As a paw-parent to a six year old German Shepherd front leg tripod (three-legged dog) I know first hand the challenges it can present. Don’t get me wrong, tripods can live near normal lives, but any tripod owner does need to take certain precautions to make sure their three-legged dog lives a long, happy and healthy life.
In this article I will tell you some of the things I have learnt from living with my energetic canine amputee.
Why three-legged dogs?
There are a number of reasons why a dog could end up with a missing limb. Cancer, disease or injury to the leg can all lead to an amputation decision having to be made. Sometimes the leg simply can’t be saved for health or medical reasons. Alternatively, the vet may decide that the dog would be more comfortable if the damaged, injured or diseased leg was removed.
We adopted our German Shepherd, Zena (aka Skippy), from rescue as a neglect case. She was 4 months post amputation when we met her, so we have only ever known her with three legs. In cases of injury, cancer or disease leading to amputation of the leg, you will be dealing with the care of a three-legged dog and also their adjustment from three to four legs.
So let’s deal with that first, as that is going to be the most common scenario. I have been contacted my many dog owners who are incredibly worried about how their dog will cope post amputation. The good news is, dogs adapt incredibly quickly. Within just a few days your dog will be moving about and getting used to a new way of balancing and moving.
How does a three-legged dog balance?
Well, not to be too flippant but a lot like a three wheeler bicycle or car. There will be an adjustment period where your dog will need to get used to a totally new way of balancing but as time goes by you will notice the remaining leg taking more of a central stance, to help with balance. Your dog will do this naturally over the course of the first 6-12 months post amputation.
How does a three-legged dog walk?
This varies slightly depending on whether the missing limb is the front or back leg. Front leg amputees are at a disadvantage as the majority of a dog’s weight is supported by the front legs. A front leg tripod will use their back muscles in order to lift and go forward. A dog missing back leg will need to do that too but to a much less extent. Back leg tripod dogs have less issues with movement than a front legged tripod.
Safety at home
The only special help we gave Zena when we brought her home was with the stairs. She was tentative going down and didn’t look like she was in control. So we put her harness on her (one with a grab handle helps) and used that to support her weight as she learnt how to do the stairs. We helped her like that for about two weeks until we were sure she had complete control on stairs, especially going down stairs. We originally had painted stairs that were dangerous for her so we had them carpeted. Adding some kind of non-slip surface to stairs is pretty essential. Other than that, stairs should become no problem at all.
Shiny or slippery floors also won’t do your three-legged job any favours. Add rugs and runners in areas of high use or try your dog with rubber or grip boots to give them extra stability on potentially skiddy surfaces.
Front leg tripods are rather prone to doing face plants. Even as a seasoned tripod, if Zena is messing about and doesn’t watch her step, she will say hello to the floor with her face. I tell her to calm down but she doesn’t appear to care, lol.
Exercising a tripod
My mantra when it comes to three-legged dogs is “Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should”. When you see your tripod coping well and getting about ‘normally’ it can be tempting to go back to all their usual activities – long walks, playing fetch etc…
Yes, your three-legged dog can probably do all those things but you will be causing strain and possible long term damage to their remaining leg and also their back if you allow them to continue as if nothing has changed. Walks will have to be reduced dramatically. And don’t rely on your dog telling you when they are tired. A dog enjoying their walk is not going to stop, regardless of pain or discomfort. They could be doing damage and you may have no idea.
If your dog starts to sit or lay down on a walk, you have definitely done too much. Look at the time, track how long that was and do less next time. You can still play a little bit of fetch, if that is your dog’s favourite game, but only throw low to the ground, especially for front legged tripods. Yes, they can still jump, often astounding and delighting everyone watching, but the strain of landing on a single leg from any height is not worth the risk.
Swap activities and get creative
There is no getting around it – your tripod’s activity on walks and during games will have to change so why not get creative. There are loads of other fun activities you can do at home or on walks that will engage and satisfy your dog without having them racing around on that precious remaining leg. Try scent work or hide and seek games. Our Zena’s favourite walkies game used to be fetch but now it is a game we call “Where is it?” I ask her to sit, I then take her ball and go around the park pretending to put her ball in the bush, under a bench, in the grass etc… She then has to go find it. With games like this she gets to play with her beloved ball without too much running and jumping about.
Of course any kind of swimming is great exercise as your dog won’t need to weight bear. People always seem surprised when I say that Zena can swim. I sometimes joke to incredulous onlookers that she can swim but only in circles. That’s not true of course. She swims very well in any direction she chooses. Her favourite ‘walks’ are beach swims and playing swimming fetch with a floating dog toy
As your dog gets older, their abilities will change, so bear that in mind as well. When our Zena was a sprightly 1 year old, she could easily do 30 minutes running around (in fact more but we didn’t let her). At 6 years old, her limit is now more like 15 minutes.
Every tripod dog is different. Breed, size and age make a big difference in what your dog will and won’t be able to do. Front leg versus back leg amputation will also make a difference, so watch your dog carefully, don’t overdo it and remember the mantra:
“Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should”
Tripod size and weight
Larger dogs have more potential to cause damage or injury to their back and remaining leg more than smaller dogs, as they have more bulk to lift and land with each step.
It is important to keep the weight of your tripod down. The less weight they are carrying on that remaining leg the better. Being on the skinny side is better than being a normal weight or carrying extra weight. We keep Zena slim for this reason.
Wheels for three-legged dogs
Front or back wheels can seem like a magic answer to all your tripod problems and yes, they can be great for allowing your dog to run about again without time restrictions. Zena has a set of front wheels which she enjoys using and in them she can do normal length dog walks, which is lovely. But they are expensive, they often have to be made to measure and they can only be used in certain circumstances, so bear that in mind before making a purchase.
Zena has practiced on and off for two years now in her wheels and can navigate slightly bumpy surfaces but mostly you will be restricted to flat surfaces. And expect some tipping over for the first few weeks, until your dog is used to walking in wheels. Zena got so excited at running again, she would take corners too sharply and go over sideways. I don’t mean to put you off and I would not be without Zena’s front wheels but don’t bank on them making dog walks completely ‘normal’ again.
We have also noticed that Zena can appear aggressive towards other dogs when she is in her wheels, presumably because she feels vulnerable and at a disadvantage. So another thing to bear in mind would be that kind of potential ‘personality change’.
Happy tripod life?
Can a three-legged dog still live a happy life? Absolutely yes, yes yes. Dogs have this wonderful knack of adapting and cracking on with life with a wagging tail. One missing leg won’t change that. With a little extra care and sensible restrictions from you, they will still have an excellent life, so please don’t worry about that.
If you are worried about canine life on three legs, the operation itself or anything tripod related, a resource I have enjoyed is the Facebook group Tripaws – three legged dogs. You can share stories, experiences, worries or simply show off your tripawd.
Another lovely resource for tripod owners, where you can view videos and get an idea of what life is like with a tripod is the Tripawds YouTube channel.
I hope that has helped answer some of the questions and concerns that life with a three-legged dog can bring.
Author Jenny Prevel, Owner D for Dog
Jenny Prevel is a lifelong animal lover and dog owner. She grew up with dogs, cats, pigs, chickens and rabbits, to name a few. Wanting to help dogs in her adult life, Jenny started adopting needy rescue dogs in 2003. After adopting a deaf dog and wanting to share what she had learnt, Jenny started her website D for Dog in 2004 and has helped many dog owners by writing articles on a number of topics including pet loss and end of life, dog adoption, dog care and health issues.
Jenny shares her life with her husband Paul and their three-legged German Shepherd Zena who they adopted as a neglect case.
D for Dog