Category Archives: Dogs

A Stranger in the Night (or, The Fluffy Dog Does a Good Job)

The Fluffy Dog is a happy guy!

 

I woke up to someone touching my foot. I assumed it was my sweetie passing by the foot of the bed, so I pulled my foot away to give him more room, and as I moved, I realised that he was actually still in the bed with me.

Must have been the dog, I thought, still half-asleep. So I stretched my foot out over the end of the bed to poke the Fluffy Dog and see if he was standing up. What I encountered with my foot was something that felt like a very large, tightly-packed duffel bag. That woke me up completely: oh my god, something fell on the dog!

I flung myself out of bed, grabbed my glasses, and reached for the light switch all at the same time. But what I saw when the light went on was confusing. There was something large on the floor wedged between the foot of the bed and the cupboard, and I could see the back end of the Fluffy Dog stretched out beyond it.

It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: a large person was crouched right down on the ground, with their arms wrapped around my dog. I couldn’t understand what was going on! As a very light sleeper, it was incomprehensible to me that someone could have come right into my house and my bedroom at night without waking me up, especially given the mid-moving state of my house (think Obstacle Course meets Hoarders). (Meanwhile, my sweetie is out of bed: “what the hell…?”) The only thing that made sense to my groggy brain was that it was my brother who was somehow in trouble or drunk or sick and who decided to take comfort with the Fluffy Dog rather than wake me up.

So I said, “Hey. Hey!” and reached down to the scruff of the intruder’s neck, grabbed hold of their hoodie, and started hauling upward. The person offered no resistance, but as I pulled his head up, we could see that this was definitely not my brother. This guy was a stranger. A BIG stranger. “This dog brought me here,” he said. He was young, like late teens? He repeated: “This dog brought me here” and my sweetie said “Dude, you have to leave” as I moved away from the bedroom door so the guy could leave. “This dog brought me here!” By now he was almost standing; it all happened so fast. “Okay man, but this isn’t your home and you have to leave now,” my sweetie told him.

Now the stranger started turning around to face me and the door: “I thought this was my group home. Where’s my group home?”

“I think it’s across the street,” I told him. “I’ll show you.” He bent to pick up his backpack which he had placed neatly by the bedroom door, and looked back at the Fluffy Dog. “This dog. This dog brought me here. Where’s my group home?”

I flipped on the hallway light and let the confused young man precede me to the back door. He let himself out the side gate and I closed it behind him, not waiting to see if he got to the group home across the street.

And then I sat down with the shakes. Of course I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, for many reasons. All of the “what ifs,” of course, the horrible things that could have happened if that person had been someone violent. Or if we had found him in my stepdaughter’s bedroom instead of ours. Or if my Fluffy Dog had made even a single squeak of pain or fear. All the violence that could have erupted from him or from us. But also the shattering of my belief that my sensitive hearing and my being a light sleeper will protect or forewarn me of this kind of thing. For thirteen years, I have slept most summer nights with that back door open for the breeze. No more. It is a huge change in my self-perception.

The young man smelled like he’d had a bit to drink, but he didn’t stink of booze. He seemed more lost, confused, and perhaps scared than drunk or angry. The next morning I texted the manager of the group home across the street but it turns out this wasn’t one of their clients. I sure hope he got home okay.

But the most amazing thing to me was the Fluffy Dog. He has really come into his own since the Brindle Dog died in May. That’s often how it goes: the next dog gets to bloom once the bossy paw of the eldest dog is lifted. It is clear now that he would have been a marvelous therapy dog.

The Brindle Dog would have gone ballistic if a stranger entered the house (which is probably part of the reason I felt so safe at night). Even when known people entered, she was all bark and growl and spit and gleaming fang.

But the Fluffy Dog is a different sort. As that stranger crouched down on the floor and clutched him, the Fluffy Dog was powerfully calm. He worked hard to comfort that confused young man, to create and maintain a safe little space for him, to make him feel seen and held.

And it worked. Not just on the mystery intruder, but also on me and my sweetie. In a situation where any of us could have panicked and escalated things, we were all calm and reasonable. I am actually quite amazed at that. I don’t know that young man, of course; perhaps he is always so low-key. But my partner and I can both lose our shit lightning quick if we or someone we love is being threatened. That night, with a stranger in our bedroom in the middle of the night, and my partner’s daughter in the room across the hall, we barely even raised our voices. Nobody moved quickly. Nobody lost their temper. I don’t know how to explain this other than by the hard work and skills of the Fluffy Dog.

It’s hard to write this and harder to tell people about it. Partly because I get flak for sleeping with my door open. But mostly because I am such an anti-woowoo person. I don’t want people to laugh at me for believing my dog has some kind of mental valium-like superpowers. Or for believing that my dog was a huge factor in getting us all through that situation safely and calmly. I’m the one who looks down my nose at blind faith, who adores the scientific method. I know there’s stuff we can’t explain yet, and I’m willing to reserve judgement on most of that, but the facts about a lot of things are already out there and I’m pretty contemptuous of people who ignore them (I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers) or who put their faith in movie stars for health advice (jade eggs / glitter in your vagina, really?), for example.

But the Fluffy Dog has done this before, at least once that I know of:

A few weeks after the Brindle Dog died, I had a full-on panic attack for the first time in a long while. I was in the bedroom folding my laundry when the shakiness and nausea started, and then the tightness in my chest, and then the whimpering. I was trying to take calming breaths, to focus on things around me, to use my strategies. But the crying started and both my sweetie and the Fluffy Dog came rushing into the bedroom. I was crying and gasping “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I think I’m dying, I’m so sorry” and my partner was trying to parse out what was going on and what he could do for me.

But the Fluffy Dog shoved himself past my sweetie’s legs and pressed his body against me so I was tucked snugly between him and the wall. That good dog turned his head watched me very seriously, his expression calm but intense, and he didn’t let up the body pressure even when I threw my arms around him and sobbed into his fur.

The Fluffy Dog stayed with me that day until the last shakiness had subsided, and then he climbed onto the bed with me afterward when I was completely exhausted and ready for a nap. He took it all very seriously, and knew just what to do. It was immensely reassuring and calming to be “held” by the pressure of his body like that, and to feel seen and loved.

So as weird or woowoo or unscientific as it sounds, I think my good hardworking dog knew exactly what he was doing when he helped me through my panic attack. And he knew exactly what he was doing when he helped all three of us through that stranger’s visit in the night.

This dog is my dear friend and an absolute goofball. But also—no matter how self-conscious I am about saying this—, he is a creature of immense power. I believe in him and I feel tremendously lucky to be protected by him.

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What I Learned from my Dog about PTSD

When the Brindle Dog was young, she was amazingly strong and focused. Her parents were bred for police work in the Netherlands, and that likely would have been her destiny as well if I hadn’t scooped her up as a house pet.

She could swim or train for hours. She would never give up on a task unless called off. She could joyfully chase a ball or Kong in the park for hours with breathtaking stamina and endurance. She took pride in her ability to execute commands perfectly, and she was also an enterprising problem-solver.

As she aged and got sick, her stamina waned. She weakened. She started to get confused. As her cataracts spread, as her hearing diminished, and as her cancer extended its tentacles and tumours further into her body, the Brindle Dog began to stumble and fall. Her back legs would sometimes give out. She would struggle to right herself and keep going, but I stopped taking her on walks, and just threw sticks (her favourite game) in the yard for her.

The day came when I couldn’t even throw sticks for her anymore, because she kept falling down when trying to chase them. I had to just drop the stick a foot or two in front of her, and she’d grab it.

It was heartbreaking. She used to have the strength and drive and form of an Olympic athlete. She was tireless! Her enthusiasm for work and play was incredible. And now she was a tottering little old lady, half-deaf, half-blind, exhausted from severe anemia, barely able hold her bladder for more than a few hours. I was angry and miserable. Fuck cancer! Look at how age and illness had taken this amazing dog and pounded her down!

But at the same time, I was so glad to be able to provide palliative care and to sweeten my dear dog’s last days with extra love and attention. As she drew closer to the end, and as I turned myself away from the “extraneous” things in my life to be as present as possible with her, I noticed one particular thing I had missed:

In her younger days, when she chased a thrown stick or toy, she would pounce on it with pride and enthusiasm. As she got weaker, her desire to chase that stick never waned, even though her body was failing. And near the end, when I would drop the stick pretty much right in front of her nose, she would still pounce on it with all the energy and drive she could muster, then look up at me proudly, panting from that slight effort, her gums white and her eyes cloudy, but still full of anticipation, wanting me to ask for the stick back so we could do it again.

She was always and only and forever living in the present. She was in pain, but she wanted that stick. She was confused, but her love of this particular game never left her. And whether she had raced across a field to retrieve that stick, or had pounced on it right at her feet, she was happy. She was doing a thing she loved, and it made no difference to her that she used to be able to do it better, or that other dogs could do it better, or that she would never race across a field again.

And that was the thing I had missed. It is okay to be happy doing the things I can do, even though my life will never be what it could have been without abuse and trauma. I will never have a life where my past didn’t happen to me. Therapy isn’t going to take it away or make any of it okay. What I do have, if I let myself have it, is the ability to pounce on that stick even if I’m confused or in pain.

The shit that was done to me will never be gone. I guess somehow I thought that recovery or healing meant I would be done with it. PTSD and the accompanying depression and anxiety mean that I am living with some very real limitations that have consequences in my everyday life, and I may or may not be able to change (some of) those. It’s hard not to be angry and bitter about the fact that my life is smaller than it could have been because of abusers.

But now I realise that recovery and healing, for me, are about figuring out how to live my life with joy and anticipation despite the pain. By example, the Brindle Dog showed me how to accept limitations and just keep living as fully as I can. If I can’t race across the field, I can still grab the stick at my feet with pride.

 

The Brindle Dog died peacefully last week. She carried her stick to the car on her way to the vet. She walked in to her appointment on her own wobbly legs. I cuddled her until she was gone. She was the best dog ever.

 

 

 

Why are Vets so %$#ing Expensive? (…or, an update on the Brindle Dog)

Last week, I took the Brindle Dog to the vet. (YES!!! The Brindle Dog is still alive! It’s amazing and wonderful!)

I took her to the vet because she continues to decline and sometimes the only thing that reassures me is having the wonderful Dr. Beggs actually lay hands on her and talk me through my worries.

This is the appointment where I finally made the decision to stop trying to keep my dear old dog alive. No more diagnostics, no more trying to figure out how the cancer is spreading. Now she just gets her painkillers and steroids and antacids and all the other pills and supplements she needs to be comfortably pain-free. She’s a sweet grey-faced old girl, wobbly in the back end, slowing down both physically and cognitively, with the start of kidney disease, pale gums due to anaemia, and a newfound tolerance for the cat. Her most favourite thing in the world is treats, and her second most favourite thing is cuddles.

All kinds of things are falling apart for her now, but I have had over two years since her initial cancer diagnosis to say goodbye. It is okay now if she has to go. She’s tired. Partly that’s the anaemia, partly that’s the cancer, partly that’s old age (fourteen is pretty good for a shepherd!), and partly it’s her anxiety to keep performing well and stay on top of things. I try to mitigate that for her by anticipating her needs, and encouraging her to follow the Fluffy Dog’s lead, but she has always been a dog who feels responsible for warning and protecting her pack.

The old Brindle Dog has to pee an awful lot now. I’m up once or twice a night with her. She clicks down the hardwood hallway to the back door and whines softly, not wishing to bother me, but in need. My “mommy ears” hear even her tiniest squeak, and I go out into the yard with her, squinting at the night sky while she sniffs out the right spot. Then time for a quick cuddle before we both lie down and fall back asleep.

But back to this vet appointment. We had done bloodwork, one last draw to see what was going on before I made my decision to stop trying so hard. I’ve spent so much money on this dear dog over the last couple of years, all the checkups and medications and supplements and tests…. It adds up to a lot.

So I went to pay my bill after this visit and bloodwork and when the number popped up, I was surprised. “Are you sure this is right?” I asked, and the staff nodded warily, no doubt ready for a rant about the cost. “It seems wrong,” I said. “Are you sure you got everything? We did bloodwork, too. This seems too low!”

Now it was the staff’s turn to be surprised. I guess it’s not very often that people think they’re not being charged enough at the vet.

But the thing is, a veterinary business has a lot of overhead. For this particular visit, the bloodwork was less than $70 and the follow-up visit was less than $50.  Basically that means they lost money on my visit.

Here’s the service I got for this single visit:

  • two different people dealt with me to book the appointment in two separate calls: in the first call, they kindly squeezed me in for a Saturday, then I called back and changed the appointment to another day.
  • on the day of the appointment, I showed up early and called from the parking lot (phone call number 3) to let them know I was there and ask if I could come in (the Brindle Dog is horrible with other dogs). I couldn’t go in yet, so…
  • when it was safe to go in, a staff ran out through the cold to knock on my car window and let me know I could go in.
  • the Brindle Dog was cooed over, petted, and weighed. Staff recorded her weight and took me to my favourite room, while skillfully and discreetly keeping the Brindle Dog away from any other dogs.
  • A vet tech came in and took a thorough history and listened to me describe my dog’s faeces, urine, energy, coat, lumps, appetite, water intake, oestrus, cognition, medications and supplements and treats, stamina, itchiness, and general demeanour. She took copious notes and was empathetic while at the same time asking pointed clarifying questions.
  • Before she left, the tech asked if my dog would like a blanket to lie on, and when I accepted, she returned with a large, thick, soft, clean blanket.
  • Before the vet came in, she and the tech reviewed the history.
  • The vet came in, took the time to greet both me and the Brindle Dog in a sincerely welcoming way, and admired my old girl profusely. We went over the history together, and the vet did a physical exam. She discussed her findings with me and we talked about various options (including a possible blood transfusion  and an ultrasound). I agreed that we should do a blood test, and the vet went to get two techs to do the test right away so we could have the results before I left.
  • Two vet techs came in to draw blood. Because many years ago I trained to be a vet tech and worked as one for a while, the people at this clinic always kindly allow me to be present for these kinds of procedures. I helped hold my old Brindle Dog while they drew her blood. The blood draw involves the education and expertise of the techs; their ability to soothe and manage an anxious, high-strung, confused old dog; the actual physical materials (syringe, alcohol, tubes, etc.); the lab equipment needed to actually analyse the blood, including not just the machines themselves, but the slides and the chemicals, and the knowledge needed to use them; and finally, the education and experience needed for the vet to interpret the results, explain them to an anxious owner, and make appropriate recommendations.
  • The vet came back and I told her I want to start just letting the Brindle Dog go. We discussed what that means to me (I’d give antibiotics for an infection or stitches for a wound, but not blood transfusions for her anaemia, for example). The vet had compassion for my decision and was able to outline all my options without pushing any of them on me, so that it was very clear what I was declining and what consequences that might have. When I asked the question that all vets must dread (“Am I doing the right thing?”), she was supportive of my decision and respectful of how difficult it is.
  • When we were done, the vet and staff worked together to make sure the Brindle Dog and I had a clear dog-free path out the front door to the car, and then I returned to pay my bill and discuss how cheap it was.
  • After I left, they had to clean the floor of the exam room of fur and drool, clean / sterilise / replace any materials and equipment used, replenish the generous amounts of treats they’d given her, launder the heavy blanket they’d brought in, add any notes to the chart, compile my bill, process my payment, and send me a follow-up email with some additional information I wanted. (Also, one of the techs drawing the Brindle Dog’s blood got a full-frontal canine sneeze in the face, so there was some clean-up and washing of glasses involved there!)

I know that’s a lot of detail, and maybe the service I get there is a particularly good because I am a long-time client who does my damnedest to be polite and appreciative to every person with whom I interact no matter how anxious or stressed I am. But my point is that when you pay for veterinary services, you are not just handing your vet that full amount to put in her pocket. You are paying for staff, rent, utilities, materials, continuing education, sick time, repairs and replacement of equipment, and on and on and on. I had face-to-face contact with one veterinary doctor, two veterinary technicians, and three reception staff on the day of my appointment, and a fourth staff on the phone beforehand.

There are people at my work who walk in every day with a grande latte from Starbucks. People with season tickets to the Jets and / or the Bombers. People who have season tickets to the symphony or the theatre or who go to Mexico for ten days every winter. So many of these people are happy to ask Google or ask me (with my outdated and limited vet  tech experience) what to do with their dog / cat / bunny / budgie because “I don’t trust vets. They’re just out to make money!”

Right? How horrible that vets and techs and their staff have to earn a living like anybody else! How awful that they are trying to give the best service possible at reasonable prices in a competitive market! How reprehensible that they are starting local businesses and creating employment!

A big part of the problem is that people feel like vets are guilting them into choosing the most costly diagnostic and treatment options. But honestly, they’re not. The guilt is all yours, and that’s your own issue to work out. Vets are explaining all of the options and the potential consequences of declining those options, primarily because that is the correct, professional, and ethical thing to do, but partly (wait for it) because they don’t want to get sued by your sorry ass when you make a stupid decision. (Oh, yeah, add insurance to the list of bills they have to pay!)

You should trust and follow the advice of your typical veterinary doctor as much as you trust and follow the advice of your typical family doctor. Yes there are better and worse ones, yes there are ones who care more or less, but it’s on YOU to be an informed consumer and take responsibility for the decisions you make based on the information they give you.

Take the Brindle Dog, for example. Maybe if we did an ultrasound we’d find out more about how her cancer is spreading and we’d be able to try some different treatments to help her. Maybe a series of blood transfusions would prolong her life enough for her to have this whole upcoming summer to nap in the sunshine. But I decided not to do this. Partly because she’s gone through enough already. Partly because the meds she’s on now seem to be keeping her comfortable and happy. And yes—partly because of the cost. I know she will probably die sooner than she otherwise might because of these decisions. But that is MY decision. I am not going to whine that the vet should give me a discount or freebie on potentially life-saving or life-prolonging treatments. I chose to have this dog and she is my responsibility. Dr. Beggs and her team provided me with the information I needed to make a decision I can live with. And I am going to own that decision.

And honestly, if you have season’s tickets to pro sports or a daily latte or an annual trip to Europe and that’s more important to you than paying a medical professional to take care of your loved one, you don’t deserve a pet. These animals trust us to make good decisions on their behalf. We owe it to them to get them the professional care they need to the very best of our ability, even if we’re grumpy that there is a cost involved. Medical care for your pets is not optional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holding Grief and Happiness in the Same Hands

A few days ago, I wrote about a retirement party I attended, and talked about the importance of paying attention to life transitions. The past week has been very full of those, with a workplace baby on the way, two funerals, and the ongoing decline of the Brindle Dog. And today in particular is special because it’s the birthday of an amazing woman who is a talented artist and a wonderful friend. (I know you sometimes read my blog, J., so happy birthday to you in yet another public venue–did I do Instagram yet? 🙂 )

It’s been hard. Exhausting. Heartbreaking. But also beautiful and hopeful. Continue reading

The Brindle Dog Loves her Oma. And her Food. And her Massages. And her Stick.

The Brindle Dog’s tumour is hungry. Cancer sometimes works that way. She eats and eats but doesn’t gain weight. She eats about a third more than the Fluffy Dog who outweighs her by a good twenty pounds.

Until recently, I fed the dogs raw food. I hope to do so again soon, but there’s been a glitch in my system, so for now, they get grain-free Canadian kibble with extra toppings of delicious (ugh) organs like liver and kidney and spleen. After consulting with several vets (my regular vet, my friend who is a vet, and the complementary / alternative / holistic medicine vet), I’ve made some changes to the Brindle Dog’s diet. For the most part, she approves of these changes: Continue reading

The Brindle Dog Bares her Teeth

Have I mentioned that the Brindle Dog doesn’t like other dogs? The dog we had before her was very dog-aggressive, and the Brindle Dog learned it as a pup when she came into our home. Since we didn’t realise that would happen, we took no steps to prevent it. So the Brindle Dog learned from old Ratna how to sit, how to stay, how to play, and how to fear and charge at other dogs. Continue reading

The Brindle Dog Smiles for the Camera

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It’s been about eight weeks since I found a lump in the back of the Brindle Dog’s left thigh that is almost certainly a mast cell tumour.

The tumour grows a bit, and then shrinks suddenly as it releases histamines, heparin, and proteolytic enzymes (which break down proteins) into her system. Eventually, as the tumour grows and more of these substances are occasionally released all at once, she might start getting allergic reactions, stomach ulcers, and other damage.

Continue reading