Pawpaw sits in his high chair, having just chowed down his dinner. Because the muscles in the dog’s esophagus don’t work properly, the special chair allows gravity to help food reach his stomach. But like a baby, he needs to burp before he can get down.
So his owners, Bernie Knobbe and Tim Belavich, do their best to keep the 16-year-old terrier mix entertained — telling stories and singing.
“How much is that Pawpaw in the window?” they sing. “The one with the waggly tail…”
The couple’s devotion to Pawpaw stems from their commitment to caring for any animal they adopt — and a promise to a dying man.
In the spring of 2019, Pawpaw needed a new home. He’d spent the last three years happily living in San Francisco with a man named John Weston who used a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Pawpaw often put his paws on the chair so Weston could pet him.
But when Weston’s health began rapidly deteriorating, he needed to find Pawpaw a loving forever home before he passed away.
The team at Muttville Senior Dog Rescue was ready to help. Sherri Franklin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit, had placed Pawpaw with Weston — her neighbor — three years prior and had pledged to help if health issues prevented him from continuing to care for his dog. That time had come.
“I really wanted John to be taken care of and his feelings to really be taken into consideration,” Franklin told TODAY. “It was just this overwhelming sense of duty to do this for him.”
Muttville put out a call for potential adopters on social media, including a video of Weston and Pawpaw, and the caveat that Weston would like to meet potential adopters.
Though they live in Los Angeles, Knobbe and Belavich had already adopted three other dogs from Muttville because they love the organization’s focus on senior dogs.
Knobbe happened to be in San Francisco for work and had the chance to meet Pawpaw on short notice when another potential adopter fell through. They connected immediately.
As he played with the spunky dog on the floor, Weston asked his caregiver to summon Knobbe to his bedside and briefly removed his oxygen tube so he could speak.
“John put his hand on my arm and he just said, ‘You’re a good guy. This is good,’” Knobbe told TODAY. “It was emotional. Everybody was crying in the room. It was obviously meant to be.”
That was the last time they spoke. Three days later, Weston died. Muttville’s Franklin, who was also in the room, believes he had been hanging on to life until Pawpaw found the perfect home.
“John put his hand on my arm and he just said, ‘You’re a good guy. This is good.' It was emotional. Everybody was crying in the room. It was obviously meant to be.”
“I think he met the right person and he could finally let go,” she said. “John left this world happier.”
Knobbe and Belavich do all they can to honor that trust. Pawpaw easily settled into their home in Los Angeles, squeaking his toys and playing with the couple’s schnauzers, Ella and Henry.
But just five weeks later, they rushed Pawpaw to the emergency room; the dog had a high fever and sepsis. He pulled through and was ultimately diagnosed with megaesophagus, a disorder in which the esophagus dilates and loses its ability to move food into the stomach.
Basically, Pawpaw couldn’t keep food down.
A friend crafted a custom Bailey chair to help Pawpaw eat upright. He quickly learned to back into the contraption and associate it with mealtime.
“He looks like he's at a bar ordering a drink, like it's happy hour all the time,” Knobbe said with a laugh. “He just sits with his paws on the thing as if to say, ‘OK, bring it on.’”
Though mealtime has become much more complicated than when they first adopted Pawpaw, the couple has no regrets. Pawpaw is a little slower to get up in the mornings, but even at the ripe age of 16, he frequently acts like a puppy.
They were moved to learn that prior to living with Weston, Pawpaw spent about a decade assisting an older woman with hearing loss, alerting her to knocks at the door, ringing phones and other noises. After she died, Pawpaw entered Muttville.
“We say Pawpaw spent a lot of his life taking care of others,” Belavich told TODAY. “So now it’s time for Pawpaw to be taken care of.”
Knobbe himself was adopted when he was 6 months old, so adopting dogs like Pawpaw feels like a rewarding way to give back. He hopes others will consider adopting older pets.
“Just because a senior dog has a health risk or a health issue doesn't mean that they can't bring tremendous joy and love to your life,” he said. “In the morning I always say to Pawpaw, ‘I just hope that John’s happy with how we’re handling you.’ And you just look in his eyes and you know that he’s happy to be here. So we’re very blessed that way.”