The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs

A Novel


By Dr. Nick Trout

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Dr. Cyrus Mills returns to his hometown after inheriting his father’s failing veterinary practice. Cyrus intends to sell the practice and get out of town as fast as he can, but when his first patient — a down-on-her-luck golden retriever named Frieda Fuzzypaws — wags her way through the door, life suddenly gets complicated. With the help of a black Labrador gifted in the art of swallowing underwear, a Persian cat determined to expose her owner’s lover as a gold digger, and the allure of a feisty, pretty waitress from the local diner, Cyrus gets caught up in a new community and its endearing residents, both human and animal. Sensing he may have misjudged the past, he begins to realize it’s not just his patients that need healing.The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs is a winsome tale of new beginnings, forgiveness, and the joy of finding your way home.


Praise For


"You're going to love this story. There's romance, redemption, a dog named Frieda, and a whole lot more."

—Debbie Macomber,

#1 New York Times bestselling author

"A touching story of second chances and how the love of animals can lead us to what lies hidden in our hearts."

—Larry Levin,

New York Times bestselling author of Oogy

"I don't know what was more enjoyable, Nick Trout's inexperienced veterinarian with his slightly tweaked outlook, the clannish Vermont town, or the intrigue of finding what was lost. I stayed up long into the night laughing and marveling at Trout's adept hand."

—Jacqueline Sheehan,

New York Times bestselling author of Picture This

"I tore through this in one sitting. Engaging, insightful, and full of the genial warmth that makes Nick Trout's other work such a joy to read."

—Gwen Cooper,

New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey

"The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs is every bit as sweet and slightly goofy as the golden retriever who sets Nick Trout's romp of a novel into a whirl of motion that never lets up from the very first page. There are few pleasures in life sweeter than watching the bitter, conniving Dr. Cyrus Mills—a vet who's definitely not in the lovable James Herriot mold—gradually morph into a generous human being, thanks to the influence of his animal patients. I dare you to feel crabby after reading this book."

—Bob Tarte,

author of Kitty Cornered and Enslaved by Ducks


The jingle of the old shopkeeper's doorbell makes me jump—not least because my first customer of the evening happens to be my first customer in fourteen years.

"Can I help you?" I ask, realizing too late my tone probably sounds more annoyed than inviting. I guess I need to brush up on my customer service skills.

On the far side of the waiting room stands a man in a funereal charcoal suit, tethered, by way of a nylon cord, to a golden retriever. The dog seems intent on getting to me—her tail up and aflutter, nails scratching for traction on the linoleum. The man on the makeshift leash has other ideas, though. Barely audible curse words form on his clenched lips as he yanks on the cord.

"You the doctor?" he asks.

I look down at my white coat, which looks (and feels) more like a costume than a uniform. It's a little tight in the pits, a little shy in the wrists, but I did remember to drape a stethoscope around my neck like a scarf. Still, I almost feel like an imposter. Maybe that's because I am a bit of an imposter.

"Yes," I say, nodding. Slowly stretching out the syllable does little to improve my credibility. "I'm the doctor." The man squints past me, over my shoulder, at the plaque screwed to the examination room door—DR. ROBERT COBB, DVM.

"I thought Doc Cobb was dead?"

"He is. I'm Dr. Mills."

The man raises an eyebrow. If he thinks I'm going to elaborate, he's mistaken.

"Whatever," he says with an exaggerated sigh that sends a cloud of alcohol fumes my way. "I just need someone to put her to sleep." He jabs a cocked thumb and index finger downward, in the general direction of the dog, but keeps his eyes on me.

Unbelievable. Back in town for fewer than four hours, and working on a living, breathing, creature for the first time in fourteen years, and what's the first task I'm asked to perform? An elective euthanasia. Doesn't it figure.

"Okay," I say, but without conviction. "You'd best come on through to the exam room."

I lead the way, and to my horror, the man lets go of the cord, and a supercharged golden linebacker barrels toward my groin.

"Frieda, God damn it," he mutters as he stumbles after her.

My outstretched hand is meant to fend off fangs, fur, and drool, or at the very least slow her momentum, but Frieda treats my rebuttal as a welcome greeting, her graying snout rooting under my palm as she begins to rub her entire body back and forth across my legs. Dark corduroy pants and golden retrievers are not a good combination.

Frieda then charges past me, and I corral her down the short hall into the exam room, which hasn't changed one iota in almost half a century—dull and scratched stainless steel examination table taking center stage, chipped Formica counters, unlabeled drawers, and cabinets built into institutional green walls. There's a wooden bench for the owners, a wooden stool for the doctor. The passage of time may have made this space shrink, but right now it feels austere, more claustrophobic than cozy, a pervasive tang of antiseptic in the air.

"So Frieda is … was … one of Cobb's patients?" I ask.


"I don't understand."

"She's not his patient. This is probably her first time at a vet's office."

Probably? What does probably mean?

The man blinks slowly as he speaks. He has a receding hairline, leaving plenty of forehead real estate for worry creases. His necktie is slack, top button of his shirt undone, and I can see red chafing around his throat—probably not used to being constrained by a starched collar. But at that moment, what strikes me most is that, as far as I can tell, not a single strand of blond golden retriever hair clings to any surface of his dark suit.

"Is she sick?" I ask, looking down at Frieda. She has settled, and by settled I mean she has become an appendage glued to the side of my right leg. It's as if we are conjoined, like contestants bracing for a man-dog, six-legged race. And she refuses to be calm unless one of my hands is touching the top of her head. I poke the fur on her head gently. So what if my contact looks more like a wary blessing than a friendly pat?

"She's having accidents." The man ratchets up the volume and furrows his brow, as though this is more than enough justification to terminate her life. "Every morning. Exact same spot. I just had the floors redone, and they're already ruined. You know it's not like I wanna do this or nothing."

His bluster sails past me. Instinctively, I latch on to the details.

"Accidents? Urination or defecation?"

"She pees in the kitchen. A lot."

"What's a lot? A normal adult dog in a normal environment produces anywhere between twenty and forty milliliters of urine for every kilogram of body weight in a twenty-four-hour period. Assuming she weighs … let's say ninety pounds, or roughly forty kilos, then a volume of—"

"All I know is she's peeing like a racehorse."

I remove the coarse nylon collar from around Frieda's neck. She's not going anywhere.

"Is she spayed?"

"Dunno." He glances down at the cell phone in his hand and begins keying something into the phone.

"You have no idea?" I say.

He stops moving his thumbs and looks up with a glare. I decide to change tack.

"Eating okay?"


"Any vomiting?"

He shakes his head.

"Is she always looking for water? Drinking from the toilet bowl?"

"That's disgusting."

Now I raise my eyebrows.

"Not so as I've noticed."

I take a step closer to the man and am once again bowled over by the smell of booze. My golden shadow follows suit.

"Well, I'm sorry to be so blunt but something isn't adding up."

The man rocks back a little in his stance, twists his face into a frown of incredulity. I have stopped petting Frieda, and judging by the frenzy of her busy snout in and around my crotch she's not pleased. She barks and I relent.

"Let's review the facts," I say, feeling more confident on firmer ground. "For starters, your dog is obese, there's no evidence of weight loss, and therefore inappropriate urination secondary to underlying cancer seems unlikely. Absence of bilaterally symmetrical alopecia tends to rule out Cushing's disease, and your history doesn't fit with kidney disease or diabetes. From a purely physiological standpoint a dog simply cannot have a normal water intake and excessive urination in one specific location and at only one specific time of the day."

His features stretch back into place. "What are you talking about?"

I take a deep breath. Unfortunately for me, my entire professional career has left me unprepared to discuss the intricacies of polydipsia and polyuria with … to put it politely … inebriated laypeople. Then again, there's not much call for small talk and insightful conversation when your patients are dead and never show up with an owner. Which is absolutely fine by me.

"Where you from?" asks the man before I can answer his apparently rhetorical question. "Down south?"

Given our current latitude in the northernmost reaches of Vermont, I could point out that "down south" is pretty much everywhere else in the lower forty-eight.

"Yes, sir, Charleston, South Carolina."

"Long way from home."

I manage a fake smile and keep quiet. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"You're new, you're a stranger, so let me offer you a piece of free advice," he says, leaning in with a hard liquor–soused whisper. "Your fancy medical-speak won't mean nothing to the folks of this town." He leans back. "I'm not here for a lecture. I'm here to get done with my dog."

Get done with my dog. It's been nearly a decade and a half since I graduated from veterinary school, determined to follow in my late mother's footsteps, to became an expert in one specific and, for most pet owners, undervalued discipline—veterinary pathology. When you want to know the name of the disease that made your pet sick, I'm your guy—a veterinary pathologist. We're the doctors who spend our days staring into microscopes, looking at slides, examining wafer-thin slices of diseased tissue so you can have a diagnosis. Sexy? Maybe not. Essential? Like William H. Macy says in Fargo, "You're darn tootin'." Literally translated, pathology means the study of suffering, and if my training has taught me anything, it's a healthy respect for life. Get done with my dog. What a jerk. I may be accustomed to the clinical aspects of death, but this guy's cavalier attitude makes even me bristle.

"Just so as we're clear," I say. "You have absolutely no interest in trying to resolve your dog's problem?"

The man gives me a withering look and works his fingertips into his forehead, as if he might manually iron out some of the creases.

"Look, I feel bad about this."

I pause and will myself to lock eyes before I say, "Only not bad enough."

He stiffens. "You vets are all the same. Always trying to test for this. Medicate for that. Never know when to quit."

"I thought you said your dog had never been to see a vet?"

He inhales, air whistling through clenched teeth. "It's simple math. I can't afford to find out what's wrong with her. I can't afford to fix her. And right now I can't afford to live with her. Just the way it is."

I look down at Frieda. She's unnaturally clingy, obviously promiscuous with her affection, and thanks to her my sweaty palms look like I'm wearing golden mittens. Fabulous. Even so, as far as I can tell she seems to be happy. I look up at the man, hoping to see nothing but evil in his eyes, and yet, for all his remote, hard-nosed logic, something tells me he's having a tougher time with this decision than he's letting on. I don't want to do this, but if I refuse I'm sure he'll go somewhere else. It feels like Hobson's choice, in other words, no choice at all.

"Very well," I say, after a significant pause. "It's your call, but I am going to need you to sign a consent form." Assuming I can find a consent form.

"Is that really necessary?" he asks.

I pull on a drawer—boxes of needles of different gauges and lengths. The one below contains syringes. The third is home to all manner of paperwork—consent forms for surgery, pharmacy scrips for medication, rabies vaccine certificates—but no euthanasia consent forms.

"You know I'd rather not stay for the … for the, uh … injection," he says, suddenly contrite and backing toward the door. "Okay to leave her with you?"

"Sir, I need you to sign a consent form."

I continue to rifle papers and feel beads of sweat forming on my upper lip.

"Why don't I just swing by tomorrow morning, I'll sign it then."

"First thing?" I ask. He nods and is almost out the door before I remember the reason I'm in this mess, why I find myself in an ill-fitting white jacket, a thousand miles away from home. "Hey, before you go, there is the matter of the bill."

He stops in his tracks.

"Of course," he says, reaching inside his breast pocket, fumbling with a wallet.

I know what you're thinking—how can you be so cold as to discuss money at a time like this? Well, two things—Mr. Charcoal Suit clearly isn't feeling sentimental. And given my current circumstance, it's imperative.

"How much?"

I have no idea how much to charge. I pick a number.


"I've only got a twenty."

"You want me to give her half the dose?"

That one got away from me, and the man looks like I might be serious.

"Can I settle up tomorrow, when I come back to sign the form?"

My shoulders slump forward in surrender. "I suppose so," I say, and he presses the bill into my hand, like he's tipping the executioner, before backing away. No good-bye to me, but more importantly, no good-bye to Frieda.

I wait for the jingle of the shopkeeper's brass bell as he leaves through the front door and allow myself a deep exhalation. Combine what I am about to do with my disturbing lack of experience, and it might be best if Frieda and I are left alone.

Despite the neediness of my feathery sidekick, I manage to locate a 12 cc syringe, a 20-gauge needle, a tourniquet to raise a vein, and a transparent plastic bottle containing a cobalt blue liquid bearing the disturbing label BEAUTHANASIA. Stupid name. Where's the beauty in an overdose of barbiturates?

I look down at my patient. Or perhaps victim would be a better word. Her age has to be around twelve, maybe thirteen years. I base this estimate on several observations. Beyond the obvious gray muzzle, her elbows are thick and calloused, like leather patches on a threadbare jacket, worn thin from lying down too much. Her breath has a distinctive and frankly disagreeable bouquet—thanks to extensive dental disease—and, from what little I've seen, she has a proclivity for shaking her ears, probably the result of a chronic affinity to swimming in ponds and lakes. Right now she's panting. Not surprising, given this strange environment. I guess we're both riding a wave of adrenaline—only hers looks like excitement and mine looks like nervous anticipation.

Snap out of it. You've got a job to do. Time to balance compassion with bone-chilling coldness.

The thing is, to deliver my poison I must access a vein, and that means getting up close and personal, which means getting Frieda on the exam table. I begin patting the metal surface of the exam table. What am I thinking? Even polite society might label her proportions as, well, plus sized—maybe not quite muumuu material, but one would definitely advise against a bikini. She's not going to hop up there. How best to do this?

I have my hand on top of her head. Slowly I reduce this contact to a single finger, like she's a chess piece and I'm still debating my move. She remains calm, so I take a careful step backward. I consider my options. Do I use the element of surprise: rush at her, arms open wide? Or do I try to win her over, lull her into a false sense of security, and then pounce: pin her limbs, secure her head, and guard against snapping enamel? Curious chocolate eyes look up.

I make my move—one arm in front of her shoulders, one arm around her butt, and, despite an unsanitary mouthful of golden hair, with a scoop, a shove, and a scramble, somehow I get her up and onto the table.

While I'm cursing the shooting pain in my lower back, I reel at my reflection in the metallic surface. It's the glare from ghostly white cheeks and chin, my having shaved off my beard yesterday for the first time in ages. It looks as weird as it feels. I'd be looking at a stranger were it not for the recognition of my hair and nose. Forget dirty blond, the unruly mop is boring brown; however, I do try to think of my nose as more Romanesque than prominent. Meanwhile Frieda, wholly disinterested in my new look, lies on the table like a canine version of Superman in flight, front legs outstretched, back legs outstretched, and that feathery tail won't stop swishing.

"I'm going to need you to stay as calm and still as possible." The warble in my voice is amplified in the small room and my pitch is wrong—too formal—as though I'm talking to another person and not a dog. Maybe it's better if I keep quiet. I already know it's better not to look into her eyes.

Be detached, regimented, and mechanical. Sadly, I'm guessing not that different from how some people might already describe me.

I take a minute to walk through the entire process in my mind, step by step. Everything is ready. I am prepared, but there's still a nervous judder in my every breath.

I plug in an electric clipper, turn it on, and startle at the harsh chatter of the blade.

"It's okay," I say, more to myself than to Frieda. I reach out for a front leg and, without hesitation, Frieda does something so natural it stops me in my tracks—she offers up her paw. Believe me, anthropomorphic mumbo jumbo has no place in my vocabulary, but I'm at a loss for another way to describe a simple gesture that screams "I trust you."

And what an interesting oversize paw it is, great tufts of fur crammed between the webs like she's wearing fuzzy golden slippers. Against my better judgment, and only because we are alone, I take it and tentatively shake it. My hand is still moving up and down when I notice the contracture of certain muscle groups around Frieda's lips. This makes no sense. Is this dog smiling?

I let go of her foot. What's happening to me? Dogs can't smile and "giving paw" is a learned response rewarded with food or physical attention. Reminding myself of these facts helps me regain a little composure, then I'm struck by something improbable—a few tiny flecks of what appears to be cracked pink nail polish clinging to her nail beds. This is unlikely to be the work of the man in the charcoal suit. Clearly, there is more to this dog's story.

Frieda paws the air between us for a second time. I groan. This proximity to a living creature is as unfamiliar as it is disturbing. It is precisely why I have spent my entire veterinary career avoiding this kind of awkward encounter. Of course I can do this, all of this, everything it takes to be a general practice veterinarian (hey, finishing top of my class at veterinary school should count for something). Trouble is, the last time I worked on an animal with a heartbeat was the week before graduation, and with the passage of time I may have underestimated a certain … I don't know … sentimentality … messing with the process.

"Let me clip a little fur, there we go."

Frieda's panting has ceased, and the rhythm of her tail is beginning to slow. I return the clippers to the counter, pick up the rubber tourniquet, lasso her forelimb, and tighten it in place. I sense her head starting to relax and feel the warm air of her sigh whistle past my cheek as she settles her chin across her free front paw.

Guess I'm not going to need that muzzle after all. Somehow, in spite of this alien encounter, Frieda remains content. Me, I can't stop my hands from shaking.

I focus on the bald swatch of skin, wipe the surface with alcohol, and watch as the vein declares itself—plump and straight.

Golden retrievers are consistently one of the most popular breeds of dog, ranking fourth behind Labs, German shepherds, and beagles.

The rapid thud of blood pulsing in my ears begins to slow. It's a trick that rarely fails; a secret shared by an old anatomy instructor as a way to remain calm before an exam—the recitation of facts and observations. Always useful in high-pressure situations.

Arguably, golden retrievers have had more leading roles in movies than any other breed.

Okay, so some of my factoids are not clinically relevant.

Roughly 60 percent of golden retrievers will die of cancer, a rate about twice as high as most other breeds.

Perhaps I could tell myself that Frieda's alleged incontinence stems from bladder cancer, an aggressive transitional cell carcinoma—inoperable and painful. If it were cancer, if I knew for sure, then I'd be doing her a favor by ending her suffering. I frown and shake my head. The truth is I'll never know. I'm just trying to make myself feel better. If I'm going to pretend to be a real vet, even for a short time, then I must learn to embrace what for me is a totally foreign concept—clinical ambiguity.

Needle and syringe in hand, I risk a look into Frieda's eyes. Big mistake. Though her head remains perfectly still, her tail picks up the pace.

"Good girl," I manage, patting her head, betraying everything she sees in me as my trembling hand inserts the needle into the cephalic vein. She doesn't flinch. She doesn't pull away. She doesn't make a sound. I pull back on the plunger, just like I was taught to do as a student, and a swirl of purple blood spins inside the syringe. I can't believe it, I'm in on the first try.

This is it. Now, I may not be the most sentimental guy in the world, but even I understand that this is a moment when Frieda should hear the comforting words of a familiar voice, feel the comforting touch of a loved one. Thoughts of my late mother's passing fill my head, the comparisons impossible to ignore. I shake the recollection from my head in an attempt to focus.

A golden retriever has never won Best in Show at Westminster.

Standing in front of her I lean forward, move in close, middle and index finger stabilizing the plastic barrel, thumb extended, ready to drive the plunger home, and for the first time since we have met, Frieda's tail has gone completely still.

I lift my head ever so slightly, and this time the tip of Frieda's tongue licks me squarely on my nose. And that's it. That's all it takes for me to finally accept I can't do this. I quickly pull out the needle and squeeze my thumb over the vein. I'd totally forgotten about the way this sort of interaction makes me feel. No, forgotten is not the right word. Forgotten suggests something that faded over time, and, to be honest, I've followed a career path that sidestepped or suppressed precisely this kind of intense emotional confrontation. I guess I was never meant to be the kind of veterinarian who's ready with a comforting word or a shoulder to cry on.

Ten thousand cats and dogs are euthanized in the United States every day.

Best make that ten thousand minus one.

"This does not bode well," I say out loud, my mind moving beyond this specific fiasco to everything else I will have to endure in order to get out of the mess I'm in. How I crave the soothing dead silence of my regular audience.

What am I going to do? This crisis just shifted from tricky to disastrous. It's more than the golden fur ball staring up at me expectantly; it's the bigger problem of what forced me back to this very room, to this very town, for the first time in twenty-five years.

Suddenly Frieda's tail stops wagging, like she's tuned in to something. And that's when we both hear it—the jingle of the bell over the front door.

Is Mr. Charcoal Suit back to see the deed is done?


We hear the sound of approaching footfalls. There's nowhere to hide, and I can't think of a good explanation.

A cursory double tap, the examination room door swings open, and Frieda and I stare back like thieves with our hands (and paws) in the till.

"Evening, Dr. Mills. You're still here? How was your first night? Who's your golden oldie?"

Frieda is unwilling to wait for a formal introduction and goes straight into an unrestrained and physical greeting similar to the one she bestowed upon me.

"Lewis, meet Frieda. My one and only case of the evening."

Dr. Fielding Lewis is an odd little man—ebullient, a close-talker sporting a ridiculously full head of gray hair for a seventy-three-year-old and, despite the late hour, obviously inclined to wearing colorful, silk bow ties. According to Lewis, he and the late Dr. Robert Cobb were best friends and professional rivals for the last fifteen years. And though he only works part-time, Lewis is the saving grace of this veterinary practice, a practice still burdened with the preposterous name The Bedside Manor for Sick Animals. What remains of this business may be on life support, but without the selfless dedication of Dr. Fielding Lewis, I have no doubt it would have flatlined long ago.

Lewis tries to tear himself away from Frieda's embrace. "What's she in for?"

I work an imaginary itch at the back of my head.

"Well, I was having a hard time processing what I was asked to do."

Lewis stops patting Frieda and considers me. "What exactly were you asked to do?"

Frieda tolerates his dereliction of duty for no more than two seconds. She barks, and it is his turn to relent.


  • "Smartly written . . . reminiscent of the work of James Herriot."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A doggone charming tale . . . two paws up."—Kirkus
  • "Trout's charming novel strikes just the right balance between humor and drama. The cast of characters are delightfully entertaining . . . Highly recommended for anyone who has ever had a beloved pet."—Library Journal (starred)
  • "A delightful, endearing, and frequently hilarious story . . . that reminds us of the truth that is hidden away in our hearts: loving our animals is a sure way to heal our souls."—Garth Stein, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Art of Racing in the Rain
  • "I stayed up long into the night laughing and marveling at Trout's adept hand."—Jacqueline Sheehan, New York Times bestselling author of Picture This
  • "Engaging, insightful, and full of the genial warmth that makes Nick Trout's other work such a joy to read."—Gwen Cooper, New York Times bestselling author of Homer's Odyssey
  • "Every bit as sweet and slightly goofy as the golden retriever who sets Nick Trout's romp of a novel into a whirl of motion that never lets up from the very first page. . . . I dare you to feel crabby after reading this book."—Bob Tarte, author of Kitty Cornered and Enslaved by Ducks

On Sale
Feb 12, 2013
Page Count
352 pages
Hachette Books

Dr. Nick Trout

About the Author

Nick Trout is a staff surgeon at the prestigious Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Tell Me Where It Hurts, Love Is the Best Medicine, Ever By My Side, and The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, and is a contributing columnist for The Bark magazine. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Kathy, and their adopted labradoodle, Thai.

Learn more about this author