Two Steps Forward…

Andy and Jax napping

Andy always has to get in the last word. He’s not a particularly chatty dog (ah-hem, Half Moon) but on walks, his enthusiasm can get the better of him. And that’s what happened on our Thanksgiving walk a few months ago. We were enjoying a nice stroll by our favorite pond when we passed another dog. Andy did pretty well giving us his attention in exchange for a few Charlee Bears, right up until he didn’t. The other dog was about ten feet past us when Andy decided to add an exclamation mark to whatever he’d said. After he enunciated his point with the punctuation, he got a jolt of his own. He let out a yelp and looked as his rear end in shock.

Andy has Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD). When he came to me in 2021, from our local shelter to be fitted for a cart, he was dragging his knees and had significant wounds on the tops of his rear paws. Presumably, a herniated or ruptured disc was impinging on his spinal cord, causing a disruption of signals to his rear limbs. We’d worked with Andy for many months got him back on his feet, literally.   

I knew that yelp was not a good sound. We cut our walk short and headed back to the car. Back home, I did what I’d been instructed to do by my veterinarian. If Andy was showing pain signals, I was to give him a dose of his anti-inflammatory and his muscle relaxer then reach out to my vet’s office. Luckily, they were open on the holiday weekend. She confirmed the likely diagnosis (another episode his IVDD) and set us on a course to reducing his pain and making him more comfortable.

In the meantime, the Andy in front of me had changed, just that quickly. From a bouncy, happy, walking boy to one who hunkered down, unmoving for long periods of time. When he did try to rise, he groaned like an old man getting out of his recliner, slowly and uncomfortably. How I lived with, and loved, Andy had to change significantly. The pace of our lives slowed, our interactions with him became softer and more careful. Even our voices were quieter, the cadences of our sentences more measured and gentle.

In many cases, the change in how you relate to your dog happens slowly, especially with senior dogs. You hardly notice the change, then one day you realize your walks have dwindled to a few minutes or a couple of blocks when it had once been a brisk hour walk in the wash.  Perhaps then you recognize he isn’t following you around the house as much or is hesitating to jump on the couch or into bed with you.

The realization of change — and it’s significance — can feel like a rude slap and comes with a cadre of emotions that are sharp, severe, and punishing. “How could you not have noticed that?” Or “Are you so wrapped up in yourself that you couldn’t see I’m slowing down and uncomfortable?” We all have our demons (I’ve just given you a preview of mine…) so your mind  talk may have a different tenor. However, the antidote is the same: Come back to the present and love the dog in front of you.

You’ve recognized the change, now it’s time to record and take note of what’s changed and how. Armed with the knowledge, talk with your veterinarian about how to accommodate your dog’s current needs. Is your dog in pain or uncomfortable? Discuss medication, exercise alternatives, nutritional support, alternative therapies, etc. Look at your dog’s environment — how can you remove obstacles or tricky areas to make moving around less complicated and stressful. Try to experience the world through your dog’s senses. What brings quality to your dog’s life? Even asking that question is a win-win. It automatically increases your awareness of your dog’s experience of her surroundings and gives you an opportunity to accommodate any of her new needs.

As for Andy, this setback has put him back in his rear-wheel cart for any walk further than to the car and back. We have toned down our enthusiastic questions about breakfast and dinner (as in “Do you want your dinner?!”) and helped him up and down a step to go into the back yard for potty and sunbathing. He’s slowly working his way back to a stronger and more comfortable self but we still have a ways to go.

We’ll stay with him along the way, checking in on what he needs — and sometimes more importantly— what he doesn’t need. That checking in, that consideration of your dog’s needs and accommodation to the best of your abilities: that’s love in its truest form. Love the dog in front of you.

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