RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Frank is a small puppy with a big head, bigger spirit and 172 Facebook fans and counting.
It took four months for the Chihuahua-dachshund mix to be adopted — much longer than his five littermates, who were snatched up quickly.
At 8 weeks — prime adopting age — Frank had a seizure related to the cause of his abnormally large head. He has a buildup of fluid in his brain, or hydrocephalus.
The puppy — known for his love of cameras and eating leaves while on walks — was a high risk for euthanasia because of his condition. Richmond Animal League promptly put him in a foster home, awaiting a family willing to take on the medical responsibility and the emotional risk of a special needs pet.
Stacey Metz saw Frank's potential.
As an administrative assistant in the Department of Neurosurgery at Virginia Commonwealth University, Metz often interacts with children and adults who have the same condition as Frank.
"They think they're the only ones. It didn't happen to any of their friends," Metz said of patients. "It's always nice to know they can relate."
What made Frank undesirable became his gateway into a family that saw his illness as a way to comfort children with hydrocephalus and remind them they aren't alone.
Frank's story earned Richmond Animal League a $25,000 grant to continue similar efforts to rescue dogs and cats from euthanasia. The organization was one of 33 among more than 4,500 applications to receive the grant from Petco Foundation.
"Frank probably wouldn't have made it at another shelter," said Richmond Animal League executive director Amy D. McCracken.
Hydrocephalus, also known as "water on the brain," occurs when fluid accumulates in the brain from overproduction; obstructions prevent the fluid from flowing through the brain or to the spine; or the body cannot absorb the fluid. As many as one in 500 children have hydrocephalus, according to Harvard Medical School, citing a developing registry by specialists.
The disease is rarer in dogs but is mostly found in smaller breeds. Both dogs and humans can have shunts surgically inserted to drain fluid from the brain to the abdomen, relieving pressure.
Frank's small stature and large head will not keep him from therapy dog training. Richmond SPCA CEO Robin Starr, who oversees a Paws for Health therapy dog training program, said both large and small breeds are trained.
As long as they have a calmer demeanor and are confident in new places — important traits for dogs constantly meeting strangers — purebreds and mixed breeds have equal potential.
"It's really about the dog's personality. The dog needs a combination of being calm and not flappable while also being very affectionate," she said. "The lovely thing about smaller dogs is that they can be on someone's bed and someone's lap. It makes it a little bit more comfortable to have more direct physical contact."
Frank, now 9 months old, started training soon after he was adopted and still has about a year before he is certified.
His "foster mother," Toni Mark, said he will make a good therapy dog because he's not easily startled and is playful with no regard to how his oversized head affects others' view of him.
If he had headaches or was bothered by common symptoms of hydrocephalus, "he never showed it. I can't ask him, but he went with the flow all the time," she said, laughing. "He's such a good sport."
For now, Frank visits homes of interested patients or meets them at Richmond Animal League.
Recently, he got to meet a 2-year-old boy with hydrocephalus named Dylan Lipton-Lesser, who lives in Chesterfield County. As Dylan's mothers compared notes with
Frank's family on medications, treatments and symptoms, they found several similarities.
"As these two get older, it will be really neat for Dylan to realize, 'Hey, he has what I have,' " said his mother, India Lipton.
Shirley Lesser said that when Dylan went to the hospital for six surgeries in two years, a dog would have been great to help pass the time in the hospital room.
"It cheers them up," she said. "It's hard to have a kid in the hospital with nothing to do."
His mothers stress that Dylan is a typical toddler with a few limitations he is working to overcome. Frank's foster family stressed the same thing to potential adopters.
Facebook fans praised Frank's larger-than-usual head, and nearly 100 inquired about adopting him, Mark said. But when they found out about his medication, potential for surgery and a lifespan likely to be shorter than other dogs, only one family submitted an application.
The dog's foster family typed a two-page letter for potential adopters detailing his limitations, as well as his quirks.
"It was very clear he was quite different from the start," Mark said. "We didn't always want to start the conversation with what's wrong with him."
It was hard for the Mark family to hear others see Frank's abnormality before his personality, she said. As a therapy dog, children with hydrocephalus who he comes in contact with will likely be able to relate.
"They are faced with the same response that we had . 'What's wrong with him?' " she said.
Richmond Animal League processes about 1,700 pet adoptions per year, with most pets only needing to be spayed or neutered before being ready. McCracken said the special needs pets are the ones most in need of rescue and careful matching.
Frank's placement, allowing him to comfort children with his condition, was a perfect fit.
"It's amazing who takes them in," she said.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com