A Diagnosis for Foster Puppy Coco’s Strange Gait


Since I last wrote about Coco, the little dog with the strange gait (her front feet move normally, but she can only bunny hop with her back legs moving together) who I’m fostering for my local shelter, she’s had a couple more veterinary visits:

  • She had a better x-ray than the ones she received when she was still a near-feral little wild child; this one, taken while she lay on her back in a V-shaped cradle – and without any sort of sedatives on board! Such a good girl! – ruled out any problems with her hips or pelvis. (In fact, the vet said her hips look great!)
  • She had blood taken for a test that would rule out a possible protozoal parasite infection that can cause neurological symptoms (Neosporum caninum) – but the test was negative.
  • She had an acupuncture treatment and some laser therapy for some tenderness in her back. (Honestly, I think this was less due to any adverse health condition than it was due to the rough and tumble wrestling/running/body-slamming games she plays with my 5-year-old, 70-pound, rock-solid pit-mix, Woody.) I didn’t see any change in her gait or level of comfort after the treatment.

At this point, my veterinarian was willing to consider some of the more exotic possible causes of her bunny-hopping gait, things like myelodysplasia, which includes anomalies of the skin, vertebrae, and spinal cord that are secondary to faulty closure of the neural tube in the puppy in utero, or pilonidal sinus (dermoid sinus, dermoid cyst), another consequence of faulty neural tubulation that appears to be inherited.

But each of these conditions requires magnetic resonance imaging (MRI, to the tune of at least $1,000!) to definitively diagnose them. Gulp. Since there is no treatment for any of these conditions, however, and because Coco is not in any amount of pain, my veterinarian suggested that I continue with physical therapy and daily massage for Coco. I scheduled an appointment with a veterinary physical therapist; there is a several-week wait to see her.

But then I got the results of a Wisdom Panel mixed-breed DNA test that I had impulsively decided to order:

A Diagnosis for Foster Puppy Coco’s Strange Gait

Wisdom Panel estimated that Coco is 40% American Staffordshire Terrier, 38% Weimaraner, and 15% Labrador Retriever.

And suddenly, a condition called spinal dysraphism started to look like a fairly likely diagnosis. First, because it’s endemic to certain lines of Weimaraners. (There is actually a test, developed by the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California – Davis, that can determine whether a Weimaraner carries the gene that can cause this condition.)

Second, because affected Weims move just like Coco.

How do I know? I was Googling furiously – furious because though I found page after page of links, all the linked articles contained nearly identical brief, dry, and undetailed descriptions of the disorder – when, about four pages of Google results in, I saw a link for a Facebook group dedicated to the condition. I clicked over to the page with excitement, and saw that the owner of the page had posted a number of videos of not one but two Weimaraners with the disorder – and they moved exactly like Coco moves.

I feel in my bones that this is what Coco has – and this made me both happy and sad. Happy, because the condition is not progressive and not painful. Sad, too, though, because there’s no cure and not much you can do to improve matters. Physical therapy will be helpful for keeping her conditioned and limber, but it’s never going to make Coco walk normally.

A Diagnosis for Foster Puppy Coco’s Strange Gait
Coco is happy to be Woody’s little brown shadow – which is why I have her spend time at my friend/co-foster person’s house, so she gets also exposure to the world without having to lean on Woody.

So I think the next steps for Coco (unintentional pun) are to start taking interviews for her next home – which has me and my friend Leonora, who has been hosting Coco at her house some days and nights – a little tearful. We’ve both gotten attached to the happy, funny little dog, goofy gaits and all. She’s smart and affectionate, loves snuggling on the couch at night, and is game to go anywhere we go and do anything that we do. I just have to find a prospective adopter who won’t mind Coco’s funny gait. Ideally, it would be a home with a large enough yard or property, or access to off-leash trails. Like the Am Staffs, Weims, and Labs who were her forebears, Coco loves to run (and frequently gets the zoomies) and is best behaved when she’s getting a lot of exercise. And while she certainly can be walked on leash, I think she does best when she has the freedom to adjust her pace to her human handler without having to stay in the short span of a leash. It might be a tall order; we’ll see.

I’ve been posting lots of pictures and videos of Coco sleeping and playing with Woody, who always takes my young foster dogs and puppies under his wing. Because Coco looks so happy and bonded with Woody, there’s hardly a person who has seen these photos who hasn’t said what all foster providers cringe when they hear: “She’s so happy; you have to keep her!”

I’ll just repeat what I always say: If I keep this one, I really can’t foster any more. Three dogs is my household limit – and really, one dog more than my husband would prefer we have. That said, if I don’t find someone who adores this little dog, of course she can stay.


  1. Nancy, thank you for the wonderful care you’re giving to Coco and thank you also for your great detective work in determining the very likely cause of Coco’s situation. I am a two time Ridgeback foster failure (in my “defense,” both of those dogs had special needs conditions and I just couldn’t think of anyone else not taking care of them) . So although I know it would be so so easy to just say “I’ll keep her,” I agree that it limits the opportunities for you to provide your (and Woody’s) wonderful nurturing to other dogs in need. Take the pressure off yourself, no hard and fast decision has to be made now, just follow your heart as you are doing and look for a wonderful home for Coco. If the right forever home comes along, you’ll know!!! and if not, she already is in the right forever home.
    Very best wishes for a happy holiday season (bless your husband’s heart too) ,
    Sara and the wild bunch (Axel, Hope and Poppy)

  2. Nancy, thank you so much for your loving care and your big heart for these marvelous animals. My two rescues are daily reminders of joyful energy. My two year old has epilepsy, a real challenge, but he is more than worth the ongoing care. Happy Thanksgiving!

  3. I’m so glad you found a diagnosis. I’ve had my dogs (and my parent’s dogs) do the Embark test for this very reason. It’s easier to diagnose something if you know what you’ve got. Certain genetic abnormalities do run in breeds and just because you have a mutt mix doesn’t preclude one of them. We’ve been lucky. You are lucky too in that you’ve finally tracked it down and luckily it isn’t life threatening. Coco will have a long, happy life even though she walks a little funny.

    While I don’t think you’ll have too hard a time finding just the right match for her, she is a darling, I think you should consider, perhaps, going on hiatus from foster for a while and keep Coco. You have three now but you won’t have three forever. It is a sad reality that no matter how much we do, our dogs simply don’t live as long as we do. When that time comes, Woody and Coco will be great modelers for future foster dogs when you start to foster again. It will give Otto some relative peace and quiet in his senior years too, having a break from the cycle of foster puppies.

  4. I’m so sorry… but not really sorry (!) that I sense a foster “failure” (really success) in the making. You and Woody and your friend Leonora have bonded with dear Coco…your heart belongs to her already. And since I adopted a dog I was fostering, and can no longer foster because of adopting her, I do feel your pain!! Bless for all you do!

  5. Nancy, I have been a subscriber of Whole Dog for many years. I learn so much from reading it. I also really enjoy reading your blog. This story, as well as so many others, touch my heart. I feel like you are a friend. It is heartwarming to read about all you do to help dogs. Thank you!

  6. I understand your dilemna. I always fostered until I had to take in a puppy mill Boxer girl who was a mess (understandably). Now I have four dogs and hubby says no more, no fosters either! Since I’m 74, I might have to slow down a little, LOL. Wish I could take her, she’d do very well in my home; all my dogs are mill dogs or mill puppy rejects because of all their physical problems. Many MRI’s and operations later, most of them have been “fixed” as much as possible. Hubby says God sends them to me because He know I’ll spend the money and take care of them.

  7. As a Rescue Coordinator myself, (Bouviers) who has had many many fosters through our house as well, I applaud your efforts to find the perfect home for this lovely little girl. How terrific to find the diagnosis, and that while unresolvable, it is also not painful. Hurray!! Being in that same position of being able to house just so many, I understand the attachment, but also the desire and calling to help and place and find homes for as many homeless dogs as I can who are needing shelter, stability and assistance through absolutely no fault of their own. As funny, and sweet and beautiful as CoCo is, I am hoping you find the most wonderful home for her. As they all do, our fosters, I know she will go with a piece of your heart and that if needed she will always have a back up home with you. We know that keeping the third, deny others that need help and placement for the future. I’m not voting for foster failure, but for outstanding placement success!! I know it will benefit another dog down the line. Thank you for all you do, and thank you for the Whole Dog Journal. I know it, too, is a labor of love. I try, but Not being born knowing everything, and only human, it has been a wonderful resource for me throughout the years and throughout the thoughtful and timely articles. Just wanted to take this opportunity to say “Thank you.” And especially big Thanks also to those who foster!

  8. Your video of CoCo once again opened my heart and brain to the thought of adopting a special needs dog. After all, I was adopted and adopted my special needs foster child too. I would be honored to be considered as her forever home mom. I feel this is meant to be.