Owner, pitbull helped each other heal before saying goodbye

Chicago TribuneJuly 9, 2014 

It's not often that I get to experience a story from its beginning to its end. The exception is the rags-to-riches tale of a pit bull named Sweetie Grace.

Roberta Miller, Sweetie Grace's owner, called me recently to tell me that she had spent the last several months contemplating her dog's quality of life.

"I know that her breed has a high tolerance for pain, and although she never complains or whimpers, I can't tell whether she's suffering," Miller said. "She does nothing all day except drink water and sleep and look around, and it doesn't seem right for her to just hang on."

If you knew Sweetie Grace, you would have agreed.

The truth is, questions about her quality of life had trailed her for years. In March 2003, when she landed at the Anti-Cruelty Society on Chicago's Near North Side, workers initially weren't convinced Sweetie Grace's life was worth saving.

She was only 9 months old, but a few months earlier she'd been in a garage fire. Burned over 50 percent of her body, she had lightning bolt-shaped scars throughout her reddish-blond fur. Because her previous owner hadn't sought veterinary care - instead, he'd given her over-the-counter painkillers - her wounds had healed haphazardly and caused her body to constrict and become C-shaped.

Sweetie Grace's left hind leg also had atrophied and was useless.

Two questions loomed. The first involved her temperament. Who would blame her if she were angry and hellbent on revenge? And given that and the way she looked, who in their right mind would ever adopt her?

Sweetie Grace's fate had seemed a no-brainer.

But one by one, the shelter's workers noticed something: While other dogs in nearby crates appeared despondent and sullen, Sweetie Grace seemed downright cheerful. She constantly wagged her disfigured tail. She never growled, which was unusual for a dog that had been abused. And when workers rolled balls to her, she nudged them with her nose because running was a chore. She also constantly dispensed sloppy kisses.

Her personality was as outsized as it was unexpected. So doctors decided to give her a fighting chance and performed two major surgeries. One was to amputate her left hind leg, and the other tended to her scars. Some workers called her Sweetie. Others called her Grace Kelly because she was a blonde and had emerged from surgery with a genteel gait.

When I first wrote about Sweetie Grace in April 2003, many readers admired her pluck. Ten people put in applications to adopt her. At the time, the founder of the Chicago Canine Rescue Foundation, which was working with the shelter to find homes for hard-to-place dogs, told me that 10 was a big number for a pit bull.

Miller was one of the applicants. She had just completed 24 weeks of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation for breast cancer and had her own scars.

Shelter workers told me that from the beginning Miller stood out because she called constantly to check on Sweetie Grace's progress. She also asked important questions: Would a three-legged dog need special care? Would she become arthritic years down the road?

Although Sweetie Grace's prognosis seemed good, doctors couldn't say for sure what the dog's quality of life would be. But that didn't deter Miller.

She moved Sweetie Grace into her Lake Forest home that May, and suddenly the dog that once had nothing had everything. Nutritious meals. A wardrobe of festive outfits for various occasions. A spacious backyard where she chased geese and tumbled around in the grass.

Miller said she and Sweetie Grace helped each other heal.

But in 2011, Sweetie Grace's health began to decline.

"It wasn't that with three legs she could do much, but every once in the while, she would hunch down on the floor and play, and she hasn't done that in years," Miller told me.

She said Sweetie Grace also damaged a leg muscle and began having difficulty walking. For a while, to get around the house, she would scoot, dragging her remaining hind leg behind her. Or, when they went outside, Miller would fashion a beach towel around Sweetie Grace's rear end, and that, too, helped her keep her balance. But as she grew weaker, very little really worked, and Miller began carrying the 43-pound dog.

In recent months, it became clear that Sweetie Grace wasn't going to get any better. So Miller decided it was time to put the dog down. Miller called me one recent morning to let me know that Sweetie Grace was being euthanized in what would be a graceful goodbye.

Miller read a passage that she'd written for her longtime companion: I want you to know how much you have given me. Your patience, your intelligence, your verve. ... You had despair and pain and brought hope and love..."

"We don't know about the afterlife," Miller told me. "But I wish for her unbridled perfection. I hope that she's going to spend the rest of eternity with four legs chasing squirrels."

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