us.

He became the reason we hiked through the woods and walked the beaches in the fall. He’s why I folded down the back seats of my car to make room for a dog bed. He’s why my family became more fond of less reputable breeds.

Adopting a shelter pet can be very rewarding. Pictured here, adopted Jimmy Chew is happier than ever. By: Jeanne Masar
Adopted Jimmy Chew is happier than ever. By: Jeanne Masar

Ajax was the clever, sweet dog I had always wanted. Like so many others, I thought I was taking a chance by adopting him that spring day 9 years ago. But there was never any risk with Ajax.

We fell in love with him — which is why:

  • We rolled our eyes when he ate all the fish food one day.
  • We just shook our heads when he decided that shredding everything coming from the mail slot was his sworn duty.
  • I consoled him after he got into our cupboards, ate enough food to feed a college fraternity for a week and then threw it all up on my feet.

It’s also why we got a second opinion about the inoperable malignant mass on his abdomen.

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Final Goodbye

It wasn’t the tumor that killed him. In fact, the second opinion led to a successful operation that saved his life. His vigor returned with all the weight he had lost to the cancer. For 6 months he regained his old energy and enthusiasm.

And then for 9 months his health rapidly declined:

  • From muscle wasting to weakness, he lost the desire to walk.
  • Dehydration left him sunken-looking.
  • He was moved from 1 medicine to another, treating persistent infections, swelling and pain.
  • He was mostly blind and deaf within 3 months.

And then palliative care just wasn’t enough.

Ajax had already died the last time I told him that I loved him. I kissed his cheek and said it as a final goodbye. I told him I loved him all the time. But that was the first time I ever said it as a goodbye.

When I first adopted Ajax, I thought he was lucky that I’d found him. He repaid me with 9 years of unconditional love, memories and happiness. Even in my darkest moments, he was a beacon of light.

Ajax gave me all these things just because I decided to take in the stray no one knew anything about.

It wasn’t Ajax who was lucky the day we met. It was me.

* * *

Editor’s Note: “Life as an Animal Shelter Worker” is an occasional series of articles by Allison Gray about what it’s like to work at a shelter. There are thousands of animal shelters in the United States. Allison’s previous articles in this series were “Knowing You Can’t Take Them All” and “The Stray Animal Dilemma.”

Allison Gray

View posts by Allison Gray
Allison Gray gained a wealth of knowledge about animal welfare issues and responsible pet care during her nearly 5 years of work for an animal shelter. She is a writer, photographer, artist, runner and tattooed remedial knitter. Allison also has been researching, testing out and perfecting nutritious pet treat recipes in her kitchen for Petful since spring 2017.

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