Three legs, but a full heart for working with kids with disabilities


Video by Cat Mayin Koo

A three-legged pit bull, rescued from the biggest dog-fighting ring bust in U.S. history last summer, has found a home-and a future-in Chicago, where she is training to be a therapy dog for children with disabilities.

Rescuers found Dharma tethered on a tow-chain outside, living in a dirty wooden box near St. Louis. She had only a feeble stump for a right leg-what veterinarians at the Humane Society of Missouri suspect was the result of an amateur amputation after trauma.

Despite coming from abuse, the fawn-colored dog showed no aggression. “She’s just the sweetest dog in world,” says Dharma’s owner, Suzi.

Suzi is training Dharma to work with children with special needs because she hopes that “if kids see that Dharma is disabled, it can maybe make them feel more normal.”

Suzi, who asked that her last name not be used because Dharma’s previous owners have not been sentenced, adopted Dharma and brought her to Chicago.

Dharma, who couldn’t fight because of her disability and her gentle nature, was used as a breeding dog, Suzi says.

Initially too scared to walk through doors or hallways because of her past, Dharma now trains every Saturday in the South Loop. “Dharma needed to learn how to be a normal dog. She’s come a long way,” says Laura, Dharma’s trainer. Laura, a professional animal trainer, has worked with Dharma without pay because of how the dog inspires her.

Several Chicago hospitals offer animal-assisted therapy. Two that use dogs like Dharma to work with children are Shriners Hospitals for Children in Chicago and Children’s Memorial Hospital.

Dogs “can be a good distraction. Kids sometimes will walk further or reach further because they aren’t thinking about being sick,” says Darlene Kelly, who runs the animal therapy program at Shriners, where dog therapy sessions occur weekly.

At Children’s Memorial, staff notice that sick children will perk up around animals. “Most kids don’t like being in a hospital and it just puts these huge smiles on their faces,” says Willow Troy, who organizes animal therapy for children every few weeks at Children’s Memorial.

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