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Tony Hayden has loved using video to tell stories since he was a boy. At 13, he started using his Dad’s video camera to animate his sacred Star Wars action figures. By 14, he had begun to use his family’s dog, a dachshund, as the star of his home movies, so it’s no surprise that Hayden decided to document his journey to pick up his beloved dog, Meatball, in 2014.
Just one week after losing his 20 year-old dachshund Mr. Ruko, Hayden was determined to find another to replace the dachshund-shaped hole in his heart. Without really thinking about it, Hayden turned on his camera and boarded a 5am flight to Tennessee to meet the piebald dachshund that he had been chatting with a breeder about for a few weeks.
“It felt very impulsive, and I really didn’t research anything, but I saw the photos of him and just had to get on that plane,” says Hayden. “But after I landed, things started to go south. The breeder texted me to tell me that he wasn’t walking very well. I wasn’t sure what that meant and, in that moment, the camera became my friend that I could talk through this new situation with.”
A Difficult Diagnosis
As soon as Hayden met Meatball (who he named in honor of his father’s military nickname), he immediately knew that something was wrong with the puppy, who looked underdeveloped. And yet, he didn’t care. He felt immediate love for the tiny dachshund.
“He certainly wasn’t perfect, but he was my dog in that moment and he needed me,” recalls Hayden. “We drove back to Florida from Tennessee and at each rest stop I’d encourage him to walk around in the grass, but he really struggled. He didn’t seem to be able to control what the back legs were doing.”
When they got home, Hayden took Meatball to see the vet, who diagnosed him with cerebellar hypoplasia, a genetic disease in which the cerebellum, an area on the brain stem, is underdeveloped. Since that part of the brain is responsible for balance and coordination, dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia can have trouble walking.
“On our road trip back home together, I didn’t realize that Meatball’s issues with his back legs were actually symptoms of this disease,” says Hayden. “But Meatball was determined to push through it and so was I.”
The Road to Recovery
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Thanks in part to Meatball’s large Instagram following, Hayden connected with specialists around the globe who were able to provide insight about the disease and encourage him to pursue alternative treatments.
“Being an influencer is a pipeline–the information definitely flows both ways. As a result, I was able to tap into resources that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise,” says Hayden. “A doctor in South Africa saw a few of Meatball’s videos online and recommended that we try acupuncture, which was a life saver. We also had so many fans cheering him on and really rooting for him to keep going and get stronger. It was incredible.”
Hayden pursued an aggressive course of action over the next few months, and even learned how to administer acupuncture on Meatball to help keep the cost of treatment down. Hayden made sure that Meatball had physical therapy time at home multiple times a day to help build the strength in his back legs, and also tried CBD oil to help alleviate any pain Meatball was experiencing.
Within a year, Meatball had gained strength in his back legs and was able to walk normally. In fact, his recovery was so significant that shortly after Meatball’s first birthday, Hayden ceased to continue with any of the treatments.
“Meatball is a sassy little dog, so strong and determined! I almost forget how far we had to come to get here,” says Hayden. “He learned to compensate for his issues and continues to get stronger everyday.”
Living Life to the Fullest
Although Meatball will never be cured of cerebellar hypoplasia, he’s become so strong and capable over the years that you’d never know he had been ill as a puppy. Hayden and Meatball have had a variety of adventures together, and frequently take road trips, which Hayden documents for his Instagram fans.
“Meatball is a good travel buddy,” says Hayden. “He really enjoys being in the car and since that’s how we started our relationship together, it feels very natural for us.”
Their latest project together, however, will have a long lasting impact on their lives. Hayden has been building a lake house and it was designed with Meatball in mind.
“I designed the entire house around my dachshund, creating big windows so he can look out at the ducks and birds and squirrels,” says Hayden.
When he was demolishing the old property, Hayden said he found discarded beer cans and other pieces of trash hidden behind the walls, which made him sad. In order to counteract this negative energy, Hayden decided to put a time capsule into the walls of the new house that is filled with love.
“It’s a love letter to my dog and my parents,” says Hayden. “When people knock it down years from now, I want them to find it and to feel all this love that I have in my life. I want them to feel like the past is talking to them.”
Although it might take a century or more before that happens, Hayden’s Instagram account for sweet little Meatball is a great alternative for those who want to feel a little extra love in their lives right now.