My ankle quivers slightly as I push my weight and that of the dog I’m carrying up the short but steep river embankment and back onto the paved path. I’d just rescued my little black dog Victor from frantically bouncing toward the water, skidding on loose dirt along the way.
Yes, he was off leash, but these days walking slowly in random circles while sniffing the grass is his greatest joy. A spastic impulse of confusion sent him skiing toward the water and me after him. It’s happened before. I was prepared.
With a few well-placed steps, I lugged us back up the embankment, put him down and looked up.
“They have a mind of their own, don’t they?” said a smirking woman walking a jaunty Springer Spaniel from a safe distance across the street. It’s April 2020, during the Covid-19 lockdown. Dog walking along the scenic rural riverside park has become an Olympic sport of ‘keep your distance’ while pets strain on leashes no longer able to greet their neighbourhood buddies, familiar or not.
“Well, that’s the thing,” I tell her, “His mind isn’t his own anymore. It’s pretty scrambled.”
“Oh, that’s hard,” she shouts compassionately, keeping up with the pace of her dog and disappearing around the corner.
That’s not the reaction I usually get.
Last fall, after months of speculation, an MRI revealed my aging Cocker Spaniel-cross didn’t have a brain tumor – he has dementia. Specifically, he has ‘shrinking brain’ called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.
As with people, Canine Cognitive Dysfunction is an unpredictable degenerative disease with no cure. The rate of decline is also unknown, but the veterinary neurologist said dogs with dementia can live twelve to eighteen months, depending on behavior.
Tolerance of behavior usually defines life-expectancy. I vowed to take care of him as long as needed.
“I didn’t know dogs can get dementia,” is the response I’m used to after explaining my dog’s serpentine walking pattern and perpetual circling. Usually, I’m talking to someone who’s thoughtfully stepped aside to let us walk by. Kind yes, but it takes a while for us to ‘walk by’ because direct routes, walking a straight line, and cognitive awareness are not my dog’s strengths at this point. I always encourage them to walk around us – at a two-metre distance, of course.
Social Distancing might be the hallelujah moment for reactive dog owners whose request for distance is now the social norm. It’s also the year I was lucky enough to spend 24/7 with my aging dog whose gradual decline has been heartbreaking; yet social isolation has allowed me to do my best for the buddy that changed my life seven years ago.
Estimated at the time to be about eight years old, my dog Victor was a strange rescue. He’d experienced three homes before mine and was returned to the SPCA shelter twice, the last in diapers because owners couldn’t pay the vet bills to fix incontinence caused by crystals. Fortunately, he was immediately treated and up for adoption once again. His third home, however, wasn’t equipped for his high energy antics and exercise needs.
So, I took him. Impulsively. Me, a dedicated crazy cat lady, ended up one day with a shaggy little black mutt in the back of my car wondering, “Ok, what now?”
The next eight years, Victor became the inspiration for dogtrotting.net and changed my life for the better. And that better included many daily full-on runs along the river near my house. Gradually, our routine devolved into short slow meandering strolls, circling in the green spaces between a country road and paved trail following the river’s curve. The river is this small town’s only asset, and one reason I moved here.
Today, people are restricted from using the trails during this time when ‘social distancing’ and ‘stay at home’ are part of the lexicon. But the pandemic is not without guilt for me, because it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Time. I can’t be alone appreciating this gift – time with my canine sidekick who’s travelled with me through Ontario in Canada and Michigan, Kentucky, North and South Carolina in the U.S. We’ve spent a lot of time leaving home, exploring parks, cities and conservation sites – everything dog-friendly including many pet festivals and campgrounds.
Now, at a time when travel would confuse him, Victor and I are home together in familiar territory where I can care for him every minute: catching him from falling downstairs, untangling him when he gets trapped under chairs and tables. (He’s lost the ability to back up). And yes, rescuing him from bouncing like a wet pop-rock down a riverbank. As long as he’s still excited about his two favourite things: sniffing in the grass and stealing the cats’ food, I’ll look after him.
Now the journey is inward, testing my resolve and yes, my patience.
Dementia is frustrating – for both the patient and caregiver. This is no less true of canine and fur mom. What have I learned?
First, to forgive myself and some impatient actions especially when the situation is compounded by worldwide uncertainty. Second, my challenges aren’t that insurmountable, particularly considering global issues. So many surmount challenges great than mine.
Finally, and most important, remembering my high energy and lovable pooch in his prime when he wilfully avoided the water (he hates to swim) and intentionally ran playful circles around me. Remembering when he raced with glee along the exact riverside route we follow (cautiously) daily, still slightly familiar to him now.
And remembering how he went from the dog I didn’t know I could live with to the dog I don’t know how I can live without. Time is proving both a blessing and a curse. Time with him is so valuable, yet time is ticking. I’ll have faith that when he’s ready to go, he’ll let tell me and I’ll have the strength to let him.