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A Pup Who Helps to Heal

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Covered with burns from a caustic chemical and left to die on the streets of Paterson, N.J., the little beagle had suffered injuries so grim that he almost didn’t make it through his first night at the animal hospital. John DeCando, the chief animal-control officer who brought the pup in after responding to a passerby’s 911 call, recalls visiting the hospital the following morning to decide if it would be kinder to end the dog’s suffering by putting it to sleep. After one look into the puppy’s deep brown eyes, DeCando told the veterinary team, “Whatever you do, keep this dog alive.”

More than a year later, that little beagle has not only healed, he brings a message of hope to others every day.

“We always have had a heart for abused animals,” says Janice Martin, a home health aide from Fair Lawn, N.J., who, along with her husband Mike, a former construction worker, has volunteered at the local animal-rescue organization for 15 years. It was there they met the burned puppy they named Champ and took him in with the intention of fostering him. “We have nursed many abused dogs back to health, and then they go to new homes,” Janice explains.

But from the beginning, the Martins knew taking care of Champ would be different. “When I went to pick up the puppy, I could hardly hold back my tears looking at his red, raw flesh where fur should be,” says Janice. She immediately knew the family had a challenge on its hands. The beagle puppy seemed to have no will to live. And  on top of that, Janice’s husband, Mike, was struggling, too.

“I had only recently overcome kidney cancer when I was struck with a massive heart attack,” Mike recalls. “I had to go on disability, which for me was like a prison sentence, and I became depressed. But I dedicated myself to Champ’s care. He cried often, yelping in pain when Janice or I applied cream to his burns.”

Slowly, the dog’s physical injuries healed, and with them one kind of pain subsided. But for both Mike and Champ, there was still plenty of hurt inside.

“The vet told us there were scars on top of his head that had been there before the burns, indicating that he had suffered prior physical abuse,” says Mike.

“Champ didn’t know if he could trust us or anyone,” Janice adds. “Everyone would bring him toys and treats, but he would get scared and hide where he felt safest. My husband helped him learn to trust and to learn how to run and play. He put his heart and his soul into helping Champ get well, without realizing that Champ was helping him get well, too.”

When Champ was ready to be adopted, his story was so touching that many people wanted him, and one family was even chosen to take him. But as the day grew close, the Martins realized they couldn’t say goodbye. “I was thinking, ‘How do I teach them to look into his eyes and know what he wants?’” Janice says. “We couldn’t let him go.” After five months with Champ, Janice and Mike decided to adopt him themselves.

Today, the beagle has a career helping others as a certified therapy dog in New Jersey. Mike, Champ, and Officer DeCando go to schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to speak about the prevention of animal abuse. He has become a bit of a celebrity and is especially popular with children who have suffered burns.

“As Mike talks about what Champ went through, it opens the door for him to speak about his own suffering,” says Janice. “When people see Champ and hear his story, they can see his scars and know that they, too, can have a wonderful life ahead.”

As for Mike and Champ, they love being able to help others.

“Although I’m still on disability, and Champ will always have more scars than fur, we refuse to let anyone keep us from experiencing a full life together,” Mike says. “I want to show everyone that second chances are possible and that the power of friendship and love is unlimited.”

S.T.A.R.T II, a non-profit organization dedicated to alleviating the plight of homeless and abandoned companion animals, and find out how you can help dogs (and other animals) like Champ.

Veterinarian Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon are the authors of best-selling books on pet care, including “The Ultimate Dog Lover.”

Photo courtesy Mike and Janice Martin

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