Samantha Bennett: Dog is much more than his disability

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The speech will be better when I’ve distilled it into bullet points. Right now it’s still too rambling. I can’t quite find the balance between getting in enough important information and making my audience wish they had kept their sympathy to themselves.

My new dog arrived on Independence Day. He was flown from the hinterlands of Appalachia by Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, or PAART, a volunteer organization that airlifts rescue dogs from overcrowded rural shelters and distant foster homes to adopters here. I liked to imagine Roman, my 6-year-old beagle, getting off the plane wearing goggles and a little leather bomber jacket.

He already has more frequent flier miles than I do.

But the reaction when my boy was escorted from the plane wasn’t the cheers or oh-how-cute squeals the other beagles got. For the first of many times, Roman was greeted with “Awwww, what happened to him?”

We get that a lot. Or “Ohh, he’s hurt!” “What happened to his paw?” “Oh no, poor doggie!” “Is he OK?” or similar. Sometimes it’s just a concerned stare, and once a woman scolded me I needed to let my dog rest because he was limping. People mean well, but honestly, it’s not fair to Roman. What you should be noticing is how handsome and sweet he is.

I knew Roman had a disability before I took him, but because he’s a rescue of uncertain provenance, I have no details of his early life. What seems to have happened is that sometime in his puppyhood, somebody kicked him or stepped on him, or perhaps he was hit by a car, and his right front leg was scrambled at the elbow joint. The injury was never set; it healed crooked, and over the years arthritis has set in. The joint is nearly fused, and the leg is shorter than the others. It looks funny. He holds it up and walks mostly on three legs, so the muscles have atrophied.

“Somebody kicked him or stepped on him?” a little boy who was crouching to pet Roman in the park last weekend asked. “That’s sad.”

You bet it’s sad. And it’s even sadder that nobody took him to a vet. I can’t even imagine how painful that injury must have been for a long time for a puppy. I can’t think about it because it makes me want to hit someone in the head with a shovel.

Someone else who doesn’t seem to think about it is Roman. The vets who have examined him lately agree that he’s not in pain from the long-healed injury, and the bad leg can be examined (gently) without any sign of discomfort. Though he walks, runs and takes stairs in a three-legged canter, he puts weight on the bad leg for balance (most obviously when he lifts one of the good ones). Favoring it is more habit than necessity.

His rocking, ear-flapping gait is slightly upsetting to watch if you are burdened with a soul, and I worry about what its long-term effects will be on his spine and other limbs. So I’m getting him some therapy.

I want to rehab the bad leg so he can use it as much as possible, given its limitations. The joint’s a mess, but the muscle atrophy can be reversed. His gait will never be normal, but his therapist and I are optimistic it can be smoother. I give him a massage every day and try to remind him that leg is more than a furry cane.

In the meantime, I repeat the spiel. Everyone feels sorry for him; I explain he’s OK, it doesn’t hurt, and I’m getting him some therapy. I feel I have to include that part, lest people think I’m the one who hurt him or I just don’t care that he’s limping like that. It’s a strange social phenomenon that I worry a random guy on the corner who smells like a fraternity carpet might think I’m a terrible person.

Sometimes kind people tell me he’s lucky. What they’re missing is how lucky I am. He’s a fantastic little dog – friendly, patient, quiet, loving, the noblest Roman of them all. In the whole speech, that’s the most important part.

Samantha Bennett, freelance writer:

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