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.