Boulder Overcomes a Rocky Start

October 5, 2022

After Sara B. recovered from COVID-19 in early May, she thought, “You know what would make this better? Adopting a dog!’”

The life-long dog lover logged onto her computer, visited, and soon came across Boulder, a four-year-old pit bull-mix who was being treated at the ASPCA for severe skin allergies. Sara completed an application and was soon contacted by Despina Parthemos, an ASPCA Matchmaker who explained Boulder’s issues.

Boulder with Sara and Julia on adoption day, and later, at home.

“We all love Boulder but wanted to be upfront about his skin condition and behavioral needs,” says Despina. “Fortunately, Sara had a lot of experience with dogs and was confident in her ability to acclimate Boulder into her home.” 

Boulder had just returned to the ASPCA after being in foster care, and when Sara and her roommate Julia met him on May 18, Sara adopted him that day. 

“He was a happy, healthy boy when he left,” says Despina. “It was a great fit.”

A Harrowing History

Nearly a year ago, on August 24, 2021, Boulder arrived at the ASPCA after being transported from Animal Care Centers of NYC’s Manhattan shelter. Dr. Laura Niestat, the Forensic Veterinarian, who examined him, noted that Boulder was emaciated, and his coat was thin and patchy. His official diagnosis was atopic dermatitis.

“His skin was red, inflamed, infected and smelled horrible,” says Dr. Niestat. “It was obvious that Boulder’s skin condition had been going for a long time.”

Dog allergies triggered by allergens in the environment or food can result in skin conditions that cause skin inflammation.

“The inflammation compromises the normal skin barrier and increases the skin’s susceptibility to secondary bacterial infections. The inflammation and infection cause itching and pain. The more inflamed and infected the skin gets, the harder it becomes to treat, and the longer the dog is in pain. It becomes a vicious cycle,” she says. “Chronic skin issues can also contribute to poor body condition. If dogs don’t feel well, they don’t eat. Boulder’s case was severe because it had been untreated for so long.”

Dr. Niestat noted inflammation of Boulder’s ear canals and eyes, which in addition to the skin are commonly affected by allergies. It would take a dedicated owner to care for a dog like Boulder.

“Skin conditions can be difficult and frustrating to treat, and flare-ups are common,” Dr. Niestat says. “I knew Boulder would require long-term medication, management and patience.” 

Tackling Boulder’s Issues

Boulder soon moved to the ASPCA Canine Annex for Recovery and Enrichment (CARE), where Dr. Sarah Mantovani, Medical Supervisor, oversaw his treatment.

“Over seven months and multiple dermatologist consults, we found the right recipe of treatment to manage Boulder’s allergies and keep infections at bay,” she says. “This included—in the short-term—a combination of antibiotics and antifungals, eye and allergy medication and a specific long-term diet.”

“Allergies, like in people, are always a spectrum,” Dr. Mantovani adds. “Some are mild, some are horrible. And Boulder’s fall on the tough side.”

Jacqueline Ramirez, Behavior Specialist at the ASPCA Adoption Center, recalls how Boulder was sensitive to medical handling and would sometimes move away or snap if someone attempted to get close to his eyes to medicate them.

“We initially used a barrier to get him comfortable receiving his eye medication daily,” says Jacqueline. “Through a hole in his kennel door, one person would distract Boulder and feed him treats while the other would apply his medication. However, we knew this technique—though clever in the shelter—wouldn't work for an adopter. So, over time we worked to desensitize and counter-condition Boulder by placing our hands near his face and eventually touching him with delicious treats. We wanted to set Boulder and his new family up for success.”

The tactics worked, and Boulder readily accepted his eye drops and, later, ointment when his foster caregiver, Mary Lynn H., applied them during Boulder’s two-week stay with her.

“He was a very good boy,” says Mary, who particularly enjoyed when Boulder would walk over and place his head in her lap. “He’s such a cuddle bug.”

“Real-Life” Rehab

Thanks to expert medical care and lots of love—along with spray cheese and peanut butter—Boulder gained weight and recovered. 

“He was very handsome once his hair coat grew back and his skin infections resolved,” says Dr. Mantovani. “He was such a trooper through all his treatments.”

The Adoption Center behavior team spent time with Boulder in the ASPCA’s new “real-life room,” which resembles a home environment, and practiced his eye treatments in that space where he was more comfortable. 

To help support his transition to a new home, the ASPCA also set Boulder and Sara up with a scholarship to the GoodPup virtual training school for four weeks.

“He used to lie in his kennel and howl all day,” says Rachel Maso, Director of Animal Behavior. “He seemed so unhappy and didn’t even want to go for walks. Based on his time in foster care, we knew that at least his howling persisted in a home environment and wanted to give his adopters any advantage and support we could.” 

Boulder took quickly to the virtual training, learning basic manners like “sit” and “heel.” Though he occasionally howls in his new home, Sara learned how to give him outlets and training to reduce this behavior.

“There are many dogs like Boulder in shelters with medical and behavioral challenges that go overlooked,” Rachel says. “But with a little support, they can make amazing and loving pets.” 

Surrounded by “Animal People”

Sara has never had a dog with so many challenges, but she empathizes strongly with Boulder.

“I also have atopic dermatitis,” says Sara, “Mine isn’t quite as bad, but I understand how uncomfortable it can be.”

Boulder recently had a flare-up, but Sara and Boulder’s new veterinarian are developing a long-term plan to manage it. 

He still howls, but now it’s mainly if Sara is late with his breakfast.

“He’s very chatty,” says Sara. “If you’re not paying attention to him, he ‘sings’ for you.”

When Sara, who works at a crisis center three days a week, is away, Boulder hangs out with Julia and Sara’s other roommate, Catherine, a communications administrator who works from home. 

“We’re all animal people,” says Sara, who recently took Boulder on vacation to the Finger Lakes, where they visited a restaurant, explored the lake shore and made a bonfire.

After a rocky and painful start, “animal people” are precisely what Boulder deserves.