"I didn't realize what I'd been missing."
Petco dog helps owner through cancer treatment
Credit: Courtesy of Petco Love

For Whitney Johnson, 2020 should have been a time of promise. The then-37-year-old had moved from Texas to Tennessee and was looking forward to beginning an exciting new chapter of her life. All of that came to a thunderous halt, however, with the introduction of one word: cancer.

Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2020 and was facing the prospects of a double mastectomy and months of chemotherapy treatments. Then, barely a month later, the COVID-19 pandemic began to set in across the country and Johnson found herself isolated.

She was 1,000 miles away from her family, unable to travel, and was coming to grips with a devastating diagnosis, but she knew exactly what she needed to do for herself.

"I just knew it was time to get a furry friend," Johnson tells Daily Paws. "My whole family are huge dog lovers. All my siblings have pets, I've always owned dogs. I knew I was going to be home for a year and not having the visitors that I thought I would, so it seemed like the logical time."

And so, in the days right before Nashville began its first COVID lockdowns, Johnson went to an adoption event hosted by Petco and Proverbs 12:10 Animal Rescue. That's when she first met Dash.

Johnson, who says she had always owned larger dogs, was consciously looking for a smaller pupper to that would be easier to handle and care for with the diminished strength and energy levels she knew would be a part of her life as she recovered from her surgeries and dealt with the effects of her treatment. Dash—a full-grown 2-year-old mix who's about the same size and build as a Russell terrier—fit the bill beautifully. Johnson put in her adoption paperwork that day and before the week was out, Dash was hers.

"It was one of those things that I didn't realize I'd been missing," Johnson admits. "Having an animal there that's just so excited to see you when you come home, it made the heaviness disappear for a minute."

During those physically and emotionally demanding months filled with stress, Dash provided Johnson with the love and interaction that she couldn't get from her friends and family in person because of the pandemic. The little dog boosted her spirits whenever they sank, and she says that sometimes he gave her the motivation she needed to get up and face the new day.

"During chemo, I knew that I had to get out and exercise as part of the recovery process, whether I wanted to or not," she says. "I don't think I would have been committed to that exercise on my own."

Once her surgeries were completed and she felt stronger, Johnson contacted the Proverbs 12:10 organization again and said she was interested in fostering additional animals. That led to what Johnson calls a "revolving door" of dogs, with new fosters sometimes coming in the day after the previous foster left. That's how Johnson and Dash met Duncan.

When Duncan and his four siblings came into Johnson's world as month-old foster pups, she was immediately taken by the active, bull terrier mix. And, as she was beginning to transition back to working outside of her home, she knew having a regular companion for Dash would be a huge benefit in helping curtail separation anxiety and boredom.

"So I called Proverbs and said, 'I think I have my first foster failure.'"

That so-called failure is in part thanks the hard work of Proverbs 12:10 and its staff and volunteers  who've help find numerous forever homes for their pets. Johnson's story of gaining strength and love from her pups recently helped the shelter secure a $25,000 grant, after the submission was selected by Petco Love and BOBS from Skechers through the Petco Love Stories campaign.

Johnson, meanwhile, is cancer free and has finished her surgeries and treatment. She's feeling strong and finds herself invigorated by the ordeal of 2020 and the dogs who helped her through.

"I have a whole new lease on life and I'm more focused on living life the way I want," she says. "I'm finding joy every day."