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Posted: October 24, 2019

Opening her heart to dog led to unexpected rewards

College of the Rockies People: Their Courage, Curiosity, and Contributions

College of the Rockies Senior Administrative Assistant Valerie Hillstrom was a volunteer with a local animal rescue organization when a young pup and his mom were rescued from an abusive home in Northern Alberta and sent to Cranbrook. Hillstrom volunteered to foster them both.

As a result of the abuse, the young pup initially had behavioural issues so he was sent to a rehabilitation facility in Salmo for seven weeks. His mom remained with Hillstrom until she was adopted by a new family. Once the young pup’s problem behaviours were improved, he returned to Hillstrom’s home in September 2016. In October she decided to adopt him.

“He had such a bad start to life, I wanted to give him a chance at a great and happy one, with loving people around him,” she said. “He was difficult to love at first because he was so shut down emotionally but eventually his quirky little personality came out and I fell for him pretty hard. Now he’s my little sunshine.”

In 2017, a veterinarian discovered that the pup, now named Tucker, had arthritis in his back legs. It continued to get progressively worse so he was prescribed pain medication, which helped tremendously. One day in September 2018, Tucker was having a good day, jumping in and out of the car, and on and off the bed, just like any other young dog. What Hillstrom didn’t realize, however, was in the midst of this activity, he had hurt himself.

When Hillstrom noticed Tucker was having some difficulty walking she wondered if his arthritis was flaring up again. Over the next couple of days he got weaker and weaker before becoming completely paralyzed in his back end. An emergency Sunday visit to his veterinarian lead to a diagnosis of a ruptured disk. Unfortunately, surgery was no longer an option, Tucker would potentially remain paralyzed.

That was the start of a very challenging year for Hillstrom and Tucker. Not only did she have to learn to care for a paralyzed dog, including helping him to go to the bathroom, but veterinary bills were mounting.

Faced with a decision about whether to let Tucker go, or to continue to fight for him, Hillstrom took her cues from Tucker.

“I figured he would tell me, in his own way, if he was ready to go,” she said. “He still had a lot of life in him, and he was willing to keep going so I had to give him that chance.”

With the goal to provide him with a good quality of life for as long as he remains healthy and happy, Hillstrom began to explore the option of a doggy wheelchair. However, costs remained an ongoing concern. With the ongoing veterinary bills, Hillstrom didn’t know how she would afford a set of wheels to help Tucker get around, especially since the vet was recommending a custom-built unit.

Having few options, and with a young dog who was depending on her, Hillstrom set up a fundraiser.

“I was totally blown away by the generosity of my co-workers at the college, as well as Facebook friends, and family,” she said.

Soon she had enough funds to not only cover a set of wheels for Tucker, but to offset some of the veterinary charges she had accumulated to date. She connected with the Canadian Animal Rehab Services and ordered Tucker his wheels.

Tucker, however, was less than thrilled with Hillstrom’s gift. He would drag himself to his bed and look up at her with very sad eyes whenever she would bring out his wheelchair. She relented for a while and used a homemade sling to help carry him, but when her back would no longer tolerate that, Tucker had no option but to get used to his wheelchair. And get used to it he did.

“It took a few weeks but now he looks forward to it and knows how to ‘assume the position’ to get into his wheels,” Hillstrom said. “He still tires fairly quickly but is getting stronger and stronger each week.”

Though it has been a tough year, Hillstrom would absolutely do it all again. Tucker has brought as much to her life as she has brought to his.

“He brings me joy, and that is an important thing for me,” Hillstrom said. “I suffer from depression so having that little face greet me at the door just makes all the difference in the world. As much as Tucker needed me, I also needed him.”

Lead image: Valerie Hillstrom with Tucker. Photos submitted

College of the Rockies

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