WESTPORT, CT — Piglet, a pastel pink puppy that can’t see or hear, is opening eyes and ears around the world with messages of kindness, inclusion and acceptance. Piglet weighed 1 pound when he and 37 other puppies were rescued from a hoarding situation in Georgia. The deck was stacked against him.
But the dog named “most inspired” at last weekend’s Special K9 Games in Ohio can do the same things as other dogs, said Connecticut veterinarian Dr. Melissa Shapiro, who took Piglet in but never intended to adopt him — let alone manage the dog’s social media accounts and book him for classroom appearances to help students with disabilities discover what’s possible.
The Piglet Mindset, as the program is known, is based on the “growth mindset” approach in education that responds to the needs of students who are devastated by setbacks. It’s based on the belief that abilities and intelligence can be taught. In other words, Shapiro said, it’s “a newish way of teaching kids they can overcome challenges and there are different learning styles and different ways to achieve a goal.”
Piglet — the dog with the same name as Winnie-the-Pooh’s best friend and every bit as determined to conquer the obstacles in his way — is Exhibit A.
“He really is a lesson in determination and facing challenges with a positive attitude,” Shapiro said. “He has great challenges. He’s a tiny little dog, and very disabled. He’s learned how to compensate for his disabilities.”
Who Would Adopt This Dog?
No one wanted the nervous, scared puppy “screaming at the top of his lungs in a crate” Shapiro found at a Petco store in Milton a couple of years ago when she agreed to help out Colbert Veterinary Rescue Services in Georgia and foster the dog. Born unable to see or hear, living in an atmosphere of chaos and rejected by his mother, Piglet had been screaming since the day he took his first breath.
“I ran out of the store with him screaming. It was horrible,” Shapiro said. “He screamed from Milton to Norwalk to the vet hospital where I work.”
She worried: Who would ever adopt this dog?
“Up here, where we live, most people don’t want a deaf, blind dog,” Shapiro said. “I immediately said I would foster — I didn’t want to say no — but I knew he was not going to get the attention he needed [in a shelter] and would be ruined. He needed a tremendous amount of attention.”
And then, in one heart-tugging act, Piglet showed Shapiro he deserved a chance.
Monica, one of the techs at the vet’s office, picked up Piglet, cradled him and put him down her shirt next to her warm body. He stopped screaming. Calming Piglet down was one thing, and Shaprio knew she could improve his quality of life.
But how would a dog like that learn?
Blind dogs respond to voice commands. Deaf dogs learn with their eyes. Piglet can’t use either of those senses, but he can smell, he can taste and he can feel touch.
Three out of five senses was better than 50 percent, so Shapiro taught Piglet to respond to tap signals and to use his nose. Suffering severe separation anxiety, Piglet barked and yelped and carried on for months, but eventually he figured it all out and settled into a routine.
Now 2½ and carrying 5.8 pounds on his small frame, Piglet is a rock star. He knows it, too.
“I don’t know how he knows, but he knows,” Shapiro said. “When there are hundreds of people around, he knows how to pose. He likes the working routine of sitting and posing. He can’t see us smiling, but he does know he’s going to get a treat — he is very, very food motivated.”
He also has a pint-sized attitude about his celebrity status.
“He’s not going to be delighted when he sees there are other dogs there,” Shapiro said in a phone interview last week as she and husband Warren drove from Connecticut to Ohio for the Special K9 Games. “He thinks he should be the only dog. There are certain people who know how to be celebrities, and he’s one of them.”
A Meaningful Life For Piglet
How Piglet came to be an educational consultant illustrates the serendipity of the internet and the power of resilient animals to steal human hearts.
Shapiro set up a Facebook page hoping to find him a home and filled it with pictures of the adorable pink pup. A third-grade teacher in Massachusetts found the page, and her students adopted Piglet as their mascot for the growth mindset curriculum, resolving to face each day with a “Piglet State of Mind.”
Piglet is also helping kids in Connecticut, Alabama and even Japan and Australia. The program is available for free on Shapiro’s website.
Piglet has a secondary pet welfare mission with an urgent call to dog breeders to stop roulette with canine genetics through the practice of double-dapple breeding and the desire for litters of splashy, colorful pups.
Again, Piglet is Exhibit A. His disabilities were preventable.
A single spot on a Dachshunds’ fur makes it a dapple. When one dappled Dashshund is bred to another, the pups may be striking and unique, but they’re also at greater risk for birth defects and a lonely, miserable life. Three of Piglet’s four litter mates are deaf, and two others have congenital eye problems.
When it came down to it, Shapiro couldn’t let Piglet go. Lots of people wanted him, but she was particular. She didn’t doubt the sincerity of the people who stepped forth, but questioned whether they’d have the patience for a dog that demanded so much attention.
The sale of Piglet-themed merchandise and social media advertising have raised more than $30,000 for special-needs animal shelters. Shapiro hopes Piglet can go to more classrooms in the future, and she may lend her pooch’s name to a non-profit to raise money for the special-needs animal shelters.
“When I decided that we were going to adopt him, I decided he would have a meaningful life,” Shaprio said.
Altruism aside, Piglet is simply spreading joy.
“A lot of people,” Shapiro said, “are really happy to know him.”