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Carmen Elmendorf: Imperfect body doesn't keep dog from perfect life

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Lab-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. Her right front leg was already atrophied, indicating her injury occurred years prior. With no other injuries visible, she was transported from the emergency clinic to the local animal shelter, and that is how we met. I had seen the adopt-a-pet section of the paper, where she was described as a "special-needs" dog. Being one that picks the underdog, this fur-gal had my heart.

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. Before I even adopted her, I named her "Happygirl." I purposed to save her life, but she was always my rescuer.

I discussed amputation of her deformed leg, broken from the shoulder at one time and immobile, with different veterinary doctors. None thought the surgery would serve any purpose other than cosmetic.

She was already a senior dog when I adopted her; that was pivotal in deciding against surgery.

I reasoned that she could be an encouragement to humans with disabilities. After several weeks of intense training, emotional and financial commitment, Happygirl was a dog that was eager to please. 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, Fla. The visit seemed routine as she interacted with little boys, each with a malformed leg or arm. Dog and children handicapped, but neither had a care in the world!

Happygirl was certified and we focused on visiting the elderly in nursing homes. Eventually, she earned an Achievement Award through Therapy Dogs International, spending countless hours visiting nursing homes in Florida and West Virginia. Her 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."

Undeterred, she maneuvered in and out of my car, walked on hard nursing home floors waxed to perfection, around wheelchairs and all manner of medical equipment.

Years later, I heard of a new program called Read to Dogs, through the Kanawha County Library. I was grateful that Happygirl could do less strenuous work as a therapy dog. She became proficient resting at the feet of young schoolchildren, as they read a storybook to her. We traveled to various libraries in the county for these memorable reading sessions. She also helped introduce this program at Sharon Dawes Elementary.

Here was a dog that was happy to be alive and carefree, but people wanted this dog to be physically perfect. Instead of appreciating her uniqueness, the initial reaction from young to old was one of pity.

Everyone questioned if she was hurt at that moment, or how she was hurt and how she could be fixed. On one dreadful occasion a lady commented, "that is so cruel!" What was she saying? That death was better than life for this crippled dog? Happygirl didn't notice she was "different."

While she mostly hopped on her three viable legs, she could run swiftly if she got away from me! One time I was so annoyed, after a ten-year-old boy kept asking me, "what happened to her," I reacted rather comically. We were in Florida, so I replied with, "she got into a fight with an alligator!" His eyes got big, his jaw dropped and nothing else was said.

Why are we humans negative and judgmental when we first look upon another being? When we look on the outside 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 worth 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 Bible we are told that seven sons of Jesse were presented to Samuel, each as a candidate to be king. God said of one of Jesse's sons who Samuel thought would be chosen, "Don't judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn't see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT. Jesse's son David had been disregarded because of his youth and inexperience, but God ultimately chose him.

On our journey through "never-mind" land, we probably miss meeting a prospective friend -- someone who we might need one day and that one person who could look at us and accept us where we are, with all our faults and limitations. Happygirl was my faithful companion through new journeys of triumph and in valleys filled with dark shadows of death and heartbreak. I accepted her and she accepted me with unconditional love.

We humans could learn a lot from a dog -- whether four or three-legged.

Elmendorf may be contacted at carmenvictoriaelmendorf@yahoo.com


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