Nfld. & Labrador

Willow, the disabled dog, a hit at Holyrood Santa Claus parade

If you see Willow walking down the street with the help of her wheelchair, her owner doesn't want you to feel sorry.

Born with a broken spinal cord, she gets by with a donated wheelchair

Willow gets by just fine with the help of a wheelchair at the Holyrood Santa Claus parade. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

With her tongue out and eyes wide with glee, a white Belgian shepherd pulled herself along a parade route in Holyrood to the smiles and greetings from onlookers.

Wherever she goes, Willow gets big reactions from the people she passes by — a mix of happiness and pity. But her owner, Stephanie Costello, doesn't want anybody to feel bad about her pooch's paralysis. 

"She's the happiest dog in the world."

Costello hopes Willow's parade debut will get people talking about dogs with disabilities, and to realize euthanization is not the only option.

Stephanie Costello fell in love with Willow as soon as she was born. (Gavin Simms/CBC)

In the weeks after Willow was born, Costello realized there was something wrong with her. The other puppies were standing and walking, but Willow was falling behind.

"Willow was struggling. She was able to get up on all four paws but she had a wobbly gait and she wasn't able to run and get around and play like the others."

When all the other puppies in the litter were running around, Willow fell behind. (Submitted)

After visiting several vets, the family discovered the dog had a fractured spine. As Willow began to grow, her back legs could no longer support her body.

Finding a community

Costello wasn't giving up on the little dog just yet — she was too invested emotionally.

"I fell in love with her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Long before I knew she was going to have a disability."

After doing some research, Costello found a community of people online that care for disabled pets. They chimed in with advice — and donated goods.

Don't feel sorry, says the owner of Willow, a dog born with a broken spinal cord 1:34

She also found a news story from Cape Breton, where a Bernese mountain dog was given the gift of mobility in the form of a wheelchair, donated by a group in Wisconsin. She reached out to the group, Gunnar's Wheels, and told them about Willow.

"They loved her story and they ordered her a wheelchair the next day," she said. "It's things like that that made me see what I was doing was absolutely the right thing."

Getting used to a wheelchair didn't take long once Willow got outdoors, especially when she discovered her love of sticks. (Submitted)

Getting used to a wheelchair wasn't immediate. Costello and her daughter, Aria, tried to goad Willow with treats and encouragement, to no avail.

But then came a breakthrough.

"Once we got her outside smelling the fresh air and the wind blowing through her fur, it was the best day of her life," Costello said. "I could tell by the look on her face."

'Very sweet and kind'

It hasn't been easy to assess all of Willow's needs, but they are coming together as a family to give her what she needs.

"She's very sweet and kind and she's always up and playing," Aria said. "All the other dogs like to play with her. They like to bring her toys because she can't go get them herself."

Willow's disability hasn't held her back from doing everything dogs love, including fun in the water. (Submitted)

Over the last year, Stephanie Costello said she has learned more than just how to take care of a dog with disabilities.

"I've learned that I wasn't as understanding and patient and calm as I thought I was," she said. "It's taught me to be more patient and calm in all aspects of my life, including raising my own children."

As she paraded through the streets on Sunday, not everybody in the small community knew Willow's story — but her owner hopes people saw a happy dog, thriving despite a disability, and not a sad story.

"We hope everybody will love her just like we will."

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

With files from Gavin Simms