On three-legged dogs

In honor of National Dog day: the winding, not-super-linear story of how Wren came into our lives. I’ve written tomes about Chara, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever told Wren’s story. And it’s a great one: full of love and hardship and challenges overcome.

When I first met Wren, we weren’t looking for a second dog. We were living in a little brick house in downtown Starkville, and upon signing the lease had agreed that we wouldn’t bring any further pets home.

No problem, I’d thought in the moment. We were content with our two pet family, and while we knew we wanted a second dog eventually, it seemed like good insurance to live in a place where we were limited to our current pets. Especially while I worked at the humane society.

And then, a few months into my new job, came Wren. I’d already met thousands of dogs in the course of my time at the shelter–big dogs, little dogs. Hyper dogs, calm dogs. Dogs that were clearly absolute gems, and dogs who had some rough edges.

On a sweltering May day (because Mississippi is sweltering except for in December, January and February), I took a group of five OCHS dogs to a local 5k that was raising money for the shelter.

I set up our tent, handed out leashes to eager runners, and chatted with the other rescue group, Small Mercies–a small rescue that specifically helps dogs and cats in the Mississippi Delta.

That was when I saw Wren. She was curled up in a pen with a group of puppies, a cone around her head. Her fox tail–with its vivid white tip–was the first thing that I noticed.

Later, one of the volunteers had her outside of the pen on a leash, and for the first time I noticed that half of her body was shaved–she’d just had her leg amputated.

I couldn’t resist–I stopped to say hi. Back then, her name was Cece.

Even with the grisly staples holding the chicken-skin of her thigh muscle together, she was incredibly sweet. She curled herself into a ball in front of me, and when I sank to my knees, rested her chin in my lap. She looked up at me with the sweetest, most liquid-y brown eyes I’d ever seen.

“What happened to her leg?” I asked Andrea, the head honcho of the rescue.

Wren immediately after she’d been picked up off the road.

She sighed. “We were driving into the Delta to pick up another dog, and we saw her on the side of the road, limping. At first we thought she’d been hit by a car, but when we got her into the vet for x-rays, we found a bullet in her hip and shrapnel in her ankle. The leg was so withered and painful from the shrapnel that the vet thought it’d be best to amputate… she has heartworm as well, but she’s too weak for treatment right now. We need to fatten her up first.”

Time seemed to freeze as I sat there with her, stroking her soft ears. All the while, the wheels in my head were turning.

After observing her with the volunteers–some of whom were kids–and the puppies she’d been kenneled with, I could tell her that her temperament was incredibly sweet and calm.

We needed a sweet, calm, snuggly dog after high-octane Chara. This little pooch could be the perfect counterpoint to her.

And then there were those sad eyes. I thought of the life she’d lived so far–trolling the highway for food, ribs hollow with hunger, worms eating her from the inside out.

I thought of the life she’d get to live with us–hikes through the woods, a comfy bed to sleep on, snuggles and brushes and swims. And eventually–we hoped–sticky toddler hands to lick and kids to go on adventures with.

We’d also just fostered a three-legged puppy, and while taking care of him I’d done a ton of research on three-legged dogs. I understood the challenges she might face as she aged, and knew we’d be able to provide her with the care she’d need.

I snapped a photo of her (above), and sent it to Jordan without any text.

His response was almost immediate. “No.”

Eventually I had to get up and keep working, but I kept that little red dog in the corner of my vision the rest of the day. I watched as she rolled over for a belly rub from little kids. As she gently wagged her tail at every person and dog who walked by.

When I got home, I started my Adopt Cece Campaign, which included showing Jordan photos of Wren, a minute-by-minute description of her behavior, and the listing out the pros of adopting a second dog, which mainly centered on: having a friend for Chara when we had to leave during the day, and a having a leash for each of us to hold on walks.

Jordan was skeptical about whether it was a good idea, but he agreed to meet her. We arranged with Andrea to meet up at our favorite Starkville dog-exercising area, North Farm, and loaded Chara up into our car to meet her new potential dog buddy.

At North Farm, we watched as Chara gamboled happily around Cece, pausing occasionally to sniff her stump, before dashing off again.

Cece was cautious but happy. After following us up an incline, she laid down in the emerald green grass, panting heavily. Her heartworm was severe–she had the signature cough, low energy levels, and her body was skin and bones despite the high-fat and protein diet Small Mercies had her on.

But despite all that, she still put on a good face for us–wagging her tail at Chara, rolling over her belly rubs from us, and following me devotedly around the park without a leash.

Wren, during our first walk.

As we got into the car, I turned to Jordan, eager to hear his opinion.

“She’s clearly a special dog,” he said, voice laced with caution. “Let’s talk to our landlord, and if he’s okay with it, we can adopt her.”

I cheered, but still felt concerned. Our landlord had made it pretty clear–no more pets. When we reached out to him, first over text message and then in person, he was firm. Nothing would sway him–not the offer of a larger pet deposit, not an interview with Cece, not the fact that we had already greatly fixed up the house, and done landscaping and painting–so that he’d be able to raise the rent when we left.

That brought Jordan and I back to square one. He wasn’t interested in moving, but at this point I was head over heels in love with that little red dog. We decided to introduce her to Minerva, to make sure she wasn’t cat aggressive, and then if that went well we’d tentatively look for a new spot to live.

If the perfect house came along, we’d move and adopt Cece. If not–we’d have to stay a one-dog family.

The introduction to Minerva went perfectly. Cece ignored her completely, not even daring to make eye contact (which is exactly what you want in dog-cat relationships), and Minerva boldly marched up and twined around her ankles.

The more time Jordan spent with Cece, the more invested he became in adopting her. “It seems ludicrous to not add a new member to our family, just because of a landlord,” he said one night. I wholeheartedly agreed.

The next day, I started searching for a new spot in earnest.

And then lo and behold–our friends from Jordan’s department were moving, and looking for someone to take over their lease. They lived in a cool little house out in the country, next to a horse farm. They had two active labs, and the landlord was completely dog friendly. When we arrived that weekend to sign the lease, we told him that we had two dogs, even though Cece wasn’t officially ours yet. He didn’t even bother to ask how big or what breed they were.

That night, I texted Andrea–totally gleeful. “We can adopt Cece!!!”

She was delighted on our behalf, and even offered to allow us to foster Cece until she finished her heartworm treatment. We jumped at the chance to bring her home earlier.

After procuring a crate and new-dog supplies (she’d need to be confined while she went through treatment), we picked Cece up. At this point she knew us from the multiple visits we’d had, and wagged her tail furiously.

Jordan lifted her carefully into the car, avoiding her still-swollen stump from her amputation, but afraid to put too much pressure on her chest. We could hear her breath rattle in her lungs sometimes, which made both of us picture the damage the worms had done to her insides.

Curled up in her new home ❤

On the way home, we tossed names around. “Apollo.” “Trace–get it, like the Natchez Trace?” “Scout.” “Indy.” “Topple–cause of her leg?” “Remi–short for Remington. Cause she got shot.” Out of the dozens of options, nothing quite fit.

That evening, we were sitting on the back porch with her, stroking her soft ears and watching the neighborhood birds, when she rested her head on our Birds of North America Field Guide. By chance, her nose was pointing at a bird: The Carolina wren.

In the picture, the wren’s color was a rich red, similar to Wren’s coat. And its range extended to Mississippi.

“I think we have a Carolina Wren on our hands,” I announced to Jordan.

“Wren,” he said, trying it out. “I like it.”

I wish I could say that from that point on, things were smooth sailing with our little Carolina Wren, but unfortunately, she still had the arduous heartworm treatment to get through.

Heartworms are spread by mosquitoes, and they’re highly prevalent throughout the southeastern United States. When a mosquito bites an animal infected with the disease, they ingest the larvae and carry it along to their next victim.

At that point the larvae develop into long, skinny worms (that look a bit like angel hair pasta, yum), which infest the heart and lungs. If untreated, heartworm causes congestive heart failure.

Treatment is really expensive, dangerous, and long and hard. Essentially, vets inject the animal with chemicals that will kill off the worms. However, as the worms die, they lose their grip on the heart and lungs and can cause blockages as they’re flushed out of the dog’s system.

For this reason, you have to keep the dog very quiet and calm throughout the treatment–no off-leash walks, no romps in the backyard.

We’d finally brought Wren home, to her happy new life. But she didn’t get to live it yet. She had to stay home for the long walks we brought Chara on. Didn’t get to sleep on the couch, or curl up in bed with us on long, lazy Saturday mornings.

Instead, she was confined to a crate, which was supposed to help keep her calm. It seemed to do the opposite–she would pant and whine, desperate to be out and curled up next to us. It was torturous to put her inside it, when we knew that she’d already had a lifetime of hardship.

Finally, we settled on a happy medium: we allowed her out of the crate, but kept her on a leash. This was partially to restrict her activity, but also to help potty train her–for her first month with us, she was on medication that made her super thirsty–and then she’d have massive pee-splosions all over the kitchen floor after she’d guzzled the whole water bowl.

But even with a leash on–this was also Wren’s first taste of the good life. She relished it wholeheartedly, click-clacking along behind me wherever I went, curling up on the mattress we’d laid next to our bed for her and Chara at night and snoozing next to me on the couch during the day, basking in the sunshine that pooled on our laminate floors whenever she wanted a break from the cushy couch.

As her foster mom had noted–she loved to sprawl. She’d sprawl on the couch, the floor, the dog bed. She had a way of luxuriously taking up the whole space.

We wined and dined her with delicious concoctions cooked just for her: chicken and rice, iron-rich gravies, protein balls designed to help her gain weight. The first time she tried venison, she had a look of such pure delight on her face that we couldn’t stop smiling ourselves.

And when she discovered the dog toys–mainly the half-chewed tennis balls that Chara loved to destroy–she’d clamp them between her jaws and get this love-sick expression on her face. Like she never wanted to let them go.

After a month of careful monitoring, we brought her back in to the vet’s office for the second round of shots and more bloodwork. Her numbers were doing better, but they were still off. We got her back the next day with an iron supplement, to help her anemia, and the instructions to carefully watch her.

Wren was completely out of it, and so stiff that she could barely move. It was clear that this latest round of injections had left her feeling like crap. I carried her outside to go to the bathroom, and spent the rest of the time with her on the couch, carefully stroking those fluffy ears.

Around this time, Jordan left for fieldwork, and Jenna moved in with me for the summer. She had just graduated from college, and we were excited to have some sisterly bonding time after five years living apart.

Each day Jenna and I had to leave Wren at home while we took Chara and her newly adopted dog, Pan, to North Farm to run. She’d cry and cry at the door, anxious that we might not come back.

Once, when I took Chara for a run around the farm that we lived on, Jenna reported that Wren had gotten so anxious that she started to hyperventilate. I became afraid to leave her, worried that in my absence she’d have a heart attack.

And then, two months after we had brought Wren home, we took her to the vet for her final check up. “She looks good,” the vet reported as she listened to lungs and felt her rapidly-widening torso. “You can officially let her exercise.”

“You mean like taking her for runs?” I clarified, almost unable to believe that we’d finally gotten the okay. “My sister and I go for four plus mile runs sometimes, do you think she’ll be okay?”

“Yup,” the vet said. “Build up to it with lots of walks and swimming, but I bet she’ll keep up no problem.”

That night, Jenna and I had the pleasure of taking Wren on her very first, heartworm-free off-leash walk.

Wren was a far cry from the sad-eyed dog we’d first met at North Farm. Now she had a sleek layer of fat over her ribs, and shine in her eyes. The fur had almost grown over after her surgery, and she’d recovered from her spay surgery without a hitch.

She wrestled with Pan, chased after Chara, swam laps around the detaining pond. It was glorious to watch her russet fur blend with the Mississippi pine needles and bright red dirt, to catch a glimpse of that little white-tagged tail disappearing around a corner.

As she grew stronger, remnants of her previous life resurfaced–she’d stick close to waterways, constantly on the hunt for water. Sometimes, she’d go down into a stream bed, and it was like she’d forget we existed completely. We’d chase after her for a mile along the bank, shouting her name and clapping our hands, until suddenly she remembered us and tried to scramble back up the bank to us.

At first, she was very weak, and she’d get stuck–the scene always depressingly like Homeward Bound, when Chance gets stuck in the mud pit. Wren would scrabble hopelessly at the bank, panting and whining, trying to make it up to us, before her strength gave out and she slid pitifully back into the water. Our runs were peppered with stops as I hoisted myself down into streams so that I could lift Wren out to Jenna.

There were other little things: she loved fast food wrappers on the street (and there are lots of them in Mississippi). Every time she saw a piece of litter, she’d give a little leap of joy. I pictured her surviving off of these small prizes, scavenging soggy french fries and leftover burgers.

“She’s a true trash dog,” Jordan remarked on a road trip once as she nosed excitedly at an abandoned McDonalds bag.

Her days on the highway had coated her belly in tar. When we’d first brought her home, I initially thought that her nipples were black. Then I’d looked closer, and worried that they were diseased. Finally, after rubbing her belly and accidentally peeling a bit of the gunk off, I realized that it was tar.

I spent hours carefully picking it way, painstakingly removing it from each nipple.

But before long, all of the love, exercise and good food started to pay off. She got lost less frequently, and her remaining back leg–which had once been scrawny from lack of use, rippled with muscle.

Her coat grew glossy, and her tail–which had been dingy and thin–exploded into a gorgeous plume of white and red. Soon, it was too thick and luxurious to even be mistaken for a fox’s tail.

We got to know her quirks–that she loves to snuggle with kittens, hates peanut butter, goes insane over squeaky balls, is terrified of the white lines on streets, and adores snuggles from anyone at anytime.

But just as we started to really feel like Wren was healthy and happy in her new life, fate dealt a new blow. Six months after she finished her heartworm treatment, we took her back in to make sure that her treatment had been successful. The vet came back from running the test with a solemn expression.

“It’s positive. We ran two tests, but both are coming up as positive.”

Wren’s first treatment had costs thousands of dollars–thanks to all the x-rays, bloodwork and medication that went along with it. Now, if the heartworm didn’t clear in the next six months, we were looking at going through it all again.

Jordan and I had had a spree of hardship over the previous year–the worst of which was a pregnancy loss, armed robbery and my mom’s diagnosis with a terminal illness, the best of which was car trouble and stressful jobs.

To be slapped with more uncertainty over the health of our beloved pup felt like the straw that broke the camels back. On the car ride home we were silent, Wren shivering with nerves on my lap after the harrowing experience of being pricked by the vet.

We weren’t sure if the positive heartworm test was a sign that she’d never recover fully, that she was too ill from her days on the street to ever be truly healthy, and I wondered if heartbreak was around the next corner.

When we brought her in another six months later, to our new vet in Georgia, Jordan and I had resigned ourselves to the idea that we’d have to go through it all again. Wren was family, and making her healthy meant pouring thousands more dollars into veterinary care, so be it.

The vet we happened to get that day wasn’t the most pleasant individual.

He was impatient and know-it-all-ish and terse. He loudly listed all of the ways heartworm disease causes long term damage as we waited with white knuckles.

When he finally came out of the back after drawing Wren’s blood, he didn’t mention the heartworm test. We listened to him try to sell us on a specific kind of dog food for ten minutes, and then I finally asked–“Did you look at the results of the test?”

He waved a hand. “Oh, it was negative.”

“For both of them?” I asked. Jordan’s fingers found mine.

“Yes, both negative.” He was nonplussed. I pictured the excitement and joy Dr. Brandy–the vet who had amputated Wren’s leg and done her initial treatment–would’ve shown if we’d still been there. “They both seem to be quite healthy.”

Jordan and I exchanged amazed glances. Before we loaded her up in the car, we hugged her tight. “You’re healthy!” I said, awed. “No heartworm!” That night, we celebrated with a romp around our new backyard.

It’s been over two years now since we adopted Wren. She’s the calm to our crazy. The happy to Chara’s sullenness. The sweetness in our lives that we didn’t realize we were missing. She handles our enthusiastic nine-month old with calm resignation, chases Pan and Chara round the backyard, and leads the way on every jog.

In the two years that she’s lived with us, she has climbed the highest mountain in Georgia (Blood Mountain), romped in the snow in upstate New York, gone on countless runs (and gotten her very own harness with a handle, so that we can lift her up out of stream banks when she gets stuck), and told the fortunes of hundreds of kids in Mississippi (we trained her to pick cards by carefully drawing them out of a pack with her teeth).

In the future, we’d love to go through the certification process to make her a therapy dog, so that she can share her sweet, gentle joy with people in hospitals and kids in schools.

She’s one hell of a dog, and I feel so lucky that she’s ours to keep. Part of the reason I wanted to write about her today was because I feel like we can all learn things from Wren.

When we first adopted her, it was clear that she’d been through hell and back. She’d suffered from abuse and neglect. But her attitude through it all remained unflaggingly optimistic.

She doesn’t let being three-legged stop her. She zooms up mountains and after birds, swims in lakes, scampers over sidewalks and fields. While it was clear that at first she noticed her missing limb, that’s faded over time. Her back leg has moved into the center, and become thick and strong to compensate.

She’s wicked fast, and incredibly graceful. Most strangers don’t realize she’s three-legged until one of us mentions it.

But on the most basic level, what I hope people take away from this story, is that rescue dogs are worth it. That even dogs who have been severely abused can make absolutely wonderful companions. That they can be those one-in-a-million dogs that you spend the rest of your life telling stories about.

What is your pet’s story?

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