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Special spots: How one dog changed the lives of kids with vitiligo

Throughout his life, Rowdy helped spread a very important message to kids and adults alike.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 5, 2017. In a touching post on the White Eyed Rowdy Facebook page, Rowdy's owner, Niki Umbenhower, announced that Rowdy died on June 30, 2017.

"We wanted to share with all of you who have followed, loved and supported in all sorts of ways that our precious and beloved Rowdy has passed on and joined the ranks in Heaven," Umbenhower wrote in her post. "He had the biggest heart and we will continue on his legacy and mission, with a brief intermission to recover from our painful and incredible loss."

For parents like Stephanie Adcock, one of the greatest challenges of having a child with vitiligo — a skin condition that causes white patches due to loss of pigmentation — is teaching them to embrace their appearance and feel confident in their own skin.

Adcock's son, Carter, 8, was diagnosed with vitiligo at age 5, and after watching her son examine his skin in the mirror and panic over increases in white spotting, the Arkansas mom was at a loss for ways to help her son handle the changes in his skin.

"As a mother, there was nothing that I could do or say that would make him feel better," Adcock told TODAY. "Carter would tell me every day after school that he hated his face, but that was before we knew about Rowdy."

Rowdy, a 14-year-old black lab who lives in Oregon with his owner, Niki Umbenhower, began showing signs of vitiligo when he was 11. Umbenhower says she first noticed faint, white patches around Rowdy's eyes, but quickly saw his skin pigmentation change, resulting in white spots throughout his black fur.

"It was a crazy-fast transition, and we didn't know what was going on," said Umbenhower, adding that a physician she worked with saw a photo of Rowdy and suggested he may have vitiligo.

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Umbenhower says she was not surprised by Rowdy's new, rare condition. Since he was a young dog, Rowdy has had multiple accidents and incidents, from accidentally ingesting poison to being shot by a police officer during an incident mistaken for an home invasion.

"There are a lot of parts in there that make up the crazy part of Rowdy's life," said Umbenhower. "And then, this vitiligo is just the icing on the cake for this amazing pup."

Rowdy is a 14-year-old black lab from Oregon who began showing signs of vitiligo at age 11.Caters News Agency/Elias Weiss Friedman, The Doggist

Umbenhower says after being stopped constantly on the street and asked by passers by about Rowdy's unique markings, she decided to share his face with the world. After sharing an image of Rowdy with a local news station, a news report about the lab went viral. Soon after, Umbenhower started Instagram and Facebook pages for her dog, feeling that his unique face would make others smile.

"People started reaching out to me and telling me stories of their kids who had vitiligo," said Umbenhower, explaining that within a few months, she was contacted by Stella Pavlides, the founder and president of the American Vitiligo Research Foundation (AVRF,) about getting Rowdy involved with the organization.

Before bringing Rowdy on board as the mascot of the AVRF, Pavlides wanted to be sure of Rowdy's vitiligo. Umbenhower sought the help of an animal dermatologist, who performed a biopsy to confirm that Rowdy did, indeed, have the rare condition.

"I receive many emails from parents whose children have vitiligo, telling me how their children relate to Rowdy," said Pavlides. "I also receive emails from adults with vitiligo saying how liberating it is to see Rowdy with his white patches. There is something magical about this dog."

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Emily Rothstein is a veterinarian who works with the American College of Veterinary Dermatology. According to Rothstein, while there is not specific data on the frequency of vitiligo in dogs, the condition is extremely rare.

"This disorder is cosmetic only, and although the pet appears different, it is not a health issue," explained Rothstein. "That is why there have been very few recent studies on how often it occurs...some dermatology specialists, including myself, may see 1 case every 1 to 3 years.”

Vitiligo is also rare in humans. According to the ARVF, only 1 to 2 percent of the population is affected by vitiligo, with half of cases being diagnosed between the ages of 10 and 30.

Julie Brown's daughter, Ava, 10, was diagnosed with vitiligo at age 4. Brown says she discovered Rowdy's Instagram account and immediately wanted her daughter to meet the dog. After messaging Umbenhower, the two struck up a friendship.

"As a young girl, Ava is already dealing with body image issues," the Canadian mom explained. "As a parent to a child with vitiligo, it is amazing to know that there is such an adorable dog for these children to look up to."

Stephanie Adcock also reached out to Umbenhower after seeing a photo of Rowdy on Facebook.

"As soon as I read his story about his vitiligo, I was blown away," said Adcock. "I thought this may be what Carter needed to build up his self esteem and make him feel more accepted, so I decided to reach out to Niki."

Ava Bright, 10, with Rowdy.
Ava Bright, 10, with Rowdy.Sit! Stay Pet Photography

After bonding with these two mothers, Umbenhower started a Road to Rowdy campaign, raising money through a GoFundMe account to bring both Ava and Carter to Oregon to meet Rowdy. Soon after, however, Rowdy's health began to fail. The dog suffered a seizure, and is failing cognitively due to his old age.

"Time was of the essence for these two to meet Rowdy," explained Umbenhower. "I let the families know that Rowdy's health had recently taken a turn for the worse and that I wasn't sure minute to minute whether Rowdy was even going to continue living."

Umbenhower then began raising money on her GoFundMe account to cover Rowdy's growing medical expenses. After a local news outlet ran a story about the Road to Rowdy campaign, an anonymous donor offered to cover both Ava and Carter's families' expenses, allowing them to travel to Oregon to meet Rowdy.

Niki Umbenhower with Rowdy, Julie Brown, Ava, 10, Stephanie Adcock, and Carter, 8.
Niki Umbenhower with Rowdy, Julie Brown, Ava, 10, Stephanie Adcock, and Carter, 8.Niki Umbenhower

In March, both children and their mothers visited Rowdy. Adcock says seeing her son with the dog was an overwhelming experience.

"Rowdy is the one who completely changed Carter's outlook. Instead of hating his skin, he's learned to love it," said Adcock. "After Rowdy got positive attention from all over the world for his vitiligo, Carter saw that he could also get positive attention. Now, he even thinks my skin is 'boring' because I don't have vitiligo."

Brown says seeing her daughter with Rowdy brought her to tears.

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"The confidence of my little girl went through the roof when she knelt down and started giving Rowdy kisses and petting him," said Brown. "She is still beaming with pride, knowing that she is unique and special, and that she shares the same skin condition as Rowdy."

Carter and Ava with Rowdy on their recent visit to Oregon.
Carter and Ava with Rowdy on their recent visit to Oregon.Sit! Stay Pet Photography

Umbenhower says while Rowdy's future is uncertain due to his health, she will continue letting people who want to come and meet him do so. And, the AVRF will hold their annual conference this summer in Oregon, in hopes that Rowdy will be well enough to attend.

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"When I figured out we have the ability to change these kids' lives, I thought, 'We could really do something with this,'" said Umbenhower.

"My dog is unique," Umbenhower continued. "He's beautiful — and so is every other person who has this condition. You just need to see them that way."