Meet Lucky, the 3-Legged Puppy Who Became a Therapy Dog for Schoolchildren
Lucky is finally getting his chance to make a difference. Earlier this year, the three-legged pup completed his training to become a certified therapy dog. Now, he’s helping students and staff alike at a Maine elementary school.
Canine in the Classroom
After he graduated from training in December—and passed all four of his training evaluations on the first try (no small feat, since becoming a therapy dog can take many months of training and behavioral tests)—Lucky was placed at Leeds Central School in Maine. As the elementary school’s certified therapy dog, Lucky is available to anyone at school who simply needs a little TLC.
Danielle Harris, the school’s principal, notes that the tripawd is quite popular amongst the staff and students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the school to online learning, Lucky came to school every day and spent time with both students and teachers. He was a calming presence for students in the halls and classrooms, and would sit with students while they read aloud to him. “Lucky is a great listener!” Harris notes.
When he’s not at work, Lucky lives with his handler Claire Parker, the school’s administrative assistant. The pup has relished in his role as the newest member of the Parker family, whose daughter runs downstairs every day to greet Lucky when he comes home from school. But the pup’s reach goes beyond work and home: The canine has achieved celebrity status around town when he accompanies Parker grocery shopping and to the hardware store.
“People who have heard about Lucky recognize him instantly,” she says. “It's so heart-warming having people stop and ask questions about Lucky in this busy world!” With a story like his, it’s no wonder this special dog is embraced by friends and strangers alike.
Little Pup, Big Purpose
Though the puppy had big expectations to live up to, Lucky was always destined for great things. The pup was born with a front leg deformity that affected the way his elbow developed, and specialists recommended that this leg would need to be amputated. Before that surgery could happen, dog lover Christy Gardner met the little guy at a breeder near her home in Lewiston, Maine, and asked if she could raise the puppy herself. The U.S. Army veteran wanted to train the canine to be a therapy dog at a local school, and upon hearing her plans, the breeder gave Lucky to Gardner at no cost.
Despite needing to initiate Lucky’s surgery and take him through extensive training to become a certified therapy dog, Gardner was up for the challenge.
Paying it Forward
Gardner is no stranger to adversity, and says that training puppies that will go on to help others as service and therapy dogs is her way of giving back. The retired Army Sergeant and Paralympic athlete has a service dog of her own, a golden retriever named Moxie. The two share an unbreakable bond.
“That dog saved my life,” Gardner told ESPN in a 2017 interview.
In 2006, Gardner was injured while on a peacekeeping mission in the demilitarized zone of Korea. The event led to the amputation of both of her legs. Even worse, brain injuries caused frequent seizures that made it dangerous for her to be alone. It was a low time for Gardner, a scholarship athlete who was suddenly unable to live on her own and unsure about how to enjoy life.
Things began to shift when she met Moxie, a golden retriever trained by Florida’s K9s for Warriors. Always an animal lover, Gardner was open to the idea of getting a service dog when her doctors suggested a canine companion.
She was placed with Moxie in 2010 and says the effect the service dog had on her was immediate. The specially trained dog uses her keen sense of smell to detect oncoming seizures, and warns Gardner when she may be in danger.
“Moxie has been absolutely life saving. In the beginning, she was more peace of mind for my family as I became more independent, as well as an extra set of hands to help me with tasks. Over the years, our bond has deepened, and her skill set has grown,” Gardner told PEOPLE. “Now, I can’t imagine getting through a day without her. She motivates me to stay active and healthy, going for extra walks and forcing me to keep my muscles moving and my weight down, as well as helping with simple tasks.”
With Moxie’s help, Gardner was able to reclaim her independence and seek out activities she didn’t think were possible because of her injury. Today, the veteran is a world champion para-athlete. She is the assistant captain of the USA Women’s Sled Hockey Team, a three-time track and field national champion in the discus and shot put, and recently joined the U.S. Para Surfing Team. By embracing these activities, Gardner has found that Moxie has inspired her to “live” more than anything else.
“Without her, I would have given up already,” Gardner says. “She’s given me my life back and a purpose helping others.”
A Team on a Mission
Moxie played a huge role in getting Lucky ready to be a service dog, too. After Lucky’s successful surgery, Gardner and Moxie worked together throughout 2019 to prepare him for life as a three-legged therapy dog. Gardner says that Moxie helped teach Lucky the essentials of good dog behavior and how to behave in public.
While she was training Lucky, Gardner worked multiple jobs to raise money to cover all of Lucky’s medical expenses and training. But once he began his official therapy dog training post-surgery, the little pup and his trainer quickly gained fans. Businesses and people alike donated money and veterinary services to help cover the expenses of Lucky’s surgery and future medical needs, ensuring he could be the happiest, healthiest therapy dog he could be.
Despite being the tenth puppy that Gardner trained, she describes a special bond that she and Moxie had with little Lucky. “Moxie had always been stern with the puppies, being quick to put them in their place” Gardner says, “but she really liked Lucky, and was protective over him from day one.” She says that she and Moxie were incredibly proud to see Lucky pass his tests—but also sad to see him go.
Time to Get to Work
While the coronavirus may have shifted Lucky’s duties as therapy dog at the school, it hasn’t sidelined him from his mission of helping others. Parker still brings Lucky with her to work every day, and says the school’s teachers occasionally invite Parker and Lucky to attend classes via Zoom, where he gets excited just hearing the students through the computer.
“When our students were coming to school, Lucky would wait in the doorway of the main office and greet them,” Parker says. “Most students would get off the bus, pet Lucky on the head, say good morning, and go on their way to breakfast or class.”
“He had only been in school full-time for about three months when we closed for the pandemic, so we have not been able to expand his duties,” Parker says. But she and Lucky still have a lot left to give, and hope to have Lucky join the students’ literacy lessons when class is back in session. When a student does occasionally stop by the school for registration or a pick up, she says Lucky is able to interact with them for pets and playtime—something he absolutely loves.
Even without regular time in the classroom, Lucky has already had a big impact on the students, who see a shining example of perseverance in the pup. “Because of his challenges, including losing his leg, Lucky can show the kids that it’s OK to be different, OK to struggle, and that you don’t have to be good at everything in order to be amazing at something,” Gardner says.
As for Gardner and Moxie? The soldier and service dog still visit with Lucky regularly when Parker comes over for a visit, or occasionally if Lucky needs a dog sitter. And while Lucky may have been Gardner’s first special needs pup, now that he’s mastered his therapy dog training she continues to pay it forward. She and Moxie’s newest trainee is a puppy named Gidget, who is in training to be a service dog for a veteran.
Having three legs hasn’t slowed Lucky down one bit. He still romps and plays with other dogs when he’s not working, including becoming friendly Gardner’s newest family member Douglas, an English cream golden retriever (named after the dog in Disney’s “Up”). “The last time Lucky came over, those two goofballs were like peas in a pod,” Gardner says. “They played together all day and even cuddled for naps too.”
While dogs continue to be a big part of Gardner’s life, Moxie has inspired her to accomplish other amazing things, too. In January, the athlete trained in California to be a para thrower in the 2020 Summer Games, and even joined the U.S. Para Surfing Team and competed in the World Para Surfing Championships in March. Now after moving back to Maine in May, Gardner enjoys seeing Lucky and Parker regularly. She’s continuing to pay it forward by training dogs like Gidget to serve and uplift other veterans in need.
Gardner hopes that Lucky will be a powerful example for the students at Leeds. “He’s an amazing little guy that can bring a lot of compassion and understanding to the whole community,” she says. “I truly hope he can be an ambassador for working dogs as well, so that the kids learn the different types of working dogs and what they can do, but also how to respect them.”