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Nelly the Desert Dog: Once a Feral Night Roamer, Now a Super Trooper

Nelly the desert dog


by Sarah Bartley

We arrived in the Arizona desert at the beginning of August 2022. What a relief—no stray dogs. Military bases are like gated communities. Resident dogs are always on leash or contained in a yard.

A few months later, in November, is when I first saw the little orange dog curled up on the side of the road, just outside of base. I have no idea how she got there. We are literally in the middle of nowhere. I had been on my way out for a hike in the desert with my own dog, Blanca, so reluctantly drove by the little dog. When I returned about an hour later, she was still there. I pulled over, got out of my car, and called to her, but she ran off into the bushes. She was limping but did not appear thin or beat up. I searched for her for some time without luck. She must have been dumped, because she certainly didn’t walk here.

I messaged a neighbor and fellow dog friend to be on the lookout. A few days later, my friend messaged me that she had seen the dog on the main road, just outside of the entrance to the base. Armed with chicken, we went to try and make friends. When we approached, she became very scared and ran off.

A few weeks went by without seeing her. It was almost Christmas, and I assumed the worst had happened to her—a car or coyote. Then another neighbor spotted her on her door camera one night. She was now super skinny. By some miracle she’d figured out how to get onto a heavily guarded base and onto my street.

I put food out, not knowing if the coyotes would get it first. The next morning the food was gone. I set up a camera in my window and put food out that night. She came—I got a glimpse of her on camera.

Over the following days I gradually moved the food closer to the house, then added a crate. I wanted to get her used to a crate and also deter the coyotes. I had to hide the crate behind a bush because we were supposed to report loose dogs.

Over time, she started coming into the yard, our shed, and an open crate to eat. However, if she heard a noise, she would run back into the desert. This poor girl was super nervous and only came when it was dark. We never saw her during the day.

My friend and I decided that we would catch her on New Year’s Eve. She had been reliably coming when it got dark at around 7:00 pm. I added a diazepam pill to her food, hoping this would help take the edge off. We put the crate in the yard with a camera, hid in the shed (which was next to the yard gate), and sat in silence. When she arrived, she went straight across the yard and into the crate for her food. I took a deep breath and stepped quietly out of the shed, reached around, and closed the yard gate. My friend and I breathed a big sigh of relief—we got her!

She was not happy. She started barking and trying to climb the fence, frantically looking for a way out. My immediate reaction was to run inside and bring out my dog. I didn’t want the frightened dog to hurt herself. Within seconds of Blanca appearing on the other side of the fence, the little desert dog came right over. My friend and I sat on the ground and offered her treats through the fence. She took a few of them. Hallelujah—she was safe.

After a few minutes of sitting on the ground and feeding the dogs, a small fox appeared, and Blanca got excited. In the time it took my friend and I to put Blanca inside and grab some more treats, the desert dog had pulled back a wooden fence panel. She was pushing her way through as we returned, and then she was off—we lost her.

I put more food out and went to bed in despair, presuming I would not see her again, so I was surprised and happy the next morning to find footage of her. She had come back several times that night. Her body language appeared more relaxed—the diazepam must have kicked in.

For two weeks I continued to put food out before it got dark. My hubby and I watched her on camera as she approached, wolfed down the food, then left. We always refilled the bowl before bed.

No one knew this little dog existed except for my hubby and I and two neighbors. If the military police found out, they would likely trap her and take her to the local shelter. I could not bear the thought of this.

I began leaving food in my laundry room with the door to the inside closed. She’d come into the laundry room, grab a bite, and run back out, frantically going back and forth until she was done eating. After looking for coyotes, she would then leave, heading off into the night the same way she’d come. I tried to follow her one night, but she disappeared into the darkness before I’d even gotten around the corner of the house.

What follows are snippets from entries in a diary I’d kept about the little desert dog over the next few months.

January 28: I was crouched down filling the outside water bowl and when I looked up, there she was. She just sat in the grass about 10 feet from me, watching me fill the bowl. I felt so privileged. After a minute there were noises in the neighborhood, and she got up and began to slowly walk away, but she kept stopping and looking back. Maybe she realized I was the one putting water out.

January 29: We met again. I was taking out the trash and saw something run across the road, followed by a coyote. A few seconds later, along came the little desert dog.

January 30: She arrived for her dinner while I was doing dishes, and I watched through the kitchen window as she investigated the yard. She could obviously smell Blanca. I loved to quietly watch her.

January 31: Breakthrough! I was putting out her food bowl and there she was, just outside the yard on the grass. I slowly crouched down and put the bowl as far out in front of me as I could, and she came right over and ate about 2 feet from me!  I whispered, “Hi.” I was also able to get a better look at her. Her weight looked good now, and she did not appear to have any injuries, thank goodness.

February 1: I was sitting in my laundry room to wait for her. She came at her usual time, and after tossing treats behind her, she gradually came closer. When she realized I had wet food and a long-handled spoon, she was quick to take food from me. Another huge step! She was still extremely nervous, but I was able to get some good video.

She left when the food was gone, but came back several times that night after I’d gone to bed. I decided to name her Nervous Nelly. I wanted to start calling her to come for food and build a good association with my voice and coming over.

February 2: My hubby and I were out walking Blanca and scouting the bushes to see if we could find where Nelly was sleeping during the day, and close to the perimeter fence we came across a red silicone bowl that she had stolen a few nights before. Now we had an idea where she went when she ran.

February 5: Nelly seemed calmer, not frantic like she usually was. She spent almost 5 minutes in the yard with me searching for food. She left when the food was gone.

February 7: I sat waiting for her in the laundry room. It was windy and the neighbors were noisy. I wasn’t sure if she would come, and I worry when she’s late or doesn’t come. (The first thing I do each morning is check my camera footage to see if she came the night before.) Finally, she arrived. I hand fed her sardines, and she licked my hand. This was the first time we had made physical contact, and she was very gentle.

I offered her some raw food and she allowed me to touch her under the chin in exchange for a spoonful.

February 8: My hubby was outside grilling with Blanca when Nelly arrived. She was early. She seemed a little spooked as she woofed at me and bounced around on the grass for a few seconds. I pushed her food bowl toward her, knowing she was hungry, but she turned and left. I felt bad that we’d upset her and that she wasn’t able to eat in peace. She came back briefly later that night, according to my camera, but the food and treats I’d left out were still there the next morning.

February 9: I kept checking the camera through my phone while we were out for dinner, but nothing. When we arrived back on the base, our car headlights caught a pair of eyes. Nelly was lying down next to a rock in the park. This was the first time we had seen her away from our street. I parked. Luckily, I had treats with me. I walked toward her and called her, and she began to come toward me (she recognized me!), but then a car came and she ran off.


When she arrived at the house later, I threw some treats for her, but she had no interest in coming close to me. Then she left. I feel like I’ve lost her trust.

February 10: I decided to wait along the fence line, right as it began to get dark, to see if I could figure out where Nelly came from and maybe where she spent her days. When it got dark and I started to walk home, she appeared from the bushes. I didn’t see the specific spot she came from. I called, “Nelly!” and she came around behind me. She again recognized me outside of the yard. I threw treats for her and she ate them. When I ran out of food, I slowly stood up and walked back toward the house. She followed me for a while then disappeared. Less than 10 minutes after I returned home, she arrived in the yard.

February 11: In the morning, Blanca and I went looking for Nelly outside of the fence where I had seen her the night before. I found a hole in the perimeter fence with paw prints in the dirt below it. I called for her and searched around the desert bushes, but found nothing.

I wonder what to do next. When I work with clients’ dogs there’s a goal, but with Nelly my goal is uncertain. For now, I will keep feeding her, building trust, and hoping the coyotes don’t hurt her.

February 12: I tried something different and set up treats around the yard. I wanted her to switch into seeking mode. She found all the treats before coming to me in the laundry room for the wet food. She seemed less stressed and wasn’t trying to eat the spoon. I fed her with one hand while putting out my other hand and gently brushed it against her face, just for a second. We did this a few times. Woo hoo! When she finished eating, she walked out to check for danger, but not panicked like she’d been before. It seems we are back on track.

February 13: After it got dark, I saw her across the street and went outside and called her, and she came running. I can now open our noisy laundry room doors and go out without her running away. Huge progress! I let her eat her first bowl of food in peace—20 hours between meals is a long time. She spent almost 5 minutes in the yard searching for jerky while I played calming music and used some essential oils on my jacket. When she was done eating and searching, she laid down across the street, watching the occasional car go by. It was nice to see her not frantic, but people are now seeing her, which isn’t good.

This little dog has been through so much between surviving in the desert and avoiding coyotes—to trap her and toss her in the pound, I feel, would be terrifying for her. I’ve reached out to different organizations trying to find a feral dog rehab program, without success. This dog is going to need a lot of help, and my trainer friends who have watched her videos agree that she is in flight mode, and the longer she stays out there, the longer it will take for her to come back from it.

February 15: It was 37 degrees, windy, and had started to rain. I was worried about Nelly out there all alone. I put extra blankets out in the shed. She never slept in the shed—she would always eat and leave—but I put blankets out in the hopes she would find shelter from the weather.

February 16: Nelly was very hungry tonight. We played toss-the-treat, and she even caught a couple.

I started reinforcing a second of eye contact with a treat toss behind her. She left when the coyotes started howling. She does little woofs at me if I look at her for too long or when there’s a treat she’s not comfortable getting. She is spending more time in the yard in between interacting with me. I feel we are making progress again.

February 17: When I saw her across the street heading toward our house, I opened the inside laundry room door and sat on the living room floor at the farthest point from the door, with toys and treats between me and the door. I watched her on camera as she searched for treats and ate her food then, all of a sudden, into the house she came! She was super jumpy, and I could hear her claws grip the carpet when she turned to run if I moved or looked at her for too long. I watched her little face and head wrinkles as she navigated new stuff. She hung out for 30 minutes then sat outside in the gateway. This is progress, but what next?

February 18: When I saw Nelly come into the yard and search for treats on the camera, I opened the inside laundry room door and said, “Hi, Nelly.” She came right in. This was huge! I gave her a bowl of food with pumpkin, then moved a toy to see if she would play. She got spooked and left. She came back later that night, and I fed her on a short spoon while touching her chin then moved to her shoulder, and I even moved her ear while feeding her. After giving her a break, I offered her venison while luring her head through a loop leash. I got the loop all the way over her head and then took it off. Lots of progress!

February 19: I awoke to barking outside my window at 2:30 am. It was Nelly. I was worried she’d get the neighbors up, then Blanca started barking. At 3:00 am, Nelly was still barking, and I told Blanca, “I think she’s done running or maybe she’s hungry.” I brought her in. What else could I do? I couldn’t shoo her off after all the work we’d done. I set up a crate in the kitchen, put lots of yummy treats inside, then hooked a leash to the door and fed it through to the other end of the crate. I fed her through the bars at the far end of the crate until her whole body was inside it, then I took a big, deep breath and slowly pulled the crate door closed with the leash, reached over, and latched the door. Finally, I have her again. Now what?

She wasn’t as stressed as I’d expected her to be. I think the extra trust-building over the weeks and feeding her in the crate helped. I gave her a diazepam, and she finally laid down at around 4:30 am. I grabbed a pillow and blanket, and Blanca and I slept on the floor next to her crate.

February 20: I gave Nelly breakfast with another diazepam and let her out into the yard after I secured the gap in the fence. She went right out and did a big piddle. She kept falling asleep in the corner of the yard, but would jump up whenever I moved. Inside the house, she whined whenever I was not in view. Using treats I had her hop into the crate with no problem, and she finally stopped whining and fell asleep when I slept next to her. I’m worried that she is dealing with trauma from being abandoned and that it might turn into separation anxiety.

February 21: Everyone slept great—not a peep. In the morning, I was greeted with tail wags and kisses. Wow, what a difference in 24 hours! She went straight out to the yard to piddle—this dog was house trained! After breakfast, I left Nelly with dog-calming music playing while I went out for a hike with Blanca. I watched Nelly on the camera, and she barked most of the time we were out. This wasn’t good. When I got home, I took her for a little walk, and she did great and stuck by my leg. Back inside, she cried when I left the room, so I moved her crate from the kitchen into the living room while I worked, and that helped a lot.

I took her out for another little walk later, and as we headed across the street, in the direction she used to run, she stopped and stared. I told her, “You don’t have to run anymore.” It was windy and getting dark, so we ran back inside, through the gate and doors. She didn’t care—major success! I tossed a liver treat into her crate and she went right in. Surely someone must be missing her.

February 22: At 2:00 am, Nelly woke us up with a couple little barks and whining, so I got up and took her straight out to the front yard—a giant poop, finally. Checking poops is something you do, and I was relieved to find no sign of worms. She came back inside and hopped into her crate without a prompt.

February 23: We awoke to find the wind had taken down our fence—another challenge, but that’s life. I borrowed a smaller crate for the car to drive Nelly for a walk in the desert. She hopped into the crate, and I managed to lift it into my car. She appeared very scared—whining, barking, and shaking. I’m guessing her last car ride didn’t end well. I didn’t have a choice, though—we had no fence. The ride was less than 5 minutes, and I hoped the fun and freedom she would have in the desert would make the short journey worthwhile. I kept Nelly on a longline and she did great with Blanca. Later that afternoon, Nelly got to hang with me, finding treats in the ball pool.

We worked on her sit, which she seems to have some knowledge of. She watched workers fix the fence, and we went for a short walk. I’m amazed at how fast this little dog has turned around. Both dogs got bones, then they went right to sleep. Nelly didn’t even care when I took the finished bone away.

February 24: I let Nelly hang out in the house and backyard while Blanca was in the office with me. I found Nelly asleep on our bed. My hubby and I walked Nelly to the vet clinic on base and lured her onto the scale. She was exactly 45 pounds. She was nervous but did great. No chip, unfortunately. We scheduled her for a heartworm test on March 10.

February 27: It has been a week since Nelly came inside. We took a walk with Blanca and my hubby out in the desert. She did much better in the car—hardly any whining.

March 2: It took less than 5 minutes to teach Nelly to jump into the car and into the crate. During our evening walk we passed kids, people, bikes, and dogs, and she got a little worried, but I helped her through it. She also came into heat. I’m so relieved she isn’t pregnant.

March 3: We walked off leash in the desert, and she didn’t go far or lose sight of me for long.

She is doing better each day in the car and hangs out with me and Blanca in the office while I work.

I left Nelly in her crate with a bone and some calming music when I had to leave for a couple of hours. I watched her on the camera, and she did great. The anxiety is getting better. Nelly was in the house with Blanca while I vacuumed, and she did great. Another thing checked off the list for living with humans.

March 5: Nelly hopped into the crate in the car pretty quickly today. I no longer think she needs a rehab program. She just needs an understanding person who will take it slow.

March 6: I introduced Nelly to a harness today. She also jumped straight into the car.

March 8: A friend came and dog-sat Nelly while my hubby and I went out for dinner. Nelly made friends with the sitter, played catch-the-treat, and was excited when we got home.

March 9: I left Nelly in her crate and both dogs with bully sticks and music while I was out for about 3 hours. I watched her on camera and she did great—no barking.

March 10: During Nelly’s vet appointment, she got lots of treats and was a trooper. It took multiple tries to get blood, but she showed absolutely no aggression toward the vet or male vet tech. Thankfully, Nelly is heartworm negative.

*   *   *

After 3 months in my home, Nelly has come a long way. She walks well on leash, and her recall is pretty good.

Nelly (right) and her roommate Lucy at the Humane Society of Yuma

She is an all-round sweetie pie who is always happy to see me. Unfortunately, Blanca was becoming increasingly jealous and seemed unhappy. Also, because I live on an army base, the housing situation is less than ideal, and I was unable to keep Nelly and Blanca separated while I worked without leaving Nelly in a crate for too long. I took Nelly to the Humane Society of Yuma in the hopes that they would have more resources to find her the perfect home. She is in a staff office with another smaller dog named Lucy.

The right home for Nelly is with someone who will have patience and will give her time to learn new routines and build trust. She really loves to snuggle, but she backs off when people are too pushy with affection. She also needs time to get to know other dogs, as she was scared of two bigger dogs we’d met and had no interest in a puppy on a play date. In an ideal world, her new people would feed her a species-appropriate diet and get her hind leg looked at—she could have an old injury that might be causing her some pain. She is very scared of children, so a home without young children would be best. If you think you might be Nelly’s new person, the author would be happy to help you with Nelly and to share more of her story. Sarah can be contacted at [email protected].





Nelly with Sarah

Sarah Bartley is a professional dog trainer, behavior consultant, certified canine nutrition adviser, and the owner of Confident K9 LLC.

Sarah believes that training should be fun and easy for the dog and human. She takes a holistic approach to dog training, ensuring that the physical health and mental well-being of dogs and their people are included in her treatment plans.

Sarah only uses training techniques that are backed by science, kind, effective, and fear-free.

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