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.