Let’s say one day you find yourself in a shelter. Let’s say that behind the bars of a run, you see a pretty pair of brown eyes looking back at you and you think, “That dog right there. That’s my dog”. Then you notice something a little awkward about his gait. And then you look closer. The dog you’re already half in love with has three legs. The shelter attendant sees your look and tells you that it’s OK, that the dog does just fine, that there’s nothing abnormal about his life, but you, from the other side of the run, cannot really believe that. After all, the dog only has three legs! And you’re a nice, loving person, but you’d envisioned yourself running around and playing with your new buddy, and you can’t quite imagine how a “disabled dog” would fit that role.
Well, let me tell you: a couple of years ago, that person was me, and the dog staring out at me from behind the wall at the shelter was Nellie. At the time, she actually had four legs: one of them, however, didn’t work, the result of an old break that had been allowed to heal badly, and the shelter people told me that it was going to need to be amputated. She needed a foster home, they said, one that she could stay in while she was recovering. They didn’t want the sad, quiet little yellow dog to have to re-learn how to walk on the hard concrete shelter floor.
I am a pretty active person–I like to play sports with my dogs and take them on adventures, and at the time, I was living in a total hiking paradise in the North Carolina mountains and loping around in the forest with my dog Lucy every single day. The idea of a three-legged dog didn’t really make sense with how I lived. But heck, I had a nice comfy house for a little dog to recover in, I was working on my dissertation and had enough spare time to cuddle a little dog and teach her how to walk: I could foster her! No big deal! It’s not like I was committing!
…yeeeeah. So Nellie was my first (and currently only, knock wood) Foster Fail. I was writing a “Dear Shelter, There is no way you’re getting this dog back, Love, Kelsey” email in my head, oh, eleven seconds after getting her in the door. All of my “but I want to play flyyyyyyyyball!” objections melted away pretty quickly, once the actual dog was in my house, making friends with crankypants Lucy, so sweet, so grateful to be somewhere warm and soft. “Three legs–I will deal”, I thought.
The good news is this: I didn’t have to deal. Here’s Nellie today:I went in thinking that life with a tripod was going to be very different than it is. Here are five things that I have learned along the way and wanted to share with you, especially if you are someone who has, knows, loves or might end up with a tripod (which is to say, anyone with a dog):
1) Your dog is probably going to be awesome
It is true that some tripod dogs take a longer time to recover from surgery. Anecdotally, dogs who take a while to bounce back are often a little older, or have some systemic issue (like cancer) that they are also dealing with. My experience was, however, very different. I’d read up on the post-surgical process enough that I wasn’t expecting her to have a multi-month recovery or anything, but I was shocked by how little the loss of her leg phased her. Her surgery was in the morning, and I’d expected her to stay at the veterinary hospital overnight, but around 2 PM, I got a call from the vets: “Yeah, um, your little invalid is running around the hospital trying to get all of the sick dogs to play with her, so you can probably come pick her up now.”
She’d apparently been up and running since ten minutes after coming out of anesthesia. I’d fully expected to be spending a week spooning chicken broth into the mouth of sick little dog and re-teaching her to walk. There was no re-teaching her to walk. There was only “Oh my god, Nellie, stop jumping off the back of the couch, you’re going to rip your stitches!” and “Chill out with the biteyface, you are supposed to be BROKEN!”
While this is certainly anecdata and not data, the people I’ve talked to who also started out with young, healthy dogs echo my experience with Nellie: their dogs were up and running after surgery almost immediately and appeared to barely notice the loss of the leg (if they noticed at all). There’s a fabulous website called Tripawds that I relied on a lot before Nellie had her surgery: while it’s somewhat vectored towards dogs who’ve lost their legs due to cancer, if you spend much time on the forums there, you will see ten posts about how shocked owners were by their dogs’ quick recoveries to every one worried post from an owner whose dog is a little slower to bounce back.
One thing that has been fascinating to me in the 2+ years since Nellie’s surgery is the way her body has adapted physiologically to the missing leg. Besides her happy happy face, there are two primary things I notice in the picture above where she’s running: first, she carries her front leg in between her back two legs, very much like a tripod you might have for a camera, and second, the muscles in her front leg and in her remaining shoulder have developed to really facilitate this setup. She’s become a tiny bit muscle-bound–even when she sleeps, her front leg rests sort of askew between her two back legs–but that extra muscle development really seems to support the front leg.
When she runs, she uses the front leg as a bit of a pivot: it lands on the ground first and then she kicks off with her back feet, as you can see in the Frisbee picture to the left. She also has adapted her gait so she now scissor-kicks when she runs (sort of akin to the double suspension gallop that you’ll often see in sighthounds.)
One of the great side effects of her new gait and the way her muscles have moved around is that she is fast. This is awesome for me, because…well, remember how I mentioned I wanted a flyball dog? I got one.
That’s my tripod wonderpuppy puppy doing a flyball runback at practice a couple of months ago. After fretting about it forever, I finally steeled myself up and entered her in a beginner class (shout out to the wonderful K-9 Kamikazees of Richmond, VA who were Nell’s first flyball teachers and remain my very favorite group of dog people ever.) She love love loves flyball, it turns out, and she’s got a lovely, graceful little box turn (the part that I was the most worried about developing, given that she’s only got one leg to push off with). And the fact that she’s turned into such a speedy little thing really helps, too! This video, which is unfortunately the only one I have, doesn’t demonstrate how fast she can go (it was the last run of a three-hour practice, and she was ready to take a nap). I haven’t run her in a tournament yet, largely because we’re moving fairly frequently because of my job right now and so we’ve never had time to really establish ourselves with a team. But when we’ve clocked her at practice, she routinely runs in under 4.5 seconds. That’s not anywhere near what Steve does, of course, but it’s pretty freaking respectable for a newish-to-the-sport dog, three legs or not. Plus, it’s great conditioning, she has a blast, and I get to play with my puppy in a game I’ve always wanted to play. Win-win!
And if you’re still worried how your tripod dog will do, take a look at Faith the TWO-legged dog! After watching that, having three legs seems cushy!
2) You will be answering the question “What happened to your dog?” about twenty times a day for the rest of your dog’s life.
Here’s Nellie’s Official Story: Nellie was born into a pretty crappy situation; she was owned by some people who left her, her brother and her parents chained in their backyard 24/7/365, regardless of climate (no kidding about that, either: from what I have pieced together about her past, she was pretty much in the backyard on a chain from the moment she was born.) She broke her leg in some mysterious way and her people refused to pay the $80 the vet was asking for to fix it. They asked if they could just have her euthanized; the vet said he wouldn’t do that, and anyway, it would be more expensive then just fixing her leg; instead of doing anything about it, they took her back, tried to let it heal on its own, and when it healed badly and it became clear she couldn’t walk on it, they dumped her on the highway outside the shelter and she found her own way there. I wish these people ill (they have since been prosecuted for animal cruelty and all their dogs have been seized and placed in better homes.) She recovered from surgery really quickly, and now she’s the happiest dog in the world. Yes, she’s doing great! No, I don’t think she misses it at all!
I have a short version and a long version of this story, plus an edited version for kids and people with fragile sensibilities. This is because, no joke, I am asked about it EVERY SINGLE TIME I am out in the world with Nell. People are curious, people want to make conversation, people have never seen a three-legged dog before, so they ask. I would recommend against having a tripod if you don’t like to talk to strangers, because you will be talking to a lot of strangers! People will ask about her leg when my arms are full of groceries. People will come up with their dogs and ask about it, and even if she’s being a leash-reactive butthead and yelling at their dog, they will want a small, pleasant conversation about my dog’s leg, which I try to give them, even as I’m trying to play LAT with Nellie and get her to stop being a jerk.
(Also, because she’s a pit bull, you’d be surprised how often I’m asked if her leg was ripped off in a fight. THAT’S fun! Pit bull people will know what I’m talking about here: typically I have to do the “no, pit bulls are really nice dogs/look how friendly my dog is” spiel on top of the leg thing, which means that these conversations get long, and sometimes you just want to, you know, put your groceries down and stop being an ambassador for a second. So it goes.)
While it can occasionally be tiring to be constantly telling The Story, I try to always, always do it if I’m asked. My thinking is that in general, your dog is the first tripod dog the person has met, and there’s always the chance that someday, that person’s neighbor will be contemplating euthanizing their dog rather than amputating a leg, and that person will think back on you and your happy little tripod and say, “You know, I met a dog with three legs once who did just fine and seemed so happy!” And that, right there, makes every iteration of The Story worthwhile.
Still, when I see people with tripods out in the world, my little gift to them is that I just smile and say, “Beautiful dog!”. They, of course, are braced to tell their version of The Story, and when I don’t ask, they relax and smile and say thanks, and we move on.
3) You will forget your dog has three legs. Other people will not.
Apologies to my male readers–this is just an analogy–but are we, as a readership, familiar with the concept of mansplaining? (if not, Tiger Beatdown has a good writeup: in brief, it is a sort of condescending comment stating an obvious claim, originally called ‘mansplaining’ because of the way it is frequently deployed in discussion around matters of sexism [i.e.: "Have you considered that maybe men make more money that women because they're more qualified?])
Well, tripod-having friends, prepare yourself for the brave new world of Legsplaining. This is a condition where every normal or abnormal thing your dog does from here on out will be first attributed to her missing leg. This can take many forms: for example, when my grandmother saw Nellie sacked out sunning herself on the porch for the first time, she got very worried that maybe Nellie had somehow lost her balance and keeled over. But sometimes, it takes surprising forms: it’s come up twice at the vet, once when Nellie was having some trouble learning about the concept that inside-is-not-for-peeing and I wanted to get her checked for a UTI (the vet suggested maybe she was physically incapable of getting herself to the door, which is a reasonable theory until you spend five minutes with my dog and watch her torpedoing herself off furniture and galloping through the forest.) Another time, it came up as a possible reason that Nellie had a chicken allergy (I still am not certain of the logic there, and yes, I have a new vet now.) At classes, I have to spend a lot of time telling my teachers that it’s not that she physically can’t do some activity, it’s because she hasn’t learned how to do it yet. Out at the park, on the rare occasion that Nell is a jerk, I remind people that it’s not that she is in pain, it’s that she’s overexcited and needs to leave the park (or, conversely, that their dog isn’t picking on her “because he knows she’s different”, but rather because their dog is being a jerk.)
This goes back to what Rebecca talked about in Being Your Dog’s Advocate: this is not a way I ever thought I’d have to advocate for my dog, but indeed, I find myself very often needing to tell people that despite the fact that the three legs is the first thing they see, there are a lot of other facets to my dog. She’s scared of grates in the street, she’s occasionally leash reactive, she loves leaping up joyfully and licking your nose, she likes the teeter but not the dog walk in agility: in short, she’s a dog, with normal dog quirks and opinions and skills, and I suspect she thinks a lot less about her missing leg than anyone who meets her does. And it’s my job to make sure that people are seeing the full measure of her and not just the absent leg.
4) Regardless of their awesomeness, you still may have to help your dog out.
Conditioning and exercise and good nutrition are, of course, important for any dog, but it’s even more important for a tripod; as awesome and capable as your dog is, their joints are under more stress than those of a four-legger, and they’ve got a statistically higher risk of injuring the remaining leg (whether it’s a front or a back limb). Here are some things you can do to keep your buddy in optimal condition:
- Watch out for those remaining joints! The best way to do this is to keep getting exercise and keep your dog physically conditioned. The best way to protect stressed muscle groups is to have the muscles around them be all toned and supportive, so figure out what kind of exercise you and your dog enjoy doing together and start doing it! And this can happen quicker than you think after surgery: on the advice of my vet, Nellie and I were slowly building back up to hiking and playing some low-impact fetch while she still had staples in.
Joint-supportive supplements are also very helpful: Nell gets a glucosamine/chondroitin capsule every day (Cosequin is probably the most popular for dogs; I usually get over-the-counter human formulations, since it’s a little less spendy) plus a gelcap of something with omega 3s, usually fish or flax oil. I would doubly recommend this if you’ve got a dog who is prone either by breed or breeding to joint or ligament injuries anyway: pitties often have trouble with their CCL (canine cruciate ligament), so I doubly want Nell’s body to be able to support those ligaments as much as possible (and I am doubly paranoid about them as well!)
- In tandem with the above: keep them light! Nellie is pretty tiny and light of bone, and she clocks in at around 35 lbs., which is on the low end of the normal spectrum for a dog of her size and structure. Extra weight is detrimental to the joints and doubly hard on joints that are taking on twice the work.
- Work their core! Good abdominal support is a great thing for tripods, and there are a lot of exercises you can do to help build that strength, some of which your dog may know already. Lots of dogs know “sit pretty”, where they sit up like a meerkat, and as they get good at it, you can make the sits more challenging: sit pretty on a hill, sit pretty on a soft surface, sit pretty for 30 seconds, sit pretty–>stand on back legs–>back to sit pretty. Other fun things include asking your dog to kick his back legs up from a sit and move to a stand, teaching your dog to army crawl and practicing cross leg stands, where you gently pick up the leg that is diagonal to your dog’s missing leg, which means your dog must use her core muscles to balance (Nellie is missing her right front leg, so when we do this, I pick up her back left leg.) Stretches are also helpful, both to build your dog’s strength and flexibility and to warm them up before exercise. Do stretches: put a treat on your dog’s hip and ask them to bend around and grab it, teach your dog to put their front and back paw/s on a raised surface like a table (I’ve taught Nellie to do this outside–agility people, it’s the same as teaching a 2on/2off–and she likes to demonstrate it when we’re out walking).
There’s a great company called FitPaws that makes a bunch of stuff for canine conditioning that I covet: we’ve used the Peanut, which Nell thought was great fun, and while we haven’t used it enough that I can personally speak to its efficacy, a lot of people (including my favorite dog rehab vet) swear by it.
- Many people find supportive/integrated medicine like chiropractic and acupuncture tremendously helpful for tripods; I’ve done chiropractic with both of my dogs (Lucy’s got a bad hip) and they both love it, seem to feel great and appear visibly looser after a session. My current vet does a lot of cold laser and we’ve talked about doing it prophylactically; I’ll certainly be doing it if Nellie ever does hurt a muscle or a ligament.
- If your dog is having mobility problems or just needs a little extra support (say, climbing into the car or onto a floating dock after swimming), many companies make harnesses geared specifically for tripods. One that I’ve had my eye on for years is the Ruffwear WebMaster harness: Tripawds does a review of it geared towards three-legged dogs (with adorable photos!) here.
If your dog is missing a front leg like Nellie is and you’re looking for a regular walking harness, I’ve actually had a lot of success with the Clean Run ComfortFlex harness, generally used for flyball: the girth strap is fairly far back, and thus it seems to slide around less than other stuff we’ve tried. Tiny Broken Invalid Puppy pulls like a train, unfortunately, and I’ve often regretted that front-clip harnesses like the EasyWalk don’t work well for dogs missing front legs.
- There may be some little things that your dog needs a little extra help learning to do. Nellie, for example, swam in circles when she first learned to swim: she paddled furiously with her front leg but couldn’t steer with it, so she would spin around like a little top until I finally plucked her out of the water.
What helped was getting her in a life jacket for the first time: once she wasn’t quite so worried about sinking, she started realizing that she could use her tail like a the rudder on a boat, so now when she swims, she steers by swirling her tail around. Likewise, your tripod dog may need help with something initially, but with a little ingenuity on both of your parts, you can very often figure out a workaround.5) Prepare for your dog to be a hero.
You are going to live with your tripod dog every day; she is going to chase the cat and knock over the trash can and be occasionally infuriating, and you are going to see her as Just A Dog, in both good and bad ways. But here’s what’s awesome and simultaneously a little mind-blowing: people are going to find inspiration in your dog, and it’s going to happen when you least expect it. Nellie and I were in Colonial Williamsburg for the Fourth of July last year, and totally by happenstance, we ended up sitting next to a man who’d lost his arm in Afghanistan at the fireworks. We ended up talking for a long time; he spent a lot of that time marveling at Nell, and it was clear that she was speaking to him in a way that was special to the two of them and very powerful to him. A few years ago, we did Paws to Read in our local library; it’s a program where little kids who are learning to read practice reading out loud to dogs, who cuddle on their laps and act as a non-judgemental audience. It’s amazing with any dog, but kids seemed to respond in a really interesting way to Nellie; they always asked about her leg and seemed to feel really protective of her, and again, that relationship was special and uniquely theirs. Right now we live in a community where a lot of people have issues with mobility, and when I’m out with Nellie, I have a lot of unexpected conversations about coping with loss and overcoming challenges. My doofy little dog becomes a symbol for a lot of people, and watching that happen is a very powerful thing for me to witness. And whatever your dog’s story, this is hands down one of the most amazing things about living with a tripod.