There’s a huge picture window in the living room of Keri Fackenthall-Bracewell and Scott Bracewell’s home in Frederick, Md. that overlooks the backyard where they likes to watch the family’s three dogs play.
Each time their almost-2-year-old German Shepherd, Tenen, races past to romp with her brother, a mix named Pocket, or chase a bird, it never fails to warm Keri’s heart. Just a year ago, they weren’t positive that Tenen would ever be able to run or jump like a normal dog. Tenen started out life as the puppy nobody wanted.
She was born in November 2012 missing several toes on her back left foot. Despite the deformity, the high-end breeder of German Shepherd working dogs was able to sell her.
But when the people who’d purchased the puppy returned her weeks later, the breeder wanted to put her down rather than risk losing money investing in her care. The Bracewells were driving to Canada when a friend who worked for the breeder called, asking if they’d be interested in the puppy. Other than the missing toes, there was nothing wrong with the puppy, the friend told them. The Bracewells, who’d just lost their German Shepherd, Pebbles, eight months earlier, weren’t sure if they were ready for another dog, much less a rambunctious puppy.
Then their friend sent a picture of the puppy.
“Before we’d even finished discussing it we were calling back,” Keri says. Their friend cared for the dog until they returned from the trip. Initially, they didn’t think the fact that the puppy was missing toes was that big of a deal. They figured she might have some balance issues, but other than that would be fine. But when they brought her to their vet, Dr. Cati DeLuca at Buckeystown Veterinary Hospital, they were given a much different prognosis.
Dr. DeLuca told the Bracewells that Tenen’s condition was much more complicated. The puppy wasn’t just missing a few toes, she was missing most of her paw and one leg was shorter than the other – most likely a result of a congenital deformity or injury when she was very young. And larger breed dogs don’t do well on three legs.
Not to mention, German Shepherds are prone to hip problems. Were they prepared for surgery, physical therapy and prosthetics? “It took us about .2 seconds to decide,” Keri says. “She’s right in front of us licking us … We’re not going to take her back.”
As it turned out, caring for a pet with reduced mobility wasn’t unfamiliar territory for the Bracewells. Pebbles had been diagnosed with degenerative myopathy, a condition similar to ALS where the dog slowly loses muscle control until they are totally paralyzed. In Pebbles, the disease progressed from her back feet up through her legs and spine. Pebbles wasn’t in pain and she was mentally healthy, so Dr. DeLuca and Pebble’s physical therapists recommended a dog wheelchair.
Initially, they thought the idea was crazy, but they looked up videos online that showed dogs walking with their back legs supported by wheels. Keri says getting a wheelchair for Pebbles gave the dog an extra nine months to a year of a good quality life.
And, unbeknownst to the Bracewells at the time, it set the stage for Tenen. “We were aware that it was possible for a dog to still have a fulfilling life even if they had some type of disability,” Keri says.
Once the Bracewell’s assured Dr. DeLuca that they were up for the challenge of caring for Tenen properly, she referred the family to Veterinary Orthopedic Sports Medicine (VOSM) in Annapolis, Md. During their consultation with Dr. Peter Lotsikas at VOSM a week later, he told the family that right now, Tenen was normal and got around fine. They couldn’t do much for her until she was 6 months old, at which point they’d discuss surgery and a prosthetic. In the meantime, Dr. Lotsikas recommended physical therapy to help develop the muscles in the deformed leg that she tended not to use.
With the prospect of a prosthetic down the road, Keri got the idea to fashion a homemade boot for her deformed leg, not only would it help protect the stub, but also Keri figured it would help Tenen get used to having something on her leg. So she bought a small dog booty – pink, of course – put padding inside, cut the back and re-sewed it to fit around her stump. It took some trial and error, but eventually she came up with a design that served the purpose. Already, they treasure that booty. Tenen also started going to physical therapy twice a month. There, they’d massage the dog and have her balance on exercise balls, use an underwater treadmill and weave around cones on an incline – all to force her to use her shorter leg and build muscle. The Bracewells also worked with Tenen at home.
When she was 5 months old, they took Tenen to another consult with Dr. Lotsikas – who had moved to Care Veterinary Center in Frederick – a lucky stroke for the Bracewell’s who were pleased that Tenen’s care could be handled close to home.
Dr. Lotsikas said it was time to start looking into a Partial Limb Prosthetic. He referred the family to the team at Animal Ortho Care. “We were really excited for her that there were these options,” says Keri. “We had no idea how expensive it was going to be. Thought it was going to be in thousands. We were lucky that it wasn’t.”
The Bracewell’s took Tenen to Animal Ortho Care’s office, where the AOC Team explained to them what the prosthetics looked like and how they worked, offering suggestions about what type he thought would work for their dog.
Keri says the AOC Team was very knowledgeable about the anatomy of their dog’s leg and the physics and science behind how the prosthetic would work. They walked them through the entire process, answering questions and putting the family at ease. “It was amazing. It was easy. They’re friendly. They’re open. It was very relaxing,”
Keri says of working with Animal Ortho Care. “You sort of go into this situation with a little hesitancy and some anxiety … the AOC Team makes you feel like it’s no big deal.” He gave the Bracewells confidence that they were going to be successful and that Tenen would be happy.
The AOC Team took a cast of Tenen’s leg, asked what color the family wanted (they settled on purple after Scott and their son convinced Keri that pink wasn’t tough enough) and told them the prosthetic would be ready in a couple of weeks.
The next question was about how Tenen would take to her new leg.
Keri said that Tenen was crazy fast on three legs. She’d just tuck her left foot up and be off. They were afraid she’d decide that she didn’t need the prosthetic.
But when they returned two weeks later to try it on, Tenen started walking right away.
“She was not phased for a second,” Keri says. “It took two or three tosses of the ball for her to figure out she could run faster and play harder with that thing.” What’s more, Tenen never once tried to chew on it or lick it. Never acted like she didn’t want it on. Keri thinks using the booty on her stump as a puppy might have helped her adapt easily to the prosthetic.
“We call it her super girl foot because she would get excited to put it on and I think she understands the difference in her ability when it’s on,” Keri says. Now she wears it for about 12 hours a day, and lets Keri or Scott know when she’s ready to take it off at night.
Despite how easily Tenen adapted to her prosthetic, there were still issues with her leg that needed to be fixed.
In November 2013, Dr. Lotsikas performed his first surgery on Tenen’s leg, amputating a small portion of her stump and fusing some of the bones together to make a smoother surface for the prosthetic to fit on. Six months later, she had a minor follow up surgery to correct a small bone that was digging inside the prosthetic.
After the surgeries, the Bracewells reintroduced the prosthetic gradually because they found she her stump was sore after not having worn it while she was healing.
But today, she’s good to go. Now on her third prosthetic (she outgrew her first two before the surgeries) Tenen has adapted to her new leg so well the Bracewells have a new problem on their hands: Retraining their now overgrown puppy.
See, when Tenen was a puppy, they never really had to worry about her jumping up on people because of her deformed foot. But within five minutes of putting the prosthetic on she was jumping on everybody.
While the Bracewells enrolled Tenen into puppy kindergarten back when they first got her, they eventually pulled her out because of concern about the pressure she was putting on her healthy back leg. She learned some basic commands, but between the surgeries, recoveries and her limited mobility, the obedience school dropout never learned now to properly walk on a leash or that she shouldn’t jump.
So it’s back to school for Tenen.
The Bracewells are also planning to get a backup prosthetic because they’ve found that high-energy Tenen is really hard on them. This way, if one needs to be tweaked, they can ship it to Animal Ortho Care for adjustments and still have one on hand for their dog.
Keri can’t speak highly enough about her experience with the team at Animal Ortho Care. “We’re exceedingly grateful,” Keri says. “And so, so, so, fortunate that a company with the right skills and the team close enough that they were able to give Tenen her life.”
The Bracewell’s say that as Tenen ages, there’s always a chance she could develop problems in her healthy right leg from the extra strain placed on it over time, but they feel confident that the prosthetic will help prolong the health of that leg by balancing her backend, so to speak.
For now, they’re thrilled that the puppy nobody wanted, can play and act like a normal dog. Keri says the biggest lesson she’s learned and the one thing she wants others to keep in mind is that having a pet with a disability isn’t as difficult as you might think.
While it does take time and effort and money, it’s not as time-consuming or as tasking or as expensive as they originally thought it would be. So before you eliminate the possibility of caring for such a pet, look into it, Keri says.
“The dog still has a chance for a happy life.”