'Fandango' wanted to run, but the blue American Pit Bull Terrier kept falling down. Despite the stray's energy and exuberance, his hind legs buckled beneath him, splaying out and sending him to the dusty Decatur, Ga., ground.
A thousand miles away in Derry, N.H., foster care provider Kathi Taylor watched an Internet video of Fandango struggling to walk. His spirit stole her heart.
Halfway across the country, Kathy Barton was going through her own struggle. Diagnosed with breast cancer, the fourth-grade teacher was returning to her Velma, Okla., classroom after months of radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
Through the kindness of strangers and the power of the Internet, Fandango, Taylor, and Barton and her students became linked in a triangle that stretched from Georgia to New Hampshire to Oklahoma. Their connection helped Fandango not only run, but thrive.
For five years Barton has introduced her students at Velma-Alma Elementary School to a class project she calls "How Do You Teach Compassion?" Barton developed the two-week program to raise awareness of the need to protect, accept and help those with physical differences.
Each January, Barton weaves humane education into her curriculum through a combination of classroom instruction, special projects, interaction with disabled animals and fundraising efforts. The program has helped 25 special-needs dogs and cats. This year, Barton's students raised nearly $3,000 to purchase wheelchairs for five disabled pets, including Fandango.
Fandango's past is a mystery. When Dekalb County (Ga.) Animal Services and Enforcement found Fandango wandering the streets, he had serious health problems. Because of his condition and breed, he was a hard sell to potential adopters. In an effort to increase his chances for adoption, shelter workers made a video of Fandango and posted it on the Internet. That's how Taylor first came to know Fandango.
"He had a video on YouTube that showed him wagging his tail all goofy and being happy, but he kept on falling down," Taylor says. "It got my attention for sure."
Taylor, who fosters homeless dogs through Pits and Rotts For Life Rescue based in Randallstown, Md., decided to take in Fandango. But first, she needed to transport him from Georgia to her home in New Hampshire.
With the help of K-9 Rescue League of Lawrenceville, Ga., Fandango began the 1,100-mile journey. Volunteers along the route took turns transporting him in one-hour shifts, passing Fandango from driver to driver as he made his way up the East Coast. It took about two dozen volunteers nearly 20 hours to complete the trek.
It was only after Fandango arrived in New Hampshire on April 6 that Taylor realized the extent of his physical problems. "He was in rough shape," Taylor says. In addition to being underweight and missing part of one ear, he had mange, heartworms, sores on his feet, scars, hair loss and a tumor on his right hip.
He also had psychological wounds. "He was afraid of everything, which is kind of weird because he looked like a scary dog and you would think that he wouldn't be scared of anything," Taylor says.
Between his bad teeth and ailments, no one has been able to determine Fandango's age. Taylor has heard guesses that range from age 2 to senior years. She thinks he's about 4 or 5 but says a life of neglect has left him with the body of a 15-year-old dog. His old body and young spirit make a contradictory combination.
"He likes to go on long walks, he likes to explore," Taylor says. "He thinks he can go forever, but on the way back, he starts getting tired."
Three days after Fandango arrived, Taylor sent an e-mail to the Handicapped Pets Foundation (HPF). The foundation is the nonprofit charitable arm of Handicapped Pets.com, an Amherst, N.H.-based company that provides products, services and support for people with disabled, injured and elderly pets.
In the subject line, Taylor wrote, "Asking for your help for Fandango." Her plea read: "The only thing I'd like to do is get to a place where he's comfortable. … If there was any way to get a discounted cart for him, it would surely help … give a happy guy a happier rest of his life."
Inspired by Hope
A rescue dog of her own inspired Barton to develop her humane-education program. Five years ago Barton rescued two blind and deaf Australian Shepherd littermates named "Faith" and "Hope." Nearly everyone she spoke with about the pups told her to euthanize them.
Barton continued to research options and eventually stumbled upon Handicapped Pets.com. The story of company founder Mark C. Robinson's regret over euthanizing his Keeshond, "Mercedes," after she was diagnosed with epilepsy led Barton to write an article titled "It's OK to Have a Handicapped Dog" for the firm's Web site.
Though Barton eventually found a home for Faith, she decided to adopt Hope. When she brought Hope to her classroom and shared the dog's story, the children were so moved that they started brainstorming ideas to raise funds for disabled animals. The class posted an offer of help on the discussion board of HandicappedPets.com, which agreed to provide wheelchairs at a discounted price.
From there, Barton says, "It just exploded." The success of that initial project blossomed into a program that has expanded every year and become a highly anticipated annual tradition at Velma-Alma Elementary School.
"I already have students this year asking when we are going to do that program," Barton says. "They absolutely love it. If I want two weeks where they pay attention, it's those two weeks."
In addition to inspiring the students and being the program's "spokesdog," as Barton calls her, Hope was a source of strength and comfort for Barton during her recent cancer treatment. Because of Barton's illness, last year's classroom program was postponed from January to May. But when Barton returned to the classroom after losing her hair in treatment, the program took on added significance.
"I was bald," Barton says. "I brought it up by telling them that I look different, but I'm the same person. I just put a lot of focus on what's on the outside doesn't count as much as what's on the inside."
Timing Is Everything
This year's unexpected delay of the program turned out to be good timing for Fandango. When it came time to choose animals to help, Barton and her students reviewed the HPF applications for assistance. Taylor's e-mail from April was among them.
"Fandango had had such a rough start," Barton says. "What convinced me, and when I spoke to the students I think them also, was his breed because they get a raw deal. It was so they could see the softer side of that breed."
In May, Barton telephoned Taylor from her classroom to let her know Fandango was among the pets the students elected to help. "The kids were all excited, and they were all yelling in the background," Taylor recalls. "They were all happy."
Bryce Walker was one of those students. "I really wanted to help them, and I was just really glad we were doing it," he says.
The students got right to work. They sold rubber bracelets, pencils and bouncy balls; held an ice cream float sale; and hosted a pet parade with a $5 entry fee that drew more than 200 participants.
In addition to fundraising, the students learned about caring for disabled pets and animal-cruelty issues. They spent hands-on time with special-needs pets, and a disabled-animal petting area was set up at the school. They also met with veterinarians and humane society representatives.
Barton incorporated humane education into lesson plans involving reading, writing and spelling. The students underlined parts of speech in poems and stories about disabled animals, wrote letters to government officials about preventing animal cruelty, designed devices that could benefit a special-needs animal, and learned definitions of words that describe disabilities.
Through the years Barton has developed a teaching manual for the program, which she put together from scratch. "I had to make it up because it wasn't out there," says Barton, who was named the 2009 Teacher of the Year for her school. "I add more to it every year."
Now in fifth grade, Bryce participated in the pet parade with his 5-year-old Boxer-Cocker Spaniel mix, "Roxie," and says the program was one of the most enjoyable things he's done in school. But it also taught him an important lesson.
"I learned that all dogs need compassion no matter what," he says. "You don't have to just show compassion for dogs, you also can show compassion for people."
That lesson helped set his course in life. "When I grow up, I want to be a physical therapist," Bryce says.
Classmate Tesla Bartling developed a similar goal as a result of the program. "I want to be a veterinarian," says the fifth-grader.
The program helped Tesla appreciate the challenges of disabled animals and humans.
"I learned that even though somebody's different, they still need to be treated the same," she says.
Two years after participating in the program, Cailin Wright uses what she learned every day. The sixth-grader has a deaf 2-year-old terrier mix named "Patches."
"That taught me how to take care of him," she says of the program. She also started manning a humane society booth at local events and says she'd like to help rescue animals.
With the money the students raised, Fandango got his wheelchair in June. Since then, he has continued to improve, Taylor says.
"His personality has changed a lot since I first got him," Taylor says. "He's just nutty. He's a very happy dog."
At present, Taylor, who manages a flea market and deli, is unsure whether she will keep Fandango or adopt him out. "I want the right person," she says.
Although Barton and her students have never met Taylor, they keep in touch with Fandango's progress through telephone calls, e-mails and Internet videos. "They worked hard to raise that money," Taylor says of the students.
In addition to Fandango, this year's wheelchair recipients included "Hugs," a Washington cat born without front legs; "Sierra," a three-legged Labrador Retriever from California; "Nigel," a 9-year-old mixed breed from New York; and "Bella," an injured Boxer in Peru.
With his new wheelchair, his heartworms treated and his tumor removed, Fandango now has a brighter future. ©
'Fandango' Goes Viral
Several Web sites carry video, photos and updates on "Fandango," a disabled American Pit Bull Terrier.