By Mary Janak
Harley was cautious. Steven loved a challenge. They became a love story for the ages.
Even the stars aligned to bring them together—Harley, a young American Staffordshire Terrier and Steven Cogswell, a Dumb Friends League volunteer, certified canine massage provider and Harley’s foster dad.
Steven and Harley met in June last year. Steven recalled, “Harley was the last dog of six on my Head Start list, all in the same pod, so I was in and out a lot. Harley jumped up to her kennel door window every time and let me know in no uncertain terms she was ready for some attention. Once I entered her kennel, she was a perfect lady.”
“She started off a little stand-offish, not sure if she enjoyed me petting her. I love a challenge. By the time we were done, we were good friends. Gaining her confidence felt like a precious gift.”
Harley needed surgery on her left rear knee to repair a painful congenital condition. Her ligament wasn’t strong enough to hold her knee in alignment. League veterinarians wanted to wait until she had a foster home for her recovery, but it was difficult finding one. Harley is a pit bull; she needed a lengthy recovery and to be the only dog.
Harley kept showing up on the League’s Volunteers’ Facebook page, looking for a foster home. Steven watched and waited. Ultimately, a plea went out to the public. That’s when Steven decided to act.
“Since I have three dogs, I didn’t consider myself a good candidate. But Harley is so grounded, optimistic and brave. I really wanted her to get the chance in life that surgery offered her. I have a dedicated canine massage room in my house that, given COVID, wasn’t being used, so I figured it would be a great place for Harley.”
In Harley’s best interests, veterinarians had already performed the surgery and were going to try rehab on site. Steven suggested getting Harley into his home, and “if it didn’t work, we could find a better home.” Three days in, the League’s Foster team found another home if Steven wanted. “By then, I was completely in love with Harley and said if they were okay with it, I would love to have Harley stay with us.”
Harley came to stay with Steven one week after her surgery. For the first six weeks, she was on strict crate rest. Steven kept the door to her room open with a double gate, so she and the other dogs and cat could see and smell each other but not get nose to nose. “This went much better than I expected,” said Steven. “They vacillated between slight interest and complete disinterest, which was awesome.”
Steven and Harley diligently followed an extensive, detailed, week-by-week rehab program and medication schedule from the League’s veterinarians, usually three therapy sessions a day.
“I quickly realized Harley was ahead of the curve from the start,” said Steven. “A lot of the first exercises encouraged her to put weight on the left leg, but it was already weight bearing! We worked on muscles that were compensating for the pain and stiffness of the left knee. As recovery progressed, we focused directly on the knee.”
There was a lot of icing of the knee and passive range of motion exercises. Steven said, “Harley laid on her side, and I bent her knee through its range of motion as much as was comfortable for her. You must be careful to stabilize the joint above and naturally move the knee to keep scar tissue from forming and the joint capsule lubricated.” Harley also had strength-building exercises and walking. At first, it was just three five-minute walks a day until they moved up to three 30-minute walks.
Very quickly, Harley had little discernible limping, and her gait was solid. “She’s a tough cookie! We had to be careful not to overdo things, because she seemed so far along in her healing.”
At two-week checkups, veterinarians were always pleased with her progress. “Overall, Harley was an amazing patient. She tolerated crate rest almost without a single bark. She loved walks and massages but wasn’t so keen on icing and passive range of motion exercises.
“As we got to know each other, I added longer, more relaxation-oriented massages, just for bonding,” said Steven. “She loved those, as did I! I know she understood we were working together for her greater good. I think she was extremely grateful. It involved a lot of one-on-one time together. At the end of each session, we’d sit on the floor, and she would put her big, goofy head on my knee, and we’d just hang.”
Once Harley’s cone was off, she could fit into a dog crate, and Steven moved her in the crate to the living room so she could be part of home life. It was remarkably successful. When Harley was able to roam the house supervised, Steven put his two younger dogs, Gerald and Fritz, in the backyard, while he, Jasper the third dog, Jett the cat, and Harley stayed inside. “Harley and Jasper couldn’t have cared less about each other, which again, was awesome. Harley chased Jett at first, but they worked that out.” Steven began to entertain the idea of keeping Harley permanently. “The thought of saying goodbye was becoming harder and harder.”
Then, they started mingling inside the house. “Harley was so happy to have some dog friends,” said Steven. “I have photos of her on the couch surrounded by Jasper, Gerald and Fritz, and she has the biggest grin.” Harley and Gerald quickly worked out their “play language” and would cuddle on the couch. She and Fritz were more tense. “Because of his past, he’s still fearful. If I were supervising, everyone could be together. I began to think it might really be okay to adopt Harley.”
Finally, Harley was able to go out in the back yard off-leash. “What a joyful day that was!”
Steven brought all the dogs into the backyard, hoping that they might get along even better when they were free to find their comfortable distances. The first meeting went very well; however, the second meeting between Harley and Fritz did not.
“Eventually, we could have been a family, but it wouldn’t have been fair to Fritz or to Harley. Harley is such an amazing dog; she deserves to be the center of someone’s world, to sleep in bed next to her people, to have her toys strewn about the house without feeling like she has to guard them. I knew if she stayed with us, her life would always be circumscribed by some level of management and she deserves more. And Fritz, whom I adore, deserves to feel safe and protected in his own home.”
Harley went home with Steven on July 16. She was given the all-clear by League veterinarians September 1, and Steven kept Harley until she was adopted October 2.
“I bonded more closely with Harley than with any other dog I’ve known,” said Steven. “I’m sure she felt abandoned by me for a while, even with the perfect new home she lucked into. I was a mess. I was surprised that as hard as it was to say goodbye (and it was hard) I was struck by how good it felt to know she was going to have a wonderful life. It wasn’t a happy good, there was (and still is) a good number of tears involved, but ultimately there’s a deep sense of knowing we’d done something good.”
“I don’t know if she could have healed so well without the love and encouragement and purpose we gave each other. I think she allowed me to pester her with all those exercises because of our connection. So, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
“The League provided amazing support. I’m so impressed by what the organization does for these dogs. Harley’s knee surgery was complex, and I’m sure not inexpensive. Without the League, she would’ve had a very bleak future. I’m particularly proud of being part of the team that conspired for her greater good,” said Steven.
“Harley truly is a dog with presence. There’s something about her stance, the way she takes in the world, that’s magnetic. One minute she’s gorgeous, ready for the show ring, and the next her big goofy smile breaks through and her joy is infectious. I’m impressed by how composed and grounded she is for being so young. I met more people on our walks because they had to tell me what a gorgeous dog Harley is. I heard more stories from folks who had a pittie once, and how they wish they were still around. Whenever we were stopped, I told people about the League’s Foster program and about the incredible dedication they have to the well-being of the animals in their care. We made a good ambassador team.”
Harley became a celebrity among Steven’s Facebook friends, including the League volunteers. “In no time, 700 folks were rooting for her success,” said Steven. “The love and support we got was amazing. I still get asked about Harley and how she’s doing. It’s clear her bravery and spirit have touched many, many lives. All dogs are amazing, but Harley is a special kind of amazing.”
And now Steven and Harley live in each other’s hearts forever.
Editor’s note: Harley’s new mom invited Steven to visit Harley any time. He said, “I haven’t reached out to her yet. It’s not fair to Harley to confuse her like that. It can take three months or so to bond, so I’m laying low at least that long. Maybe in a few months I might reach out for a photo or an update.”
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