Photos by Kevin A. Roberts
Rylee, a rescued Great Pyrenees, tries on her prosthetic paw at a Webster Groves lab.
By the time the farmer found her, Rylee was bleeding to death.
Her right front leg was severed cleanly at the wrist, probably in a trap, probably while escaping from a puppy mill where she’d recently given birth. Her pups were with her, lying on what was left of her leg, when the farmer first saw her on his property near Troy, Missouri.
“The puppies were protecting her leg,” says Bob Tillay, founder of Dirk’s Fund, the rescue organization in Pacific, Missouri, that nursed Rylee, a large, white-blonde Great Pyrenees, back to health. “They knew something was wrong with mama.”
The farmer sewed up Rylee’s paw and called authorities. Rylee’s puppies were snatched up immediately, adopted out to families in Illinois.
“Everybody wanted the puppies, but nobody wanted her,” Tillay remembers.
At first, it seemed few families would want to adopt a three (and a half)-legged dog, especially a rescue with an uncertain past. But Rylee’s calm, friendly demeanor and gorgeous fur had prospective families knocking down the Dirk’s Fund door.
Before the notoriously finicky Tillay will adopt her out, he’s determined to give Rylee what she deserves—starting with a replacement foot.
“They’re all special, but,” Tillay pauses, raises his eyebrows and smiles at Rylee, “this one caught me. It’s the eyes that get you, those big, black, baby polar bear eyes.”
At her first appointment, Rylee lies patiently on her side so technicians at Orthotic and Prosthetic Lab, Inc., in Webster Groves can measure her leg. They’re building a prosthesis to replace her paw—a paw-sthesis—so she can walk, run and dig comfortably again. Especially dig. Besides hiding under the piano, digging is her favorite thing to do.
“Once she gets the prosthesis, she may put a shovel on the end of it,” Tillay says, laughing.
As one prosthetist wraps the leg in plastic and another makes a cast, a third technician has the most important job of all: petting Rylee’s long, majestic coat in calm, comforting strokes. Rylee has no fear of strangers, but her fear of the office’s linoleum floors causes her to army-crawl anxiously until someone shows her affection.
“If any dog is going to wear a prosthesis, it’s this one,” says Paul Whitman, a prosthetist at Orthotic and Prosthetic Lab. “She’s so timid, so docile.”
“They are the gentlest animals, unless you’re a coyote,” Tillay responds. Great Pyrenees are shepherd dogs, bred to guard sheep from predators.
After two more fittings, the “paw-sthesis” is ready for a test run. Prosthetists guide Rylee’s stump into the carbon acrylic socket, which weighs less than a pound, and close the two velcro straps, mindful not to snag Rylee’s long hair. With all eyes on Rylee, the dog fidgets anxiously, sliding the prosthesis’ crepe rubber sole along the floor like she’s about to charge a matador.
Rylee begins to step on her right foot and immediately seems to regret it. She braces herself against the wall and picks up her right leg, as though trying to shake off her prosthesis.
“I think all she has to do is get used to it, like me and my knee I had to get replaced,” Tillay says, catching his breath as she tips over slightly.
Whitman, one of Rylee’s certified prosthetists, agrees. He lost much of his leg in a four-wheeler accident ten years ago and now wears a prosthesis of his own. Whitman says he needed eight months of therapy to get used to it.
“Acclimating to wearing one takes a long time,” Whitman says, gracefully keeping his prosthetic leg straight out in front of him as he squats down to tighten Rylee’s.
Despite the optimism, Rylee’s failure to take to her “paw-sthetic” foot is a let-down. After months of fitting, building and modifying the custom prosthesis for its first four-legged client, staff at Orthotic and Prosthetic Lab had hoped they’d get to see Rylee’s first true steps with her new leg.
So they make a new plan: Rylee’s new foster family in Wildwood will take the prosthesis home. Rylee can practice wearing it for longer periods of time, and her family can watch closely in case she tries to bite it off.
The plan works.
When Tillay comes to see for himself, he watches as Rylee bounds across the wide, green yard, eventually coming to rest in her new favorite spot, beneath the tree by the bird bath.
As he watches Rylee run on her paw-sthesis, Tillay says he’s still not sure why the technicians at Orthotic and Prosthetic Lab helped him. They never asked for a cent, though he did drop off some donated St. Louis Rams tickets as a way to say thanks.
“They didn’t have to be nice, and they were so nice,” Tillay remembers. “I think they just liked animals. People are whiners.”
Tillay decides to let Rylee’s foster family adopt her for good, an easy decision after seeing how well they take care of her. The daughter sews sleeves to make Rylee’s paw-sthesis more comfortable. The mom takes Rylee on long walks and on trips to visit nursing homes. For Halloween, they dress her as a pirate with a hat and eyepatch. She already has the peg leg.
With nothing more to do for Rylee, and with a full but heavy heart, Tillay leaves her to her new forever family.
“I just wanted somebody that would love her like I would.”