A little over two years ago, I was entering student grades and enjoying the afternoon quiet of my high school classroom. It was springtime—the days were filled with more light and the promise of summer lingered in the air. I heard a knock at my classroom door, which was partially open. My student, Hallie, stood with just her face showing the doorway.
“Mrs. Burnquist, can I show you something?”
“Of course,” I responded.
And in they came: Hallie, and four puppies—one of which Hallie was holding. In my semi-rural school district, many of the students live on horse property and farmland. Hallie had mentioned to me that she was trying to find homes for a recent litter of pups born on her farm. I remembered that one of my colleagues had expressed interest. The pups were darling. Just as she was leaving, a colleague stopped in and began to play with them. Hallie asked me to hold the pup she’d been carrying while she ushered the other pups outside along with the interested teacher.
“Why aren’t you taking this one with you?” I asked before she passed the pup my way.
“Oh, no one is interested in this guy. He was only born with three legs.”
He had previously been sleeping but woke when placed in my arms. We looked at each other and I hardly noticed Hallie leave the classroom. Indeed, the little guy was missing his front right leg. I noticed a little nub beneath his fur where the leg should have been. When Hallie came back to retrieve him and take him home for a feeding, he began to whine.
“Can I hold him a bit more?” I asked.
Four weeks later, the pup came home with me forever. My husband aptly named him Skipper and he has been the perfect addition to our family. A mix of German shepherd and black Labrador, Skipper has a dynamic personality and gentle spirit. Like any puppy, Skipper got into mischief. However, such mischief was always coupled with a good dose of regret and lots of snuggles. Initially, we worried that he might be limited because of his missing limb but Skipper has only ever known the body he lives in and he manages skillfully and without fuss.
Treating Skipper Like A Normal Dog
Energetic to the point of annoyance, Skipper runs, fetches and even digs in spite of face-planting after each swipe of dirt. He has eternally bonded with our older Labrador, Maye. They tag team for dog treats and are king and queen of the backyard. As Skipper has grown into an 80-pound dog, I’ve become aware of the effects of my early tendency to coddle him. He loves to sit on the couch and uses his good leg to balance by literally putting his paw around any person already sitting there. We often find him with his front leg on the sidearm of the sofa relaxing like a human.
Skipper is very possessive of his family and not always the most welcoming of hosts—he’s harmless, but his bark can be intimidating. Still, I will absolutely admit that training and disciplining him wasn’t my strong suit because I was so swayed at first by his cute face and his early balancing issues.
Initially, we worried that he might be limited because of his missing limb but Skipper has only ever known the body he lives in and he manages skillfully and without fuss.
I would absolutely advise puppy training to anyone with a specially-abled pet. While our former veterinarian was wonderful about helping us to balance Skipper’s diet as well as warning us about how maintaining his weight is critical to his hips and balance as he ages, I do wish he’d been more upfront about how Skipper wouldn’t break from the tasks puppy training demands.
This may not apply to pets who have lost a limb due to surgery, however. In those situations, working with your veterinarian will be critical in order to reestablish a healthy routine suited to your pet’s new range of mobility. Dr. Ariel Cooper of Family Vet Care in Mesa, Arizona says that, “most dogs and cats do very well with only three legs assuming they are three good legs. Keeping the animal lean helps reduce risk of arthritis [and] joint supplements containing glucosamine and chondroitin are also beneficial.”
Fortunately, Dr. Cooper assured me that it’s not too late to teach Skipper some of the foundational lessons in behavior I avoided in his puppy days.
We are now making up for my preliminary ‘softy’ approach to training (Skipper on a leash is what I imagine walking a wild and excitable gazelle to be like). We’re getting there one walk-hop at a time. Truthfully, my bond with Skipper is a bit magical—it really was love at first sight. The only thing I notice missing in our delightful pooch is his ability to heel without a little wobble. When we’re in the world with Skipper, we field many questions about “what happened” to him. We simply respond that he was born this magnificently. And it’s true.
Jess Burnquist writes and teaches in desert southwest. Her writing has appeared in various journals and online magazines including Time, Ed Week and The Washington Post.