Mama Dog's Story

by Melinda Hare, published 1987

Mama Dog’s story appeared in the “Kileen Daily Herald” newspaper, “Dog Fancy” magazine, the “National Enquirer” magazine, and was broadcast on Paul Harvey’s radio show. Thank-you to Vivian Flynt (It’za English Shepherds) for sharing it in The English Shepherd Advocate (May/ June 1999, vol. 4 issue 6).


It is a dog tale guaranteed to warm the coldest heart… a touching story of how an English Shepherd named Mama Dog captured the hearts of a Texas town and became a symbol of love and caring. “It’s a story about love,” explained Betty Vannoy, the woman who first lost her heart to the abandoned black & tan. “It’s a story about how one of God’s small creatures, a dog, can teach us about the gift of love.”

The story began in 1983 when a black & tan, longhaired English Shepherd, along with her litter of four nursing puppies, were abandoned at the dog pound in Temple, Texas. Against the rules the dog was allowed to stay, and she soon won the staff’s hearts with her gentle, motherly manners and the love she showed her pups. Everyone started calling her Mama.

One by one Mama’s puppies were adopted. But no one wanted Mama Dog. There were times she came perilously close to being put to sleep. But her gift of love saved her — Mama Dog would “adopt” every sad and lonely puppy or dog that came to the shelter. She showered her babies with love and attention until, one by one, each found a home. But still no one wanted Mama.

Against the rules, Mama Dog was allowed to stay at the shelter, and time after time she tirelessly gave her love to any poor dog that needed her. But still after three months no one wanted Mama Dog. Then, worn and weak from anemia and heartworms, Mama Dog was hospitalized, away from the shelter and staff who loved her.

But happily, at this point, the story took a turn in Mama’s favor. The “Temple Daily Telegram” published Mama’s heartbreaking story on its front page, and before you could bark twice the gentle dog was adopted and brought home at last. “It’s a story that causes a few tears,” said Betty Vannoy, “but it’s a story with a wonderful ending! Mama’s story is my inspiration. It gives me strength to go on when things go wrong… and it is proof that sometimes, even against overwhelming odds, something turns out right — something turns out to be absolutely perfect.”

“Mama Dog is with a wonderful family now. She’s in the perfect home. She has plenty of room, a pond to swim in, and people who just adore her. Mama Dog has so much love inside her, it just had to come back to her someday!” The city officials of Temple, moved by Mama’s story and inspired by the lesson in love and caring, even named a street for the shaggy dog. The road to the Temple animal shelter is now known as “Mama Dog Lane.”

A Living Reminder

“Mama Dog won everybody’s hearts, ” said Betty Vannoy. “And became quite a celebrity! She became a symbol for the Greater Temple Humane Society and has helped us attract lots of loving families for our animals.” According to Temple Mayor John Sammons, Jr., “The shaggy, four-legged critter became a symbol of love and caring for the entire town. Mama Dog reminded us about the importance of loving and caring for one another, about the importance of all creatures great and small. She inspired the people of Temple to show love and caring not only for animals, but also for one another. Mama Dog made it a better place here in Temple.”

Sammons and the Temple City Commissioners named the road in fornt of the animal shelter “Mama Dog Lane” on March 26, 1986. “We had a street out there that had never been known by anything but dog pound road,” Sammons explained. “The city’s staff had recommneded naming it ‘Facilities Drive,’ but we decided to change that to ‘Mama Dog Lane’.”

Sammons recalled, “Betty Vannoy and Mama Dog attended the City Commissioners meeting and Betty retold the story of Mama. By the time she had finished the story, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Everybody gave a spontaneous round of applause and a standing ovation. Sure enough, we didn’t have any trouble at all getting the votes necessary to unanimously proclaim it ‘Mama Dog Lane’.”

Sammons added, “Everybody knows Mama Dog. She is a real celebrity around here. And she still comes to visit us. Mama was down here recently, about a month and a half ago, when we had Adopt-An-Animal month in Temple. She came down to accept the proclamation!”

The mayor exclaimed, “You know, these days it’s easy to get cynical and hardened. It’s easy to put up walls around your heart and forget about others. Mama Dog broke down those walls with her motherly instincts and her gift of love. She’s a living reminder to all of us of the power of love.”

Note: in the photo above, Mama Dog poses in the mayor’s chair as John Sammons, Jr. (right), owner Bertis Graham (left) and Betty Vannoy (center) look on. On May 5, 1988, Mama Dog Graham became an honorary citizen of Temple, Texas, at the city commissioners meeting. In one of his final acts as mayor John Sammons presented the famed pooch with her Temple citizenship papers.

A Decision of the Heart 

Today Mama Dog is a living legend, living a spoiled life with her adopted family on a 40 acre farm near Temple. But Betty Vannoy will never forget the first time she ever laid eyes on the shaggy, farm collie dog. Mrs. Vannoy, the wife of Temple Police Chief Tom Vannoy, is a past president of the Greater Temple Humane Society and a former volunteer worker at the animal shelter. “My work brought me in touch with many wonderful dogs,” she said with a soft smile, “but I shall always remember Mama.”

“It was early one Saturday morning in May 1983, when I arrived at the shelter to find a man in an old pick-up truck waiting in the parking lot. He was a young man in his 30s, and he seemed in distress. And he seemed very impatient. There were suitcases in the truck, and in the back I could see a black and brown dog.”

Mrs. Vannoy recalled, “The man told me, ‘I need to leave this dog and her puppies.’ I could hear the whines and whimpers of the four puppies and saw, to my dismay, that they barely had their eyes open. I told the man that it was against the shelter’s rules to take puppies that were so young. We can’t take puppies unless they are at least six weeks old and able to eat on their own.

“But the man was desperate. He said, ‘Lady, I’ve just got to find a place for them today. Please, please take them! The mother takes real good care of them. I don’t know what I’ll do if you won’t take them!'” Mrs. Vannoy continued, “Well, there were rules. Rules that I had promised my husband not to break when I volunteered to help at the shelter.

“But then I looked down at the mother dog. She seemed worried and concerned, like she knew her fate was in my hands. And then she made a direct appeal to me. She put her paw on my arm and looked right into my face with those soft brown eyes… and I knew what I had to do.”

“I knew I would be breaking the rules, but sometimes we have to make decisions of the heart,” Betty Vannoy said. “What else could I do? By the time the rest of the staff arrived, I had made the mother dog and her brood a nursery in one of the rabies observation cages, and she was busy cuddling her puppies and giving them breakfast.”

Mrs. Vannoy remembered how the other staff members grumbled and resisted at first. “But by the end of the first day,” she recalled, “everybody had been back to check on her at least once. We all fell in love with her. And because she had such gentle, loving ways and was such a good mother, we named her Mama Dog. As it turned out, we all ended up breaking the rules for Mama.”

Earning Her Keep

Mama Dog’s puppies grew fat and strong during the next few weeks until they were weaned and, one by one, adopted. “They mostly looked like her — not outstandingly cute!” exclaimed Mrs. Vannoy. “They were lucky to be adopted.” Mama was not so lucky — no one wanted her. “We should have put her away, ” Mrs. Vannoy said. “We could only keep dogs for so long until we were forced to put them to sleep. And Mama Dog had already been with us for several weeks. we should have put her to sleep… but then Fate intervened. Another mother dog had been hit and killed by a car, leaving behind a litter of five tiny puppies, maybe two weeks old. We put the puppies in with Mama Dog and she immediately took over. She took them in, loved and nursed them, and cared for them just like her own babies!”

Mrs. Vannoy added, “so, once again we broke the rules for Mama — and she came through for us!” Eventually those puppies were weaned and adopted, too. But still no one wanted Mama. By now, however, Mama Dog was earning her keep by being just that: a mama dog to every abandoned litter or poor pup that came along. “More and more litters of puppies came in after that,” Mrs. Vannoy recalled, “and Mama took care of them all. Every time we had a sad puppy or an injured dog, she was right there to care for them and love them.” Mama Dog became like a trustee around the shelter. She was allowed to run in the adjacent fields and she would always come back. “She must have cared for dozens and dozens of animals,” Mrs. Vannoy said. “And she seemed to love every minute of it.”

“But sometimes she would go out and sit down by the road, maybe waiting for the man in the truck to return. Then after a while she would faithfully return to the shelter and wait patiently by her cage until someone let her in.”


Another Rule Broken

Whenever one was adopted, it was Mama Dog’s habit to accompany each of her “babies” out of the shelter and to the care of their new owners, according to Mrs. Vannoy. “One day, after one of her charges had been adopted, she walked to the car and watched as it drove away,” Mrs. Vannoy said. “This time, as she walked back to the shelter, she looked sad and dejected. She came back with her head down and her tail drooping. I realized it was time for Mama to leave the shelter and that we had to find her a home — no matter what! None of us could stand the thought of putting her to sleep. This was almost mid-August and Mama Dog had won all of our hearts. She had been with us for more than three months, and no one could stand the thought of putting her to sleep.”

Again, against the rules, the staff brought Mama Dog to a local vet to be examined. “We made another exception,” Mrs. Vannoy said, “and took her to the vet. We found she had anemia and heartworms. Again, we should have had her destroyed but we didn’t have the heart to do it. Instead we all chipped in and got Mama treated.” The Temple veterinarian who examined Mama Dog confirmed the diagnosis and told how she was down to a mere 29 pounds due to her medical problems.

As Betty Vannoy put it, “Mama had given all her love to all the animals at the shelter without any reservations — without any regard to her own health. She had become weaker and weaker, but she still took care of her ‘babies’.”

“And still no one wanted to adopt her, ” Mrs. Vannoy stressed. “I would have done it myself, but I already had two adopted dogs — and you cannot adopt them all. But I was determined to do something to find her a home. Lots of people already knew about Mama from word-of-mouth, but I decided to tell her story to the local newspaper.”


On August 16, 1983, Mama Dog’s story appeared on the front page of the “Temple Daily Telegram.” A photograph of Mama and Mrs. Vannoy accompanied the article, which was headlined, “Surrogate Mom Needs New Home.” The first sentence read: “Everyone who knows her will admit that Mama is special.” The story told how Mama had been spayed, wormed, and had received all her shots. And it told how she got her name. “She just got her name from mothering,” Mrs. Vannoy was quoted. “It’s what she did best.”

Bertis Graham, a former gas station owner and self-described “retired gentleman farmer” remembered the newspaper article. “August 16, 1983,” said the 63 year old Graham, “that’s the day Mama and me got acquainted!” Bertis and his wife Frances, who works for the Temple Housing Authority, live on a 40 acre farm in Troy, Texas, about 16 miles north of Temple.

“I had been working out back,” Bertis recalled, “when I came in to fix myself a sandwich and have a cold can of beer. I fixed my sandwich and sat down to eat and read the paper. Well, that story caught my eye, and I never even finished my sandwich! I called the Humane Society and was told the dog was still at the vet’s. When I called the vet’s office, they told me she still had no home. So I said, ‘Don’t even take any more phone calls! That dog is coming home to live with me!'”

“I decided I wanted Mama — no matter what — before I even laid eyes on her. And when I went to pick her up, I didn’t even need a leash. She came right along with me, like she knew she was going home!” Bertis explained, “I wasn’t looking for another dog. We had lots of cats at the time, and we had our cattle. But what got me about this dog was that she had gone the extra mile, had given her all to the other animals. Every living thing is a friend of hers! She was too good to put to sleep. Mama Dog had given love time and time again. It was time she got some good loving back!”

Betty Vannoy said, “If Mama Dog could speak, she probably would say ‘I think I’ve gone to heaven!’ She has the perfect home now.” Mama Dog has lived with the Grahams since August 1983, and has 40 acres to romp on, three granddaughters to play with, a big pond to swim in, her own doghouse, and even her own freezer where Bertis keeps her food.

Has Bertis spoiled her? “No, she’s not spoiled,” said Bertis matter-of-factly as his wife, Frances, rolled her eyes heavenward. “My gosh,” exclaimed Frances, “Bertis feeds her so good that we’re going to have to put her on a diet soon! She weighed about 29 pounds when we got her. Today she weighs about 60 pounds!”

Bertis shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and said, “Well, I don’t think she’s overweight. Tonight she’s having chicken for supper. Last night she had grilled liver, and tomorrow I think I’ll give her some steak. Nothing is too good for Mama!”

The Best of the Best

“She’s got 40 acres, plenty of shade, a pond to swim in, her own doghouse. She’s got a good place to live. She’s never hungry. I think her happiest days have been here. And her last days will be here.”

Bertis showed a place in his front yard, under some shade trees, where he plans to lay Mama to rest when her time comes. “We figure that she must be about 6 or 7 years old now,” Bertis said. “And we’ll take care of one another until the time comes. And when it comes, Mama has her final resting place. We’ll put a stone on top, and that way everyone who comes by can remember our Mama Dog.”

To hear Frances and Bertis talk about Mama, you would think she’s the best dog that ever lived. “She’s a real good dog, ” Frances said. “Real mild-mannered. Doesn’t know a stranger. Loves everybody.” Bertis added, “She goes fishing with me and rides in the boat. When she sees my pick-up coming up the driveway, she comes a running. She’s a devoted dog. The best! They say that a dog is a man’s best friend. Well, Mama is the best of the best!”

Frances laughed and recalled, “the only time we’ve had any trouble was at Christastime one year. Mama Dog and Honey, our son’s Cocker Spaniel, were in the house and got into a fight under the Christmas tree — sending decorations, ornaments, and presents flying everywhere!”

And although Mama has been spayed, she has not lost her motherly instincts or her loving ways, the Grahams reported. “She has tried to mother every small animal around,” Frances said. “We used to have oodles of cats around here, and for a while Mama took care of a little black, orphaned kitten.” Bertis added, “She has tried mothering new calves, but they outgrow her pretty quickly! I’ve seen her mother, lick, and cuddle on calves that are only a few hours old. So there’s still a lot of love in Mama Dog.”

Mama Dog’s Legacy

Betty Vannoy, the woman who saved her, believes Mama’s legacy will live on and on. “Thanks to Mama Dog more and more people started paying attention to the plight of animals,” Mrs. Vannoy said. “After Mama Dog, we started a Direct Aid Fun which provides help for animals injured on the highway and for animals that need medical assistance. It gives people who cannot adopt an animal a chance to help.”

“Secondly, the Temple newspaper started a Pet-of-the-Week column after the success of Mama Dog’s story. Many animals have been adopted thanks to that.” Mrs. Vannoy added, “Also, the animal shelter is now run by the Temple Humane Society instead of the city. Before, the shelter was where the dog catchers brought homeless animals until they could be put to sleep. Now, there are adoption and maintenance facilities and the animals are receiving better care.” With a smile, Mrs. Vanny noted, “And every so often, we still get a donation with a note signed ‘Mama Dog’.”

Bertis Graham added, “Mama makes appearances on behalf of the shelter, too. She attended ceremonies for the renaming of the street to ‘Mama Dog Lane.’ And we’re about to get ready for the second annual Mama Dog Barbecue. Last year, when the shelter had too many dogs, Mama and I were called in to help get people out. We cooked barbecue, handed out refreshments, and talked to all the prospective pet owners who had come to the shelter to look at the animals. When people hear about the story of Mama Dog, they think about adopting too.”

Betty Vannoy said, “Yes, Mama is quite a celebrity. A living legend and a real heroine around here. There are dozens and dozens of dogs that owe their lives to her!” Betty Vannoy will always be a cheerleader for Mama Dog and one of her biggest fans. She even wears a pink sweatshirt decorated with red hearts and the words “I Love Mama Dog”.

Mrs. Vannoy paused for a moment as tears came to her eyes. “I just wish every story could come out as beautifully as Mama’s. But she is a very special dog. And her story is proof that sometimes you can beat the odds — no matter how overwhelming! Mama is so full of love. She always offered her gift of love, even under the most adverse circumstances, even when she was sick. Often, in my mind’s eye, I still see Mama Dog running up the shelter road to be with her babies… running back to her cage to bestown on them her great gift of love.”

“I’ll never forget her. I’ll never forget the lesson she taught us all about love.”