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When Kimberley Matchem had to flee Fort McMurray, rescue dog Rolo never left her side.
As bumper-to-bumper traffic inched out of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, Kimberley Matchem was trying her best to stay calm. Heavily pregnant, Kimberley did not want to end up in labor behind the wheel of her SUV while evacuating because of a raging wildfire. She tried her best to keep a cool head as she saw burning trees up ahead, but she couldn’t exactly take cleansing breaths while holding a sweater over her nose and mouth. Thankfully, Kimberley’s rescue dog and furry stress reliever, Rolo, was right behind her.
“Anytime I looked in the mirror back at him, he was there with his ears up, staring at me and smiling,” Kimberley remembers. “It was just reassuring knowing that he was there.”
Following her husband — who was driving another truck — Kimberley kept looking back at Rolo as the family made their way out of town. She didn’t know if their home would still be there when she returned, but she knew that while she could replace material things, she could never replace Rolo.
Kimberley first laid eyes on her dog five years ago when he was doing his second stint at the Fort McMurray SPCA. A former stray with epilepsy, the German Shepherd–Husky mix had been adopted out once before only to be returned. Kimberley and her husband had already spent two weeks visiting with the adult dogs at FMSPCA when they discovered Rolo. Kimberley’s husband was impressed by Rolo’s calm demeanor amid other dogs barking, but Rolo didn’t seem too impressed with Kimberley.
“He wouldn’t go anywhere near me. Having a dog not like me was really weird,” Kimberley explains, recalling how her childhood dog would follow her everywhere.
Despite Rolo’s reserved nature, Kimberley and her husband could definitely see his potential — and understand why he wasn’t quick to trust people.
“We went home, did some research [on epilepsy], and found out it was actually pretty common,” Kimberley explains. “So we filled out an application, and he was ours.”
He came to live with them on June 23, 2011, but it would be three more months before Rolo would really start to make himself at home. Uneasy around his family, Rolo would frequently sneak away and hide in the basement.
Eventually, Rolo decided to accept the love he was being offered, and discovered his new home had a whole upstairs and even a special bed he could sleep in. Over time and with lots of positive reinforcement, love, and patience, Rolo developed a deep bond with Kimberley — a relationship that she’s written extensively about on her blog, Confessions of a Rescue Mom.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” she says, “now he’s like my other half — besides my husband.”
Grateful to the Fort McMurray SPCA for giving Rolo all the support he needed to find a forever family, Kimberley threw herself — and Rolo — into fundraising for the organization, raising more than $10,000 for the FMSPCA in the years since Rolo’s adoption.
After a couple years, Rolo was a different dog than he’d been in his shelter days. He and Kimberley became frequent visitors to the Northern Lights Regional Hospital & Rotary House as a Certified Pet Therapy Team with PAWS Fort McMurray, touching many lives with his de-stressing smile before retiring due to arthritis earlier this year.
“You can have someone who is super stressed out, and as soon as they pet Rolo, they change,” says Kimberley, who was happy to have Rolo acting as her personal therapy dog during the terrifying evacuation.
“We drove through smoke, and there were flames everywhere. We were scared that our tires were going to pop from the heat,” Kimberley says. “As soon as we got past the smoke and saw the blue sky, that’s when I knew we were safe.”
When Kimberley eventually ran out of gas, Rolo stayed with her on the side of the road while her husband went ahead to fetch fuel. It was a situation that could have been terrifying, but thanks to Rolo, Kimberley was actually able to relax a bit until her husband returned.
“We were just sitting on a blanket in the shade enjoying some water,” she says.
The family continued their journey south, and are now staying at Kimberley’s mother’s house in British Columbia, awaiting the birth of their new family member. It’s been three weeks since that harrowing drive, and Kimberley has learned her house is still standing, although other homes nearby are not. She says she still can’t believe the stress of the evacuation didn’t put her into pre-term labor — she credits Rolo with keeping her calm as they left their lives behind.
“I didn’t want to think about the house, the memories or our belongings,” she wrote on her blog. “Each time I checked my mirror, Rolo was sitting up the entire time, smiling away.”
Top photo: Kimberley Matchem and Rolo by Stacey Cobb.
Heather is a wife, new mom, and former TV journalist in Alberta, Canada. Her beloved Ghost Cat was once her only animal, but the addition of a second cat, Specter, and the dog duo of GhostBuster and Marshmallow make her fur family complete. You can follow Heather on Twitter and Google+.
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