People say “It’s a dog’s life” like that’s a bad thing.
They should meet Rex, a Labrador retriever mix with a birth defect that reduced his front legs to two stubs and paws.
Rex and his siblings were dropped off at Houston shelter. Instead of being euthanized with dozens of other unadoptable dogs, Rex was rescued. And then rescued again. And again.
Now he lives in a nice house with a fenced-in yard, three other dog friends and people who love him. He gets to go swimming some weekends. Most recently, he got a special cart to help him get around.
A dog’s life indeed.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Rex was hopping (on his back legs) or wriggling forward (on his front legs) to greet visitors to his home—or rather, JoLynn Burden’s home.
But Rex was the center of attention, not the Burdens. The Ettehadiehs had come from Houston to see him. Faith and Combiz Ettehadieh and their son Ethan were the first people to rescue Rex.
“It could have been a lot worse. He could have been euthanized at four weeks,” Faith tells people who express sympathy for Rex.
“He gets around just fine,” JoLynn said. “He’s very happy.”
It’s true. Callie Burden, 14, or Booker Burden, 16, might have to carry Rex into the backyard, but once he gets there, he explores on his own.
“If he wants to go somewhere, he’ll get there,” JoLynn said.
Rex can hop on his back legs. With his stubby front legs, bent over paws and reddish-tan coloring, he looks like a kangaroo.
He also can wiggle forward, using his bulging shoulder muscles to crawl and his back legs to push.
Rex learned to swim at Dunkin Dogs in Janesville. He wears a floatation vest, but his shoulder muscles move in the classic “doggie paddle” motion and his back legs kick him forward.
On a recent weekend, the Burdens took Rex and their other dogs to Lake Koshkonong. Family members put their hard-top raft in the water. Rex leaped from the raft and swam back. The family pulled him out and then off he went again. Over and over.
“He uses his tail like a rudder,” JoLynn said.
Now Rex has a new cart from Gunnar’s Wheels. The front part of his body rests in a supportive sling. Wheels on metal legs allow him to move forward without putting all of his weight on his back legs.
“We didn’t want him to get arthritis or injure his back legs,” JoLynn explained.
Rex’s youth was a factor, too. He’s such a young dog that the Burdens believed he would get good use out of the cart.
Rex is still learning how to drive it and hasn’t mastered the trick of turning yet.
This is not his first set of wheels. The Ettehadieh family made him a makeshift cart with training wheels when he was a puppy.
Rex—the Ettehadiehs called him “Nugget”—is the 48th dog or group of dogs the family has rescued.
“Sometimes we get a litter,” Faith said. “We just count that as one.”
The Ettehadiehs and the Burdens work through Houston-based Lola’s Lucky Day and Paddy’s Paws, a Fort Atkinson-based dog rescue. Lola’s Lucky Day brings dogs from the Harris County Shelter and other Texas shelters to Wisconsin and works with groups such as Paddy’s Paws to find them homes.
The stray dog population is much larger in Texas.
“People don’t spay and neuter like they do here,” Faith said.
At animal shelters where Faith lives, a dog that is surrendered by its owner might be euthanized immediately if the shelter is full, she said.
Strays picked up off the street must be kept for a few days so families have a chance to reclaim them.
JoLynn estimates that Paddy’s Paws has saved at least 1,900 dogs since its founding in late 2014.
Lola’s Lucky Day has foster families in both Texas and Wisconsin. Once in Wisconsin and established in a foster family, the dogs are put up for adoption. If the adoption doesn’t work out, the dog still has its Wisconsin foster family.
The Ettehadiehs were Rex’s first foster home. He was placed in an adoptive home in Wisconsin, but when that placement didn’t work out, he went to the Burdens’ home as a foster dog.
“After about six months, we decided that this was his forever home, not his foster home,” JoLynn said.
The foster and adoptive families who are part of Lola’s Lucky Day and Paddy’s Paws often stay in touch, and social media helps strengthen those connections.
The Ettehadiehs loved Rex so much they decided to visit him to see how he was doing.
“It’s hard to give them up,” Ethan Ettehadieh said of the foster animals. “But if we didn’t give them up, we couldn’t help other dogs.”