I read a short but powerful post recently by dog trainer Emily Priestly. She talked about how difficult it is to realize that the puppy you raised to be your perfect companion is now a hot mess of fear, aggression, and anxiety. The dog in front of you is not the dog you expected or wanted.
It started me thinking again about how our mindsets — and our lives — need to change as our dog’s mobility changes. Most of us didn’t intend to parent a mobility-challenged dog. Whether the change happened suddenly or gradually over time, the dog in front of you is not the dog you had years or months ago.
It’s ok to miss your dog
Considering how much your dog has changed can feel like mourning. There are things she can’t do comfortably and things you can’t do together now. I listen to hundreds of pet parents a year tell me their stories. At some point, nearly everyone references what their dog used to be able to do. They tell me how long they could walk or how high they could jump. They tell me how they played with their housemates or the hiking trails they used to conquer — I could go on.
These pet parents have their dogs and miss them at the same time. I love to hear about their adventures. I love the togetherness, the companionship. But I can also use glean how stuck they are in what they’re missing, what’s no longer an option, what their dog can’t do.
Memories are wonderful. They’re often joyful. They’re warm. They give your brain a bath in feel-good chemicals. But that all sours quickly when you add comparison to the mix. When you use memories to judge how little your dog can do now, you mar those memories. Comparison is the thief or death of joy, depending on where your interests lie (either Teddy Roosevelt or Mark Twain).
You can’t live in the past. You can visit, walk around a bit, visit the ones you loved, reminisce. There’s nothing else for you there, though. The dog you love is in front of you — changed, yes, but still your loving companion.
Let it go
Some self care is in order here. Your feelings in this moment — whatever they are — are valid and make sense in this moment. You want your dog to live forever but there are also more stressors as they age or their mobility declines. There is more specialized care, clean up, appointments, disrupted sleep, financial burdens, and more. Feel those, recognize them, and acknowledge them, but bring yourself back to the present.
How do you find your way back? Find the quirky personality, joyful spirit in your dog. Work to accept your reality and your dog’s reality as they are and without judgement. This doesn’t mean you’re ok with what the realities are or that you won’t be pursuing change. It simply means you can acknowledge them, sit with the facts, and any emotions that arise. THEN you move into action to make the present the best it can be.
Adjust your mindset
Working through those feelings allows you the space to adjust your mindset to create adventures that fit your dog’s current mobility level. How? By considering what’s possible rather than what’s no longer possible. Allow yourself to enjoy being creative with adventures, both the definition and the activities. Imagine what you’d like to do with your dog, then be creative in determining how you can make that happen. Remember, it’s about what’s possible.
One of my clients, Mike, embraced the possible. Roady is an 11-year old Catahoula Leopard dog mix who was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM) in October 2022. Like ALS in humans, DM is a progressive disease of the spinal cord causing the rear limbs to become weaker and eventually paralyzed.
I met with Mike when Roady was just starting to have issues with his balance, a common symptom of DM. Mike was concerned about keeping Roady active in his activities and lifestyle. He works in outdoor and environmental education leadership. Roady goes everywhere with him, including multi-day hiking/backpacking trips. We talked about what was possible now and later, planned for what equipment Roady would need: a wheelchair and toe-up boots to protect his paws. Then, we got him set up for his next adventure: a four month, 11,000 mile road trip around the country.
The trip was epic. Mike and Roady hiked, camped, kayaked, and explored during that amazing trip. Mike made modifications in the types of trails they hiked and places they explored to match Roady’s mobility. He also adjusted the travel accommodations around Roady’s needs by setting up the jump seat of the truck with a soft bed and support during the long rides. Roady is still adventuring with Mike, more than a year after his DM diagnosis.
Not everyone is an adventure guide, hiking and camping in the wilds, but everyone can be an adventurer. An adventure can be a:
- trip to the park
- lunch on a restaurant patio
- ride in a wagon or buggy
- ride in the car with the windows down
- trip to a friend’s house
- lunch in the backyard
- walk in the neighborhood in the opposite direction than you normally go
- swim in a pool or lake
- wading in a stream or pond
You decide what the adventure is. You create the moments together. You create the memories that will live longer than your dog. Stay with your dog in the present. Love them now. Love who they are now. You’ll both be happier for it.
The Epic Road(y) Trip