Winnie never knew what it was like to be part of a family.

She lived, for most of her life, in seclusion, away from other dogs and afraid of human affection.

But on Dec. 23, that all changed. Winnie, a very shy but loving Black Labrador Retriever, was given the best Christmas gift she could ever imagine – a forever home with Bev Ehret of Palmerton, a woman who lost her home and her beloved pets to an arson fire years ago.

After the fire, Ehret had been apprehensive about getting another dog. But four years ago, she rescued a dog named Buttons. Buttons helped heal Ehret's broken heart and they lived as a family for three years. But in November 2009, Buttons passed away from cancer.

"There was an emptiness," Ehret said of Buttons and her previous pets' passings. "I am a dog person. I always had multiple dogs, but after the fire I thought I wasn't going to get another one because I felt horrible for what happened.

"Winnie is meant for me," she said as she watched lovingly as her new best friend played with a toy at the Jim Thorpe Pet Center.

Winnie's journey began four years ago when she was dropped off at Musket Labradors in Franklin Township by an unknown individual.

Susie Yaich, who is part owner of Jim Thorpe Pet Center, co-founder of Carbon County Friends of Animals and a member of the Carbon County Animal Response Team (CART), explained that the homeowner told members of the CART team earlier this year that Winnie was dropped off at the kennel but was not bred there.

They had attempted to place her in one of the outdoor kennels, but Winnie was too afraid and would dig a hole and hide. She was moved indoors and housed with cats in the basement.

Over the next few years, Winnie developed a severe ear infection, which still persists today, and slowly became terrified of the world around her.

On Sept. 23, after police arrested Patricia Gadaleta, the owner of Musket Labradors, for stealing two dogs, members of CART found Winnie.

"It was very sad," Yaich said of Winnie's condition. "To see her so painfully shy, it broke your heart."

They were told that she should be euthanized, Yaich said, adding that after seeing her, she decided that it would be the team's mission to help this lost pup find someone to love her the way she deserved to be loved.

"We were bound and determined that she wasn't going to be euthanized," she said. "CCFOA decided that we would take her on personally and we did and look at her today. She is going to a new home."

On Sept. 29, Winnie, along with 12 other Labradors were taken by the Carbon County Friends of Animals from the property and placed at Kountry Kennels in Germansville. The remaining 88 animals were also removed and taken to shelters where they were cared for and put up for adoption.

Winnie was taken to the Jim Thorpe Pet Center, where she has lived for the last three months.

Yaich explained that it was a process getting Winnie to trust people again, but she had a very large support group to help her on her journey.

Yaich credited Ehret; Tanya and Frank Middaugh, a couple who also wanted to adopt her; Yaich's husband Dan, who has been caring for Winnie's ear infection; Rose Reese, a certified dog trainer and member of the CART team; and the Rev. Jim Torpey, who visited frequently and asked his congregation to pray for the dog; as well as many others for caring and loving Winnie.

Reese, who has worked with Winnie since the rescue, said she is the most amazing, intelligent dog.

"I've worked with her three days a week for about an hour a day," she said, adding she used the Tellington T-Touch training, which stands for trust touch. "The first couple of weeks she was really skiddish but positively did not need to be put down."

She said that from the moment she met Winnie, she knew this dog could be saved.

Reese continued to work with Winnie and soon, the dog, which only crawled when they found her, was walking and exploring her surroundings.

One breakthrough moment that Reese and Yaich pointed out happened right before Thanksgiving.

Reese had given Winnie a body wrap treatment to help her be more aware of her body and her surroundings. Soon after the wrap, they heard Winnie bark for the first time.

Yaich said that until then, they weren't sure she was able to bark.

Since Thanksgiving, Winnie has found her voice and more trust in her new life.

"She's more curious now and she goes up to people," Reese said. "She's really come a long way."

Winnie showed off the tricks she learned over the last three months, sitting and lying down on command. She also does a figure-8 through Reese's legs, which Reese said symbolizes complete trust between the two.

After about an hour of playing with Reese, Yaich and Ehret, Winnie was ready to spread her wings and fly.

Yaich placed a big red bow on her collar and gave Ehret her "Christmas gift."

"When you take a rescue and you see them come out of their shell and blossom and when they can go to a good home, it's an emotional thing," Reese said as she choked back tears.

But tears of happiness soon flowed freely as everyone said their "see you laters" to Winnie, the dog that changed their lives forever.

She and her new owner then walked happily, hand in leash, out the door and into Ehret's car.

It was time to go home for good.