Are you the kind of person who gets nervous in a new place if there isn’t a dog to talk to? Do you find it easy to look through the dog spit dried on the passenger window when making a right turn in your truck? Do you have a drawer with a bunch of old dog collars with worn tags that you just can’t seem to throw out?
A couple of weeks ago I was at a book event standing behind a table. The author next to me said something that I didn’t catch. It might have been clever. She laughed and laughed, pointing at some short white and yellow hairs on my tablecloth. Of course there were hairs there; they matched the ones on my clothes. I still don’t get the joke but it had to do when her not having a dog. I don’t understand that either.
So, I didn’t tell her that in my writing studio I have four dog beds and a can of compressed air to blow those same hairs out of my keyboard. It’s worse; I lay proud claim to especially liking bad-dogs (here).
There’s Walter, coming from the witness protection program in Wyoming for over-barking, and from Texas, Preacher Man, named because he loved of the sound of his own voice a little too much. But it isn’t like they bark all the time. Just if there is another person around. Or other dogs. Or horses. And of course, cats, but that’s expected. And the llamas; they look like alien cats after all. Besides, it’s their job (here) to ward off intruders. The truth is they’d probably both be considered reactive dogs. It’s a lifestyle choice that limits their welcome; not everyone appreciates their brand of compulsive yodeling as much as me and the Dude Rancher. I suppose there are those who would hold their shedding against them, too.
The pack also includes a thirteen year old Briard, Tomboy, and Finny, a kind soul of a lab mix. We were all coasting along, dysfunctional and happy about it. Sure, Walter had that diagnosis, (two liver conditions, one fatal and the other requiring a homemade diet, five meals a day, and a complicated regime of medications,) but he’d been cheerfully howling on, ignoring dozens of blood tests that said he was two years past his expiration date. It all became our normal.
Sometimes change hits you like a sledgehammer, but for us it was more of a slow leak, almost unnoticeable above the usual yelping pitch of our lives. Gradually there was more fighting at back door. The dogs all ate separately, but mealtime became intensely frantic. The dogs who didn’t usually bark took up the habit.
When Walter was first diagnosed, he lost a third of his body weight. His strength faltered; he still barked too much, but with less enthusiasm. Then a biopsy, more testing, some medication balancing, and in a few months he was almost back to himself. Walter was three then. If he wasn’t so thin, you’d never know he was sick at all, but monthly blood tests showed numbers three to four hundred times higher than normal. My vet told me what to look for: weight loss, vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, no appetite. I watched for a physical sign.
On pizza nights, we had to separate the dogs. We missed our dog-pile on the couch but we split them into shifts. Walter began to have sleep drama, waking up in a barking panic several times a night. Now he finds peace sleeping in his crate.
I read somewhere that when dogs begin to weaken with age, some will want to act tough as a sort of self-defense. Maybe it’s like that but Walter has gotten quite aggressive, with a deep and constant growl, even toward me. His hackles are always visible, like he has to threaten us to prove his strength. His muscles quiver most of the time.
We all feel his stress. Walter attacks Tomboy most often and she guards against it, growling and barking back. Preacher joins in but always afraid of getting stepped on, he nips from behind while barking hysterically. Timid Finny worries, waits for a quiet moment, and then pounces on Walter. Breaking up fights is a constant, while all the time thinking this isn’t who we are. It’s not what we do.
Yes, we’ve tried every herbal available and taken all reasonable advice. Walter lives in a Thundershirt now. I can’t tell if it calms him but it hides some bald patches. He hates being separated and hates being with us. He constantly paces. I’ve talked to the vet about anxiety meds but as compromised as his liver is, it would be a dangerous idea. Now I think maybe the rest of us could use some medication.
I continue to look for a sign. Even as I continue to ignore all the signs.
Last weekend, I took Walter to Denver for some TTouch and a massage. I worried that he might have a second condition–a sore back maybe. Watching him get his treatment gave me a chance to see him with new eyes. In the beginning he was restless, he winced a couple of times, and eventually relaxed deeply. Seeing his body finally soft reminded me what he was like before all this started.
So our pack is a mess lately. We all have some pretty spectacular short comings; we get things wrong in this slow motion war, myself included. Care-giving is exhausting, but Walter is one of us. We’ll see him through and try to remember that it isn’t really us that he’s fighting.
Rescue dogs are all the rage. It’s a quality of life transaction; we want to give them a better life and we get the same in return. The plan is always to have more good days than bad, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Then we lower our expectations and say thank you. We’re just hoping for a few more moments of that special late-afternoon sun.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.