When Rachel’s beloved nine-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier Winston began to be wobbly on his feet, she knew something was wrong.
The normally excitable, energetic dog just wasn’t himself: he weaved about as if he were tipsy, and when his paws buckled beneath him he couldn’t get up again.
‘It was a real worry,’ she remembers. ‘Winston and our other Staffie Daisy Mae are the absolute centre of our lives, and the thought that he might be seriously ill was too much to bear.’
Rachel and her husband Sid took him to their local vet in Ipswich, where they were reassured to hear that Winston’s symptoms sounded like they pointed to a ruptured disc, which, although serious, isn’t life-threatening.
‘The vet wanted to keep him in overnight for more tests. We told them to do whatever they needed, and tried not to think about the eye-watering cost of the MRI scans and other tests,’ remembers Rachel.
But when they went to pick Winston up the next day, the vet had awful news: Winston wasn’t suffering from a ruptured disc at all, but a benign tumour on his spine. ‘The vet told us surgery was too dangerous and Winston might die on the operating table,’ says Rachel. ‘He didn’t know what the next stages would be for Winston, and said a lot of people in this situation would choose to put him down. That was never an option for us.’
Devastated, Rachel and Sid took Winston home and began their new life caring for a disabled dog. ‘Within weeks of the diagnosis he lost the use of his hind legs completely and started to lose toiletry control as well,’ explains Rachel. ‘But he was still our happy, cheeky boy, the same as ever and we knew we would have to do what we could for him. Staffies get a bad name but he’s so loving and all the kids in the neighbourhood love him.’
Caring for Winston was a steep learning curve. Rachel experimented with different types of nappies, before eventually finding a type of ‘wrap’ that Winston found comfy and which kept any nasty messes at bay.
Their other dog Daisy Mae quickly adapted to Winston’s new condition. ‘It’s as if she knows she has to look after him, and she never leaves him more than a few minutes without checking he’s okay.’
Winston was still his jolly, tail-wagging self, but it broke Rachel’s heart to see the once energetic dog cooped up all day. She began to research disabled dogs online, and it wasn’t long before she came across various options for dogs like Winston. There were special strollers, a bit like a pushchair, which would mean he could still get some fresh air, even if he wouldn’t be able to go on his beloved woodland walks. But something else caught her attention: a special harness that would wrap around Winston’s middle, with wheels attached to the back. As Winston still had the use of his forepaws, the wheels would allow him to walk again.
‘I knew as soon as I saw the wheels that they’d be perfect for Winston, and the thought of seeing his face when he was able to walk again was overwhelming,’ says Rachel. ‘But my heart sank when I saw the price.’
At £450, the wheels didn’t come cheap, and Rachel and Sid were still paying off the hefty vet bills. With more than £1,500 still left to pay, she knew it would be a while before they would be able to stump up the cash to get Winston his own set of wheels. Rachel was already working flat-out doing night shifts in a local factory, and Sid was retired. It would take time to get the extra cash together.
Unbeknown to Rachel and Sid, a friend set up a fundraising webpage, telling Winston’s story with a few sweet pictures of him. Winston, it seemed, was a surprise hit: the donations flooded in, and it wasn’t long before the target was reached, with some extra cash to spare.
‘I’d never have set the page up myself because I’m not really one to ask for money,’ says Rachel. ‘But I was so surprised and grateful when I found out about it – the kindness of strangers was incredibly moving. I couldn’t believe so many people donated who didn’t even know us, but had fallen in love with Winston from his photos and videos.’
Rachel ordered Winston a set of wheels and counted down the days until they arrived.
‘I was a bit nervous attaching them, as we’d spent such a lot of money and had no idea how he’d get on with them,’ she remembers. ‘But he was so happy when he realised that he could move – his face was a complete picture and it wasn’t long before he was hurtling round in a complete state of excitement.’
Rachel posted a video of Winston’s first time in his wheels on the fundraising page, because she wanted to show all the kind donors where their money had gone. The video proved popular and the money continued to roll in – which was when Rachel had a lightbulb moment.
‘There were bound to be other dogs out there like Winston – why shouldn’t they all have the same chance to walk again?’
So Rachel continued to fundraise, and used the money she raised to set up Winston’s Wheels. Ten months later, she’s raised £4,500 and supplied 17 harnesses and two strollers to more than 20 dogs.
Seeing people send photos and videos of their pups walking again is just the loveliest thing,’ she says.
‘Not everyone can afford to spend that sort of money on their dog, and you never really know whether the dog will get on with the wheels. So we run a loan scheme – the dog can keep the wheels for as long as they need them, then the owner will return them and we can pass them on to another animal in need.’
The dogs need wheels for a variety of reasons: some, like Winston, have tumours or spinal problems; some only have two or three legs; some have brain illnesses that mean it’s hard for them to coordinate.
‘We also recently helped a dog adopted from Romania, who’d been hit by a car and left untreated for over a year,’ she says.
‘We’ve got another elderly dog who uses his wheels as a kind of Zimmer-frame to give him a bit of support. Recently we gave a stroller to a couple who wanted to take their old dog, who could barely walk, on one last holiday. It was so lovely to see pictures of him on the beach having a lovely time.’
Running Winston’s Wheels is a full-time job, so Rachel has enrolled a few volunteers to help organise fundraising, answer questions from dog owners around the world, and, of course, order any new wheels that are needed. They’re also planning a range of merchandise to help raise even more money, and recently had a meet-up for all the dogs the charity has helped so far.
Winston is still going strong, though the vet isn’t sure what the future holds for him. But for now, he’s still head over heels for his wheels. ‘He gets so excited whenever he can hear us getting his wheels out – he’ll be wiggling about and his tail will be thumping like there’s no tomorrow,’ laughs Rachel. ‘It’s given him his freedom back and he just whizzes around. Kerbs don’t bother him – he just hurtles at them and jumps up. In fact, he’s such a speed demon that we had to get him some bigger wheels as he kept turning them over!’
For more about Winston’s Wheels or to donate, search for Winston’s Wheels on Facebook.
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