Cleft-palate dog connects with children with 'facial differences'

Posted: July 19, 2013

Robert Walton - 8 years old, with as many surgeries behind him - smiled shyly as he reached out a hand.

Before him, a 12-pound bulldog pup squirmed excitedly.

And then, they connected. Small hand to beige-and-white fur. Robert and Lentil.

Later, the Bensalem youth, son of Rose and Robert Walton, proclaimed, "He's exactly like me."

Each was born with a cleft palate.

They were gathered at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school for a feel-good session, a mutual inspiration party held with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The idea was to let children with "facial differences" - who may have had or who will face surgery for a cleft palate or other problems - interact with dogs in a similar situation.

Dogs with snout differences.

The message was to let the children see that the dogs are, as much as anyone can tell, happy. Not worried about their looks, never doubting that they are loved. And doing all the normal dog things.

So, on came Lentil, a French bulldog who had surgery on a cleft palate that was life-threatening because he could not eat or drink properly.

Plus Georgia, a Gordon setter, and Buddy, a golden retriever, who both had portions of their jaws removed because of cancer.

Lentil - so named because he looked like a bean when he was born in February - is already an old paw at this.

The Northern Liberties dog was given up at birth because of his condition, but then was saved by a rescue group. Lindsay Condefer, who owns the Chic Petique boutique, was fostering him and fell in love.

So did plenty of others. After she started a Lentil Facebook page and detailed his surgery this year, mothers of children with cleft palate began calling. Their children loved Lentil.

Now, he's a Facebook phenomenon, where his multitude of too-cute photos - Lentil with his stuffed animals! Lentil's plump little tummy! Lentil in his Superdog cape! - have generated more than 100,000 "likes."

Earlier this year he traveled to Orlando to work his magic at a Children's Craniofacial Association camp.

Trevor Larys, 11, and his parents, Erik Larys and Kim Trzanowski, drove all the way from Monmouth County to see Lentil, whom they knew from Facebook.

"He's a cool dog," said Trevor, who has had six surgeries on his face, with more to go. "He's fun to play with."

On the whole, the "Best Friends Bash" was a scene of endless petting and nonstop tail-wagging.

"It's really about the awareness of appearance," said Scott Bartlett, Children's chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery. "The dog is an ideal vehicle. They have unconditional love. They don't look at faces."

Besides, what child doesn't bond with a dog?

Having dogs as part of a therapeutic program is not new. But this permutation is, Bartlett said.

The docs and staff at Children's and Penn Vet have been brainstorming the idea for a while, and they knew they had to make it happen after Lentil himself came to a "day of beauty" held for some of the young patients at a suburban salon.

Not that Georgia and Buddy are slouches when it comes to serving as blue-ribbon examples of life after surgery.

Buddy, a Yardley dog, had been the family pet of Julie and Geoff MacKenzie for about seven years when their son saw a lump in the dog's mouth. It was cancer. They had a tough decision.

In general, craniofacial surgeries can take six hours and cost from $1,500 to $6,000, said John Lewis, associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery at Penn Vet.

He recognizes that opinions about how far to go vary widely among pet owners. But veterinary surgeons can do a lot these days.

The MacKenzies had the means, and this was the family dog. They loved him.

The lesson of Buddy now, said Geoff MacKenzie, is that while the experience "may seem traumatic at first, those around you don't love you any less."

Georgia, a Wynnewood dog who lives with pet photographer Lynnrae Fenimore, was only a year and a half old when her cancer was diagnosed.

Now 8, "she's a great survivor," Fenimore said. Part of her jaw may be gone, but "she's still an amazingly beautiful animal. I just think she exudes beauty, in her own way."

At Wednesday's event, the children and dogs weren't the only ones trading experiences. The physicians were hoping to, as well.

Many aspects of the surgeries are similar. An advance in the veterinary setting might help a human. And vice versa.

As for Condefer, she loves to see Lentil and the children lock eyes.

What would he say to them if he could talk?

"I don't know," Condefer said. "He and the kids tell their own secrets."


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, GreenSpace, at www.philly.com/greenspace

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