Piglet and his ‘Inclusion Pack’ visited West Hartford this week for some important lessons about inclusivity.
By Ronni Newton
What’s small, pink, and can neither see nor hear?
If you guessed a piglet with special needs you would be somewhat correct, but unless you’ve previously heard the story or read one of the books you probably wouldn’t guess that it’s actually a small dog named Piglet – who has lots of dog and human friends, who responds to many commands, who runs free around his backyard with his dog siblings, who knows how to climb the stairs, who loves to go to the beach, and who can dash through a tunnel on command.
Piglet, now 7, is thriving, and is the poster pup for “Piglet Mindset” – bringing lessons about persevering despite challenges, and about inclusion and empathy, to children through in-person or virtual visits.
Piglet and his owner, veterinarian Melissa Shapiro, came to Quaker Lane Cooperative Nursery School on Wednesday, for some paws-on lessons with the 4-year-old preschoolers who were excited to meet not only Piglet but also his “Inclusion Pack” of other dogs, several of which also have special needs.
Tracy Daly, the director and lead teacher at Quaker Lane Cooperative Nursery School, first learned about Piglet and Shapiro when she saw Shapiro’s book while browsing in the RJ Julia Bookstore in Madison, and she reached out to see if Shapiro could visit the West Hartford school. She and the other teachers spent several weeks leading up to Wednesday’s in-person visit getting the 4-year-olds ready. They read Shapiro’s children’s book, “Piglet Comes Home,” and talked about the challenges of learning and communicating without being able to see or hear.
Shapiro lives in Connecticut, but she and Piglet and the Inclusion Pack have garnered national and even international attention, with stories in publications like People Magazine and Psychology Today, and appearances on Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt, and CBS News. A small animal veterinarian with a long history of advocacy and support for rescue organizations, Shapiro, who has also written a memoir called “Piglet: The Unexpected Story of a Deaf Blind Pink Puppy and His Family,” shared the story of how she became Piglet’s mom, and how she transformed a tiny and terrified puppy – who is blind, deaf, and has fur so pale his pink skin shows through – into a confident dog that does pretty much everything one would expect a dog to do.
“When Piglet came to live with me and my family he was this big,” Shapiro told the rapt group of 30 preschoolers, as she held out her cupped hand. “He was screaming all the time.” Originally named Bart, he was rescued from a hoarding situation in Georgia and brought to Connecticut, and the rescue organization asked Shapiro to foster him. He fell in love with Shapiro and her husband, and they fell in love with the tiny pink puppy who they aptly named Piglet.
Through videos, and in her books (including the children’s book), Shapiro shared how she made Piglet feel welcomed, safe, and secure, and used the abilities he does have to teach him.
“Piglet has a really good sense of smell,” Shapiro said. And he loves to eat, so she was able to use food as a training tool. To teach him how to sit, and how to stay, she taps or touches parts of his body.
“I wanted Piglet to learn ‘sit,'” traditionally the first command dogs are taught, said Shapiro. That lesson was mastered in just minutes with a touch. To get him to stay, she taps on his nose. She showed a video of how she taught him to go up the stairs (admitting maybe he was a bit too small but learned anyway).
Shapiro also taught Piglet to “come” by blowing toward his face. That led to teaching him to run through a pop-up tunnel just like his hearing and seeing canine siblings do. Piglet runs free around Shapiro’s backyard – and she ensures it’s clear of things that he could run into. He knows how to find the steps back inside the house, and can feel the mat the top of the stairs and knows that’s the door into the house.
Piglet responds to a command to put his head down on a pillow, too. His favorite place to rest his head, however, is on the chest of his “favorite dad” – Shapiro’s husband, Warren.
The part where he corrals the other dogs to lead them inside and out of danger in “Piglet Comes Home” is fictionalized, but Shapiro said he has learned his way around the house and the yard through mapping, and by using his nose and his sense of touch through his paw pads. His nose is always twitching as he absorbs the information about his environment – and he knows when they arrive at the beach based on the smell.
Shapiro brought five of her dogs to Quaker Lane on Wednesday – and a sixth came along for the ride but stayed in the car. All are rescues, and all have distinct personalities and their own unique ways of interacting with Piglet and the family.
Shapiro shared the story of when she first brought Piglet home, and said an older rescue they had at the time, Susie, was especially nurturing in her relationship with Piglet, curling up with him in his bed for comfort. Lucy Lemonade, a terrier mix who was hit by a car in California before being rescued and still wears a brace on one of her back paws, spends time in the dog stroller. The only other dog she likes to share the stroller with is Piglet.
Zoey, a chocolate chihuahua mix from Arkansas is also very accepting of Piglet as being part of her pack, and Evie, the white poodle mix who is now almost 12, loves visiting children.
Then there’s Georgie – who is also deaf, blind, and pink. Like Piglet he is a double merle chihuahua dachshund mix – and genetically the double merle leads to a 25% chance of deafness, blindness, and lack of pigment, Shapiro said. Georgie was tiny like Piglet – and just about 10 weeks old – when he was found abandoned on the side of the road in Bridgeport on Dec. 30, 2022.
‘We agreed to foster Georgie while the rescue group searched for his forever home. Ha,” Shapiro wrote in her description of Georgie on her website. Just like with Piglet, “we were only going to keep him for a short time …”
Piglet visits with children often, but he’s too active to really be a hands-on dog, Shapiro said – but Georgie, she said, is “dreamy.” Both dogs are smart, but Georgie doesn’t pay attention to detail like Piglet does. He likes to pick up big sticks and drag cardboard boxes around the house, and he loves to go on walks. “He will go two or three miles, even though he can’t see or hear,” Shapiro said. “Georgie is a power walker,” she said. But if food is nearby, he won’t focus on anything else.
Many of the students raised their hands to indicate that they have dogs, and were eager to have a chance to play with their dog visitors.
All five of the dogs Shapiro brought inside the Quaker Lane Cooperative Nursery School classroom had a chance to socialize with the kids, and walked around their circle, getting pats on the head. And while there was a bit of creative herding needed, she was able to get all five to stop, sit in the center of the circle, and pose for photos.
“Piglet did not want a new brother initially, but now he loves him,” Shapiro said of the relationship between Piglet and Georgie. He’s now fully a part of the Inclusion Pack, and like Piglet has become an ambassador for disabled pets.
“Everyone thinks I’m the only one,” Shapiro said, but added that you don’t need to be a veterinarian to rescue a pet with special needs. Piglet, and Georgie, are great examples of how to learn to overcome daily challenges, how to develop resilience, and how to learn and grow.
When she first brought Piglet home to live with the rescues she already had, Shapiro didn’t have any plan other than to make him feel loved and secure, and to teach him how to live a full dog life with his challenges. But a third-grade teacher from Massachusetts, who had been following Piglet’s progress on Facebook, realized his potential for educating children about “emphasize acceptance, inclusion, empathy, and kindness to all people and animals.” That led to the development of the “Piglet Mindset Educational Program.”
Shapiro has sold more than 13,000 Piglet shirts and other merchandise over the past six-plus years for the purpose of donating to dog rescues, raising $140,000 for the rescue fund. The Piglet Mindset Educational Program has brought lessons used as part of social and emotional learning curriculums to tens of thousands of children across the U.S. and beyond, and fundraising now also supports expanding its reach. While the visit to West Hartford was in person, many visits are virtual and there are PowerPoint presentations as well as other materials available.
“I saw their book in the bookstore … and I just thought, ‘my gosh,'” said Daly, who immediately bonded not only with Shapiro but also with Georgie, who was in her arms for most of the visit.
“Our No. 1 rule at Quaker Lane is if someone asks to play, the answer is ‘Yes,'” Daly said. It’s a lesson that Piglet and his Inclusion Pack live every day.
For more information, visit the Piglet International Inc. website. You can also follow Piglet on Facebook or and follow Piglet, Georgie, and Shapiro on Instagram (@pinkpigletpuppy, @georgieforfun, @melissashapirodvm).
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