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When Joyce Darrell’s newly adopted puppy, Duke, suffered a spinal cord injury during puppy play in July 1999, her friends, family, and a number of veterinarians believed the only option was to put Duke to sleep.
But Darrell and her husband Mike would not accept euthanizing Duke, who was only 7 months old. Instead, she set Duke up in a wheelchair to help him regain his independence.
A few months later, she adopted Misty, another dog with a disability. Born with nonfunctioning hips, Misty had been in a shelter outside of New York City for five years. Misty displayed a zest for life in her shelter cage, and visitors sympathized with her, Darrell says, but her disability prevented her getting adopted. “I can’t imagine how many people passed by her.”
After adopting Misty, Darrell and her husband realized that disabled dogs needed a voice. In 2000, they founded Pets With Disabilities (PWD), which works to place disabled dogs and cats with new families, and helps owners keep dogs who’ve suffered a severe injury—whether a dog is blind, deaf, missing a leg, or in a wheelchair.
Joyce and Mike both worked full-time jobs for eight years while running PWD, but in 2008, Joyce decided to quit her job and volunteer all of her time with the organization. Located 100 feet from the Darrells’ home in Prince Frederick, Md., PWD operates out of a barn; over time, it has added three part-time staff and five volunteers. The group promotes disabled dogs and cats for adoption through photographs and videos; its Facebook page helps them network with other animal rescue groups and highlight adoption success stories. The group also attends pet adoption events with disabled dogs, and hosts open houses to show people that a dog with a disability can walk, bark, and snuggle just like any other pooch.
Adopter AnnMarie Kenyon, who learned about PWD at an open house, later acquired a few confidence-building tips from the organization for her newly disabled dog Grizzly, who had his leg amputated because of bone cancer. After his surgery, “I reached out to Joyce for guidance on how to best care for a three-legged dog, and she helped guide my husband and I through the challenges,” Kenyon says. “We used tasty chicken treats and continuous positive reinforcement to help Grizzly become acclimated to the wheelchair.”
Pet parents can spend a couple hours to an afternoon at the PWD facility, having their dog measured and fit to a wheelchair. Mike rebuilds and retrofits standard manufactured and previously used wheelchairs donated to the organization to accommodate the dogs’ needs and fit their individual dimensions.
Kenyon says that front-wheeled wheelchairs are for dogs who have a front limb removed or one that is no longer functioning. Back-wheeled wheelchairs are far more prevalent and are used for dogs with a hind-leg injury or an inability to use a leg for mobility. Putting padding on Grizzly’s wheelchair helped him get used to it by making it more comfortable.
Before pets leave, they get a chance to learn how to use their new mode of transportation. The Darrells and the pets’ owners often work together, typically using a combination of treats and praise to help dispel any apprehension the pet may have about using the wheelchair.
PWD also provides adopters with information and tips developed over Darrell’s years of working with disabled dogs.
The main challenge PWD faces in getting more dogs adopted is dispelling misconceptions about disabled dogs. “When my friend told her aunt about [a particular] dog, and mentioned he was up for adoption from Pets With Disabilities,” says Kristy Anderson, animal caretaker and office assistant, “her first response was, ‘I don’t want a dog with problems.’”
Anderson says common reasons disabled dogs get passed over at shelters include the belief that they can’t play fetch, they can’t get around the house, or they won’t be able to bond with another dog or their human guardian.
However, PWD has found that outreach and education help dispel misconceptions. Using videos on its website, social media such as Facebook, and pet adoption websites, PWD has been able to combat the idea that disabled dogs can’t play. “When you have a dog that is missing a leg,” Anderson says, “people are always curious as to whether or not they can get around OK.” Videos of a disabled dog playing fetch help show potential adopters just how agile they can be.PWD has also found that having potential adopters meet dogs in person helps them look beyond the dog’s disability and connect on an emotional level. “On my first visit to PWD, a beautiful collie followed me around the yard,” says Kenyon, “It took me about 20 minutes to realize the dog was blind!” She was also enamored of dogs in wheelchairs who were effortlessly chasing each other. Seeing them zipping around, “I realized the only real challenge they face is people’s misconceptions about their abilities.”
Through the education and hands-on experience that she acquired from PWD, Kenyon gained the confidence and know-how to adopt three dogs—one blind, one partially blind, and one deaf. “PWD told us their three-legged dogs did not know they had a ‘disability,’ and we should give Grizzly a chance,” Kenyon says, “He was still a fast runner, even at 110 pounds—he could chase, swim, go up and down stairs, dig holes in the backyard—all the things he could do before.” The most poignant advice PWD gave, Kenyon adds, was to keep an open mind and give Grizzly the same opportunities as any other dog.
Joyce says PWD is addressing a unique need in the United States, since not many rescues are able to help disabled animals. But once a dog’s disability is assessed and accommodated, she says, “they are going to be healthy, just like any other dog.”
Based in Connecticut, Thomas Hill is a freelance writer passionate about helping our four-legged friends.