When Fido needs a wheelchair

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Barbara Ruben

Joyce Darrell (right) established Pets with Disabilities, a nonprofit shelter that helps find loving homes for dogs and cats who are blind, paralyzed, missing limbs or have other impairments. Sharon Sirkis is the group’s director of fundraising. The dogs in “wheelchairs” (left to right), Annie, Ernie and Dixie, can run as fast as dogs having the use of all four legs.
Photo by Barbara Ruben

Ernie, a fluffy white Samoyed, bounds across the field, a buff-colored German shepherd named Annie at his heels. Megan, a tan and white hound, leaps in the air at the sound of visitors.

Neither Ernie nor Annie have the use of their hind legs. But special adapted “wheelchairs” that attach to the dogs’ hips allow them to run through the large yard of their home in Prince Frederick, Md.

Affable Megan, who is blind, serves as a kind of one-canine welcome committee for Pets with Disabilities — the only shelter in the country that exclusively houses dogs and cats that are paralyzed, missing limbs or blind.

Pets with Disabilities was founded 10 years ago by Joyce Darrell and her husband Michael Dickerson. At the time, they had a German shepherd named Duke who, like Ernie, broke his back and became paralyzed merely as a result of landing wrong while playing as a puppy.

“During surgery, the vet kept calling us and telling us it would be better to put Duke down. But there was no way we planned to do that,” Darrell recalled.

As Darrell and Dickerson learned how to care for Duke, they came to meet other dogs like him, languishing in shelters because they were deemed unadoptable. Ernie, in fact, was just a couple of hours from being euthanized when Darrell first met him.

“I saw that big white face, and when they said he was gong to be put to sleep, I just turned to Michael and said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

No longer “unadoptable”

So they began Pets with Disabilities, a nonprofit organization that now houses up to 25 dogs and a handful of cats and seeks to find them appropriate homes.

The dogs with the most severe disabilities, like Ernie, live with the couple in their house, which is handicapped accessible. Generally, those are not available for adoption.

However, the majority of the pets may be adopted. While some dogs are placed with families with children, Darrell said she thinks older adopters who have more time to devote to the animals make an ideal match. The adoption fee is $275.

Darrell said that although she receives inquiries from across the U.S. and even internationally, she limits adoptions to the mid-Atlantic and Northeast. She said that’s because she wants to be able to drive to a home to retrieve a dog if an adoption doesn’t end up being a good match.

But most are. Take hound mix Heidi, adopted in May by a family in Centreville, Va. The large white dog with a sprinkling of brown patches is missing toes on her left front paw.

“Her paw looks deformed, although she is bubbly and happy, so it’s is not noticeable right away,” said owner Laurie Lett, in an interview conducted by text message because she is deaf.

“I know how often dogs with disabilities get overlooked by society because they are not perfect, just like some people do with me because I am deaf,” Lett said.

Lett does not know if Heidi is missing toes due to a congenital deformity or because of abuse, but says the dog is adapting to her family well and already has learned two commands in sign language: sit and down.

Many ways to help out

While Sharon Sirkis, of Silver Spring, Md., doesn’t have room in her houseful of pets for one with disabilities, she was so drawn to Pets with Disabilities after reading a story about the organization in the Ladies Home Journal five years ago, that she offered to volunteer immediately and is now the group’s director of fundraising.

“All I could focus on — almost to the point of obsession — was how could I raise money to help these beautiful animals that had such a zest for life despite their disabilities,” she said.

Pets with Disabilities costs more than $100,000 a year to run, with more than half of that going for veterinary care.

Sirkis, who retired last year from a 35-year career in communications with the federal government, organizes several fundraising events each year, including the annual Toast to Pets with Disabilities dinner and auction at the Running Hare Vineyard in Prince Frederick, Md. This year, the event will be held on June 14.

Sirkis and Darrell are seeking volunteers who can help in other fundraising capacities, such as writing thank-you letters to donors and preparing grant applications.

There is also a small cadre of volunteers who work in the shelter, helping Darrell with the day-to-day chores of mopping the floors, doing laundry and washing dog dishes.

Darrell quit her job as a gym manager to run Pets with Disabilities. She now rises each day at 6:15 a.m. to care for the animals, often working until after sunset. She does not take a salary from the organization either — she is a more-than-full-time volunteer.

Her husband drives to downtown Washington each day for his job as an elevator engineer, but he also helps out with the pets when he returns home every night.

Devices help overcome disabilities

The dogs that aren’t able to walk are strapped into their wheelchairs, which provide two wheels in place of hind legs, for several hours each day. They propel themselves with their front legs and can run like the wind.

“The younger they’re introduced to the wheelchair the better,” Darrell said. “Ernie had to have one of his legs amputated, but we got him in a wheelchair as soon as he got here, and he’s running all over the place.”

While Tammy Linden’s dogs don’t need wheelchairs, both Patch and Trixie have a condition called valgus deformity in one of their front legs.

“I call it a crooked leg. It doesn’t hurt their mobility. When people see them, they make these faces and say, ‘Oh, does it hurt?’ I forget it’s even there. I say, ‘No, he’s fine, they’re fine.’”

Linden, who lives in Sykesville, Md., adopted Patch first. She recalls emailing Darrell with numerous questions before meeting Patch, and Darrell wrote back with a two-word reply: “He’s wonderful.”

“And he is. I just adore this dog,” Linden said.

Learning from blind Faith

Karen Omohundro said she’s learned a lot from her blind dog Faith, a spitz mix, who “looks like an Arctic fox.”

“She has a very brave soul and simply ‘sees’ the world with more than her eyes,” Omohundro said. “She has taught me resilience and the fact that despite the many setbacks you may have, you’re able to get up and go about your day. You’re stronger than you think. Almost every day she learns something new and comes through.”

Omohundro said the biggest challenge for Faith was learning to negotiate the many steps in her home. But Omohundro patiently walked the dog up and down the stairs, telling her to “step up” or “step down” at each stair until she learned. She also placed textured stair treads at the top and bottom of the steps to alert Faith that the steps are coming.

Omohundro’s chow mix named Raven has adjusted to her new canine companion as well. And Raven may be catching on that Faith is blind — she recently has been stealthily stealing nearby bones away from her.

Helene Jorgensen also adopted a blind dog, Riley, a collie mix she describes as “sort of looking like a modern-day Lassie.” Riley, who is about 9 years old, lost his sight to untreated glaucoma.

“At first he was pretty stressed and kept bumping into things in our house,” she said after adopting Riley 1 ½ years ago.

Jorgensen, who has two other dogs and lives in Washington, D.C., said she covered the corners of chairs and the coffee table with blankets to help Riley avoid injuries. She blocked the entrance to the stairs, helping guide him up herself.

Working with Riley has inspired Jorgensen to contemplate a career change. Currently an economist, she’s now thinking about using her experience with Riley to start her own dog training business.

For Sirkis, caring for dogs who are blind and that have other disabilities is a joyful experience she hopes more will get to share.

“How heartwarming to see a blind dog running toward your voice, tail wagging; the deaf dogs watching you move as you throw them that ball for the 20th time; the wheelchair dogs as they race around….In our eyes, they are handicapped, but to them they are just living a different type of normal.”

For details about individual pets available for adoption, how to become an “angel” and support one for a month or a year, or to purchase tickets for the June 14 fundraising event (ticket cost: $65), see www.petswithdisabilities.org or call (443) 624-9270.