Ranger, a small, dark-eyed, cream-colored Shiba Inu, bears all the scars of years in a puppy mill.
He has the number 16 tattooed inside one ear, which identified him in place of a name. He has a damaged leg, scarred and stiff, which was broken, probably when it became lodged between the wires of a cage, and healed crooked. He doesn't bark, possibly as a result of a primitive debarking done by injuring his vocal cords. He also has only six or seven teeth, caused by years of eating poor food and possibly gnawing on rusty wires that confined him.
Improbably, inside his battered body lives the spirit of a happy, social dog who loves people.
Despite his past, Ranger has worked as a therapy dog for years, which is even more surprising for a Shiba Inu. The intelligent and independent breed is not known to be enthusiastic about familiar people, much less strangers.
"Ranger needs people," says Tera Bruegger of North Tonawanda. "It's unusual for a puppy mill dog to be that comfortable with humans after having been in a mill for so long. The majority of your puppy mill dogs are very timid, they've never had good human contact, so they are wary until they warm up to people."
Bruegger and her husband, Josh, adopted Ranger and a second Shiba Inu, Sharla, in 2008 from a Nebraska group called Hearts United for Animals, where the Brueggers have volunteered since they lived in that state.
Ranger and Sharla lived in the same puppy mill, a large-scale breeding operation where puppies are mass-produced for sale across the country. Adult dogs are confined in small cages and bred repeatedly until middle age, when their ability to produce many healthy puppies declines. Then they are discarded -- killed or sold at auction.
Bruegger's dogs were among 14 on a list to be shot that somehow wound up at Hearts United for Animals instead. "Sometimes [the puppy mill operators] call Hearts United and say that they have dogs that will be shot," Bruegger says. "It might be because they could potentially get in trouble with the [Department of Agriculture] by shooting dogs, or some of them actually somehow have a heart and may not feel comfortable with killing them."
After the 14 dogs were picked up, Ranger, who was over 7 years old, and Sharla, about 5, were safe at the Hearts United shelter, but it was about 18 months before they found a home. "We were volunteering there, and we just kind of fell in love," says Bruegger. "You see dogs, and your heart just kind of gets pulled." They both came home with the Brueggers because "they were together in the puppy mill, and we didn't want to break them up," she says.
Both dogs are cream-colored, a "serious fault" in the American Kennel Club description of the breed, but that's not a consideration for puppy mills that churn out purebreds with papers. The pair may even be related -- "Who knows?" says Bruegger. "They could be father and daughter, one of them could be the other's grandparent, you never know."
The family has a third dog, Timmy, a dappled or merle dachshund whose inbreeding in a puppy mill left him with brain and eye abnormalities. Breeding two dappled dachshunds creates flashy, spotted puppies that are prone to severe eye and ear defects. "Timmy was born with cerebellar hypoplasia, so he shakes nonstop," says Bruegger. "He's blind in one eye and going blind in the other, and my vet calls him a genetic mess." Yet the happy, active dog plays with toys and has even learned a few simple commands.
Despite their physical challenges, each of the Brueggers' dogs is happy and comfortable at home. Sharla displays the usual independence of the breed -- "she could easily be by herself and couldn't care less," says Bruegger. Yet the family celebrated when, after six months with them, Sharla wagged her tail while playing with a toy. "You appreciate the little things with former mill dogs," Bruegger says.
But the outgoing Ranger shines on his visits to his friends at Weinberg Campus. To be certified by the SPCA Serving Erie County's Paws for Love program, he had to pass an evaluation that tested him on his reactions to loud voices, strangers grabbing at him, and walkers and wheelchairs. "He passed everything with flying colors. He didn't care about the loud noises, the walkers, any of it," says Bruegger.
Ranger developed a routine, visiting certain dog-loving residents at the nursing home. But recently, he has begun to slow down. "He's 11 now, and he has canine dementia, so we don't go as often as we used to," says Bruegger. "I'm also very cautious about overstressing his leg. But he does enjoy it when we go and see the people."
Bruegger thinks about the effect her dogs have had on her life, which recently included being appointed to the board of directors of Hearts United for Animals. "They definitely got us involved with animal rescue," she says. "I also think we are more compassionate toward animals and other people, too, looking at where they come from, and being more empathetic. I always look at people's backgrounds and try to see where they come from, to understand where they are today. I think both of us are much more aware and compassionate, and we feel like we have more of a purpose in life."