Just before the 2017 Schnauzerfest weekend, a dog arrived into the experienced care of DBARC. River the schnauzer had spent her life in a breeding facility and as soon as DBARC manager, Janet assessed her, she knew this was a dog with severe and multiple problems. River was most obviously petrified of humans – a behaviour common in dogs from puppy farm backgrounds – and the lightest touch terrified her. But she was far more complicated and her case baffled experts. Janet explained more,

“She’s a very complicated girl. I think fear does play a big part, but she most likely also has some neurological issues. She can be very chirpy some days and it’s lovely seeing her barking at me for her food and wagging her tail. But then, without any apparent trigger it can all go badly downhill very quickly as she has, well what I can only at this stage call one of ‘her episodes’.

She goes rigid and appears to have mild seizure-type crises. She’s unable to feed herself for days when in one of these bad spells and we have to support her by hand feeding and syringing fluids into her.

At first she couldn’t control her bowels or bladder when she was like it, but the last couple of episodes she’s been ok with this, so it may be that the severity is less than at first, this gives me hope and is why we feel that this is definitely worth investigating further, despite the heavy financial cost. This is where Schnauzerfest funds are so very important, and highly valued by us all here at DBARC. For a dog like River, who has known extreme neglect and cruelty in her life, to know we can do the best for her to make her days comfortable, whatever the future holds gives us comfort. It also eases one of the big pressures of rescue work – the financial costs of specialist care.”

Using funds raised by Schnauzerfest, River saw specialists and it turned out, after extensive – and expensive – investigations which included an MRI scan that River was born with a condition which affected the bones in her neck: Atlanto-axial sub-luxation causes neck pain, abnormal holding of the head position, weakness in the limbs or inability to use them. The problem in the bones had been compressing her spinal cord and could at any time have caused a catastrophic event ending in paralysis. Just take a second to imagine that happening to a dog anywhere, but then imagine it in the stark, lonely world of the puppy farm from where she came.

For River, the instability in the vertebrae in her neck was a lifelong and terrible condition she’d lived with, untreated, uncared for and unnoticed in the breeding shed. It’s unimaginable how much she’d suffered: the pain alone is unthinkable, let alone the fear and isolation she must have experienced, never knowing when, with just a movement her symptoms would be magnified. No wonder she held so much fear so close, whenever anyone approached. She was not only avoiding human contact which for any puppy farm dogs brings anxiety, she must have been terrified of what her body, her neck might do. Truly awful to dwell upon.

River went on to have complicated surgery on Christmas Eve (with a 30% chance of her pulling through) but she did and came back to DBARC for recovery with a neck that had been skilfully cemented, screwed and pinned together.

River had never had the stability and confidence of a caring human being to rely on until being at DBARC, so the whole thing must have been utterly bewildering for her. But if there is one advantage that dogs who survive puppy farming have, it’s a keen survival instinct, it’s what helps get them through the years of suffering. And, having had a taste of love and kindness during her time at DBARC, I’m sure this must have helped River draw from the depths of her brave little soul to fight to get through the surgery. That plus the incredible flood of well wishes and prayers that came in for River on social media. The response from so many people was truly awe inspiring and wonderful.

At one stage, the odds Janet was given for River even surviving the surgery were scarily low. Janetta and Janet had a good honest chat before the decision was made to go ahead with the operation, not only to talk through what River would have to undergo but to discuss the very real issue of financing such specialist treatment. Schnauzerfest fundraising is phenomenal and the money for River’s treatment was there, but, and it’s a big but, there’s no way of knowing what other dogs will need help in the coming year. And at what cost. Scans and surgery soon drain funds as anyone who has ever had a pet undergo any serious veterinary treatment will know.

For River, where insurance isn’t in place, the only option apart from using money raised for DBARC by an army of kind Schnauzerfest donors, was for her not to get the chance. To balance everything right and to come to a life or death decision is extremely hard. And this tough conversation was had between DBARC and us. The responsibility felt enormous and brought it home how much we all owe people like Janet who are regularly faced with decisions like this for animals that have no family to decide on their behalf. Janet never takes spending money raised for DBARC lightly.

With River it really was a touch and go, highly charged decision. We felt so responsible not only for her life (big enough in itself), but for spending a large chunk of the money so many people had raised for Schnauzerfest and DBARC, in a complicated, highly risky operation.

But thankfully Janet’s intuition was spot on and within hours of her coming round from the op, we were cautiously optimistic that River had a good future ahead of her. She had beaten the odds and done it fantastically.

All of this is doable because of the great dedication of Janet and her team of staff and volunteers. Plus the unending generosity of many people who donated to Schnauzerfest during the 2017 fundraising. But even more than this, the kindness of many people over Christmas wanting to donate to River’s treatment meant that we opened the 2018 Fund a bit earlier than planned.

At the time of writing the costs of River’s investigations and treatment stand at approximately £7,000 and will increase with the essential post-operative care and scans that are needed. A scary sum of money, but for this once abused, cruelly treated dog, who will now live a good and full life, a dog who is so clearly grabbing that life with all four paws, she is worth it a million times over. This is what Schnauzerfest supporters make possible. And it’s flipping brilliant.

River enjoying the Susie-Belle Memorial Walk, Stanmer Park, Nov 2018

River enjoying the Susie-Belle Memorial Walk, Stanmer Park, Nov 2018

UPDATE: January 2019

River went on to make an excellent recover from all the complicated and specialist treatment that saved her life. Not only did it save her life, it meant that she can now live happily, pain free and without fear. She lives with Twinklet, both adopted by DBARC volunteer, Donna. Both dogs get to see their DBARC family all the time and are safe in the knowledge that whatever the future holds, they will always be safe and get whatever is needed.

River and Twinklet enjoyed their first Schnauzerfestive walks and both took part in the Susie-Belle Memorial Walk in November 2018. All this is possible only through the fantastic support of everyone who helps make Schnauzerfest possible.