Finding Purpose on the Road with a Three-Legged Dog
- Allison Hartz
You never really know what you’ll get when you invite a dog into your life. Nothing can prepare you for the depth and meaning of a relationship that builds over the course of a dog’s lifespan. This can only be revealed once you build a life together. Rene Agredano and Jim Nelson never saw it coming when they adopted their future Chief Fun Officer, Jerry G Dawg.
“I wasn't ready for a dog,” Jim says. “I didn't think it would be fair, since we were working so hard all the time.” Knowing his wife would feel more secure with a dog by her side when he traveled for business, Jim relented. One morning he joined Rene at the Humboldt County animal shelter to search for a big, lovable and intimidating canine. They envisioned a fierce guard dog as their new companion, but what they got was Jerry. The lean and lanky German Shepherd mix had a sweet soul, a silly disposition and the heart of a spirit guide. And one day he would turn their world inside out to lead them to a happier, more fulfilled life.
As Chief Fun Officer of their growing business, Jerry spent his days roaming between Rene and Jim’s spare bedroom offices, reminding them to pause and smile during the workday grind. At midday, they took “Jerry breaks” together and played short bursts of backyard keep-away with a deflated soccer ball. Every Friday at 5:00 pm, Jerry schemed to get them out of the office by nudging his muzzle against their keyboards, until they surrendered and headed to the beach. His trail dog skills blossomed during long weekends spent peak bagging the Siskiyou and Trinity mountains, until bone cancer abruptly brought their hiking days to a halt.
They knew something was wrong after returning home from a Pacific Crest Trail hike. Jerry jumped out of their truck and yelped loudly when his paws hit the ground. Following weeks of pain medication and vet visits, Jim and Rene heard the word that would change their lives forever: amputation. The vet said it was Jerry's best shot at a good quality of life without enduring more pain from the bone tumor destroying his shoulder. Shocked and grieving for their mountain dog, Jim and Rene agreed to amputate his leg, hoping for more time with Jerry. They got it, and so much more.
“Once he was all healed,” Rene says, “It was like we had our old dog back. He was happy again.” The amputation eradicated the pain, but could not get rid of the cancer that usually kills within six months time. Certain that his time was short, Rene needed to give Jerry something back for all the joy he gave to her and Jim over the last eight years. Secretly she made plans for their dog’s reward, then sprang the big idea on Jim.
“It was all her idea,” Jim recalls. “She wanted us to sell the business, and our house, then buy an RV to travel with Jerry. I thought it was the craziest idea ever. But I couldn’t say no. Jerry was always up for a road trip.” In six months they sold their business and nearly everything they owned. They bought a new RV and planned for a year-long sabbatical. Jim started a blog to share Jerry’s adventures, and registered “tripawds.com” (https://tripawds.com) as a way to empower the “tripods” term veterinarians use to describe three-legged dogs.
Jerry thrived on the road while cruising the slow lanes from coast to coast. They camped in the hot southwest, and romped around the deep woods of Michigan. Cancer took a back seat while Jerry played in the Great Lakes and splashed in the Atlantic. He swam in the Gulf of Mexico, then guided them back to the Colorado Rockies. When the cancer finally returned two years later, Jim and Rene set him free under the big Montana Sky near Yellowstone National Park.
The trio’s bittersweet journey ultimately helped them find passion and purpose. With Jerry’s spirit guiding them, Rene and Jim established the Tripawds community to help others facing amputation for their own dogs and cats. “We never want anyone else to ever feel as alone and lost as we did, when we got Jerry's diagnosis,” says Rene. Today, Tripawds is the largest online support network for amputee pets and their people. It hosts 1500+ three-legged dog and cat blogs, popular discussion forums, and a live chat, plus vet-approved articles, videos, and podcast episodes about amputation recovery and care. The Tripawds Gear Shop (https://gear.tripawds.com) features helpful products including Ruffwear harnesses, boots, and apparel tested by members. The non-profit Tripawds Foundation (https://tripawds.org) provides direct assistance for pet owners with programs that include free rehab visits, veterinary financial aid for amputation surgery, and the toll-free Tripawds Helpline.
Thirteen years later, Rene and Jim are still on the road, managing everything from their RV home office. Their travels continue with new Tripawds spokesdog, Wyatt Ray. “It's been an adventure for sure,” says Jim, “but we've survived plenty of misadventures too!” From a Texas flood, to Midwest tornado warnings, to a serious breakdown in the Yukon, they have learned to adapt and overcome—just as Jerry did when he walked out of the hospital with one less leg. When asked how the lifestyle may have prepared them for unexpected events like a global pandemic, Jim cites a favorite quote from Grateful Dead roadie Steve Parish. “You just have to remember: the situation is the boss.”
Living through the highs and lows of life on the road while witnessing the joys and heartbreak of helping others through amputation recovery and cancer care isn’t easy. Along the way, Jim and Rene do their best to stay resilient by doing what comes naturally to any dog: focusing on the here and now. In other words, they try to Be More Dog. It’s Jerry’s parting gift to the couple, which they share with the world in their book, Be More Dog; Learning to Live in the Now.
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