He’s only 1 1/2 years old, but Hank the Labrador Retriever has a few things in common with the senior citizens he visits as a therapy dog — namely, hip surgery and limited mobility. Diagnosed with dwarfism when he was just 4 months old, Hank is shorter and slower than other yellow Labs, but he has just as much personality as the big dogs.
“He smiles all day long,” explains Hank’s human, Allison Best. “He’s really taught me and my family and friends to just take what you’re given and work with it.”
Best and her boyfriend Jeff picked Hank up from a local breeder near St. John’s Newfoundland, Canada when he was just 8 weeks old. The new pet parents quickly fell in love with their adorable pup.
“He looked normal, just like all his siblings,” Best recalls. “For about a month, he was just your typical tiny puppy, and when he got to be about 3 months old we started to notice that he wasn’t really growing as fast as he should.”
At first, the couple wondered if maybe Hank was just the runt of his litter, but when his little legs took on a bowed appearance, Best knew something more serious was happening.
“He’d take a few steps and have to sit down, and then he’d get up and take a few more and have to sit down,” she says.
Best took Hank to the vet repeatedly, but the cause of his condition wasn’t obvious. She was told the dog’s short limbs could be the result of bad breeding or an unusual cartilage formation, but nothing was definitive. Eventually Hank was referred to the only orthopedic specialist in the province, Dr. Bailey at the Veterinary Specialty Centre of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“She took full-body X-rays that showed every bone in Hank’s legs that was supposed to be straight was actually an ‘S’ shape,” explains Best. “I broke down and cried because I couldn’t believe that’s how he was living. Even his little toes were in ‘S’ shapes.”
Bloodwork and genetic testing confirmed a diagnosis of dwarfism (a condition Hank’s pet insurance policy did not cover). According to Best, the orthopedic specialist hadn’t seen a case quite like Hank’s in 20 years of practicing veterinary medicine. At almost 7 months old, he could only walk a few steps before looking to his people to pick him up. His best bet for future mobility was a bilateral femoral head ostectomy.
“[It’s a] double hip surgery where they removed the head of the femur that connects into the ball joint of the hip so that his bones weren’t rubbing together anymore,” says Best.
The typical recovery time for the procedure is about six to eight weeks, but because Hank’s leg bones are so malformed, he took about seven months to recover. He had to learn how to walk all over again — and he did it in front of an Instagram audience of more than 20,000 followers.
“I originally started Hank’s Instagram account just because dwarfism is so rare,” says Best. “I thought maybe I would find someone who has gone through the same thing with their dog.”
Instead, Best found a generous international community of dog lovers who provided emotional support, encouragement, and even financial relief. After sharing a Go Fund Me campaign on Instagram, Best received nearly $4,000 to put toward Hank’s vet bills (which have exceeded $10,000 in his short life).
Wanting to give back through the Instagram community, Best got involved in fundraising for animal rescues and says her next dog will likely come from a local shelter. While Best focuses on helping animals, Hank has been focused on helping people, joining the St John Ambulance Therapy Dog program.
“He’s completely certified now and visiting at long-term care facilities,” says Best, who hopes to get Hank cleared to volunteer with children after he completes a year of visiting adults.
Hank can’t climb stairs or run like a typical Lab, but he can walk on his own (especially toward the scent of bacon). He may not be the dog Best had in mind when she picked up her puppy, but the proud dog mom can’t imagine life without him now.
“You just deal with it, they’re your baby,” she says.