The instant Pirelli was born, the staff at the Canine Assistants “farm” in Alpharetta, Ga., knew he was destined for a special job. He would not be a service dog or a therapy dog or a seizure-response dog like the other eight puppies in his litter. The staff knew immediately that the demands of those jobs would be too much for the newborn – because he had just three paws.
Without that fourth paw, the constant walking, standing and climbing required of a service dog would be hard on his leg, even with a prosthetic paw, according to Canine Assistants Director of Development Tib Holland.
“Pretty much as soon as he was born and we saw what his medical condition was, we knew being a service dog was out of the question,” Holland says. But the staff never considered ousting him from the farm.
“All of our dogs that are born here go through our program. Pirelli was a special case. We had to think of something for him to do without causing further harm to his leg,” Holland says.
So, while the staff considered what role the tiny Golden Retriever-Labrador Retriever-cross pup might serve, Pirelli went into training. Wearing a special boot to protect the end of his leg – where a paw would have been had it not been wrapped in the umbilical cord in utero – he jumped into the program like every other dog. “He’s being trained exactly the same,” Holland says. “He’ll just have a different outcome.”
Unlike all of the other young dogs in the Canine Assistants training program, however, he’ll start his new job before he’s 18 months old.
Now 5 months old, it’s almost time for him to get his first prosthetic. In two months, he’ll be evaluated at North Carolina State University. If he’s deemed a good candidate for a prosthetic paw, he’ll be fitted at a subsequent visit. Holland says it will look like a boot with tread on the bottom. Inside is a hinge-like foot that will surround his rear left leg, going up about halfway, “kind of like a cast.”
Once it’s fitted and adjusted over time as needed, Pirelli will be ready to get to work.
Later, Holland says, “It’s hopeful that at one point, he’ll be a recipient of a prosthetic grafted to the bone in his leg.” Two advantages to an attached artificial paw are that it gives more natural movement and doesn’t cause wear on the outside of the leg.
While he’s waiting for that final prosthetic, Pirelli, who got his name because he needed some “retreads,” will join Canine Assistants’ disability awareness education program. “He’s going to go into schools and teach children about disabilities and how individuals with disabilities can be very functional,” Holland says. “Pirelli is a perfect example.”
“We knew the education program would be enhanced by his presence. There isn’t really a dog out there better suited than he is to teach disability education.”
Although Canine Assistants conducts such programs all over the U.S., Pirelli will be staying fairly close to home, Holland says. “He will need consistent, special care throughout his life.”
“We are in a position to give him the best care possible, and a very functional and rewarding life. He’s actually going to have a very active, very busy lifestyle,” Holland says.
Each year, the nonprofit Canine Assistants places 75 to 100 dogs with children and adults with disabilities, seizure conditions and other special needs. Since its founding in 1991 by Jennifer Arnold, who had multiple sclerosis as a teenager, the organization has matched about 1,000 dogs with people. Executive Director Arnold is also the author of “Through a Dog’s Eyes: Understanding Our Dogs by Understanding How They See the World,” published in 2011 by Spiegel and Grau.
Most of the Goldens, Labs, and Golden-Lab crosses are born and raised on an 18-acre farm, where they begin preliminary training at just 2 days of age. Holland says they mix the two breeds for the “patience, calmness and early maturity” typical in Goldens and the work ethic of the Lab. The puppies are “easily trained and easily motivated,” he says. Some dogs in the 18-month training program are adopted from shelters and rescues. All of the dogs learn 90 commands and a variety of skills from opening and closing doors to turning lights on and off.
Canine Assistants’ training camp for people being matched with service dogs was the subject of a documentary. It first aired on PBS stations in 2010 and is viewable online. For information about Canine Assistants, visit www.canineassistants.org.