Ever since City College of New York student Rachel Lane saw Dustin, a 19-pound terrier mix, in an Animal Care and Control of NYC Center on 110th Street, she has been fighting to give him a better life.
First she argued with shelter staff members who told her a 22-year-old could not handle an aggressive, disagreeable dog who failed all of the shelter’s behavioral tests. He was picked up in the Bronx covered in feces, a typical victim of an abusive home and therefore an unsuitable pet for a young, first-time dog owner, they said. He was bad with kids and other dogs.
“I told them I’d deal with any issues he had,” Lane said. Within days, Dustin came home to Lane’s apartment in Harlem.
Then Lane began the struggle to help a dog who had been so cruelly treated. Dustin became stressed around animals, which made him bark aggressively when approached by other dogs. Working as an apprentice at Sit Stay Dog Training, a dog behavior modification facility, Lane knew about and adopted the “Do More with Your Dog” training program to alter his temperament.
Together, they worked through the program’s five levels, each containing criteria that, once mastered by Dustin, contributed to a noticeable change in his behavior. Some time passed and he could trust a stranger whom he saw speak to Lane. His barking became more seldom and only occurred at the sight of a street sweeper or the sound of an apartment buzzer. Following each level, Dustin became more like every other dog.
“We’ve come a long way,” Lane said.
But Lane, a dog lover since childhood, knew Dustin could achieve more than mere normalcy. Owner of her own dog training company Leash and Learn, she is a self-taught dog trainer seeking to help animals reach their potential. In a matter of months, Dustin’s abilities flourished beyond those of the average dog.
“I can throw raw chicken in front of him and he won’t eat it unless he’s given permission,” Lane said.
Upon reaching the level of “Champion” in the training program, the final step toward completion, Lane was required to submit videos of Dustin performing tricks on YouTube to be judged by a panel. A judge, thoroughly impressed with Dustin’s talent, suggested Dustin would be a suitable movie dog. Lane shared the feedback with the then-boss, a Broadway Dogs judge, who put her in contact with the casting director of a new film. Soon after a review of his tapes, Dustin became the star in the upcoming comedy Introducing Parker Dowd, in which a struggling actress, played by Rebecca Carlton, loses the lead role in a commercial to her very talented pet dog.
To Lane, Dustin was the protagonist of a canine rags-to-riches tale. Practicing at home, Dustin effortlessly executed his tricks, which made Lane excited for filming to begin. He was sitting, staying, cuddling, retrieving and pulling objects on command, ensuring success for his upcoming performance.
But now, the duo is approaching their latest challenge: providing Dustin with the health care he needs. At Dustin’s agility practice on Nov. 14, Lane noticed a grayish cloud in the dog’s glassy left eye when he was having trouble picking up a treat directly in front of him. A vet would tell her the following day that a cataract had nearly blinded his left eye and another was starting to form in the other. The news left Lane devastated.
“I don’t want him to have a worse quality of life because he can’t see. He had such a rough start already,” Lane said. “I want him to have the best life he can.”
Dustin can have a one-time surgery to remove the cataracts and regain his vision. But the surgery checks out at $6,000, a price college student Lane cannot afford herself. Her friends suggested she make an account with GoFundMe, an internet fundraising platform, to raise the money. She took their suggestion, but did so begrudgingly.
“If he were 13 or 14 years old, I wouldn’t be asking for money. But he’s only four and he loves doing his tricks and agility,” Lane said.
Five days after opening the account, Lane received more than $3,200. The website shows Lane’s training clients, friends and friends of friends made donations ranging from $10 to $1,000. She promoted her project only by posting a link to her GoFundMe page on Facebook, where she has 400 friends. Lane said her success left her in a state of disbelief.
“I think [the donators are] just really good people who care about animals and animal welfare.”
Presently, Dustin is being treated with anti-inflammatory and anti-glaucoma eyedrops. Though he can only see out of his right eye, Lane is confidant he can maintain a solid performance of his tricks for the role. Lane hopes to raise the entire $6,000 by the end of movie filming, so Dustin can have the procedure after the movie is filmed. Yet she is unsure of how to finance the surgery if donations don’t pull through. She said she’ll probably pay using credit cards if she is able.
“He’s my little baby,” Lane said. “I don’t want him to miss out on the things that he loves to do because I’m unable to have the money to pay for his surgery.”
Visit www.gofundme.com/dustinalexander to view Dustin’s GoFundMe page.