Hangin’ Out With Death

I met him in person in 2004. Before then, he was like a celebrity I had heard of and knew a lot about, but he was kind of a concept, unreal until he came to my house and actually sat down with me face to face.  He wasn’t as impressive as I expected, and not as scary or dangerous. He was just kind of practical with a goal in mind- I’d like to take you from this world, he said. I was like no no no, not now, not today. He was like yes now come on. I held his hand and it was cold and bony like you’d expect a skeleton hand to be, nothing remarkable about it, just bones. His face was just a regular skull face, no expressions no fire in his eye sockets or anything, not even that scary. He just seemed annoyed that I wasn’t ready to go and irritated like he had places to be and needed me to just agree to go with him. It was like a grumpy, low grade fight just like in all relationships when neither party is getting what they want and they are both sullen and still asking. He said okay whatever I’ll just take you now, and I said how about not today- wait wait wait until later. He wanted to know when and he looked at his wrist like it had a watch but it didn’t, just a grumpy gesture done to annoy the other person during a disagreement. Neither of us getting our way, and neither of us having any power over the other one, it was just a really dull standoff.

He stayed with me and was an unwelcome houseguest always kind of in the way and underfoot and we just bickered and worked around each other. After the first 5 years my doctors said my survival was much more likely and breast cancer survival statistics increased at that milestone so I was like YAY but also like yes but one never knows.

After 10 years together Death and I had established  a pretty courteous coexistence, we were nicer to each other and we accepted each other as companions, which got easier because a new friend had been quietly present this whole time too, Life. She revealed herself so gradually. She was warm and illuminated and didn’t say anything but she just glowed and shone on all 3 of us as we went about our business. She touched my face in the wind and she hugged me when a bird looked at me. She sparkled when I noticed the beauty of trees and she laughed when my dog and I played. She laughed so hard at that!  She told me through telepathy that my life was NOW it was happening right in front of me and she said please notice it all, please don’t miss anything! I heard and understood, and gratitude spilled out all over me all the time once I paid attention. I even understood my buddy Death, and realized it wasn’t his fault he was the thing he was, he was just doing what he was meant to do and we could all be there together because that’s how things are.

Death took my nephew somewhere with him and he didn’t take no for an answer. My nephew was just 19 and such a sweet and cool guy. A great drummer. A thoughtful kind guy, a good hearted guy. It was just a few days ago and  I’m so angry at Death. I had him figured out and Life was helping me work with him and keep our balance in our relationship but I forgot he can get other people too. He’s not just my Death, he is for all of us. And right now I think he’s a fucking asshole. I beat him pretty good and threw him up against the wall, He didn’t say anything while I yelled at him and hit him, he didn’t say anything while he lay crumpled on the floor after I kicked his ass. He’s used to the abuse, he mumbled something the next day about how I’m not the first one who has been angry  and violent with him and how that comes along with the job. Well fuck you, man. Fuck you to infinity. And fuck the fact that you’re so indiscriminate and just a messenger and sometimes you touch people and sometimes you take people, and you don’t even seem that powerful, you just seem like a messenger and a cursed being who is a dumb vehicle always running late and trying to get your passengers in and they never never want the ride. You’re the very worst. And even right now while we aren’t talking to each other, you’re still in the other room, just reading quietly or whatever, while I write this and my cute dog makes gorgeous little sighs in his sleep and Life sits next to me with her hand on mine, kindness in her face, being gentle and asking me did I notice the sunset? Wasn’t the cool air pleasant today? How about those ravens this afternoon doing arial acrobatics, pretty cool, huh? Yeah I know they were cool but just stop asking me things for tonight. I know you are beautiful Life, and I love you so much. Thank you for being here, for being my friend. I’m just kind of angry right now, and I need a minute. I need some time to just find the next page and the next chapter, it hasn’t started yet and this is the weird in-between acts moment when nobody has a purpose until the next act begins. Just please wait and sit with me until I’m ready to talk again, because I’m so, so angry.

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Your Dog is Perfect

Raise your hands if you enjoy having a dog that barks and lunges! Oh no hands in the air? How about one who cowers, yelps, trembles, bites? Anybody?

Raise your hands if you planned getting your dog as a fun adventure, and then were disappointed to find it was so much harder than you imagined. Many of us feel this way, you are not alone. Sometimes there are things you want to do with your dog that he cannot do, doesn’t want to do, even hates doing. We actually have a support group at my local shelter for handlers who need support, empathy, and the sense of community around the challenges of living with their dog. 

Dogs are a huge responsibility, and a huge joy. There is a beauty in the lessons they bring into your life, even if sometimes living with them is hard. 

Sometimes dogs teach you the pleasure of mischief while sneaking into construction sites after hours through holes in the chain link. The forbidden space is a relief from the crowded city with all it’s dogs and distractions. 

The off-hours hikes when all the crowds are still asleep become a magic time just to be together.

The elation when we find an unused field or an office park or a courtyard that we can play in, because everybody else is going to the places with crowds and dogs.

The sense of victory and accomplishment when we successfully navigate the world with ease, as a team.

The openness of letting go of what you thought she would be and embracing who she is. The openness of asking her, are you comfortable? Will you play with me? Then fully understanding her answer to these questions. Inter-species communication, what magic! This instead of attempting to impose my will, my preconceived notions of who I wanted her to be, how I wanted her to feel and act and behave. Embracing her and learning from her. Having empathy for her.

Don’t get sucked into labels. Behavior is our way of interacting with the environment, that’s what behavior is for. It doesn’t define us, or our dogs, or any earthling for that matter. We all behave because we were born to behave, behavior flows like a fountain from us as our interface with the environment.

Here’s an example: 

My friend Susie was hiking on a steep rock face and had a moment of vertigo, and she was paralyzed with fear, teetering on a very high ledge, and she couldn’t move. She called out loudly for help, and she got reassurance from a friend who took her arm and helped her move away from that section of the trail. She took a few minutes to recover, her heart was still racing. Her freezing, her calling out for help, her heart racing, these were all perfect for what she was going through, she was afraid and her responses were perfect for how she felt in that context. Other hikers walked past that area with total comfort, and it wasn’t the same for all the hikers that day. If we witness Susie showing these behaviors do we label her as a fearful person? A weak person, a panicky person, an aggressive person? When she is seated on her couch enjoying a movie, is she a fearful person? When she’s happily walking down the street is she a fearful person? No. She is Susie, my friend, who responds perfectly when she feels scared. She responds perfectly when she feels joy. Perfectly silly, playful, angry, tired, happy, and her responses change according to her environment and her needs in each context. She’s just Susie.

Let’s say I’m thinking of getting a puppy.

If I get to meet the Mom of the puppy I’m considering, and I see her cowering, flinching at sounds, and hiding, I’m only going to take that puppy if I am willing to sign up for a dog who may require lots of behavioral wellness care. If he’s anything like his mom, it’s not likely that this puppy will be who I want him to be if I expect him to interact with all the dogs and people and loud places with no trouble. I will also be mindful of the time from birth to 16 weeks as a time when it’s so important to show my puppy the world with comfort, allowing him to look, making sure he feels safe and secure, I will not pressure him or push him if he doesn’t want to get close to things or interact.

Even if he is sick, I will carry him in a comfy bag out to see the world, to look at it as long as he likes, to enjoy delicious foods in the presence of the distractions he can comfortably handle. The vet may recommend isolation for medical wellness, but if that means we sacrifice his behavioral wellness it is advice to get additional opinions on. It’s simply not worth it during these early puppy days to compromise his behavioral wellness if it can be helped. 

I will not force him to get close to things, to eat food, to do what I say. I will listen to him and learn his preferences, because that is what a relationship is. Both parties getting their needs met.

Know that if you have a herding dog, they will be likely to be very attentive and very responsive to details in their environment, to movement, to sounds, and they may have responses to these stimuli that you find dramatic. They might offer exaggerated poses, stares, facial expressions, postures, leaping, barking and lunging, which are all their way of interfacing with the things that they encounter in their environment. Not just herding dogs, but many kinds of dogs. Herding dogs are especially talented with all their awareness, though. 

Nobody goes out looking for a dog that is hard to live with, harder to integrate into your life and your environment than you wanted. When your dog is hard to live with and you feel exhausted and overwhelmed, it’s so important to find support. Trainers and classes that emphasize positive reinforcement are a great place to start, and classes or support groups where you can talk with other people having similar frustrations can be an incredible comfort.

There are amazing resources online and in person depending on where you live! Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, Play Way Dogs, Dr. Susan Friedman of Behavior Works, Kathy Sdao, The SF SPCA, and many incredible books and videos. See your trainer for a resource list!

There are so many reasons for dogs to perform behaviors. Be curious about these, make notes, collect data, be open to learning. If anyone slaps a label on your dog, make sure you have your critical thinking cap on and you notice when people say your dog “is X” (reactive, fearful, shy, rude, mouthy, aggressive, etc.) these are all labels and labels were made to be peeled off. 

Keeping an eye on actual measurable, observable behaviors is far more useful and takes the judgement out. It also helps us see that the behavior is not locked within the dog, and it is not an issue within them, but an issue that we see is in a context. The cool thing about noticing that is we begin to see the intervention and the solution so quickly! ( Susie froze and called out for help when she was on a very steep, narrow part of the trail. Find flatter, more open trails! My dog barks and lunges when surrounded by other dogs. Go someplace with more space! My dog cowers when the cookie sheet bags against the oven. Cushion the sheet or set it down slowly without banging! My dog bites strangers who slap him on top of the head. Avoid strangers hands! ) simply measuring and observing is a really cool skill, without labels, without assigning blame, without judgement. 

The dog is barking, lunging, cowering, drooling, blinking, turning his head, tucking his tail. These are observations. 

The dog is fearful, reactive, aggressive, dangerous, terrifying, idiotic. These are labels that place blame with the dog and ignore the context. They also impede our ability to create an intervention that makes sense, because when we decide the problem lies within the dog we can be very likely to miss the environmental factors and not even be able to design an intervention that makes sense. 

When my black German Shepherd Shadow died, I was heartbroken for a long time. My small puppy Orion had never been the only dog in my busy household, and he was enjoying a revolving door of foster dogs while we tried to imagine what we would do next. A friend called me and said she had persuaded some guys to give her the sable German Shepherd puppy they had kept tied up in the yard of their auto body shop for 8 months. She was a working line dog, without adequate food, shelter or medical care. I was happy to add her to the revolving door of fosters and brought her to my house. When she came to my home we loved her. I adopted her. She was from lines selectively bred for generations to attend to all the details of their environment, which she did pretty reliably. She had been isolated in the auto body yard during her puppyhood when she should have been developing her social skills and she had not had any opportunity to learn how to interact with other dogs or even view them at a distance in comfort. She was also very, very interested in other dogs, staring at them, pulling to get closer to them, trying to get out of her harness to go see them. She was coming around the corner on a neighborhood walk and saw a very quiet old dachshund standing still, sniffing the ground. She ran to the end of her leash, barked loudly, repeatedly, leapt into the air again and again. My heart rate shot up, I went stiff and reeled in tightly on her leash, I shouted angrily at her, I was flooded with adrenaline. It happened again and again, walk after walk and I was furious. I wanted to control her, silence her, and soothe myself. That’s when my learning journey began, and I didn’t know then what I know now, that I really wanted cooperation, not control. I wanted to open up the 2-way communication and talk to her, and be able to understand her when she talked to me. I wanted to play with her, with her huge chest and velvety coat and swishy tail, to be her buddy and her trainer and her playmate. To have an impressive force of nature like that wolfy looking beauty understand me and me understand her. To have the odd couple of my little sassy puppy Orion charge ahead first while this glorious sable dog floated along next to him like a supernatural beast, like a bodyguard. And there I was at their side, the human part of the mythical team, feeling like a gorgeous, powerful warrior in the company of these two. Loba and Orion and I were a unit, moving through the world without stress and without fear, because we could. It was amazing. I hated her barking and lunging but we found new levels of greatness with training, with support, and with lots of effort. Totally rewarding joy was the payoff, I’ll never forget the years we spent together. I miss her terribly which is slightly funny to me, considering I thought about surrendering her to a shelter when I learned how the appearance of dogs meant she would bark and lunge. I’m so glad I kept her, I’m so grateful for all her lessons. She was so delightful, and such a badass. Perfect. 

Remember your dog is perfect, and every time they bark or lunge it is the perfect response to the context and to the environment. They are using their behavior to operate on their environment, and if they are in distress you are invited to step up and have their back. You are invited to learn how to prevent them from feeling that way, how to provide them with other options instead of just shouting and feeling yucky. They can learn alternative behaviors and actually begin to feel good instead, if you understand. You can learn alternative behaviors along with them and feel good too, it’s a wonderful experience.

If you become their friend and playmate, you might find places opening up within you that are new, places where you can be silly and joyful just for the fun of it, where you are selfless and empathic and full of kindness, which multiplies as you continue to share it. 

As you play with your dog over and over again, doing things that are mutually enjoyable, mutually beneficial, completely satisfying, you might experience a gorgeous new reality blooming that is so different than the one you imagined before you met your dog. It’s an adventure you didn’t know about, it’s joy that was untapped, you do things that are totally different than the things your preconceived notions held. There’s your adventure. Enjoy the ride!

So Intimate

The last time I played The Agility with Orion was almost 4 months ago. I love it so much, it’s easy to get hooked on if you love to problem solve as a team. Plus it sharpens cognitive skills, timing, coordination, physical wellness, decision making, strength of character, mental toughness, and deepens self knowledge. It is very revealing -sometimes in ways you wish it wasn’t. You become transparent when you are trying to be messy or unclear or bossy or careless. It’s a discipline that also includes joy, running, laughing, feeling awake and alive and free. I miss it and sometimes I can’t watch videos of other people doing it because the wave of grief is too sad.

I have trained with other dogs while Orion is recovering from knee surgery, and it is so different. I just keep thinking about how it is with Orion, it is so intimate. People keep kidding around with me and saying oh do you feel like you are cheating on him? No, I don’t feel like that but it’s not the same running other dogs. Something is missing.

I know what he needs before we begin, especially if I am going to ask for a start line stay. A moment of happy eye contact, a clear greeting, then a very purposeful lead out. Keeping that thread between us taut as I lead out away from him, moving away but still being together. Once we are running I know when he is committed to an obstacle so that I can move ahead, I know that it is a different distance on different obstacles and at different angles. I know how to help him accelerate and when it is a good idea to tap the brakes a bit. I know where he is likely to look ahead at his path and where he is likely to look towards me. The things I want to cue and how to fix it if I am too late or too spazzy. These decisions are based on knowing him, and knowing my limitations as a teammate, even though I continue to work and improve.

I had the pleasure of training with a very fancy and experienced agility dog because my friend was generous enough to share her with me. This dog is highly skilled and such a joy to work with! I could send her and leave, confident she was going to complete the obstacle and need more information really quickly, so I better get there. I knew what to do and if I didn’t she would tell me I didn’t, she was so clear and such a great teacher. She didn’t get frustrated with me and we have no baggage because even though we are friends, it is not that intimate when we run together.

With Orion it is a shining, tangled manifestation of not just our agility training together but our years together, our conflicts and our successes, our habits both bad and good, our drama. Our challenges are communication problems and our successes are huge victory celebrations, because in spite of the drama we did it! I know him, and he knows me, the great successful shining me and the flailing awkward struggling me.  I know him so well and I love him I love him I love him. I love that feeling of accomplishing something together, and I can’t get enough of that feeling ever. Every day that I am lucky enough to feel that feeling, the one where we are successful together at a game that requires us to be really good communicators, it’s just a total gift. I enjoy the conversations I have with all dogs, dogs are awesome and fun and I learn so much from them. But Orion, he is my dog. He is friendly and has a lot of friends but we can just exchange a look and feel so connected even in a noisy or busy place. Its just an awesome closeness, and agility is a wonderful way to practice sporty skills while we wear our hearts on our sleeves. It’s just intimate, and I miss that so much.

 

Your Bond Will Get Deeper

11 Weeks ago today, Orion flew off the A-Frame with a severe knee injury. My god, this has been a LONG 11 weeks. So much has happened, so many huge life changes all started with that moment in time.

I have learned so much. I learned some new facial expressions that Orion offers when he is in pain, like serious please help me pain. Pupils dilated so his eyes look completely black, facial muscles contorted in a pleading way, body rigid and still, usually ears pressed back, mouth closed tight. I never wanted to see this, I never wanted to learn this but I have. I’m so grateful that he trusts me so much and looks to me when he is hurt, he looks so intently into my eyes with certainty that I will help him, and he is right. I will do anything for him. I’ve learned a lot about canine knees, the anatomy, the angles, how they work mechanically, what x rays of them look like. What surgical options are when they are torn up and how drugs and pain meds work. I’ve learned what Orion is like when he is high, he’s sleepy and glassy and vulnerable. I’ve learned how a dog’s gait looks when knees are compromised, the various ways they can cheat and bear weight on their other 3 limbs if one is injured, especially the forelimbs. How to spot it, even if they are slick about it. I’m still learning about structure, shock absorption, and what to look for in a strong-bodied sport dog, what makes a dog’s body well suited to high impact sporty life. I’m starting to learn in layers about rehab, how to rebuild after injury and surgery, but beyond that how to condition a healthy dog, how to really give them the best fitness possible and how to know what their limits are.

I’ve learned that I love to gather information in a crisis and the more informed I am the better I like it, so I went to multiple surgeons for surgical opinions, multiple specialists for consultations on nutrition, body work, rehab work and pain management. I learned that multiple professionals mean multiple biases, sometimes recommendations that were in harmony and sometimes differing. I had to commit to being the best advocate possible for my dog, when I was super stressed and sad, but my brain stayed on and I sacrificed my well being to make him first priority. I just prioritized him and got to other responsibilities as soon as I could, once he was taken care of. It has finally started to feel okay, 6 weeks post-op.

Then there were the things that I already knew before any of this. I knew Orion could speak clearly to me with his eyes and that he trusts me completely with his whole life. I already knew the awesome responsibility I have, to make choices for him since he is mine. I realized that it is incredibly important in my family to allow my dogs as much choice as possible about everything in their lives, since there are limits to what they have control or influence over, and I think choice is dignity, is joy. I’m not the boss of them but I am responsible for them and that sometimes means I choose for them. I hate it though, sometimes I really hate that they cannot choose. I already knew how much he loves to sing and shout, run and jump, and what a training machine he is. He loves to use his incredible, brilliant mind to problem solve and learn new things. I already knew that he and Loba have a beautiful, very tender relationship and they always have each other’s backs. I already knew that he and I are really tight, and he can rely on me and I can rely on him, we will be a solid team even if things are scary and the stakes are high.

Sometimes people say your bond with your dog will deepen if you go through an injury, surgery and rehab together but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I feel like we have gotten more mileage on the most beautiful and deeply loving relationship ever. I am more sure than ever about him and me, about how well we understand each other, how well we communicate, how deep it goes. It hasn’t increased our bond but it just brought a bright light out and shined it harshly on every aspect of teaming up and doing something awful and painful and life changing together. The result was still the same, we are a team and we love each other beyond how much we can love and then it just continues. This didn’t deepen our bond, it just reaffirmed it. I can’t even believe how awesome it is, I’m so incredibly grateful. So much love for you, small merle giant who fills my heart and life. I fucking love you, little Bro.

 

Support for these times

Can you put us in touch with other people who have been through this? The nice young couple were just getting their first consultation about their dog’s TPLO surgery and they were worried, and they asked the receptionist to connect them with others who had experience. No I cannot share other clients personal information she said, appropriately, I suppose. But really damn, we need to help each other through this. Watching your dog have a serious injury is traumatic, and scary, and it is hard but you do what you have to and get them to the vet, to the specialist, to the surgeon. All the while you are going through all kinds of pain. Personal, financial and professional impacts are immediate, not to mention the heartbreak you go through watching your beloved dog suffer day to day. He can’t walk or stand, he tries to get comfortable to sleep but struggles through the night and gets his feet tangled in blankets then it’s too painful to stand or get out of the blankets. You lose sleep to watch out for him, to make sure he’s comfortable, to keep him safe. You lose your appetite and struggle even to go to work because you really cannot stand leaving him. If you have a multiple dog household now you’re really in trouble, because you will have to walk them all separately, keep them from getting too playful and bumping into the injured one, and still make sure all their needs are met. Your own needs will go to the back burner during the crisis. It’s going to seem like time stands still. You will start counting the days, days from first injury, days until surgical consultation, days until surgery, days until sutures come out. You will struggle with how to safely train and handle your injured dog, how to confine him, how to lower all the furniture so he cannot hurt himself jumping up or down, closing the blinds so he doesn’t run toward the windows barking, confining him in an ex pen or crate and with a cone on. Which cone you use is another puzzle to solve, hard plastic see-through? Soft opaque one? Inflatable? Will you put him in a onesie to keep the sutures safe? You can try all the options and see which ones are most comfortable and keep him from licking at his sutures. The surgery cost thousands of dollars so now is not the time to go soft, you have to make sure it heals nicely without incident. You get a monitor and watch him when you leave the house to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself, to make sure he isn’t screaming and howling from discomfort. Meanwhile you are supposed to keep going to work, taking care of gas, groceries, errands and bills, and taking care of yourself while this huge new crisis is taking over your life. Make sure to reach out to friends because they can help and don’t kid yourself, you need help to get through this. Lets just throw in the possibility that you are a dog trainer and your injured dog used to be your helper in classes and private consultations, so now you have to work without him. Oh also lets just say you were an avid dog sports competitor and when your dog is out of commission you feel this huge loss of that part of your sport, your hobby, your professional life. Competing in dog sports can be a whole lifestyle and the friendships, the constant training, the fun and the ribbons are such a thrill, and an injury takes all of that away. Once the surgery is over you get some discharge instructions and they have little to no information. Administer these medications, take 2 very short walks a day, don’t let him jump or do anything vigorous. These are radical changes to the previously very active life you led on hikes and beaches and trails. It is incredibly isolating, waiting day after day to see if he is feeling better, if he will bear weight on it, if he will poop. You look into your dog’s glassy druggy eyes and cry cry cry knowing it is temporary but it feels like forever and it hurts to see him like this.

We cannot provide diagnosis, treatment or rehab for each other but we really need a support group, to share what it has been like for us, to help normalize what is going on and help each other through it, to comfort each other. Good lord, this is so scary, stressful, and difficult.

I was tidying up tonight in the garage and looked at my agility jumps. There was a brand new spiderweb that stretched from the jumps back to the brick wall. I don’t blame the spider for choosing this location, really this is the perfect place for a spiderweb. it is warm and dry and dark and has great airflow. Angrily I grabbed a weave pole and destroyed the web, then dusted off my poles and jumps with loving care. This is my stuff and it won’t be sitting idle for long, we just need some time to heal, and for the bones to mend, and the tissues to close back up, and the trauma to subside. Please spider, go somewhere else to make your home, this agility equipment won’t be out of commission for long and we will be strong again, we will be back.

Slow

Walk slowly, the paperwork said, it will encourage your dog to use the surgery limb. Walking at a normal pace skipping may occur and even complete lack of use of that limb. I walk slow, really slow, to see if he will just use the limb without any other prompting. If a skateboard or a truck appear or make noise, he picks up the surgery limb and skips as far as his leash will allow. If a door suddenly opens, skipping. If a dog comes toward us, skipping. I keep at it because this is what my discharge instructions say, I have no other direction or information, walk slow. I also need to make sure he poops, and he needs a little physical movement to get that going, so I allow some skipping since I’m also looking for healthy poops. It’s hard to allow it then not allow it and to give him clear messages, I might be confusing him.

Sometimes as we walk slow Orion stops, makes eye contact, and then skips a step or two, stops, makes eye contact, skips, and repeats this no matter what my pace is. I don’t think he understands that slow equals please bear weight on your surgery limb, please use that limb. He needs more information. While standing still indoors where there are no distractions, I hold a handful of food and look at him. He offers a few behaviors. I am delighted when he rests the toes of his surgery limb to the floor. YES I chirp, then give a treat. He looks into my eyes, intentionally picks it up and sets it down again. YES. Cookie. repeat. Now we are actually communicating. Now he is actively working on the use of that leg. I’m thinking about how to proceed, maybe add a cue and reward the use of the leg while in motion, indoors first then add the cue and the motion to our outdoor walks with all the distractions. Is he avoiding using the limb because it is painful, or because it has just become new normal for him? Is it a habit? How can I help him on both fronts? Pain medication will continue so we can minimize that part of the challenge. Re-training him to use the leg I will continue to work on. But I must say that the directions “go slow” seem really inadequate. I want more structure, more problem solving, more things we can make tiny victories out of many times each day. If I don’t have more structure, I create it. This is not helpful to my dynamic with my rehab coach, I wish I had been more thoughtful about this. I started trying various things to encourage him to bear weight on that leg without consulting her.  I’m working hard to balance work and Orion care, to manage my emotions about how difficult this is, to take care of things on all fronts and I’m so tired and raw. I need to dig deeper, to find new undercurrents of strength, to be the best teammate and collaborator and partner I can be. Slow, I say to myself, just be mindful and take it slow.Careful, baby steps with good form. Slow. It’s important to do this right.

That is both the cutest and the saddest thing

When you are carrying a small merle giant dog down the street in your arms with a big neon yellow bandage on his leg, people cannot help but smile, hit each other on the arm and say look, look at that little dog in her ams. Look at her carrying him, she is telling him it’s okay, she’s reassuring him when he gets startled. Oh isn’t it both the very cutest and the very saddest thing!! As he hops along holding the giant bandage up and trying really hard to get comfortable enough to pee, onlookers say awww! Look!!

He doesn’t need their attention, and he’s doing his best. He’s so tired.

Tonight it was very windy and he flinched and curled in close to me, tense and trembling as a metal sign blew over and hit a door, making a loud sound. I held him close and said its okay, its okay, I got you. Passers-by are touched by the spectacle and I know they mean well but he definitely does not want their attention and he is so vulnerable right now, I really don’t want anyone to stress him out. I’m vulnerable too, for that matter. I’m watching him carefully at all times now that we have made it 8 days post-op and the incision is healing and the stitches are starting to interest him. I know he is tempted to lick them and so I supervise at all times. If I need to look away even for a few minutes I put his cone on. I have to do it when I take a shower or make a meal or walk Loba, and I hate doing it because he is sick of it. he is working so hard on recovery and he is really doing great, he is eating well and takes pills beautifully and is okay with me giving him shots. He’s really stepping up figuring out how to be safe, how not to fall, how to pee and poo and be careful on his fragile legs. One is weak and the other 3 are overworked and tired, and he is just such a good boy doing all he can to move around and then coming home to lay down and lick his paws for comfort. I say it’s cool, as long as you leave those sutures alone. I’m sleep deprived and I was sitting quietly with him the other day mid-afternoon and he was so warm cuddled up next to me, that I dozed off for over an hour. When I woke up with my hair all messy on the floor in the living room  he wasn’t there. I got up with a start and looked in the crate, then another, and in the bedroom, then found him in the corner out of sight licking away at the sutures. No matter how vigilant I am he might still get to them and I’m really earnestly counting the hours until our vet visit on Tuesday, when the sutures come out and we start rehab. The muscle atrophy is starting to be noticeable on the surgery leg and his shoulders in front are starting to look burly. I have worked hard to get him leaned down and muscled up, but I want him to be balanced and fit and pain free with full range of motion, flying through the air and running full out. That’s not what is happening now. He’s a strong and lovely little dude but he’s working really hard and needs a lot of care to get through each day.

When the bandage came off it became more obvious to passers-by that his leg was skinny and curled up tight and not bearing any weight. People asked what happened and politely wished us well but I was doing my best to give out social cues that say, please don’t ask, please don’t talk to us. We need some privacy so he can pee and poo and if you interrupt he won’t. This morning I was telling him good boy, take another few steps, that’s it buddy, such a good dude! Look at you go! So proud of you buddy, another few steps, you can do it! I was so focused on him that I didn’t see the old man who had slowed down to watch us with his cloth grocery bags in hand and his kind sweet face. He was gentle and didn’t bother us, but he was visibly moved, he was pouring empathy out of his face and when we made eye contact I just felt a wave of kindness and caring. Is his leg broken, the man asked, is he okay? He had surgery I said, on his knee, knee surgery. I stopped talking and we just looked at each other. There was this really authentic kindness coming from him, and it was hitting me in waves and I really didn’t need to talk and neither did the man. We looked at each other in silence and there was this lovely look on his face that said, I understand, I feel for you, so sorry you are going through this. We hadn’t spoken for a long enough time and then he very softly said, I hope he heals well and feels better soon. I don’t know for sure if I said thank you. I felt so comforted in this really quiet way.

Thank you sir, thank you for connecting with me this morning and stopping to give us your kindness waves while you were on your way to do your shopping. You weren’t overbearing and you didn’t scare my dog or me, you stood out of the way and politely spoke when I was ready, and the best was when we didn’t say anything at all. It’s really cool how that kindness helped me feel strong.

Day 8 post-op is done and tomorrow day 9 begins. Little baby steps.

I need you to be okay

If my dogs are not okay, life stops until they are. Orion had surgery 5 days ago to repair his knee and when Dr.Sams got in there and did the TPLO surgical procedure, he examined it and found that in full extension the knee was still not stable enough for his satisfaction. He did a second procedure, a Modified DeAngelis suture, which provides support outside the joint capsule,  cleaned up the damaged meniscus material left over, and then also did a third procedure, a lateral fascial imbrication. This is a surgical overlapping of successive layers of tissue as the wound is closed. This was a lot of really fancy detail and I’m so happy we got to go to Dr. Sams for the surgery.

Leaving Orion there overnight was unbelievably hard for me. He is essential to Loba and I in all of our daily routines, he has little rituals upon waking up, eating, going out, coming back in. Every second he was away his absence was so obvious. I was in distress and that made food unappetizing and sleep elusive and I needed help. Very kind friends kept me company, took me to dinner and a movie, made me food. I was such a mess. I gave Loba a lot of attention and she was gracious but also it was odd and she accepted my advances politely if uneasily. The vet techs texted me sweet photos of Orion in their laps looking very high on drugs but wrapped up in his fleece blanket from home and being held, that made me smile. The following day I did all the laundry, cleaned the house, made sure we had whatever we would need in case we were homebound for a while when he came home. The clinic has an amazing check out system where they explain what was done, explain medications and how to give them, what to expect, and what to do next. Then you pay and they bring your dog out once all the business is complete. I cried, I held him, he looked exhausted and wrapped his head around my shoulder while I whispered into his fur about how much I love him. It was great to have him back home safe.

He had a beautiful bandage that stayed on for 4 days and it held his leg in a resting, partially straight position and after day 3 or so he was able to bear weight on it. He did some trial and error to figure out how to get around and how to pee and poo while being a bit woozy on pain meds and trying to figure out how to stand and lift a leg and crouch. Once I removed the bandage I had to add a cone so he would not lick at the incision and sutures. Within the very first hour with the bandage off and the cone on he tripped over the big cone and screamed and fell. I was scared he may have re-injured himself and I think it was kind of a PTSD experience for me. I’m really not recovered yet. Dr Sams said it is not unheard of for dogs to stumble and tweak a leg that is fresh out of surgery and bandages, and it is normal for them not to use the leg even for a few days sometimes. I was reassured but also really anxious to see improvement and to see Orion telling me he was okay.

Many stories have bad guys who want to hurt the heroes and the best way to cause them pain is not to hurt them directly, but to hurt those they love and make them watch. Especially the vulnerable loved ones. I have been through some serious illness in my life, potentially life-threatening illness. I developed coping strategies, learned to knit and do little internal guided imagery. I learned to reach out to people and experience the comfort that can be found in others who understand and have gone through it themselves. I am revisiting some of those skills now, and noticing how different it is. I wish it was me and not him, if I were injured I would know where it hurt and how badly, and I would be able to understand the prognosis and treatment and make choices for myself. Seeing him go through all this is so hard, and I feel so heavily responsible for him. I have to make all the choices for him, hoping that I am meeting his needs, hoping he is not too disoriented by the medication, the pain and the many environments where people are doing all kinds of things to him, and hoping he can live fully again, run again, be well again like he was before. I have always purposefully allowed my dogs to make choices and offer ideas in our relationships, and I’m always looking for more ways to do that since they really don’t get to choose where they live, who they live with, or a lot of the things in their lives. Being in a position where Orion doesn’t get to choose feels so wrong to me, and I need to have the fortitude and mental discipline to choose for him and take that responsibility and inhabit that role with comfort. The more comfortable I am, the better support I will be able to offer him as he continues to recover. I want to learn how to be mentally tough like that. Frankly right now it is a huge learning experience and a difficult one for me, and I am not feeling mentally tough at the moment. When he tries to stand and wobbles, when he tries to find a comfortable sleeping position and can’t, when he stops walking and looks up at me with eyes glassy and ears laid back, I don’t feel strong at all. I ask him “may I pick up?” and he turns toward me and rests against my hands, and I pick him up to carry him home and think I better hold gently but securely, I better not fall, I better stay balanced and calm as we go. He doesn’t need me to be flustered and devastated, he needs me to walk gently and firmly forward, making the decisions, holding him.

Ruptured ligaments and love

Something started exactly 3 weeks ago to the day. My small dog Orion and I started a new chapter in life. He was kicking ass and running fast down the A-frame, then he screamed in midair, landed, and my guts went cold. There was a knowing, even though it took a minute to catch up again to real time, but my cold guts knew his injury was serious. He curled up his leg and would not bear any weight on it, and he looked at my face, into my eyes. He was telling me so clearly with his whole face that he needed me to help, and he was in pain.

I’ve never had a dog smaller than 60 pounds, and when Orion joined my family I wanted to pick him up all the time, which was weird for me. A brilliant trainer friend of mine taught his dog the cue “pick up” which meant that he was about to lift him. I loved the idea and started to ask Orion “may I pick up?” If he turned his body toward me and into my hands he was saying yes you may. That served us well in crisis, because I asked him while he was crumpled there on the floor and he moved into my hands with relief and I felt so proud, that we have that kind of relationship. I picked him up and my training buddies gathered all my stuff and helped me to the car. I got to the ER quickly and he was sedated, x-rayed and sent home with pain meds. Next, our lives were transformed.

What used to be a schedule full of running fast in open spaces together, chasing frisbees and balls, training flyball, agility, and barn hunt, became a schedule of doctors appointments. I felt a lot of fear, irrational fear that it was worse than the doctors thought, that he was in more pain than he was showing, that he would not be okay. His injury was super traumatic for me, and for him. In the background of it all my other dog Loba, my sweet shepherd girl, tolerated the huge shift with grace. So many downstays, not being allowed to play, baby  gates blocking access to all the furniture. She had questions but accepted my choices with style.

I became fascinated with canine knee anatomy. I asked the first surgeon I met with for detailed charts and references so I could fully understand where all the bones and ligaments were, how things were designed to move, and what might be going on inside my little dog’s leg. I got pre-rehab started with another amazing vet and rehab specialist so he wouldn’t have to lose range of motion or allow muscle atrophy to progress prior to surgery. I got a second opinion from another surgeon and more x-rays and blood work, and he measured the angle of the tibial plateau of my precious boy’s joint. 31 degrees is a bit on the steep side, most dogs are anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees. It makes a steeper ski jump for the femur to just slip right off if there’s enough force applied.

Part of me thought it was so impressive that my small dog had enough momentum to blow apart his own knee- it must have been a lot for this injury to happen. I also considered that it might be related to the fact that he was neutered at just 8 weeks old when he left the animal shelter, and what a total ripoff that was. Deprived of his natural developmental process before he could even start growing, that must have had an impact. I wondered why I had put him in a position where he could even get injured, the ER doc heard me mutter under my breath “agility is dumb and A-frames are dumb” while I cradled my small dog and rocked back and forth in the exam room. He asked if he heard right and we both started laughing because agility is amazing, and the ongoing challenges that blossom every time you learn something are intoxicating. The practice of becoming ever more connected with your canine teammate, the multiple skills of being quick in body and mind, to be fully present in the moment while anticipating the next moment with your dog -both of you flying around a course, it is completely amazing when you feel even a second of that. Even getting a taste of that connection while in motion with your dog is intoxicating. I just hesitated, wondering if I could have saved him from this injury if I had never done agility with him.

The way he is, he loves to run fast and leap. He loves to train and try new things and problem solve with his brain and his body. He gets impatient and he screams at me and he offers so many behaviors so fast I feel like I’m walking in sludge trying to keep up with this fast little sprite. We very well might have had a flyball injury, a frisbee injury, or even just a running and jumping around on the beach injury. It’s not agility’s fault.

I understand purpose-bred sport dogs, I understand selecting for structurally sound and functional sport dog body machines. I understand keeping those dogs intact so they can fully develop and be healthy enough to be glorious canine athletes. I know many dogs aren’t purpose-bred or allowed to remain intact, and they come out however they come out and they can still be amazing sport dogs. My small boy is long, with a beefy body and delicate legs. He has a comically curly tail and just came out like he came out.

I wish his tibial plateau angle wasn’t so steep. I wish he could have stayed intact. I wish his legs were longer and his body shorter, but that curly tail is delicious and such a flashy accessory. He’s so beautiful, just as he is, but now his knee says hell no I’m not okay right now.

There’s a primal response to even the suggestion that someone is going to cut into the bones and flesh of someone you love, it’s a definite NO and FUCK YOU NO WAY. The feelings of protectiveness and love have to hold hands with the intellectual part that says yes, this is how he will walk on it again, this is how we help him. There’s a primal response that says NO to sharp pointy things piercing the skin of the little dog you love, and a very amazing strong part that says yes, it’s okay to give him his injection of Adequan, and those parts hold hands and count to three and give him the shot.

I sit next to him when I don’t have to be somewhere else, watching him sleep, greeting him when he wakes up, playing gently with him without him having to get up, cheering him on for gently stretching out his injured leg. I cross off days on the calendar waiting for his surgery. I cry every day a little, from the depth of my love for him, I cry because we are receiving so much love and support from so many amazing people. It’s humbling and awesome, experiencing such a big serious accident and then feeling held up by many hands, by many words, by expressions of care. I know all the people reaching out and holding us up right now understand, they love their dogs the way I love mine and the unspoken truth of that runs beneath everything. The grief and loss of all the momentum we had in our training is understood, the pain of seeing a 20 pound scrappy beast become so  fragile is understood, and there is so much comfort in being understood. There is also elation from learning new things that are helpful and healing like underwater treadmills and fun rehab challenges and all the innovation that surgery has to offer, it is so creative and could really make him all better, in time.

Currently we must prepare for surgery, recovery and get through each day still taking care of routine things, but something else is happening. A very deep appreciation for every good day, every healthy day, every day we have together. Little annoyances fall away and the clarity that I am extremely lucky to have Orion, to have Loba, to know this community of people, here and now. My attachment to things is very light and my attachment to dogs and people is very strong. It can be clarifying going through a crisis, reminding me of what I care about and what matters. Love is what matters. It is everything.