“My dog saved my life”

When Esther Teh agreed to foster Joni, a street dog, for three days, she thought she was saving its life. Little did she know that it would be the other way round.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

When Esther Teh agreed to foster Joni, a street dog, for three days, she thought she was saving its life. Little did she know that it would be the other way round.

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When Joni, a border collie mix, wouldn’t leave her side the first time they met in 2000, Esther Judieanna Teh didn’t realise just how symbolic it was.

Joni was a street dog who had been living at a factory for most of her life, surviving on scraps and food handouts from people who worked there. But one night, a security guard – in a drunken stupor – kicked Joni so hard that he broke her hip. Joni had to be put in a cast for six months, during which a kind-hearted office staff took Joni home and fostered her (but was unable to keep her any longer due to family objections). With no one else coming forward to care for her, it seemed that five-year-old Joni was headed for euthanasia.

By chance, a dog food supplier who knew Esther, found out about Joni’s plight, and asked Esther if she could help to care for Joni while he tried to find her a home. “I agreed to take her in for three days while we looked for potential adopters. Those three days turned into 13 years!” Esther recounts with a laugh.

Repaying a life debt

A few months into the adoption, Joni showed Esther just how grateful she was for her second chance at life.

Esther, who was then struggling as a single mum when she adopted Joni, often had to rely on her brother’s help with home repairs. There was a period when the light bulb in her kitchen toilet had blown (and her brother was too busy to come by), so as a result, Esther and her son, Brian, resorted to showering regularly by candlelight.

One night, Brian (who was 10 years old at the time) was home alone when he decided to take a shower. As usual, he lit a candle for light, but forgot to blow out the candle after he was done. He proceeded to cook himself a bowl of instant noodles for dinner, and was eating in the living room when he heard Joni barking from the kitchen.

Thinking nothing of it, Brian told Joni to stop barking, and when that didn’t work, he proceeded to ignore her. Next, Joni ran into the living room, took the little boy’s hand in her mouth, and pulled him gently but urgently towards the kitchen.

“Brian looked in, and was alarmed to see huge flames coming out of the toilet! In a state of panic, he ran out to get help from the neighbours, who then called in the Civil Defence – they arrived shortly to put out the raging fire,” Esther recounts. “I dread to think of what would have happened had my son been trapped in the house.” After the incident, Esther felt grateful towards Joni for what she did.

Deja vu

Four years later, Joni saved the family once more from fire when the family cat knocked over an oil lamp on the altar, while everyone was asleep in the middle of the night.

“I used to have a cat who liked to jump onto the altar and mess around with the flower and oil lamp offerings,” Esther reveals.

“So there I was snoozing away, when I felt the cat paw my head gently,” she says. “I was sleepy, and shoo-ed him away. And then I felt Joni beside me. She too, started pawing at me. I was getting annoyed with her for disturbing my sleep, and was determined to ignore her. I thought I smelled smoke, but assumed that I was just dreaming.”

Undeterred, Joni head-butted her sleepy and irritated owner. “I carried on ignoring Joni’s antics by turning towards the other side. But guess what?” Esther continues, “She then walked over to the other side and started licking my face! Now that really, really annoyed me – I sat up to scold her – and that’s when I realised that the smoke was real – I wasn’t dreaming.” 

Thanks to Joni’s persistence, Esther woke up just in time to discover the fire early enough this time round. Together with Brian (who was a teenager by then) and her mother, the trio managed to put out the flames.

“We owe our lives to Joni. My mother and son were equally impressed by how smart Joni was,” says Esther lovingly. “As a single parent then, I felt safe leaving my young son with her at times when I had to go to work.”

She had a “gift”

“Joni was very special to us – she could comprehend danger in situations, and react accordingly,” Esther continues.

“I had a friend who used to come by to visit Joni and take her for walks. While they were out strolling one day, my girlfriend felt faint and had to sit down on the bench,” Esther shares. “She rested with her eyes closed but when she opened them, she realised that she’d let go of Joni’s leash – and Joni had disappeared. She started panicking and called out for Joni, and that’s when she saw Joni trotting back – with a stranger in tow!” the loving owner explains, “When my friend expressed signs of fainting and let go of the leash, Joni intuitively understood that she needed to get help.”

Adopt – don’t shop

Last year, at the ripe old age of 19, Joni passed on, after living a full and happy life with Esther.

Since then, she has adopted two more street dogs into her family. “How does one put a value on life?” says the animal lover. “Sadly, many people are status conscious, and use their dogs to reflect that. Everybody wants a Labrador, a poodle or some other popular pure breeds. A neighbor once boasted to me that they paid $3,000 for their imported Labrador puppy.”

She adds, “Have you seen the dire living conditions of dogs used in puppy mills? Can you imagine never seeing a sunrise or smelling a flower (because these dogs never get out of the cage), or not knowing what a bird is, or never having chased a chameleon around a tree and trying to sniff it? Can you imagine spending your life in a cage, doing nothing but producing batch after batch of puppies for sale, and not having time to recuperate in between each litter?” She continues, “How strong or healthy can the puppies produced, be?

“You save a life when you adopt,” Esther advocates. “Nothing compares to the undying and unconditional love you get from your pets. Joni was living proof – my life would have turned out very differently without her.” W

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“I cannot imagine my life without my three dogs (I adopted two of them). Their exuberant welcome when I reach home always makes me feel so loved and wanted.” - Vevian Seow, 48, Teacher.

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“My dogs are my best friends. They make me happier and teach me to be more responsible. I now spend Saturdays at dog-friendly places so I can be with them more!” – Vanessa Lim, 25, Sales Manager.

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“Getting Ducky is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’ve had a total lifestyle change and become more active thanks to our long walks together.” – Daryl Dee Teo, 40, Managing Director.

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“Russell has enriched my life not only emotionally but also in various social aspects. His small actions go a long way in teaching me to view life differently.” – Perummalammal Vailmuthu, 40s, Social Worker.

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“Truffles is the friendliest and most adorable dog! This little bundle of joy brings a smile to my face whenever he greets me when I come home.” – Natasha Toh, 25, Founder of The Fun Empire.

How you can help Give stray, abandoned, neglected or abused animals a chance at a warm and loving home, by adopting from or giving to these non-profit organisations:

1 Hope Dog Rescue

Give hope to a rescued canine by adopting from www.hopedogrescue.blogspot.sg. You can also donate important necessities like thick hardy leashes, martingale collars and deworming pills.

2 Save Our Streets Dogs (SOSD) Singapore

Those who are not able to adopt can also help to foster rescued stray dogs. If you’ll like to volunteer, donate, or go on a shelter tour, find out more at www.sosd.org.sg.

3Cat Welfare Society

Thousands of cats are unnecessarily culled every year – the society actively promotes sterilisation as an effective means to control our community cats. To find out more, visit www.catwelfare.org.

4 Exclusively Mongrels Ltd

You can adopt or donate to this non-profit organisation on their Facebook page at http://on.fb.me/1T2aVmh. They have a mission to rehabilitate strays through rehoming.

5 Voices For Animals

Make room in your heart and home for retired breeding dogs, as well as other rescued animals such as cats, rabbits and hamsters. Find out more at www.facebook.com/ VFASIN.