Why Elmo’s Story Needs Telling – by Janetta Harvey

There are some stories that must be told. Elmo’s is one of them and I’m certain it will both break and warm the hearts of those who read it. And read it I hope many will do, as Elmo’s courage deserves no less than our full attention. And his life demands we all do more to end the industry which confines, condemns and creates thousands of Elmos each year who suffer unseen, unheard, unrecognised. But his story for me started with a puppy playground. So let me begin.


Photo credit: Jordan Ballard

It was a Dogs Today article about a puppy playground for smuggled puppies that first piqued my interest. Looking at images of pups who shortly before had survived a journey across Europe stuffed into dark, filthy crates enjoying what looked a lot like a children’s playground complete with sandpit, brightly coloured play tunnels and fun places to hide, I knew I had to see this for myself. So a couple of weeks ago I headed to Dogs Trust’s Basildon rehoming centre to find out more on the work that’s being done with these vulnerable smuggled puppies.

Dogs Trust has long campaigned against the illegal importation of puppies to the UK. As well as conducting detailed investigations, in December 2015 it launched a landmark quarantine initiative, pledging to provide care for illegally imported puppies who are seized by border enforcement authorities. Without this, the smuggled puppies would face euthanasia or being turned away at the border to an uncertain fate. Through this project hundreds of smuggled puppies have been cared for and rehomed.

The puppies are innocent victims of the cruel, illegal trade in puppies from Eastern Europe to the UK. All part of a miserable, massive industry with its legal and illegal, imported and home-based elements. The reach of this industry is vast, its tentacles are poisonous, the suffering it inflicts is unrelenting. The conditions smuggled puppies are forced to travel thousands of miles in are dreadful; they lack crucial vaccinations and treatments and come from awful breeding facilities. Health problems are rife and unsuspecting puppy buyers have no idea that the sweet puppy they buy in the UK may well end up just a few weeks later suffering terrible consequences due to their bad start in life. This is what happened to Elmo whose story I was introduced to during my visit to Essex. It’s a serious lesson in the cruel realities of today’s puppy trade and is best told by Jordan who works for Dogs Trust and whose kind, dedicated home Elmo was lucky to find himself in.

Elmo’s a pug and was smuggled into the UK from Slovakia together with his brother and 4 dachshunds. They were supposed to be 14 weeks old but when they arrived at the centre they were much tinier than expected and it’s assumed they were more likely around 10 weeks. At the time, he seemed really healthy, I fell instantly in love and the day came for me to take him home on trial to see if he and my other dog, Sparky would get along. They did and we were all set to progress with adoption. But as I’d noticed he walked slightly oddly I asked at his home health check if all was well, but the vet wasn’t able to notice anything in particular and we agreed he’d be looked at again when he was neutered. But just a few weeks later it became obvious something was wrong: he was hunched and kept falling over so it was decided he should see an orthopaedic specialist.

It’s important to note that if Elmo hadn’t been intercepted at the border, without doubt, he’d have been sold via one of the many online pet websites with his buyers being unaware of the problems to come. Elmo was eventually referred to Dick White Referrals, one of Europe’s largest specialist veterinary centres where he was diagnosed with hemivertebrae, a distressing condition common in pugs. Some dogs with hemivertebrae show no signs, however, others have major welfare problems such as pain, loss of function of the hindlimbs and incontinence. Along with pain, the spinal cord damage in severely affected individuals requires rapid veterinary treatments including major surgery and unfortunately this was the case for Elmo. Jordan continues his story:

He required two operations, the first was on his neck to increase his chances of being able to walk normally. Initially he did well post-operatively but on the 6th week his right hind limb suddenly collapsed underneath him and he struggled to walk again. I took him back to Dick Whites and they confirmed he needed surgery on his spine. Sadly Elmo came out of this second op completely paralysed. The vet phoned me every day saying Elmo could walk in water but outside he was still paralysed. A week went by before I could collect him. Still paralysed I took him home with a strict set of instructions and exercises to do 4 times a day, which we did. Then, one day Elmo just stood up by himself! He just got up on all four legs, I was shell shocked. He couldn’t walk but he was able to stand. The vet gave him 4 weeks to improve so I worked so hard with him. But sadly after 6 weeks there was still no improvement.


Elmo surprising Jordan by standing up after his 2nd operation.

 Photo credit: Jordan Ballardelmo1B

Photo credit: Jordan Ballard

After more time and effort, and many thousands of pounds spent on specialist treatment which soon exceeded Elmo’s insurance, it was eventually decided that with the complexity of Elmo’s case and his lack of improvement despite everyone’s best efforts, setting Elmo up with a pair of wheels was his only real option for living a good, pain-free life.

The lovely Pug Dog Welfare & Rescue Association donated the wheels which have given him his life. He is a totally different dog nowadays. He can run and sprint and play with other dogs and acts like a really normal dog. He is amazing. He’s an inspirational little dog who has shown me strength. He was 5 months old when he had hist first operation and missed out on his whole puppy hood. He’s now 18 months old and is still going strong on his wheels. He’s a happy little soul and even though he may have only days, weeks or months (I hope years) left I’m going to make sure he has the best time. Because he totally deserves nothing less. He doesn’t let his disability defeat him and he makes me smile every day.


Elmo with his brother Sparky

 Photo credit Jordan Ballard.

Elmo5BElmo and Sparky  

Photo credit Jordan Ballard.

Elmo’s tale has a happy ending, he’s deeply loved and safe with Jordan but it could have been a dire outcome for this little pup. If he hadn’t been discovered being illegally imported and instead had reached his intended destination – the open, unregulated UK puppy market – it’s impossible to know if his severe medical issues would have received the care they needed. They only became apparent as he matured and his unsuspecting buyers may not have had the resources, insurance cover, or dedication to ensure he got all he needed. And living with a pup on wheels is far from what most puppy buyers expect when they hand over their cash.

Stories like Elmo’s are happening every day across the UK in the puppy industry. Costing puppy buyers in unexpected veterinary costs and puppies – and their parents – deeply in pain and suffering.


Photo credit: Jordan Ballard

You can read more from Dogs Trust on the scandal of puppy smuggling here and the work of the Pug Dog Welfare and Rescue Association here.

(I thank Dogs Trust for inviting me to the Centre in Basildon, and for the work being done to help dogs like Elmo.)

PDWRA would like to thank Janetta Harvey (www.janettaharvey.com) for allowing us to use this article as one of our web pages.