Dog Adoption Therapy Dog Happygirl
by Carmen V. Elmendorf
(Charleston, WV U.S.A.)
The Story of Happygirl by CV Elmendorf
The Labrador-Beagle mix dog was found wandering on a busy highway. At first glance she appeared to be injured and was taken to an all-night, emergency veterinary clinic. It was soon discovered the dog had been hurt, but her injury had occurred years before. Her right front leg was already atrophied. With no other injuries visible, she was transported from the emergency clinic to the local animal shelter. That is where she and I met. I often visited the animal shelter, sometimes to help out, but mostly in search of one dog or cat to save. Little did I know on this one particular day, that a reddish, medium-sized crippled dog would end up saving me!
As I walked past all the cages at the Kanawha-Charleston animal shelter, I stopped suddenly! There were two dogs together in this cage, but the bigger reddish one was calm and quiet as her big brown eyes stared right into mine. Maybe I had seen this dog before somewhere or maybe it was a compelling attraction, but I stopped on the spot. I asked the shelter attendant, “What is her story?” He answered that they did not know and he proceeded to tell of how she wound up at the shelter - of her initial discovery on the road and her transport from the emergency clinic. Being one that picks the underdog, this fur-gal had my attention. Though I did not know it at the time, she also had my heart.
I soon discovered a newspaper clipping of this dog, as she had appeared in the pet adoption section of the paper. I noticed the reference to her as a “special needs” dog. I took the three-legged dog outside on a leash and walked her around the shelter. She was strong! She was fast, too; “nothing handicapped about this girl”, I thought. She was very independent and happy. Her tail wagged constantly and her smile was unforgettable. I named her before I even adopted her. I named her Happygirl.
I never saw Happygirl as needing any special care; however my new dog did have “issues” to deal with, more mental than physical. Happygirl showed food-aggression from the start. I had dogs all my life and never experienced a dog so desperate for and so protective of her food! It didn’t take me long to realize I had my training-work cut out for me, and I knew it was more than I could handle alone. I took advantage of the free basic obedience classes that were offered at that time with each adoption. I was surprised to hear the trainer, at the end of that class, remarked that my Happygirl was the best one! My dog could now do the all basic commands that were expected of her - sit, stay, and walk on leash, but she still had some food-aggression. Happygirl still needed more training.
I decided to take it to another level. “Why not train her to become a Therapy Dog. She is disabled and surely she will be an encouragement to humans with disabilities”, I reasoned. My search for Therapy Dog trainers led me to Florida as the most accessible and convenient academy for Happygirl to attend. I had lived there and was familiar with the area. It took several weeks of intense training, emotional and financial investment that turned out to produce the best returns I had ever gotten for my money. Happygirl was now a calm, trusting, obedient dog and she was eager to please.
I think I was more nervous than anyone or any dog the first time I took Happygirl to be around children. As part of our Therapy Dog certification, Happygirl and I were allowed to participate on a visit to Shriner’s Children’s Hospital near Tampa, Florida. For Happygirl the exercise seemed routine. For me, it was thrilling and terrifying all at once. My dog had learned to trust me, but could I trust her?
I watched intently as Happygirl interacted with a little boy who sat on the floor next to her. There they were each with a malformed leg and handicapped, yet both the boy and the dog had not a care in the world! My apprehension did not cease during that visit. I kept expecting Happygirl to suddenly take the treat the little boy was offering and bite the boy as well. My worry was uncalled-for. My dog had become well-trained, as if born a Therapy Dog. I was proud of her accomplishments, but I was ashamed of my own reluctance to let Happygirl be so close to such vulnerable children. We focused on the elderly instead. Happygirl was certified through Therapy Dogs International and spent countless hours visiting nursing homes in Florida and West Virginia. She earned a Therapy Dogs International Achievement Award in the process.
Whether visiting the elderly or spending time with children, Happygirl’s enthusiasm was contagious! She would start wagging her tail uncontrollably the moment I grabbed her T.D.I. scarf or vest. She knew she was going to “work”. Happygirl was a blessing to children; later on-older children. I learned of a program called Read to Dogs
that had started, through the Kanawha County Library. It was natural for Happygirl to sit at the feet of young school children, while they read a storybook to her. Happygirl loved it! She loved the attention the children gave her and she loved the children. She became so proficient at her task of just listening, that I became confident enough to approach the Kanawha County Schools with the idea. As Happygirl sat quietly at the feet of children at one elementary school, I watched with pride and pondered how far the anxious dog that I rescued from the dog-pound years before had come. She made me proud to be her human.
Amputation of the deformed leg, broken from the shoulder at one time and immobile, was discussed with different veterinary doctors. None thought the surgery would serve any purpose other than cosmetic, and her age - she was already a senior dog when I adopted her, was another factor that was used in determining not to operate. While Happygirl mostly hopped on her three functioning legs, there were times she would escape the yard and run! She was so fast I could not catch her and I would have to drive around looking for her. Within minutes she would become too tired to go on; she would stop running and would lie down on some lawn, where I would find her out of breath, put her in the car and take her back home.
Here was a dog that did not mind her adversity and did not notice one leg did not move. She jumped in and out of my car numerous times, and walked wherever she was needed. She maneuvered on hard nursing home floors, waxed to perfection; she continued around wheel-chairs and all manner of medical equipment and she sat immobile through any sudden, loud noise while she worked (however, she was terrified of thunderstorms).
Here was a dog that was happy to be alive, happy to be Happygirl and no one, it seemed, appreciated her uniqueness. Instead people wanted this dog to be physically perfect. Happygirl was still a disabled dog and, while she did not think of herself as handicapped, it was always predominant in the eyes of humans.
Every initial reaction to Happygirl from young and old alike was one of pity. I was so annoyed on one occasion that, when a young boy maybe eleven years old asked me about Happygirl’s leg, I reacted rather comically. We were in Florida so I replied to his question of “what happened to her” with “she got into a fight with an Alligator!” His eyes got big and his jaw dropped and nothing more was said.
No one could look at this three-legged, crippled dog and just accept her noticeable condition. Everyone questioned how she was hurt; how she could be fixed. On one awful occasion a lady commented “that is so cruel!” What was she saying? That death was better than life for this crippled dog? Happygirl lived her life to the fullest; she could not have cared less that she looked “different” and could not move her one front leg.
Happygirl was my faithful companion through new journeys, good and bad. While I spent a season re-inventing myself as a substitute teacher, this dog would be at my apartment to greet me with excitement! I never felt lonely; I always felt loved. And to her credit Happygirl was so clean, that when we moved out of that apartment the landlord gladly refunded my deposit! She was my friend during a very dark season in my life as well; and when it seemed death itself loomed in the shadows, she encouraged me to persevere. Happygirl stayed near me when everyone else ran away; she was true when humans were liars. A dog doesn’t judge-while humans are likely to judge, to be the jury and carry out the sentence. I have always been disappointed by humans, but rarely by a dog in terms of loyalty.
I am disappointed that we humans can be so negative when we first look upon another human, or a dog. When we look at what clothes someone is wearing and judge them accordingly, is that really an accurate account of their character? Is it fair to make our first observation wholly our final judgment about that person and thus to determine their value by our value system? We tend to decide at first glance how we will try to fix someone or we build a wall to avoid them altogether. In the process we lose out on truly getting to know an awesome person from the inside out. We surely miss meeting and knowing creative, talented, loving and accepting people on our journey through ‘never-mind’ land. In so doing, sadly, we probably miss out on a friendship that we might need - one person who could look at us and accept us where we are, with all our faults and limitations.
I believe we could all learn a lot from a dog; for that is how they, our four (or three) legged friends see and accept us humans -- with unconditional love!
Carmen V. Elmendorf
Charleston, WV 25304