Have I mentioned my wheelchair dog, Sam?
Sam is who got me into dog training. I met Sam when he was about 4 years old, and aggressive. Normally there are types of aggression; dogs that are aggressive towards other dogs specifically, or humans specifically, or are very prey-driven. Sam was all of the above. He was a 125 pounds of muscle and fur, and he attacked people.
I ended up taking him on because I was fearless, needed the money, and no one else would. (That is probably my biggest weakness! “No one else will help you? I WILL!”) Dog trainers often don’t work with human aggression because it’s very difficult to turn a dog around (for many reasons), and because it’s such a high liability. I got bit two years ago, for instance, and was stuck with thousands of dollars of hospital costs (thank goodness for health insurance; the bills racked up to over $24,000 eventually, most of which was covered) and almost two months off work, with no sick days or paid leave! When I’m off work, I don’t make money.
Something like this can destroy a dog training business, if you don’t have the cushion to ride through it. I did, along with parents who were willing to fly up and help out, but I can understand why most dog trainers don’t want to take the risk!
That said, I was willing. I re-trained Sam, fell in love with him, and when he started to go crippled four years later I took him home to southern California. (Don’t panic; I do live in the NorCal Bay Area now! I didn’t then, though.)
Sam did really well for the first six months. I found some alternative treatments that helped, including a dog chiropractor, we were able to get his back feet (which he’d been dragging until they were bloody) to stop bleeding through the use of dog boots, and strengthened the muscles in his back, hips, and legs so he could walk better. Then he took a downturn, and I was afraid that I’d have to put him down.
Enter my then-landlord, who welded as a hobby, and my neighbor’s daughter, who had outgrown her child’s bike. She donated her bike, he took it apart and put it back together, and with a lot of ingenuity we soon had a perfectly-balanced dog wheelchair. I taught Sam to walk in it, and like he had done with so many things, he took to it right away with all the trust and confidence I’d come to expect from him. (To the left: Sam, a few days after getting his wheelchair, with all four feet square on the ground –at this point he could use them as long as they weren’t bearing weight — and the tires still pink. We had yet to add the padding across his shoulders and did so soon, but the pressure wasn’t great so it was worth letting him run around even without it!)
(This is Sam, the day before I put him down. You can see from the sway in his back and how low his hips sit in the sling that his spinal control is going; before that, his spine was flat and his hips tucked down. There’s me in 2006, and Lily, whom I’d just adopted. She was my neighbor’s dog, and I had no intentino of keeping her — I was going to re-train her and send her home — but Sam LOVED her, and the neighbors didn’t really want her back after everything she’d destroyed, so she came to live with me full time and has been a big help!)
Sam lived just another six months before the paralysis started creeping up his spine, affecting his bladder and bowel control, and then soon his shoulders, too. I brought him home about two days before Christmas, and had him put down almost exactly a year later, on New Year’s Eve.
I’ve kept his wheelchair. I told myself I should post an ad on Craigslist, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was holding it for someone who needed a wheelchair but didn’t have the money to buy one (large wheelchairs are expensive), someone I could meet. Over the years I’ve offered it to people, or had people ask if they could use it, only for things to fall through. I kept it, and waited.
A few weeks ago a friend from SoCal contacted me and said that her friend had a German shepherd who has the same degenerative problem Sam had, and could she put us in contact in case I knew anything that would help? I said, Certainly!
Dawn contacted me right after. I didn’t have any information she didn’t already know — in fact, in the six years since everything happened with Sam, medicine has come farther and she had far more knowledge than I had — but I offered her Sam’s wheelchair. The timing was perfect; I was headed down to visit my family, and could bring it with me.
I met Sheba on a sunny Friday afternoon. She’s a beautiful long haired shepherd with big, rounded ears and a slender nose. She’s smaller than Sam, 80 pounds to his 115 (he’d lost weight by the time we got him in the wheelchair), and she has a hitch in her step where her left hind just doesn’t quite respond well anymore. We put her in Sam’s wheelchair, made some hip slings for her that fit her better than Sam’s would, and started making adjustments.
The chair was built specifically for Sam and was too big for Sheba, but she was a trooper. Very patient as we fussed and adjusted, making it work as well as possible. She has less control in one hind leg than the other, whereas Sam was evenly losing control, which gives her a limp. Her compensation pulls her to the right as she walks, so that overall she remains in a straight line — except when the wheelchair removes her limp, suddenly she veers right! Luckily the chair has bars that a human can grab to help keep it straight, and hopefully Sheba will figure it out. (She might not be able to, but that’s okay. Dawn and I figured it was possible to hook a carbiner on a bar and just attach it to Dawn’s belt, which would counter that right-leaning tendency with a human body!)
It pulls a little on Sheba in ways it didn’t on Sam, because she’s smaller, but I think we figured that out for the most part, too. Dawn will have to keep an eye on things, and Sheba will need to practice, but it should work. Sheba didn’t balk at having a wheelchair on, or at pulling it around or having us tug on her. Dawn agreed that when she’s done with it, she’ll pass it on as well. I gave her Sam’s boots (specially made from real shoe soles so that they don’t wear through right away) as well, and his hip slings. It leaves me with nothing from him anymore, except his old collar with his dog tag (“Yosemite Sam,” which I put down on a lark and always enjoyed), on top of the box with his ashes and a paw print from the vet.
It was hard to give it away, but I knew it would be. It helped to know that it was going to help another dog. I hope it does help; it was big for Sheba, and didn’t fit perfectly, but I hope that it does some good. Sheba is in good hands with Dawn, and I can let go knowing that Sam’s wheelchair is doing what it was meant to do, and Sam’s memory lives on with me.