July 30, 2015 05:40 PM

Bonnie Robison is a hero to the four-legged set. She has personally fostered and rehomed 16 abandoned dogs, several horses and a miniature pig or two. But on a recent Sunday afternoon, she needed a hero herself – and found one in her 14-lb. miniature pinscher, Harley.

Robison was busily working to clear two overgrown rosebushes from the side of her four-acre West Plains, Missouri, property she shares with two horses, a rescue donkey and three other rescue dogs.

“I had turned around to get my clippers and was turning back when Harley just flew out of nowhere,” Robison tells PEOPLE. “She leaped past me onto the ground, yelped, twisted and turned away, then dove right back in. The first thing I thought was that maybe she jumped on a rosebush thorn. But then I saw the two little spots of blood on her nose and I knew immediately what had happened.”

Robison swooped up her pup just in time to see and hear the proof: a pygmy rattlesnake slithering away with the unmistakable hiss-and-knock sound. That’s when she realized just how close she was to danger and just how fortunate she was to have Harley at her side.

“A few more seconds and I would have been reaching forward into that very spot with those clippers,” she says. “I was right in the line of fire and I believe that’s why she jumped in twice. She got bit the first time, then jumped in again because she realized the snake was still there and was a danger for me. I truly believe in my heart that little dog knew exactly what she was doing.”

Most snakebites to pets are from pit vipers, poisonous snakes identifiable by their triangular heads, retractable fangs and a heat-sensing pit between the eye and nostril. Three subspecies of pygmy rattlesnakes fall into this category. While pet deaths from pygmy rattlesnake bites are statistically rare, if enough venom makes its way into an animal, it can affect the cardiopulmonary system, nervous system or coagulation system and even cause kidney damage, veterinarians say.

Signs of a bite can include small puncture wounds, bleeding, bruising, immediate and painful swelling at the site of the bite and tissue necrosis. The more severe systemic signs may take up to several hours to appear and include hypotension and shock, lethargy and weakness, muscle tremors, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting or neurological damage.

In Harley’s case, the bite on her nose caused her tiny lower jaw and neck to quickly swell to twice their normal size. Robinson was able to give her a dose of an antihistamine (half a 25-mg tablet wrapped in cheese), which helped to limit inflammation and calm Harley while the two waited for a ride to the closest veterinarian’s office. Robison’s car wouldn’t start, so her sister rushed to the rescue from across town.

“Her head was double its normal size and she was having trouble breathing,” Robison recalls. “I was seriously afraid I was going to lose her. She was so lethargic that I thought she was dying in my arms.”

The next few hours were tense ones for Robison, who originally fostered Harley and had planned to find her an adoptive home.

“I remember talking to my friend on the phone and we were talking about what to name her,” Robison recalls. “My friend said, ‘How about Harley?’ So I said it out loud and Harley turned and looked at me. Her ears are huge for such a little dog and I thought, ‘Those ears kind of look like handles on a bike, so that’ll work.’ ”

Ultimately, Harley “just melted into the family” and Robison stopped searching for an adopter, she says.

Once at the vet’s office, Harley received an antivenin injection, a cleanup and a bit of TLC. Before long, she was back home, breathing easily while her swelling gradually reduced.

“The whole time, I was just praying, ‘Please don’t take my baby. Please, Lord, I need her,’ ” an emotional Robison says, her voice cracking. “I didn’t realize what she meant to me until then, or what I meant to her. I’ve heard stories about this kind of thing, but it is very humbling for one of God’s creatures to save your life.”

Within days, Harley was back to her spunky self.

Well, except for one curious difference.

“Ever since the bite, she hates her tail,” Robison says, noting that perhaps the shape reminds Harley of a snake. “She constantly growls at it and snaps at it and chases it.”

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