By Michelle Leifer
Cruising in their custom wheelchairs, Chili and Arlo are the center of attention wherever they go. But for patients at the Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, these two canine caregivers are also an inspiration.
“Many of the patients are new to wheelchairs,” Linda Marler, the program’s director told TODAY.com. “When they see Chili and Arlo, they say, ‘If those dogs can do it, so can I.’ ”
Chili and Arlo are the only dogs with disabilities among the 90 specially trained therapy dogs that participate in Baylor’s Animal Assisted Therapy program. The canine volunteers make weekly visits to lift the spirits of patients who have suffered traumatic injuries or a stroke.
“We use the dogs to create more of a home atmosphere and also to get a response,” Marler said.
She’s found that animals will often elicit a reaction when every other method has failed. “For head injury patients, a dog has been the first thing they respond to when emerging from a coma,” Marler said. “For others, being with a dog is what motivates them to speak or throw a ball.”
Or use a wheelchair. Marler says some of the patients who had been reluctant to use one are willing to give it a shot after spending time with Arlo and Chili.
“Just seeing the dogs seems to make them feel better,” she said.
Rescued and rehabilitated
Just like the patients they visit, Arlo and Chili have struggled with adversity. When Chili, a 6-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, was 8 weeks old, she was thrown over a fence onto cement, breaking her back. She suffered neurological damage and is unable to use her back legs.
As for Arlo, a 6-year-old miniature dachshund, he suffers from degenerative disc disease, which has left him paralyzed from his mid-back down. He was found as a stray, malnourished and dragging his back legs behind him.
Both dogs were rescued by Jim and Bettye Baker, founders of Oak Hill Animal Rescue in Seagoville, Texas, just outside Dallas. The Bakers started their nonprofit in 2006 to save animals that were just days away from being euthanized at city shelters. Since then, they’ve found homes for more than 500 dogs.
Rather than put Arlo and Chili up for adoption, the Bakers made them part of their family. To enhance the dogs’ mobility, they had them outfitted with wheelchairs custom-made by a Massachusetts-based company called Eddie’s Wheels.
“The minute we put Arlo in the chair, he took off like a rocket,” Bettye said. “He doesn’t walk anywhere; he runs.”
Chili, however, was slower to embrace her new wheels. “She was a little like a porcelain statue at first,” Jim said. “Now she absolutely flies, wagging her tail and smiling the whole time.”
That enthusiasm has made Chili and Arlo a big hit with the patients at Baylor.
“The patients just love them,” Jim said. “Seeing the dogs happy and thriving in their wheelchairs just makes people smile.”