POWELL — For the better part of the past decade, it wasn’t unusual to see Rick Slater walking through downtown Powell with his Banjo.
Banjo is his constant companion, as a dog should be. The feeling is mutual: The two are inseparable.
“They do pretty much everything together, and they always have,” said Olivia Capron, Slater’s granddaughter.
Slater and Banjo walked every day, often visiting Slater’s wife, Wilma, at the Ace Hardware on Powell’s main drag. Between walks and play time in the backyard of the Slater home on North Absaroka Street, you can usually find them lounging on the couch — Banjo with his head on Slater’s lap, happy as can be.
“He’s my best friend and keeps me company,” Slater said of the 10-year-old dachshund.
It’s more than just a convenient friendship between a man and his dog. They need each other — especially now, as each is going through tough health issues.
Earlier this year Slater suffered a stroke. That same week, Banjo lost the use of his back legs. A back injury was suspected.
“[Banjo] was fine one day, and the next day he was dragging himself around with no support in his back at all,” Capron said.
The family feared it was the end of the road for Banjo. Their veterinarian said there were few options.
They could try surgery, but it would cost thousands of dollars and there was no guarantee it would help. It appeared the condition would be permanent. When Banjo’s condition failed to improve as time passed or from injections of steroids, the vet warned the family he would never walk again.
However, Banjo didn’t let his injury stop him and he didn’t seem to be in pain. The dog would use his front legs to “scoot” across the family’s pristine hardwood floors, refusing to give up.
The Slater family wouldn’t hear of saying goodbye to Banjo, or any of their pets, unless absolutely in the best interest of the dog. They were determined to not let this be the end of the line for Banjo.
“As long as they’re healthy and not in pain, we’ll try to do everything we can do to keep them happy,” Capron said. “They’re more than just dogs. They’re members of our family.”
It’s not just talk. This isn’t the first time the family has been through long periods of caring for an elderly dog. Bristol, their 13-year-old dachshund — one of a number of the breed the family has raised — stays in the house most of the day. She’s blind and she gets uncomfortably cold. The family is caring for her through her senior years, refusing to give up simply because her ailments are inconvenient.
But Banjo wouldn’t be happy without getting outdoors, patrolling the yard for squirrels or rolling in the grass. So, when his back legs gave out, the family looked for options to improve his quality of his life. It’s a tough decision, said Dr. Ray Acker, doctor of veterinary medicine at Bighorn Animal Care Center in Powell.
“There are several factors you weigh for a decision like this,” he said. “One is the economic bind. Another is if you have the facilities to handle the situation.”
If you can afford it and have the place and time to care for an injured pet, decisions come down to quality of life: the amount of pain the animal has.
“I see these back injuries come in. They won’t eat and are very depressed,” Acker said. “They can’t tell me how they feel in words, but symptoms are hard to hide.”
When the quality of life is poor, he counsels his clients on euthanization. It’s a hard decision for everyone, including those in the office.
“I get attached to my clients and patients and it gets to me when I can’t help them,” he said.
The only way to rationalize difficult decisions is to know you’re doing a favor for a pet by humanely saying goodbye. Unfortunately, it’s something all vets and those in the office deal with often.
“If I do need to euthanize, I remind myself I’m doing the animal a favor — that I’ve helped them. That makes it easier to take the loss.”
But Banjo was lucky. Although paralyzed, he could still control his bowels and bladder. And he wasn’t in much pain.
“He was happy and bright, so we decided to try a cart,” Acker said. At first it looked like he wasn’t up for using the wheelchair, Capron said. The dog would just stand there looking grumpy. But soon Banjo began to realize it made it possible to continue his squirrel patrol and he was off and running.
Then, surprisingly, his injury started to get better. It was such a surprise that the staff at Bighorn Animal Care started calling Banjo the “miracle dog.”
“Usually, when it goes as long as that, you typically don’t see them come back. He has gained function. It’s amazing the feeling in his legs came back,” Acker said.
Banjo still needs the cart outdoors, but when in the house he is free of the apparatus and ready to resume his quality time with the tight-knit family. And his attitude has changed.
Though a great friend to Slater, Banjo wasn’t always happy to be around Slater’s great-grandchildren. Unexplainably, after being fitted with the cart and getting a new lease on life, Banjo started choosing to spend time with Capron’s children.
“He can’t get enough of my kids when we come over. He just wants to be next to them and petted and loved,” she said.
Slater has also slowed. He needs exercise for his own recovery.
But he wasn’t about to go on a walk without his Banjo. So he fixed up an old wagon, once used by their kids. He puts Banjo inside and they are off again, ready to explore their beautiful neighborhood.
“He has been my companion through my [treatments] and now my stroke,” Slater said.
He’s not about to give up on his best friend. Not without a fight.