by Mary Torio
Two months ago Planned Pethood lost Starr, an alumnus of the rescue, and Planned Pethood’s original “Ambassadog.” Starr came into my life after I applied for a Golden Retriever(as a friend for my current German Shepherd(GSD), who was partially paralyzed due to a disease called degenerative myeleopathy, and used a doggie wheelchair), and received a reply asking me to please consider a scared, abused GSD who was not warming up to humans or other dogs in the foster home, and needed someone who understood special needs Shepherds.
I agreed to meet her, but with no plan on taking her in. Riiiiight, famous last words! I brought my other GSD, complete with wheels, to meet the little lady. She was a beautiful, little girl, just as lovely as can be. When the foster opened the car door, this dog who had not gone up to anyone voluntarily since being surrendered marched over to me, sat on my foot, leaned on my leg and looked up at me with those beautiful, sad eyes. I didn’t stand a chance! My other GSD went right to her to give her a kiss. She came home with me as soon as we could get the paperwork done.
Starr had obviously been abused. She was terrified of people and new situations. If you came up behind her too suddenly she’d flinch as if expecting to be kicked. She hid if people came to my house. But she and I were best pals from the day I brought her home. She not only loved me, but whenever we’d go outside she would stay very close to my GSD with the wheels, as if standing guard over him, be it at home or at the barn where my horses were. She was silly and playful and developed a true joy for life.
With love and patience, Starr came out of her shell of fear of humans. I started lessons with her in order to build her confidence, and we quickly realized she had the perfect temperament to be a therapy dog. Just a couple months past our one year anniversary together, Starr (along with her adopted GSD mix sibling Emma) passed the test to become a Therapy Dog International certified therapy dog. I was so proud! My scared little girl wasn’t scared any more! Indeed, she now sought attention from people!
Starr and Emma became “Ambassadogs” for Planned Pethood, assisting me with presentations about PPI. We visited scout troops, senior centers and schools. Starr had a very serene, quiet way about her that seemed to draw out the scared or abused children. On visits to special needs classrooms we had some absolutely amazing experiences.
One of the first and most memorable visits involved a very special young boy in my sister’s classroom. He twirled his fingers in Starr’s fur, patted her, looked her in the eye and told her all sorts of things in his own verbal language only the two of them understood. He spent 35 minutes with her, occasionally leaning over to hug her and press his cheek against her fur. He event got a book, and holding it upside down “read” to her from it, holding it up to her nose so he could point out the pictures to her. She stood rock-still the entire time, just being. Radiating calm and love.
This child’s grandma came to pick him up and exclaimed that he was afraid of dogs. My sister shushed the grandma and asked her to just watch for a while. Finally she called out to him that it was time to go. As he left he looked back at Starr, waved and said as clear as day “Goodbye Starr! I love you!” I didn’t understand Grandma’s tears or my sister’s gasp of shock. Later my sis explained that this little boy was autistic. He did not speak or like to make eye contact, nor did he allow anyone to touch him. He typically avoided touching things. But with Starr he did all those things on his own initiative.
When we visited again, he was allowed to hold Starr’s leash on the condition that he speak to give her commands (sit, stay, come, etc.). He did so with confidence, but in a voice so quiet I had to stand behind him and give her the corresponding hand signals. But oh, this little guy was SO proud when she did what he asked! He was so excited he even spoke a couple words to me! My sister told me that Starr’s visits seemed to have prompted a permanent breakthrough with this little boy. I can still see his big eyes shining up at me while smiling a huge beaming smile in his joy being with Starr.
Starr developed a disease called Degenerative Myeleopathy which causes gradual paralysis and eventual death. My first GSD, her buddy in the wheels had died of it already. There is no cure- it is fatal. She gradually lost the ability to walk on her own power. But that didn’t mean she was done living! We got her a wheeled cart so she could stay active. She took to her wheels like gangbusters, and would happily roll around visiting when we’d go give our presentations. At the barn she would run with the other dogs and try to chase bunnies. I have pictures of her following the other dogs into huge puddles with her wheels. I was often amazed by how extensive her wheel tracks were in the dirt. She certainly got around! She was like a little furry ATV out there, rolling over stumps and rocks and even railroad ties on occasion. When she’d get stuck she’d patiently wait for me to come get her unstuck, then off she’d roll again!
The first presentation we gave after she got her wheels was to a girl scout troop. After my talk I had let the dogs run free in the gym with the kids. A mom came up to me acting very shaken up. I thought “uh-oh, Starr ran over someone’s foot with her wheels and scared them or something”. Nope. This mom told me her daughter had been mauled by a dog several years prior, and been terrified of dogs ever since. The mom watched her little girl walk over to Starr (who was off leash and not near me), put her arms around Starr’s neck, and gave the dog a hug and a kiss. The mom was just so happy to see her daughter, voluntarily, not merely go near a dog, but wrap her arms around one and not be afraid.
Starr had a similar impact on seniors who were unsure around dogs. At one senior center a woman told me she was afraid and just wanted to look at the dogs. I told her not to worry, I wouldn’t let them touch her. Starr had her own ideas about that. She just walked over and stood close the woman, but looking away from and not touching her. She waited patiently as if to say “take your time, I’ll be here when you are ready.” Sure enough the woman eventually felt safe enough not only to pet Starr, but then to pet Emma and Herbie( the other two “ambassadogs” that were there with us that day).
I could go on and on about the people Starr touched:the children who are normally behavior problems who were absolute angels when Starr was in their room, the children who were victims of abuse and wouldn’t talk to adults, who would talk to Starr, the kids who didn’t like to read who would take a book and read it to her. I think of the wheelchair using adults and children who could relate to Starr’s need for wheels and what it said about living life to the fullest, even if your legs don’t work… the grandfather at PPI’s birthday party who told her “It’s hard isn’t it old girl, but we’re doing ok” as he patted her on her head with tears in his eyes.
She didn’t just touch people. Starr’s being in wheels helped dogs as well. So many people who had no idea there were options out there for their physically disabled dogs after meeting Starr were able to help their own dogs in ways they had not known were possible. I can’t tell you how many e-mails we’ve gotten to PPI from people who met her in her wheels asking for info for their own dogs.
I have so many beautiful, heart-touching stories from the too few years I had her with me… there were just so many people whose lives she affected. Part of the beauty of Starr was that she drew as much benefit from them as they did from her. Even after the disease had stricken her to such a degree that she could only manage an hour visit, she’d come home from that hour just glowing. And she’d be noticeably more pleased with life for days after.
It was my privilege and honor to have her in my life. She was a gift of such magnitude that words can’t do it justice. I am so grateful that I was able to share her gentle serenity with so many people. As the disease progressively ravaged her body she lost more and more physical ability, but she never lost her loving, silly, sweet spirit. She stayed proud and happy until the end.
On June 12th 2010 she let me know that she was done fighting, and needed me to let her go. We go to Banfield in Rossford, and they were so kind, you could tell they loved her too. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Even in her death Starr continued to give, as we donated her remains to the University of Missouri where they are doing research on DM, trying to find treatments and a cure. The staff at Banfield took care of that for us, and I can’t thank them enough. It was very important to me that her death not be for nothing. Hopefully her contribution to the research will help find a cure for this horrible disease that took her way too soon.
Starr left behind a legacy of love that Emma, Herbie and I are trying to live up to. We continue with our program of educational presentations and therapy visits without her physical presence, but with her close by in spirit.
Goodbye Starr, I love you!