CHARLESTON -- It's a nice fall afternoon and Max the dog looks quite content sunning himself on a grassy spot near his home, or the closest thing to it.
The small pooch, possibly part Australian shepherd, seems calm but keeps a close eye on people nearby. He's OK if you watch him from a distance, but if you get too close, he just gets up and moves to another place.
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"He's a smart one," says Joe Evans, owner of Smoky's House BBQ at 300 W. Lincoln Ave., Charleston, where Max has been a fixture for a couple of years. The dog's story is a bit uncertain, but what's clear is that Evans and a handful of other people are making sure he's OK, at least the best he can be.
Evans opened the restaurant about 1½ years ago and said the dog was there then. He looks healthy enough now, but Evans said he was "skin and bones" at the time. The pup has a few different names, depending on whom you ask, but Evans said he named him Max at his brother's suggestion, who said "he looks like a Max."
A few months ago, Evans said, a man came by the restaurant and said Max belonged to him. The man said he stopped at the Lambo's BP gas station next door to the restaurant and the dog jumped out of his car and ran away, and he asked Evans if he'd catch the dog for him.
"I said, `If he's your dog, why don't you catch him?"' Evans related. He also said the man said he called the dog Rat, which Evans thought was "a terrible name."
So, Max is on his own but has quite a bit of help. Evans said he frequently sleeps along the east side of the restaurant to stay out of the wind or in a fenced-in area in back. There's also a dog house at the south end of the restaurant's parking lot, thanks to Courtney McElwee, who said she saw Max at the restaurant and now brings food to him twice a day during her commutes to and from Charleston and her job in Effingham.
Also, Brenda Price works at the BP station, and she's another one who regularly looks after Max. She and the station's other employees call him "BP" but, like Evans and McElwee, said the dog will greet her and act like he's happy to see her, but never let her get too close.
When she gets to work, she sees the dog "running down Lincoln and he meets me in the parking lot," Price said. She said she feeds the dog everyday, as does one of the station's customers.
"Everyday we have two, three, four people asking about that dog," Price said. "He's like part of the family."
Evans said when he arrives at the restaurant each morning, Max "flies in from somewhere." McElwee said he used to run away from her but now waits, at a distance, when she stops to fill his food and water bowls.
The reason Max is so aloof might be because "whoever had him did a number on him," Evans said, meaning he thinks the dog might have been mistreated.
"Half of me wants to see him get caught and get adopted, but he's not adoptable unless you've got five acres and let him run around," he said.
Max has apparently moved around the part of Charleston near the restaurant. Once, he was caught in a live trap the Coles County animal shelter set for him a few blocks away, but someone let him out and now he won't go back into the traps, shelter Manager Julie Deters said.
"That dog is a street smart dog," she said. "He couldn't have survived this long without knowing something."
Deters thinks it's difficult to guess how Max would be if he is caught, though most stray dogs can eventually become pets, she said. The shelter could take the "extreme measure" of trying to tranquilize him, but he might run into traffic before the drug takes effect or not get caught, making even more leery of people when he wakes up, she said.
"I think he's OK," Deters said.
McElwee, who left the doghouse for Max and said her first thought was to catch him, said she's "really torn" about his situation. She said she worries about any medical conditions that might get worse, but she tries to be realistic about what's best for him.
"He's kind of living like someone's outdoor dog," she said. "If he's caught, he's probably going to be miserable."
Evans' thoughts are much the same. Max is getting enough food that he's picky, eating only some of the food that Evans puts out, but not all of it, for example.
"He's got people who care about him," he said.