Special needs dog needs someone special to need him

John Kelly
Columnist May 9, 2012

Somewhere there is a person who would like to welcome Buster into his or her life. In fact, the notion flickered across my brain for a moment. Buster has a most winning personality.

But Buster also has a crushed vertebra, and though this hasn’t put a damper on his mood, it has rendered his back legs pretty much useless and robbed him of his ability to control his functions back there, if you know what I mean.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Buster is a special needs dog. Surely, someone special needs him.

He was found last fall by the side of the road in West Virginia. The dachshund/beagle puppy had apparently been struck by a car.

A McLean resident who was in West Virginia on business saw the collarless Buster, scooped him up and brought him to the Hope Center for Advanced Veterinary Medicine in Vienna. Doctors there confirmed that Buster’s back legs weren’t working and fitted him with a little cart. Then Buster moved to the McLean Animal Hospital for more treatment.


Buster (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)

“When dogs and cars get together, bad things happen,” veterinarian Jack Sexton, the hospital’s director, told me this week. He pulled up an X-ray of Buster on a computer and pointed to the puppy’s spine. “His 10th thoracic vertebra is just crushed,” the vet said.

The result is what’s called posterior paresis — paralysis of the hind limbs. This hasn’t slowed Buster down too much. He runs around quite happily in his cart and spends plenty of time out of it, too. While he sometimes appears to move his back paws — and even wag his tail — Dr. Sexton said that’s due to something called spinal cord reflex and not the result of a signal from Buster’s brain.

Buster’s accident was seven months ago. The family who found him was dealing with the terminal illness of its own dog and so couldn’t take Buster in, though it has been paying his bills. He’s become a sort of unofficial mascot of the McLean vet practice, living there, going home with staffers on some weekends, charming everyone who meets him.

“Mentally, he’s a normal dog,” said Dr. Sexton, who puts Buster’s age at about 16 months. Buster is brown and sleek, with a tongue that seems twice as long as it needs to be and the sort of hyper-attentiveness many dog owners will recognize.

Buster has become the special ward of veterinary assistant Chris D’Alexander. She takes him to her Falls Church home most weekends, a place that has become known as Camp Chris for all the dog-fostering she does there. Buster plays with Remy, Chris’s shepherd mix.

“We always say Remy is a very good camp counselor,” Chris said.

Every day Buster gets some of what Chris calls “Tigger Time.” Out of his harness, Buster can look like the Winnie the Pooh character as he scoots along, his front legs out, his back legs splayed. And he gets “Scooter Time,” where he’s strapped into his doggy wheelchair and looks like he’s about to go hang gliding.

Shara Voelker, another veterinary assistant at the practice, has a boyfriend, who modified Buster’s cart, adding a harness and strengthening the lightweight metal arms.

“He really pimped his ride,” said Chris.

Other dogs are sometimes confused at first by Buster’s contraption, but they quickly adjust.

On Wednesday, Buster moved to the Washington Animal Rescue League in Northwest to await a permanent owner. There are some who hold out hope that Buster may walk on all fours again (hey, Cousin Matthew recovered on “Downton Abbey”), but anyone contemplating adopting him has to understand a few things. Buster wears a diaper. He needs to be “expressed” a few times a day: having the urine squeezed from his bladder. For obvious reasons, he shouldn’t be in a place with stairs. And he won’t do well on carpet, since scooting himself around on his canine behind could cause a nasty rug burn. He needs hardwood floors or tile.

“They are extremely adaptable,” Dr. Sexton said of injured dogs. “They can live a good life, but they have special needs.”

As Buster nosed around an examination room, tugged on a chew toy and begged for a biscuit, Chris said, “It’s fun to see him being a dog.”

A home for Buster?

If you’re interested in adopting Buster, e-mail the Washington Animal Rescue League at natalie@warl.org or call 202-726-2556. And to see a video of Buster in action, go to www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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