Josh the goldendoodle has cerebellar hypoplasia (CH), a disease that stunted the development of his brain’s cerebellum, which is responsible for regulating his movements and motor impulses. Also known as “wobbly animal syndrome,” CH is most commonly a congenital hereditary disease that causes uncontrollable tremors and head bobs, as well as lack of balance and coordination. Dogs with this incurable disease require an owner’s constant attention and caution to help them avoid injury with every unsteady step. It is a selﬂess sacriﬁce that most humans aren’t willing to make, but those who do are changed for the better — like Kimberly Elliott was in the summer of 2017 when 10-month-old Josh came into her life.
“When I first met Josh, I wondered, ’What have I gotten myself into?’” Elliott admits. “My first thoughts were egoist and selfish, like how in the hell am I going to ﬁt this dog into my neat, organized militant kind of world? But then he wobbled and bounced over into my lap, and he laid in my arms, and I knew I wasn’t going to say ’no’ to Josh; there was just no way. That was truly the moment when everything in our lives changed.”
Josh the red goldendoodle now has over 400,000 followers across his social media channels, and he inspired Elliott and her husband, Andrew Hangartner, to establish the Be Like Josh Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the study, advocacy, rescue, and rehabilitation of dogs with neurological disabilities. Furthermore, Elliott and Hangartner have decided to drive across America in a massive RV with Josh and their six other rescue dogs — including their two-year-old white goldendoodle, Ford, who also has CH — on the “Be Like Josh” tour so that adoring fans can meet the fluffy, wobbly doodle who inspires by being his gleeful, skippy self. Elliott and Hangartner have surrendered almost everything from their past lives to support Josh and this cause, but that’s what it takes to be respectable service humans.
Seven years before Josh showed up at their front door, Elliott and Hangartner had recently opened a gym near Phoenix, Arizona, where they both worked as personal trainers. Elliott’s conscious orbit did not extend far beyond what she was doing in the gym and what she looked like, and she says, “We felt like it was our duty to inﬂuence and change the world through ﬁtness, because up until that point, that was really the most pivotal thing that we’d ever experienced: the challenge of changing your body and aesthetically becoming something else. That was the extent of our self-work.”
In 2015, after seeing a news story that mentioned local dog shelters being overwhelmed and overcrowded, Elliott and Hangartner decided to host an adoption event at their gym for “purely selfish” reasons — everyone who adopted a dog would receive a free month of personal training — but after finding homes and fosters for almost 20 dogs, something changed inside of Elliott. “I will never forget how it felt when that was over,” she says. “It was like, ’Now what do I do with my life?’ How was I supposed to go back to the gym and be a personal trainer after I experienced that?” All day she dreamed about pulling more dogs out of kennels, so she hired her first employee to pick up a handful of hours at the gym, running some of her small group classes, and used that time to go to the shelter and save dogs in need.
“It’s then that I realized I’d lost my passion for my current career and might be in trouble,” Elliott says. “Fitness was my lifetime plan, but when I went to the shelter, I remembered what true passion felt like again. The importance of ﬁtness started to fade fast after I saw dogs dying in the shelter. I mean, who cares if you ate too much, you know? That was the ﬁrst time my priorities started to shift, but to be honest, at the time it was still all about me, not what I could give back. I felt like I needed to do this, but that’s all I knew.”
Then she saw a social media post from The Farm Rescue in Mesa, Arizona, calling for fosters of three goldendoodles with special needs: 10-month-old Josh and a pair of ﬁve-month-old siblings, who came from a diﬀerent litter but shared the genetic disability passed down from the male parent. Elliott had a goldendoodle who recently passed away, so when she saw Josh’s sweet face, her heart melted, and she immediately messaged the rescue to be a foster, knowing next to nothing about life with a diﬀerently abled dog.
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After two years of continuous rescuing and fostering, Elliott and Hangartner had developed a structured, straightforward routine for taking care of dogs, and a key part of that system was crating at mealtime, at bedtime, and when they left the house. They decided to treat Josh like every other dog that had come into their home, so that ﬁrst night they lined Josh’s oversized crate with pillows to keep him from injuring himself and went to bed, expecting screams, cries, and thrashing — but no. “The next morning he was just sitting there, bobbing his head with a smile,” Elliott says. “Then I took him out into the grass, he wobbled around and did his potty, and suddenly I was like, ’Oh, I can totally do this.’ From the moment Josh came into our house, he understood the assignment.”
Still, caring for Josh required creativity. Elliott and Hangartner didn’t want to leave Josh at home when they took the other dogs for pack walks, so they put him in a wagon and brought him in tow. “It’s something I do every day now, but it was so monumental at the time, which makes me laugh,” Elliott says. “It felt so wild to put a dog in a wagon, thinking Josh would scream and cry or jump out, but he was totally calm, peeking over the sides and bobbing his head.” After seeing neighbors come out of their houses to catch a glimpse of the adorable dog in the wagon, Elliott decided to share a video of their new walking routine on social media, and almost immediately it went viral.
It wasn’t Elliott’s intention, and suddenly she felt uncomfortably exposed. “We were just getting into a rhythm with Josh, and everything was new and exciting, and the depth of our love was wild, but all of these people were talking crap about him and about us, and it was awful,” she says. “Then came the sing-songy requests for collaborations from people selling puppy ice creams and dog bandanas, and I ﬂat-out said ’No.’ Josh was so life-changing for us, and I didn’t want that cheapened. I knew what Josh was and what he was up against, and I didn’t want him to be one of those Instagram-famous dogs. I knew he could be more than that.”
Elliott continues, “That’s when I started dabbling with the idea of the Be Like Josh Foundation and Josh’s inspiration to teach us something. I’ve since learned that disabilities do not exist as inspiration; individuals with disabilities especially do not exist in the world to inspire us to be grateful. But in its infancy of me trying to put good out into the world, that was my mindset. Like, “Oh look, Josh has a disability, and he still gets through the day, so you can, too!’ That is actually a rather ableist kind of statement, but that’s why I tell people that Josh has raised me. He has made me grow as a person. It’s been almost impossible to be an advocate for Josh and others like him without getting slapped by the reality of my own ableism. In the beginning, my heart was in the right place, but I was just so naïve and didn’t have inclusive language tools. I just knew where I wanted to go, and I had no idea how I was going to get there.”
She partnered with Jenny Braunwalder, who adopted one of Josh’s siblings, Olive, and is now rescue coordinator at the Be Like Josh Foundation, and together they visited classrooms with children that had disabilities, which was an enriching and life-altering experience for Elliott. “Previously if I was around an individual with a physical disability or cognitive disability, I would become uncomfortable, which is a typical response from those who don’t have exposure to disabilities,” she says. “But when I went into these classrooms, suddenly all of that was gone. After only a year with Josh, I learned to get beyond his disability, and now I don’t even see it. I acknowledge disabilities if necessary, but mostly it’s not even a thing anymore. In those classrooms, I felt at home. Amongst kids of different abilities is where I felt most included, where I felt like my most authentic self, and it’s when I first realized that I was Josh’s service human. I was an extension of him and was feeling ’othered’ in our daily existence, seeing how people looked at us and drew conclusions, but around people of different abilities, I felt seen. That’s when things really took oﬀ. It was changing me.”
Unfortunately, those visits ended when the COVID -19 pandemic spread, so Elliott refocused her eﬀorts on rescuing dogs, especially those with neurological issues. “We realized that there aren’t just one or two or three or four neurological disabilities that exist in the canine world, but tons and tons of them, and many without names that no one’s ever seen before,” she tells us. “I started learning how many veterinarians recommend euthanasia for puppies born with neurological disabilities, so we got really, really loud and pushed back, because we wanted to show people that canine disabilities are worthy of celebrating. Not just accepting, not just diapering and keeping alive, but celebrating them.”
The Be Like Josh Foundation has helped 51 dogs with complex neurological cases. Elliott uses Josh’s social media platform to organize volunteer s for transportation and fostering, and through the donations each dog receives, has advanced diagnostics and mobility aids, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars. To adopt one of these dogs, you must be willing to look past the disabilities and give the dog its best life by including it in your adventures with the aid of backpacks, strollers, wagons, or wheelchairs. “These dogs are here to have a good time and thrive,” Elliott says. “It’s not just about adopting a dog and being a pet parent, but rather being a service human. Yes, I’m a pet parent to my typically abled dogs and do all the things a typical pet parent would do, but I am also Josh’s and Ford’s limbs.”
As the world reopens, Elliott and Hangartner are back out spreading the gospel of Josh, hitting the road in a 40-foot-long Tiﬃn RV that they will live out of for the next two years. Elliott says, “Our main goal with the Be Like Josh Tour is for all these people who have been following Josh and loving Josh from a distance — in middle America, the Midwest, the East Coast, the Southeast, experiencing him through their phone screens — now they get to touch him, hold him, hug him, see him, and understand how his body works and feel how he moves.” Additionally, Elliott hopes to meet more allies for the Be Like Josh Foundation, from veterinarians and neurologists to fosters and adopters. She also strives to build teams of people in every state to help with intake, diagnosis, vetting, and adoption.
When Josh came into her life and Elliott wondered what she had gotten herself into, she never fathomed being where she is now. While her husband still offers online personal training from the road, she has left that life behind in order to answer her call to service, and she couldn’t be happier about it. “I don’t feel like I truly started living my life until Josh came into it,” she says. “Previously, the things that governed my happiness were all ﬂeeting, and none were rooted in anything real or meaningful. I can never ﬁnd the words impactful enough to describe what Josh has shown me and taught me.”
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