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Monday, December 17, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New leash on life: Canine companion helps man change life, go viral

A dog was just what the doctor ordered.

But this one wasn’t what Eric O’Grey had in mind.

He had asked for an animal that was middle-aged and overweight – like he was. But he had imagined something smaller and better behaved.

Peety was black and white and missing patches of fur. Everything about the animal seemed to sag.

“I could see the disappointment in his eyes when he saw me,” said O’Grey, who was 51 and headed for a heart attack.

He weighed 320 pounds, avoided leaving the house and was slated for bariatric surgery to shrink his stomach. His doctor had told him to buy a funeral plot, predicting he’d be dead within five years. A naturopath prescribed the dog.

Within the year, Peety proved to be more than the man’s best friend. He was a lifesaver.

Together, the pair ventured outdoors. They lost weight. Their spirits lifted. And, during the last two months, more than five years after they first met, their story went viral.

The short film “Eric & Peety,” produced by Mutual Rescue, an initiative of Humane Society Silicon Valley, hit 30 million views this week on SFGate’s Facebook page. It’s been seen from Chile to Poland and translated into Thai and Hungarian. It’s also prompted a book proposal and forthcoming appearance on “The Rachael Ray Show.”

The attention is “overwhelming,” O’Grey said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before. So many wonderful things are happening to me. It’s probably my 15 minutes. I’m just enjoying it while it lasts.”

Road to Internet fame

O’Grey wrote about his bond with Peety in a personal essay, published in O, The Oprah Magazine, in November. In December, he moved to Spokane Valley. He also shared his story with the shelter where he adopted Peety in 2010.

Their six-minute movie, Mutual Rescue’s first, was shot in January and posted online in February. Then, emails and Facebook friend requests began rolling in.

In March, actor Chuck Norris mentioned O’Grey and Peety in a column for World Net Daily. NPR and Runner’s World profiled the pair. And O’Grey flew to New York City to meet with a literary agent and culinary TV show host Rachael Ray. O’Grey can’t talk much about the experience – he signed a confidentiality agreement – but he believes the segment might air in May.

Meantime, he’s enjoying one of the highest points of his life.

“I run into people I haven’t seen in 10 years, and they don’t know who I am,” the 56-year-old said. “I look 20 years younger. I feel like I’m 25. Life is wonderful and joyous. It’s totally different and changed.”

His lowest point was on an airplane. Walking down the aisle as an obese person, he said, “You’re ashamed. You know what (other passengers) are thinking: ‘Please God, don’t let that guy sit by me.’ ”

He was in a middle seat. The flight was delayed while the airline tried to find a seat-belt big enough for him. The man next to him was “furious.” He told O’Grey he was going to miss his connecting flight because O’Grey was “too fat.”

His waist stretched 52 inches, and he spent about $1,000 per month on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.

On the flight home, he thought, “I’m either going to die, or I have to do something.”

‘Self-generated prison’

O’Grey had been overweight most of his life. Growing up in San Bruno, a suburb of San Francisco, he was largely a latch-key kid. He was also “the fat kid,” the last one picked for P.E. teams and the first one singled out in dodgeball.

“My nickname was Pudge,” O’Grey said. “I was somewhat isolated because of that reason. You’re not feeling that kind of pain when you’re around people.”

After high school, he joined the Army and served three years in West Germany. It was the fittest he’d been in his life. When he got out, he wasn’t sure what to do. He signed on with a temp agency, working different jobs each week for a year before ending up in sales.

At 27, he went to college, earning a degree in finance from San Jose State University in 1991 and continuing on to law school. He received his juris doctorate from Emory University in 1995.

In the dot-com collapse five years later, he became an unemployed intellectual property lawyer who reinvented himself as an appliance buyer for a regional chain of electronics stores. He purchased kitchen appliances, but he “never cooked or baked or anything.

“I had zero nutritional or culinary knowledge,” he said. “I was on the SAD: Standard American Diet.”

More than a third of American adults – or 78.6 million people – are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity is higher among people in O’Grey’s age group, or those 40 to 59 years old, compared to younger adults and seniors, according to the CDC. Common obesity-related conditions include heart disease andType 2 diabetes. O’Grey suffered from both.

He ordered fast food at drive-thrus, often finishing meals in the car. He called for delivery, eating extra-large pizzas at home alone. His weight increased. So did his health problems. He started taking insulin. He stopped maintaining friendships.

“You just start falling away from everybody,” he said.

O’Grey, who lived in San Jose at the time, worked from home whenever he could, solving most problems on the phone. He also remained indoors as much as possible, buying necessities such as socks online and becoming more and more withdrawn. He hadn’t been on a date in 15 years.

“I became very skilled at not going outside,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do or how to change.”

He also felt more and more miserable and invisible.

“It’s incremental, and it’s insidious. It just creeps up,” he said. “You become so embarrassed. Your clothes don’t fit. It’s like trying to put pants on an apple. You feel uncomfortable all the time. You’re in pain. Every part of your body aches. Your knees ache. Your back aches. You don’t have any energy.”

O’Grey “became reclusive and sedentary.

“I stopped caring about myself,” he said. “I stopped really living. It was like a self-generated prison. But you have the power to set yourself free, and that’s what I did, and it’s the greatest sense of freedom.”

New leash on life

After the rock-bottom flight in September 2010, O’Grey reached out to Preeti Kulkarni, a naturopathic doctor and founder of Core Integrative Health in Cupertino, California. She remembers him telling her he wanted to get healthy. She remembers him telling her about the seat-belt incident. “That’s a really rude thing to say to someone, but that was his final straw.”

Kulkarni had recommended pets, particularly dogs, to motivate other patients. But, “I think Eric was one of the only ones who followed through with it,” she said.

During their first few meetings, “He would not make eye contact. He had the classic signs of a person with low self-esteem. He was so depressed. I remember him telling me, ‘I have no social life. I don’t want to go out. I have no interest in doing things.’

“I wanted Eric to be able to get out of the house and get exercise. When you get a dog, you’re going to go out. You’re going to talk to people with other dogs in the park. People are going to come up to the dog, and they’re going to pet him.”

When O’Grey met Peety, the 7-year-old shelter dog regarded the man “suspiciously.” The animal had been abandoned twice before and “was large and really depressed and didn’t have a whole lot of hope himself,” O’Grey said. “They gave me the dog nobody wanted.”

At first, the animal kept to a corner. The man stayed on the couch. Soon, though, they started taking walks, usually twice a day.

“Peety’s love for me was absolute and unconditional, which taught me the meaning of true friendship and how to love myself and others,” O’Grey later wrote on his website at ericandpeety.com.

“He caused me to believe in myself again,” he said. “I wanted to live again.”

O’Grey weighed in weekly – then every other week – with Kulkarni, who monitored his progress, discouraged him from eating processed foods, and taught him how to grocery shop and read labels. He transitioned to a plant-based, gluten-free diet and took cooking classes to learn to prepare whole foods from scratch.

It took about 10 months, but O’Grey lost 140 pounds, hitting his goal weight of 180 in July 2011, just before his 52nd birthday. His waistline shrunk by 20 inches. His shirt size went from XXXXL to medium.

Peety changed, too. The dog dropped 25 pounds, and O’Grey watched his canine companion become a “proud” dog. They went everywhere together.

“He transformed me into a completely different person,” O’Grey said in the documentary. “I think about it now: Who rescued whom? Did I rescue him, or did he rescue me?”

Maintenance and moving forward

Once O’Grey reached his goal, the next challenge was maintaining it. He tried the gym, but Peety couldn’t go with him. Plus, O’Grey got bored. So, at 52, he became a runner.

One day, he ran 1 mile. The next, he ran 2. He ran 3 on the third and 4 on the fourth. Then, he was hooked. He joined a local running club and ran his first marathon in 2012.

Peety couldn’t keep up, but became a regular in the stands and at water stops when the pair volunteered at races.

O’Grey also started volunteering at the animal shelter and hosting plant-based dinner parties for charity. He became “a big outdoors guy” and an inspirational speaker on these topics: animal welfare, transitioning to and the benefits of a plant-based diet, and how to lose 140 pounds.

Now, he joked, he can also talk about “what happens when you go viral.”

Peety isn’t here to enjoy the attention. O’Grey, who moved to Seattle in 2014, was on a business trip last March when the animal stopped eating. He had cancer. Within days of the diagnosis, the dog who had transformed O’Grey’s life died in his arms on the floor of his Harbor Steps apartment.

“It was the saddest day of my life,” O’Grey said.

In the months after Peety died, O’Grey put on about 20 pounds. But, in August, he got a gut feeling to get to Seattle Humane. Jake had been dropped off four minutes earlier. Unlike Peety, this animal was athletic, a young Labrador mix that was raring to go.

“He gave me this look like, ‘Dude, let’s get out of here,’ ” O’Grey said. “I’m so lucky to have him.”

Today, O’Grey is a manager for Whirlpool, covering Eastern Washington and North Idaho. He’s working toward a master’s degree in business administration at Washington State University and preparing to train for his next marathon. He regularly runs 30 to 40 miles per week, ramping it up to 80 to 100 miles to prepare for a race.

The Centennial Trail, several yards from his front door, provides the training ground. Some days, he runs east. Some days, he runs west, toward Spokane.

“I let Jake pick,” O’Grey said. “Whichever way he goes, I go.”

 

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