Now that the Brindle Dog is old, I expect her to drop dead any minute. Which is obviously ridiculous: this dog is like the Duracell Bunny. Or maybe like a Timex (if she’d ever taken a licking, that is). Some days, it seem like she’ll keep on ticking forever.
After all the things she’s been through, the emigration from her birth country, the mast cell tumour in her neck at the age of two, the removal of a canine (root and all) after she snapped it trying to uproot a tree stump, the country life with skunks and the city life with racoons, the bone spur in her spine that sometimes makes the pee-crouch difficult, the recent liver problems, the canine and feline friends she has outlived and grieved, it is sad and rather pedestrian that what might finally kill her is a rotten tooth.
The Brindle Dog is a chewer. Not one of your random, indiscriminate chewers. Not for her the promiscuous gnawing on whatever is handy, the toy box full of eviscerated squeaky plushies, or the forbidden locked closet of shoes. No, my Brindly Girl has two chewing passions: her Tire toy, and any form of unprocessed wood (from the mightiest log to the flimsiest twig).
The Tire toy is a high-value toy. She is allowed to carry it on walks, but must relinquish it when we get back home. When we’re out in the world, the Tire toy mitigates the anxious irritability she has towards other dogs. When she sees another dog, she clamps down even harder on the Tire toy, shakes it angrily, glares at the other dog—but won’t drop her precious toy. She’ll set it carefully down to carry out her sniffing protocols as we pass trees and hydrants, but will never walk away again without retrieving it with a happy hop and head toss. The day she forgets her Tire toy will be a serious marker of age or illness for my old girl.
But wood! For the Brindle Dog, wood is where it’s at. She learned early from the other dogs in the house that sticks were great for chasing, guarding, tossing—and chewing. But whereas the last dog would chew on sticks and spit the results into a neat damp pile of sawdust (the “catch-and-release” method), the Brindle Dog has always been more of a chew-and-swallow kind of girl. After a good long session with a stick, her next poop is basically sawdust held together with a bit of the nasty brown.
Eleven years of gnawing on oak and birch, pine and maple, elm and willow and tamarack, have worn her lovely teeth down. Two summers ago, she spent most of the days for a week out in the back yard during some renovations, and she ate so much wood that she was actually losing weight; there was no room in her belly for actual food to get absorbed. One year, my upstairs neighbour left her Christmas tree in the back yard. By spring, it had been composted—through my dog.
How to get her attention: Ask her where her stick is. Tell her to go find a stick. Look at the ground and exclaim that there’s a stick. Point at a low-hanging tree branch. Point at a dried flower stem or floppy rhubarb stalk (close enough for government work). Bend down (maybe you’re picking up a stick!).
(To be fair, her attention can also be snagged by: Smiling at her. Spreading your arms like a hug. Glancing at the treat jar. She’s a Dutch Shepherd: paying attention is what they do.)
When the Brindle Dog was five years old, she was out in the bush one day and found the perfect tree stump. All she wanted in the whole world was to dig it out and carry it off like a prize. The stump was wedged against a boulder, and when Brindle Dog tried to gnaw on the stump, the pressure between stone and wood snapped off her left lower canine two-thirds of the way down, exposing the sensitive insides. The vet offered us two options: a root canal, or, if we thought she might break it again, a complete extraction. My ex and I didn’t even have to consult with each other—after sharing a quick, amused look, we both said “Take it out!”
For six years now, since the Fluffy Dog was a puppy, the dogs have eaten raw. The huge chunks of meat and the meaty bones keep the Brindle Dog’s teeth white enough for a toothpaste ad, except the worn down stumpy middles which are browning. One of her tiny front teeth has come out somewhere along the way. Just this last April, when she was sick with her liver problems, one of the symptoms was that she didn’t want to eat. That’s unusual for her, and the first thing I checked was her mouth. That’s when I noticed that the two premolars right behind the missing canine have worn down almost to the gumline. Oh, my girl, I thought. How sore that must be! She still eats, and chews on sticks, and carries her Tire toy around. But she is a tough dog, bred for military and police work, and more interested in playing hard than in licking her hurts. It’s difficult to tell when she’s in pain.
This past Saturday, she refused part of her evening meal. She ate the chunks of beef, and started crunching down on the chicken quarter, but then dropped it and looked at it suspiciously. She kept picking it up tentatively and dropping it again. That’s when I remembered about her stumpy premolars. I ran my fingers along her top gums and on the bottom right, as a “control group” for how she’d react, then along the bottom left. She definitely flinched more when I touched her by those teeth, but was that because I’d had my fingers in her mouth for too long, or because it really hurt more? Was I pressing those gums harder?
It made me start thinking about options. The Brindle Dog is a Dutch Shepherd with a lot of Belgian Malinois in her. Mals can have some serious anaesthesia sensitivity, and indeed, the last time the Brindle Dog went for surgery, they had only administered the pre-anaesthetic sedative when they lost both pulse and respiration and had to revive her and abort the procedure. I am very reluctant to put her through that again now that she is even older. Also, unfortunately, I live paycheque to paycheque. I inherited all of these animals in the divorce, and I am tremendously grateful to have them, but shelling out big bucks for surgery on a senior dog is not a realistic option for me, especially when that surgery carries greater than usual risks for this particular dog.
So there I sat, on Saturday evening, thinking about my options. Feeling like a truly horrible person for even considering the financial aspect of this (A good mama would do anything to pay for vet care! Sell the car! Borrow money you can’t pay back! Take out a loan! Take a third job!), and feeling the helplessness that comes with never having enough financial cushion to weather life’s little storms. Add that to how shitty it is that because I can’t and won’t have surgery done on her, my sweet, grey-faced Brindle Dog might die because of a rotten tooth… And add to that the facts that once she dies, she is the last of the animals I brought back with me to Canada, the last of the animals who knew life in the Netherlands, the last of my Dutch Shepherds… And probably the end of me having more than one dog. The end of an era, a life-changer.
Well, didn’t I just start weeping. Sitting there at my kitchen table with my glasses off, knuckling my eyes and sobbing. The Brindle Dog hates when I cry, so she slunk out of the room, giving me the side-eye, which made me cry even harder: “Oh, my old dog is dying and now I’m scaring her away!” On and off for an hour or so as I started trying to think through my options.
After a while, the crying tapered off and I was back in planning mode. Yes, a rotten tooth is very bad. The infection will spread through the mouth and spread through her system, affecting heart and kidneys and liver. An extraction under local anaesthetic probably won’t work for her, given how sharp she is, but if the vet thinks we should consider it, I will certainly weigh the possibility. But with antibiotics and painkillers, and a change in diet if necessary, she can still live well for a while. Her dad, Tommy, died at this age (eleven). I’m not sure how old her mom, Asja, lived to be. My last Dutch Shepherd made it to thirteen, but the last year of her life was a struggle against the spreading tumours. The Brindle Dog is old. There’s no need for me to feel mean or guilty for facing the end and considering palliative care instead of continuing interventions. I already made these decisions back in April and May with the liver problems. I will no doubt make them again in the near future.
Oh, and that’s the thing. On Sunday morning, I offered the Brindle Dog the chicken quarter she had refused the night before. She sniffed it, picked it up, shifted it to the good side of her mouth, and crunched away happily. Slower than before, but that’s true of many things now. So I checked her teeth again and did a comparison with the other side. Freshly fed, she was in a better mood to be handled and prodded. Turns out that those first two premolars are actually naturally that small. Yes, the left ones are a bit more worn down than the ones on the right, but they are solid; the gums aren’t infected; those little teeth are fine. After all the canine dental cleanings I have done in my past life as a vet tech, I had once again completely forgotten all my training when it came to my own pet. Sigh.
I anticipate the worst. Every. Single. Time. Because I can’t stand to look at a future without my good friend. But so far, every time, it has been mostly okay. And so if my good old girl keeps having trouble with eating, we will go to the vet to start making a plan for her teeth (or whatever else the problem might be). But with a bit of luck, she will have time to consume a few more logs before the kind dark end enfolds her.