Life had not been kind to the young Dutch Shepherd who arrived at the Macon County, Illinois, animal shelter in August 2013. When animal control officers rescued the dog, weighing just 35 pounds, his short life had been filled with hunger and neglect.
Neglect, however, would not be a problem at the animal shelter, where staff members and volunteers promptly fell in love with the dog they dubbed Jenga.
“I loved that dog from the minute he arrived,” says Kris Horton, director of the Macon County Animal Control & Care Center.
It quickly became clear that Jenga was extremely bright and needed an outlet for a serious work ethic.
“He was a wild child — very high strung,” says Horton. “He needed exercise and craved work.”
Though he had no reason to trust people, Jenga connected right away with shelter staff and volunteers who began working with him.
“We could tell he had some training in his background,” says Horton. “He loved it when you’d take him out and work obedience with him. He had so much potential.”
To unleash that potential, Horton knew they would have to find a facility better suited to meet Jenga’s needs. Soon, shelter staff had located a Kentucky rescue specializing in working dogs. And in the fall of 2013, volunteers transported Jenga to the next stop on his journey: Pure Haven Rescue.
It was there, just a month later, that fate would find a forever home – and a job — for Jenga.
Dog trainer Tim Hartsock knew exactly what he was looking for after a lengthy search led him to Pure Haven Rescue. Based in Indianapolis, Hartsock has trained dogs professionally with Law Enforcement Training Specialists and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
“We had a cold case dog in the area who moved, so I was looking for a cadaver dog to fill that void,” says Hartsock, who volunteers with his own dogs for search-and-rescue missions.
“I’m very specific about what I need. I looked everywhere and could not find a dog who could do it.”
But after just an hour with Jenga, he knew that this uniquely personal search would end with a rescue. And with Jenga’s new life came a new name: Awesome.
Hartsock explains: “The name was easy because I just kept saying it all the time. He’s always done everything I’ve wanted him to do.”
With laser-like focus and one of the most solid down-stays Hartsock had ever seen, Awesome showed promise early on in training with cadavers. As he works toward national certification in Human Remains Detection, Awesome also landed a more light-hearted job.
In March 2014, after just a few short months of training, Awesome joined JUMP! – The Ultimate Dog Show at the Indianapolis Zoo, where canine performers wow crowds with remarkable displays of skill and agility.
With amazing grace and lightning speed, Awesome weaves through a row of closely set poles and catches Frisbees with flair. In one trick, he vaults off Hartsock’s back and in another he does a back flip before catching a disc mid-air. This year, the rising star will add another show-stopper to his repertoire: the high jump.
“I have no concern about how high he can go, but we always stop at 60 inches,” says Hartsock, who has been involved with the show for two years. “Awesome does not hesitate. He is so willing to do things, it’s a risk.”
Awesome is just one of the show’s cast of remarkable canine performers –all of whom came from animal shelters.
“It shows that these rescue dogs are every bit as valuable and skilled as any other dog,” says Hartsock.
And their hearts are as big as their talent. In fact, when he’s off-duty, Awesome – now a healthy 65 pounds – likes to lay on top of Hartsock and snuggle.
“He is one of the cuddliest, sweetest dogs – he always wants to be with me,” says Hartsock. “But he has an intensity beyond anything I’ve ever seen.”
Whether he’s sniffing his way through life-and-death rescues or entertaining audiences with his amazing agility, Awesome is shattering myths about shelter pets.
“People think you can’t get a good dog at the shelter — or that it’s the dog’s fault they’re at the shelter – but that is very rarely the case,” says Horton. “Dogs like Awesome – that doesn’t happen by itself. You get out of them what you put into them – and that’s true of any dog.”
In fact, they usually give far more than they get. Just ask Tim Hartsock.
“Awesome is just an amazing dog – and people are amazed that he’s a rescue,” he says. “Everywhere he goes, he just touches people. He’s the best dog I’ve ever had.”