"She has absolutely given me more than I've given her. There's no doubt about it," Joe Rotunda says of his new dog Alva
A fearful dog who spent over 500 days at a Texas rescue is making life brighter for the adopter who believed in her.
Alva first arrived at Austin Pets Alive! (APA) as a puppy in 2019, Dr. Ellen Jefferson, a veterinarian and the CEO and president of APA, tells PEOPLE. The pup moved to APA from another shelter after it was determined that Alva had cerebellar hypoplasia — a neurological condition that affects the part of the brain that controls movement, leading to mobility issues.
"We're a shelter that generally takes animals from other shelters when they can't afford long-term medical treatment," Jefferson explains.
APA quickly found a home for young Alva, but issues arose as the dog grew older.
"Unfortunately, what we think happened is that dogs that have severe mobility issues don't get out much. And so they can live in a very secure home where they're taken care of really well but not exposed during their puppyhood to new people, animals, and situations," Jefferson says.
"So the house got busier, and Alva started trying to bite people who came over to visit. And that's also pretty common in dogs with mobility issues because they can't get away. And so they tend to bite faster than dogs that can actually run away if they're fearful," she adds.
As a result, Alva came back to APA to find a new home better suited to her "behavioral challenges." While the rescue waited to find the dog's ideal adopter, its robust behavioral support team and volunteer contingent worked to develop trust with Alva.
"She got the best care that she possibly could, with so many people taking her out every day," Jefferson says. "She had a wheelchair made for her."
While Alva was making massive progress with her mobility and behavior issues, she was sadly overlooked by potential pet parents for over 500 days.
Alva's fate changed when Joe Rotunda spotted the dog on Instagram in July. Rotunda, who says he has been "fortunate enough to have the best dogs in the world," knew he wanted to give the dog a home the moment he saw her, even though he wasn't looking for a new pet.
"She shined. She had this almost tangible will," Rotunda says. "I saw all these videos of Alva running, playing, and falling down. And every time she fell, she pulled herself back up. Every time a challenge presented itself, she did not go around it; she went over it. And I was very inspired."
No stranger to a dog with special needs — Rotunda has cared for a canine gunshot victim and a dog who was left outside for years before his adoption — Rotunda didn't hesitate when he fell in love with Alva; instead, he jumped in the car and drove to APA.
At the rescue, Rotunda happened to run into one of Alva's caretakers and was able to schedule the next meet and greet with Alva available.
Before the introduction, the animal lover "reviewed all behavioral and medical histories that Alva had on file," so he was prepared to meet with the pooch.
"She was very wary of me. She was very nervous, concerned, and anxious," Rotunda says of Alva's initial reaction to him, adding, "but you could tell she was so loving and affectionate around the people that she knew."
So Rotunda kept coming back to meet Alva until he became someone she knew and trusted. For Rotunda, that meant visiting APA every day for two months.
"She needed someone who would not give up on her. And I never questioned that decision," he says.
Over time, the dog, who lunged and nipped at him at first, started to approach Rotunda. By October, APA and Rotunda decided it was time for Alva to have a sleepover. Ahead of the dog's arrival, Rotunda made his home as Alva-friendly as possible: blocking off a large portion of the living room for private play time, adding multiple kennels to give Alva places to decompress, and covering hard edges that the canine might bump into.
Alva arrived on a Friday night, and on Saturday morning, she greeted Rotunda with a wagging tail.
"That was a first," the dog lover says.
When an APA caretaker came to pick up Alva, it was clear the dog had made her choice.
"She did not want to leave the house. She did not want to go back to APA. And she's been here ever since," Rotunda says.
Since then, Alva has made herself at home. She regularly climbs onto Rotunda's bed for naps, especially when she can cuddle with Rotunda's other dog, Max, who is thrilled to have a canine friend.
"I've seen all that anxiety melt, and this dog who hated me, who was snapping at me and warning me to stay away, now wants to cuddle and kiss and have her belly rubbed. It's actually amazing," Rotunda says.
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Life isn't only better for Alva and Max.
"She has absolutely given me more than I've given her. There's no doubt about it. This house is brighter because she shines," Rotunda adds.
He hopes Alva's success story inspires other animal lovers to give pets with special needs a home.
"If I judged Alva by how she acted in the shelter when she was highly anxious, I would have missed out. And she would've missed out," Rotunda shares.
Jefferson agrees that people could miss out on phenomenal pets by judging shelter animals too quickly.
"I encourage people to ask shelter staff and volunteers, 'Which pet needs my help?' Because that's what Joe did, and it turned into this beautiful story. And I would hate to think that Alva would still be here if somebody overlooked her repeatedly," the veterinarian says.
"We all have quirks, we all have challenges, and pets are no different, and they deserve the love that we can give," she says.
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