Trish Houlihan is used to getting calls from local shelters to take in desperate dogs who no one else will take…dogs with parvo, dogs hit by cars, dogs with mange. The rescue she founded, Saving Paws Rescue Arizona takes mainly German shepherds and Belgian Malinois.
So, when she got the call from Maricopa County Animal Care and Control that two 10-week old German shepherd siblings were found as strays and had leg issues, she took them. Having already dealt with a German shepherd with the same issue, bilateral straight legs, she could not turn away the dogs who would be named Donny and Marie.
Bilateral Straight Leg
Information about bilateral straight leg is pretty scarce. Some say it is genetic and can come from the mother dog and that, if caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics. Some information says it can be related to Neospora Caninum.
However, if a dog has it, there really is no turning back. Currently, there is no medication or surgery to repair legs that freeze or are paralyzed in a straight position and can’t bend. There is a lot of speculation about what it is and why it happens, but nothing definitive has been discovered.
“The first thing you do is exercise and teach the dogs to be upright instead of sliding,” Houlihan said. “When you look at them their legs are perfectly straight; they literally cannot bend them. It’s like walking on stilts.”
Yet the dogs don’t seem to be in any pain. “They don’t know anything different so we have to reprogram them and get them up and teach them to hop” instead of sitting down and sliding.
Swimming therapy is important and helps to build up the dogs’ core. Another part of their exercise taught them to sit up and then get back down. “We went against advice and put them into two-wheeled wheelchairs,” Houlihan said. “We taught how to use them so they can run and walk fast and by doing that we taught them this is fun and better than sliding.”
Although at times the dogs will still slide, they will get up and hop and move fairly quickly.
At almost a year old, the dogs are doing well. “They are super good kids,” Houlihan said. “They are a joy to be around and so much fun to watch how they’ve adapted to their handicap.”
Foster Family Fun
Donny and Marie have been in a wonderful foster home for eight months. Debra and John Himes have been with Saving Paws since April 2012. At first, they took Donny and Marie for a couple nights every week, and within months they had them full time.
“They needed so much care, therapy, a lot of exercising and massaging, and without enough volunteers, they wouldn’t advance sitting at the rescue,” Debra said. They saw a physical therapist who taught them exercises. Donny and Marie also did water therapy in a heated pool.
John said the biggest challenge is lifting Donny, who is about 70 pounds, which made his condition more severe. Marie is smaller at 49 pounds. They have to lift the dogs into a wagon that they use to take them to the park several times a week. Both dogs have wheelchairs, and Donny uses his while Marie doesn’t need her wheels.
When they first arrive at the park, Donny walks around for up to five minutes and jogs or trots a few steps before he is placed in his wheels. Even Donny’s swim therapist is pleasantly surprised by how far he has come and that he is walking since his body is longer and bigger. Donny’s good shoulder, core, and front leg strength help him to balance.
Donny is a goofy dog who loves everybody and everything, and he loves to eat. “If you walk by him and have something in your hand, Donny will snag it,” Debra said. “He’s such a goofball.” He can even be a little pickpocket and has been known to steal wallets.
At the park, Marie loves to take off running. She can bunny hop and run pretty fast, according to Debra. Marie is always looking around at what’s going on. “She’s so afraid she’s going to miss something, so eating is not that important to her,” Debra said. Marie is timid when meeting new people, but she loves her pack. “She’s feisty but she’s a snuggler if she knows you really well,” John said.
Donny has gotten pretty fast in his wheels. “He started to check out trees like a normal dog,” Debra said. He is adventurous, very social and loves bedtime.
Before they were mobile, all they did was drag themselves around, according to John. “Their increased mobility has been a big change,” he said.
Aside from having to be lifted into the car or into the wagon, the dogs are pretty much on their own. “They get around to where they need to be, and we don’t have to help them anymore,” Debra said. “Nothing restricts them. Just normal dogs wanting to be normal dogs.”
Donny and Marie have learned to adapt and are less of a challenge than people might think when they first see them. When Debra first saw them in a video, she cried. “But now they are everywhere and are happy dogs,” she said. “Their personalities are just like any other German shepherd.”
If you’re interested in adopting Donny and/or Marie, click here to fill out an application. Please note that they do best with other dogs in an active home.
To get in on the discussion of Straight Leg Shepherds, check out the Facebook group.