Archive for the 'Gadget Pictures' Category

How to Tick Check Your Dog (even if he’s big, black, and hairy)

I’ve been intending to write this post for over a year. There’s always something more pressing. However, my friend Karyn recently learned that her assistance dog, Thane, has Lyme. I’m very sad about this, although I take some comfort in knowing that my advocacy about Lyme occurring everywhere was part of the reason she got her dog tested, and that now he can be treated. Hopefully this post will prevent more dogs from getting tick-borne diseases.

Ever since I wrote a long, detailed post about canine Lyme disease for Lyme Disease Awareness Month in May 2010 stressing the importance of thoroughly tick checking your dog every day of the spring, summer, and fall, people have been asking me, “How do you do it?”

If you only want a very cursory explanation of how to tick-check, there is a new site devoted to ticks, dogs, and tick-borne disease in dogs, called DogsandTicks.com. The tick-checking information is on the disease-prevention page; better than nothing, I suppose, but I fear it will give people the impression that they are doing a thorough job when you’re not. The site also includes photos of ticks, how to remove ticks, information on various tick-borne diseases, and a FAQ.

If you want more detailed instructions on tick-checking your dog, read on!

People with dark-colored dogs, and long-haired dogs have expressed particular concern to me about how the heck to search an entire dog — especially if it’s a big dog. Having owned three consecutive large, dark, long-haired dogs (bouviers des Flandres), I know where they’re coming from.

I didn’t used to do systematic daily tick-checks until I got Lyme disease in 2007. That seriously changed my perspective on tick vigilance, particularly when my service dog, Gadget, too, turned out to have chronic Lyme.

Betsy and I thoroughly tick-checked Gadget (until he died, two years ago), every day. We carry on the tradition with Barnum, my one-and-a-half year-old puppy and service-dog-in-training.

There are certainly other things I’d rather be doing with the time and energy that go into tick-checking, but I’ve come to see it as required upkeep, like feeding or walking him. There are also a few side benefits that I’ll mention in my discussion.

Note: My tick-checking description includes things that are helpful to me, such as having an extra person, using my hands, good lighting, etc. I realize that if you are single, or blind, or don’t have good sensation in your fingertips you’ll need to modify how you check. It is definitely possible to tick-check by yourself (I do it often), as well as to do an effective job if you have limited vision or use of your hands. By creating a routine and becoming familiar with your dog’s normal bumps (whisker bumps, bug bites, nipples, warts and pimples), you will become much more able to identify ticks.

Please do not think that using “spot-on” flea and tick products (Frontline Plus, Advantix, etc.), makes tick checking unnecessary. This is not true. I have written in other posts that these products have several major drawbacks, including that they can cause chemical injury to people or animals sensitive to them. However, whether you choose to use them or not, they are not perfect, and your dog can still carry ticks. Consider:

  1. They do not repel or prevent ticks from climbing on and attaching; the ticks need to drink your dog’s blood before the product kills them. Ticks can feed on your dog for several hours before they die and fall off.
  2. These products are far more effective against fleas than ticks. There really is no product that is as effective against ticks as it is against fleas. They are hardy, adaptive, tough little bugs. Some are more effective against ticks than others, such as Advantix or Revolution. However, I recently spoke with Barnum’s breeder, who is an ER vet, and she told me that she would never put Revolution on her dogs, because she has seen so many serious adverse reactions to it in the ER. Revolution is the brand more vets in high-incidence areas like mine are suggesting as being more effective against ticks.
  3. Ticks evolve faster than humans can create poisons to kill them. Many vets and dog owners are reporting that products that used to be effective against ticks have lost their efficacy. This is particularly true in high-density tick areas.

So, choose whether or not to use these products, but don’t rely on them to make tick-checking unnecessary.

How about a summer hairdo?

If you have a long-haired dog that has hair instead of fur (such as a poodle or a bouvier), consider giving them a radical haircut in the spring and keeping it short through the fall. It is much easier to tick check a short coat than a long one.

Exhibit A: Gadget

Before . . .

Gadget, a gray brindle bouvier, stands on the patchy brown spring lawn. His hair is very long and shaggy, and he looks a lot like an Old English Sheepdog in terms of the amount of fur.

We let Gadget’s coat grow out in the winter.

. . . and After:

We fell asleep together

Gadget, freshly shorn, falls asleep with me after we’ve both been tick-checked.

Exhibit B: Barnum

Before . . .

Barnum lies on the bathroom floor. His coat is very long and shaggy and doesn't look well-groomed. He appears black except for a spot of white on his chin.

Yes, I know he looks disreputable here, but he’d just come in from the rain AND we were struggling with the wrong tools for too much coat!

. . . and After!

Barnum lies on a pale hardwood floor. He is close-cropped all over except for his face, which still has a bit of beard and fullness around the eyes. His brindling is very obvious, silver, white, gray, and black.

So sleek! And you can see all his lovely brindling this way, too! (Yeah, his legs and paws needed touch-ups. We did those another time.)

Barnum’s coat tends toward the texture, thickness, and consistency of thick, shag, wall-to-wall carpeting. And he’s black. It’s a gorgeous coat that’s a nightmare to check.

We always try to keep a short coat during tick season. It really makes a big difference. I know he doesn’t look as handsome, but I’d rather he’s healthy than gorgeous (and he’s adorable either way, of course). I’m sure bouvier aficionados gasp with horror at these extreme haircuts, but these are working dogs, not show dogs, and I have to do what works for me and for their health.

If you don’t have MCS and can afford it, you can get your dog professionally groomed, and then they will look a lot better than my dogs do! But, since groomers use a lot of scented products in their salons, that’s never been an option for me.

If you have a long-coated dog with fur (a “normal” long-haired dog), or a light-skinned dog (a pale-colored dog or one with a pink nose), or a dog that’s in the direct sunlight a lot, you might not want to cut down the coat due to issues of sunburn or skin cancer in the case of light-skinned dogs or due to problems with coat regrowth for typical-coated shedding dogs.

A good idea instead is to remove a lot of the bulk of the coat, use stripping tools. I am by no means a grooming expert — I only do what I have to to keep my service dog healthy and looking decent. I use the Mat Breaker and the Mars Coat King. If you want more information on this topic, ask a groomer or try a grooming forum online. Basically, the goal is to preserve the length for sun protection and the general form of the coat, but to thin/debulk the coat to keep your dog cooler as well as helping you feel the skin for ticks.

Lights, Blanket, Tick-Spoon!

Although it’s not known how long it takes for ticks to pass on Lyme and other tick-borne diseases (TBDs) — and different diseases are said to take differing lengths of time. A conservative estimate is that 24 hours is definitely enough time to pass on Lyme, while most other TBDs take less time. Rocky Mountain Spotted fever can be passed in just five hours. (I personally think that the 24-hour cut-off mark on Lyme is iffy.) Therefore, it’s important that you check at least daily, if at all possible.

It’s a good idea to create a routine, including what time of day you do tick-checking. This will help you remember to do it and will also make your dog more likely to accept it, because dogs usually find routine soothing.

Betsy and I like to tick-check everyone before bed, because it’s a time we’re most likely to both be available, and that way we’re not giving the ticks several uninterrupted hours of feeding during the night. But, if you’re a morning person, and that’s when you have the time, do it then. Or on your lunch break. If you miss your regular time, try to squeeze in a tick-check as soon as possible. Don’t give up in despair if you miss a day. This is an ongoing health maintenance routine, like brushing teeth or the coat. You do the best you can.

Part of the routine should be getting set up so that when you do find a tick, you have what you need. Before we start, I get something soft to sit on (because we usually check Barnum on the bathroom floor, and sitting on the hard, cold floor is too painful for me), our jar with hydrogen peroxide that we put the ticks into, our tick spoon (pictured below), treats, alcohol prep pads, and a pair of small, curved, blunt-tipped scissors that I use for grooming touch-ups on his paws and legs, particularly trimming the fur between his toes, which otherwise mats terribly. (UPDATE: I now use a much better tool for removing ticks, which are Tick Removal Forceps.)

Very thin, lightweight metal tool, about half the length of a popsicle stick, tapered on one end with a V-shaped opening. The length of the tool has a slight creased in the center, so that it is mildly concave. It's attached by a metal-bead key-chain to a plastic magnifying class about teh size of a penny or nickel.

This is the tick spoon we have. I find it easiest to use if I remove the magnifying glass, as it gets in my way.

On days when I’m too sick to work on the bathroom floor, we put a light-colored sheet down on my bed, and check Barnum on my bed. A major consideration for your locale is where the best lighting is. We turn on all the lights in my room right before we start the check. While you mostly use your hands to find ticks, it really helps if, once you have found one, if you can see what you’re doing.

The Side-Benefits to Tick Checking

Every person and dog is different, so how you go about the job will depend on what works for both of you. For example, Gadget knew as soon as the sheet went over the bed at night that it was “dog cuddling time,” and he’d jump up and lie down on his side and be super-relaxed. Since Gadget let me have my way with him, I usually started with his paws, just because they were an obvious starting point and therefore an easy way for me to be methodical: First the right, front foot, then all the way up to the elbow and armpit. Then the left front and up, then the right hind foot, etc.

With Barnum, because he’s more touchy about his paws and likes to start by sitting or standing and facing me (often licking my chin), I take a different approach. He enjoys having his face rubbed, so I do his whole head very thoroughly first, and when he’s nice and relaxed, I move to the legs and paws. (This is also helpful because most of the ticks I find on him are on his head and front legs and chest, so I am more apt to get them when I am at my freshest; my body and mind are not always at their best by the time I’m done.) He is getting more used to the routine now and has started to relax into lying down as we proceed.

If your dog is not totally comfortable or compliant with being touched all over, I have three suggestions, which you can combine.

The first is to follow Sue Ailsby’s “handling” instructions from Level 2 of the original Training Levels. (Scroll down to find “Handling.” The behaviors are listed in alphabetical order, so it’s below “Go to Mat.”) This slow approach really focuses you on making sure your dog is not just tolerating touch, but actually relaxing into it and enjoying it.

The second suggestion is a tip I got from another partner-trainer I met on the Level’s list. She taught her goldendoodle the names of all his various body parts (I hinted at this practice in this previous post). This can be handy at the vet or whenever you need to check a certain part. If it’s possible, the dog can offer you the part (chin, foot, etc.). However, even when the dog can’t actually present the part, by teaching him the name, he will know what’s coming and not feel “ambushed” when you — or someone else — suddenly grabs that part. For Barnum, the parts that it’s been most helpful for him to learn are “foot” (for the front paws), “hind” (for rear paws), “ear,” “lips,” and “tail.”

To teach the parts, just say the name you’ve chosen as you handle it, every time. You might want to reinforce the learning with a tidbit for relaxing into your touch or holding still upon hearing the word.

The third is if you have a squirmy puppy or other dog who is just too excited to hold still, you can use the bio-feedback exercises from Control Unleashed. This information was a godsend for Betsy and me when Barnum was a puppy who could not hold still for an instant — or so we thought. I had been dubious that I’d be able to click for such fleeting behaviors as blinking, but it really worked. I clicked and treated for eye blinks, soft/sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling/sighing, lying down, any relaxed body posture, etc. I encouraged these behaviors by blinking, giving him sleepy eyes, yawning, lip-licking, exhaling, etc. We would start out with a wriggly puppy bouncing all over, and end up with him lying on his side!

Whatever you do, try to set up a routine that is as comfortable and pleasant as possible. If you and your dog like music, put on some music. If you’re most comfortable with a grooming table or bed, use those.

That’s because two side-benefits of daily tick-checking are:

  1. A good way to monitor your dog’s health. If you are familiar with every lump and bump, when a new one arises, you will know. Since you need to check your dog’s lips, you will also notice your dog’s teeth, gums, breath, and other indicators of health. On the other end, checking the anus can show you if there is poop that needs to be cleaned away or anal glands to be expressed, etc. I often use tick-checking time to trim the hair between toe pads that otherwise gets matted very easily.
  2. If you work at making sure this is a very familiar, enjoyable experience, your dog will come to view it as a treat. We include a lot of massaging of favorite parts (back of the neck, behind the ears, front of the chest), sweet-talking, and treats. If your dog gets over excited by treats, you might not want to use them, or use low-value treats. The picture above of Gadget sleeping between my legs really was taken immediately after a tick check, when we were both so relaxed, we fell asleep (and Betsy took the picture without me knowing it until later).

It used to be that we couldn’t get Barnum to lie down and relax for his tick check. However, after over a year of handling practice and lots of treats, behold a recent tick check. First, I check his ears. . . .

Sharon leans over Barnum, who is lying on the bed, his eyes shut, head resting between his paws. Sharon is holding one of Barnum's long ears in each hand, rubbing the flaps between her fingers.

His ears are his most sensitive body part, too!

Then Betsy checks his back and sides. . . .

Barnum lying on the bed on his right side. His right foreleg is stretched way out from under his head, his eyes are closed, and his head looks very floppy and relaxed. His left foreleg is stretched out lazily in the other direction. Only Betsy's arms are visible, one hand on Barnum's ribs, the other on the back of his neck.

“Ah, nobody gives a neck massage like mommy Betsy. . . . Zzz.”

The tick check: Feel your way. . .

Here’s how to actually conduct the check.

As to where to start, that’s up to you. If you want to start with the places you’re most likely to find ticks, that is the head, especially the ears (inside and out), then the whole rest of the head, including eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks, top of the head, chin, and lips. Then the neck (take off the collar so you don’t miss anywhere), the chest, shoulders, armpits, front legs (including between the toes), then back legs.

Or, if you want to work in a more orderly fashion, here’s how I usually do it:

Starting with the feet (if your dog is amenable), put your fingers between each toe (I do forefinger under and thumb over the webbing of the foot) and feel for bumps. You are checking for ticks between the toes on the underside of the paw as well as on the furred side, above. Likewise between the toes and the “heel” pad. A lot of the time, I pull out burrs, sap, etc., under the feet and between toes, or trim out mats.

If I feel anything there that I think is a tick, I have found it impossible, even with a docile dog, to use tweezers or a tick spoon in that location — there’s just not space to angle. Instead, find where the tick is attached (where its mouth parts disappear under the skin), grasp there — using your best fingernails, if that’s an option — and pull it slowly and steadily until you have it (and whatever hair came along) out of reach.

I’ll get to disposal of ticks and tick spoons, etc., after explaining how to check.

Feel the top of the foot and heel, too, and then work your way up the leg, running thumbs and fingertips up the skin, against the grain of the fur. I use an up-and-down motion sort of “massaging” or “scouring”with my fingertips to make sure I’m feeling beneath the fur to the skin, and covering all areas. Make sure to get your fingers in the indentations and grooves between the bones.

Definitely check the elbow and armpit. Lift the leg forward slightly to see the underside of the joint, if possible.

Then you can do the rear feet and legs the same way — checking between the toes and moving up the leg. While you’re back there, remember to feel the inner leg and groin, and in males, the penis and testicles. (It’s not common, but I have found ticks on the penis — gross!)

Here is where you will probably mistake a nipple for a tick, because there is a pair on either side of the penis, which is not where humans are used to thinking of nipples spending their time. Everyone who’s ever checked one of my male dogs has made this mistake. It’s very easy to do! If you’re not sure if it’s a tick, check for a similar bump further down, along the milk-line, or across the way, on the other side. If there is another little dark bump parallel to it, it is probably a nipple! Taking a good, close look helps, too. Look for legs! (Ticks have legs. Nipples don’t.) Also, over time you will get used to where each nipple is and how it feels. Don’t try to pull them off — the dogs don’t like it! (That’s one way to tell, if you’re uncertain if it’s a nipple or a tick, don’t use tweezers or a tick spoon! Grab with your fingers and pull gently, if the dog objects, it’s probably a nipple!)

Start at the base of the tail, and feel there. (This is where I save some time — not much tail on a bouvier!) Check the tail much like it’s a leg, feeling along the whole length. Now, the fun part: Lift the tail and examine the anus. Sometimes you have to run your finger around it if you can’t see it well. If you have a furry dog, you might have to trim the fur. If you’re squeamish, use medical exam gloves. We have found ticks on the anus. Truly gross. Throw out the gloves or wash your hands, then continue!

Ears, neck, and head are very important. Feel the entire ear, inside and out, and also get a really good look inside the ear. I use the opposing finger and thumb, again, for both sides, doing the entire ear. I also put my finger into the external ear canal (not deep!) because sometimes they hide in the ridges there. Rub with your fingers, like you were shampooing your scalp, the whole head and face. Check the lips, including between nose and lips, and look at the eyelids and eyebrows. (Just this year, I have found ticks on Barnum’s eyelid — right next to his eye — three times.)

Take off the collar to check the neck and chest, again, using the “scouring” motion with your fingers. Do his entire flank and as much of his back and belly and abdomen as you can reach (depending on how he’s standing or lying.) Hopefully he’s snoring by now! Then, wake him up! While he’s standing, if he will stay up, do the massaging with all your fingers on his back, which you probably couldn’t see/reach that well when he was lying down.

Then, get him on his other side, and repeat.

How to Remove and Dispose of Ticks

The best tool to remove ticks in most cases is a tick spoon, or tick tool, like the one above. Robbins Pet Care, sells a good, inexpensive tick spoon, Tick Tool, which also comes with a tick ID card and magnifying glass. Amazon carries it, too, as do other places, but I have found it cheapest online at Robbins. I have found that the tick spoon is superior to tweezers. It’s easier to handle, and you’re less likely to squish the tick accidentally.

The tool comes with instructions for use, but it’s not difficult to figure out — you slide the slit of the tool against the dog’s skin so that the tick is in the slit of the tool. You keep sliding all the way until the tick is in the very narrowest part of the spoon, and then you slowly, steadily pull up. The nice thing about this tool, too, is that it usually keeps the tick trapped in the slit while you get your stuff together to dispose of the tick.

There is one time when the tick spoon does not work well, which is unfortunate, because it’s the most important time: removing very small ticks, such as deer tick nymphs. Because they are so small, sometimes the slit in the spoon is too big to catch them. This can be made more difficult if they are slightly engorged, because that makes them squishier (and deer ticks already have a softer exoskeleton than a dog tick). If you try using the tick spoon on a really, really tiny tick, and you can’t get it, my best advice is to use your fingers. Grasp at the very base, right against your dog’s skin, and pull.

(Update: Tick Removal Forceps work better because they allow me to remove any size or type of tick, even very small ticks, including deer tick nymphs. Here is my review of the forceps.)

As for disposal, some things not to do: Do not put it in the trash can. It will just crawl out. Do not squeeze it between your fingers or smash it with a rock or pierce it with scissors, because ticks are filled with harmful microorganisms, and you don’t want those splattering out. Although many people flush them down the toilet, I don’t trust flushing a live tick down the toilet, just in case it manages to climb out. They can survive and float in water a long time, especially if they have something to grab a hold of.

A pretty safe method is to put it in a jar of rubbing alcohol with a tightly closing lid. Alcohol kills them pretty quickly. I am sensitive to alcohol, so we use hydrogen peroxide. They live for a few days in the jar, but since they’re contained, they’re no longer a threat. It doesn’t kill them right away, but it does eventually. You can also put it in a tightly sealed Ziploc bag. They will die due to drying out (not starvation; they can go ridiculously long without feeding). On a hot day, they might die within twenty-four hours or less. This is also the method to use if you want to send the tick away for testing.

If you can easily get back to the spot where you removed the tick, use a disinfectant, such as an alcohol prep pad or BZK to clean the area, although it’s important not to let your dog lick alcohol, as it’s poisonous to them if ingested. Make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, as well.

I hope this has been helpful! Please spread the word to everyone you know with a dog!

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (I loved dog-cuddling time!), and Barnum, SDiT (I’m waiting for my massage!)

How I Sleep (Or Don’t) – A List, Part 1

Recently I looked up the topic for the December edition of the Disability Blog Carnival and discovered that it related to sleep.

“Hm,” I thought. “Didn’t I write something about sleep at some point?”

I searched all my blog posts (published and draft form) using the keyword “sleep,” and discovered this blog — in draft (unpublished) form. I wrote it the second week of February 2010, three months after my service dog, Gadget, died, and two weeks before Barnum, my puppy, arrived. I don’t know why I didn’t post it then, because it was pretty much done.

Actually, I do have some idea, now. I recently read a list of signs and symptoms of grief, and a big one was inability to focus or to finish simple projects. That’s been happening to me for a year, and I’ve been feeling guilty about it, wondering what the  heck was wrong with me that I couldn’t function even though, physically, I’m overall doing better. Now I realize it was probably the grief and not necessarily under my control.

Now I’m having grief-induced inability to sleep because of the anniversary of Gadget’s death, and another recent loss unrelated to dogs, which I will post about . . . eventually.

Of course, my sleep changed drastically once a puppy arrived on the scene. There was the oh-so-fun sleep deprivation due to puppy care, which I don’t think I documented — possibly due to being too busy and sleep deprived.

Reading this post now feels so strange. There’s so much I’d forgotten, or maybe blocked out. Reading about it brings it all back so clearly and painfully, like the night Gadget vomited all over the house. I can smell it when I read it. This might seem like a strange thing to say, but I’m glad I wrote about it and saved it, because that was a critical turning point in Gadget’s life and death.

It’s important for me to remember what it was like then so I can better understand who I am now. Also, every piece of memory of Gadget’s life is precious to me, even the bad ones.

Of course, I’m compelled to write another post about how I’m sleeping these days, which I have started. . . But who knows when I’ll finish? Hopefully in time to submit it to the carnival. Meanwhile, here’s a chronology of how I slept — or didn’t — in the months, weeks and days before Gadget died, and then after.

February 13, 2010

Recently, Andrea Martin of It’s Time to Get Over How Fragile You Are told me that she often posts lists, because she likes to read lists, herself. I agree. Lists are soothing. They are a way to organize the world. I’d already started another post that was essentially a list, and now I feel I have permission to write more.

I’ve had insomnia since I got myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME)/chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) in 1995, and since then, there have been variations on that theme, such as an even more extreme sleep schedule caused by chronic Lyme disease, which led some friends and I to call ourselves “The Vampire Girls.” Yes, I’m a vampirette.

Gadget’s dying and death caused further sleep changes. Here they are.

Gadget Is Sick, but Not Dying

  • I go to sleep after massaging him, loving him up, pilling him.
  • I wake up to pee throughout the night and morning (because I go to sleep late and wake up late), and every time, I check on him, pat him, give him some supplements or medications.
  • If I can, I go back to sleep.
  • If I can’t, I rest, take supplements and medications, and try to get myself as functional as possible to be able to take him for a walk.
  • If it looks like it might rain, I try to get a weather forecast to take him for a walk before the rain, because powerchair electronics can get fried by rain, and Gadget doesn’t like thunder.
  • I get between five and seven hours of sleep. Since I need ten to function decently, I build up a sleep debt.

    Gadget lies on hardwood floor

    A cool spot on the floor.

Gadget Is Going Downhill

  • I give him pills on at one- or two-hour-interval schedule all day, every day.
  • I snuggle him, cry on him, rub his ears, tell him it will be okay, we will get through this.
  • Eventually, either he or I decides he should get off the bed. When he decides to get off, it’s because he feels hot all the time now, and he prefers to lie on the cool floor, by himself. I ask him to get off when I can’t stand the (physical) pain of him touching me or moving the bed anymore.
  • I stay up trying to eat or take meds or write my PCA to-do lists for the next day until I literally pass out — see below — because there is so much to do to take care of Gadget, I don’t get to the other stuff.
  • I can’t turn my mind off. But my body takes over, and I lose consciousness propped up, pen or water or medication or food in hand or on my lap, glasses on my nose.
  • When I wake up, I’m confused. Why am I sitting in a wet spot? What time is it? Why is there food on my legs?
  • Once the confusion passes and I realize I passed out from exhaustion again, spilling my water bottle, dinner, pills, etcetera. I clean myself up and check on Gadget. If it’s a good time, I give him a supplement or medication.
  • I put my hand on his heart to feel it beating and reassure myself.
  • I sleep less than six hours a night.
Gadget lies on the couch with his head on Sharon's knee

We're tired (but I try to hide it for the camera).

Gadget Is Definitely Dying

  • I do most of the above, except that everything gets harder as hospice progresses.
  • I give him pills on a one- or two-hour-interval schedule all day, every day.
  • I snuggle him, cry on him, rub his ears, tell him it will be okay and cry because I know it won’t be.
  • He gets off the bed before I want him to.
  • Sometimes I go to lie with him on the floor, but that interferes with the coolness he has sought of lying alone on the floor (no longer on one of his dog beds), so he gets up to move to a cooler spot.
  • If he wants something I’m eating before I go to sleep, I invite him on the bed and let him finish my plate. For once in my life, I don’t have much appetite anyway.
  • I still pass out trying to deal with the things I couldn’t get to because all my energy has gone to Gadget.
  • I wake up multiple times a night to check on him (and to pee, and to put away or clean up whatever has spilled or was perched on me when I lost consciousness).
  • Near the end, he sometimes vomits during the night. In the beginning, I leap out of bed at the first sound to move his or my bedding out of the way and to clean up.
  • Later, I am too sick. One night he vomits at least twice that I know of — it is the smell that wakes me — but I’m so exhausted, I literally can’t move to clean it up. I check that he’s okay and go back to sleep. My morning PCA tells me he has vomited all over the house. This is a few days before the end.
  • I add anti-nausea shots to his routine, and he feels better. He eats again. He doesn’t throw up.
  • I still check for vomit every morning.
  • I sleep two, three, five, eight hours. Sometimes, if Gadget’s most-loved PCA is here, I can nap an hour or two during her shift. Normally, I’m completely unable to nap.
  • At the end, the nights are bizarre. Two nights in a row, he wants to go out at 2:00 in the morning. I go out with him, and he wanders to the edge of the yard. I open the gate, and we go for a meandering walk. I’m wearing slippers and no coat.
  • The last night, it is well below freezing. Gadget is always hot now, and he wades into a pool by the side of the road, breaking through the layer of ice to get to the water. Then he can’t get out. I get in to help him, my leg going numb, and I am stuck, too. I have believed the stories about mothers lifting cars off their infants. I believe my body will do anything I require to save Gadget. Betsy comes looking for us and hauls us both out of the water. There is more to this story, but I will tell it another time.
Gadget in his reflective orange vest, in the water up to his armpits

At the end, even in frigid weather, he waded in up to his armpits.

After Gadget’s Death

  • The first two nights after Gadget dies, I fall asleep, and sleep deeply, for the first time in months.
  • Then, the death dreams start.
  • Eventually, those fade.
  • I awake looking for him every day.
  • Sometimes I wake up crying for him. Then that fades.
  • Eventually I only look for him sometimes. When he’s not there, I feel a weak blow of sadness, then I distract myself.
  • I stay up much too late, even though I don’t have a good excuse anymore.
  • I can’t bear to go to sleep, because the room is so alone and empty.
  • Not just the room: I am alone and empty. There should be a Gadget here, and there isn’t, and I keep putting off sleep because my day feels unfinished — there was no goodnight massage, no chat or murmurs, no hand on his moving chest.
  • The room is too quiet, all the time. There is no breathing or snoring or barking. There is no sound of the door handle turning at 10:00 AM when Gadget’s favorite PCA arrives. She just arrives, and I sleep through it, until she enters the room, and then because of the too-quietness, her tiniest noise wakes me.
  • I notice the empty, and it makes me fitful.
  • I start napping again. I get migraines, or I’m just exhausted, and I go to sleep for a couple of hours. I wake up at the time a reasonable person would go to sleep (11:00 PM, 1:00 AM, 2:00 AM) and then I’m awake till dawn.
  • Someone from the job I left because I was too sick and grief-stricken to function, harasses me by email and phone. I wish I had my protective, loud, lion-heart in our den.
Sharon asleep surrounded by water bottles, computer, etc.

I pass out with my stuff around/on/under me

When I Cry

  • Normally I don’t cry, but when I do, it’s at night, before sleep.
  • I like to be alone to cry.
  • I feel closer to Gadget when I’m alone, because I see him, and there is nobody who can get in the way of my vision of him.
  • Tonight, I fell asleep at 9:00 PM, which is about seven hours before I normally fall asleep. Lights on, stuff strewn across my bed, no dinner or night-time meds administered, I just pass out.
  • My PCA leaves without brushing my teeth, because sleep is so hard to come by, we don’t want to wake me up.
  • I woke up at 11:00 PM anyway.
  • I started thinking about this list I wanted to write, this blog, and of course now I cannot fall back asleep.
  • It’s 2:00 AM. It will likely be several hours before I fall back asleep.

The gist

  • I used to wake up to someone who was overjoyed that I was awake.
  • No matter what kind of mood I was in, how I felt, what the plans were for the day, my waking up was exciting. It was an event.
  • It’s difficult to fall asleep surrounded by absence. It’s beyond difficult to go to sleep knowing there is no one to wake up to.
Gadget, mouth open, looks like he is laughing

Gadget's smile.

* * * *

Back to December, 2010, almost a year later.

I know I’m behind on comments, but I really do love and appreciate them. I’ve just been bogged down in, well, grief. But I will respond!

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (someone to wake up to)

The Last Night: Under the Stars

A year ago today was my service dog, Gadget’s, last day. This post is about Gadget’s last night — which was adventurous, unique, and, ultimately, serene, all in one — much like Gadget was, himself.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had already known for over a month that Gadget was dying. I had never been in the position before of nursing an animal through a long terminal illness and deciding in advance to euthanize at home. Most of my animals had died naturally. In a couple of cases, they died in accidents. The only animal I’d euthanized at home was my cat, Ferdinand, who, seven years ago, had very fast-moving pancreatic cancer. I made the decision in haste and realized too late it was the wrong one. I was haunted by terrible guilt. Only recently have I started to forgive myself for how Ferdinand died.

With a similar situation looming for Gadget, I worried a great deal about how I would know it was “time,” and when I did make that fateful decision, if it would be the right decision. His illness, especially near the end, was grueling, but the idea of losing him was unfathomable. The thought of taking the life of my partner, my beloved, my best friend, an extension of my own self, was sickening. I hoped he would die on his own, quickly and peacefully. I kept handy the number of a vet who made house-calls, and then I tried not to think about it.

As soon as it became clear we would have just a few weeks together, I dedicated myself to making that time the best it could be. A big part of this was taking him to the pond. Fiske Pond is a town-owned public park less than a mile from my home. It consists of a medium-sized pond with a trail all the way around, along with other trails, forests, and fields of grass. When he was doing well, we walked there and back. When his energy started to flag, a PCA drove us in my van.

Upon arrival, I’d let him off-leash, and he’d run and run and run, his ears flopping. We zoomed along the paths (the few that were minimally powerchair accessible) and down to the water. He always waded in — usually up to his armpits — for a drink. This was a source of amusement for Betsy and me because generally Gadget refused to drink water from a bottle or bowl unless he was practically in danger of heat exhaustion. In fact, he could be panting like all get-out, and I’d offer him water in the van right before we got to the pond, and he wouldn’t touch a drop. But no matter the weather or temperature or length of his coat, he always wanted to drink pond water.

Gadg pond ball retrieve

Right out here is where the water tastes best. . . .

“Mm, pond. . . .” Betsy and I would intone, mimicking Homer Simpson, when Gadget lapped up the filthy pond water. We joked that we should bottle it and sell it to city dogs, because obviously pond water — this pond water — was the best-tasting water. “L’Eau du Pond” was my favorite name for our imaginary company. However, we both conceded that the bottled water would never be as good as the real thing, because obviously it tasted best only if you were standing in it up to your armpits. Or maybe it was just easiest to drink that way, without having to lower your head.

All of the pictures in today’s post are from visits to the pond. It was gorgeous there, year-round. We called it “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (No theme park could ever hold a candle to the myriad smells, the other dogs, the swimming, the running, the number of trees to mark.) We meant it was his happy place, but really, it was Betsy’s and my happy place, too, because Gadget was so jubilant there — and he was so gorgeous when he ran — that I was filled with joy just watching him. We both went as fast as we could over the bumpy terrain, up and down the hills, pushing our limits, reveling in the freedom neither of us had access to much of the rest of our lives.

Gadget runs ahead of Sharon across a field.

Even in his last days, Gadget races ahead of me at the pond.

Gadget knew that if I put his orange vest on him, it was recreation time — either a walk or some other fun outing. If I told him to get in the van in his orange vest, he was thrilled, because that meant the pond, for sure.

Gadget butt standing on forest floor

The orange coat signals adventure!

However, he generally already knew we were headed there because he knew the word, “pond.” We had to be careful never to say it unless we were about to go, because we didn’t want to raise his hopes falsely. We had a lot of conversations like this:

Sharon: I think I’m going to take him out soon, to the you-know-where. Do you want to come?

Betsy: To the p–

Sharon: (Interrupting) Shh!

Betsy: (Looking around for Gadget) To the P-O-N-D?

Sharon: Yes!

Betsy and I got quite silly about winding him up during his last year of life. If you said, “Pond,” around him, he would race around, bouncing and whining with anticipation. Thus, we developed “The Pond Song.” I don’t remember how it started, but one day Betsy or I discovered that if one of us howled just the right note, Gadget would join in. We encouraged him to turn the whine into a howl, and soon after announcing a trip to, “The pond! The Pond! The POND!” We’d all be howling, “The Pond Song.”

Sharon and Gadg Wade

In the days before I got Lyme disease, Gadget used to help me swim. Then I was too sick, until the summer before he died, when I managed to get in the water, if only to wade and play fetch.

As cancer started to take its toll, I was consumed by nursing him, night and day. Taking him for walks, feeding him his favorite foods, giving him his medication, and making sure he was comfortable in any way I could. When nausea first struck, and he didn’t want to eat, I gave him an anti-nausea medication that brought back his appetite. Eventually, when he was eating and drinking less, I gave him subcutaneous fluids. I checked on him constantly, night and day.

He seemed to be uncomfortably hot most of the time. He took to lying on the coolest spot on the floor instead of on his dog bed. He didn’t like to cuddle for more than a couple of minutes before he’d move to a new, cool spot. He drank a great deal. More than ever, he wanted to be at the pond. He still lit up when we arrived. He ran around, sniffing and marking. But he headed into the water with a swiftness and purpose that he’d never shown before. No matter how cold it was — even on days it was well below freezing — he waded all the way in and drank. Often he would go back in repeatedly to cool off and drink more.

Gadget swims

Gadget cools off and drinks the ultra-delicious pond water.

He became slower, and his appetite was more unpredictable. He seemed very tired, and sometimes didn’t wander far in the yard before lying down. The last full meal he ate was a portion of his regular homemade food, followed by fried egg and French fries off my own plate, with us both on my bed. Eggs had become a staple — one of his favorite foods; my surefire way to get him to eat anything was to mix an egg into it. That night, he stopped licking my plate when there was still egg on it.

The next day, he didn’t want his food. I managed to tempt him with just fried eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese, which I spooned into his mouth. He was more interested in eating something if it came directly from me than if it was on a plate or in a bowl. I bought vanilla ice cream, because I’d read that sometimes it was the only thing a sick dog would eat. Sure enough, the following day, all he wanted was frozen yogurt or ice cream, and even those I had to first put a dab on his tongue before he got the taste for it.

It was clear that Gadget’s time was coming, and Betsy and I frequently discussed when I would know it was time to call the vet. I really, really didn’t want to call the vet, but I also didn’t want to keep him living past the point he was ready to die, due to my cowardice and fear.

However, Gadget kept telling me he wasn’t ready. He wanted to go for walks. Sometimes I’d let him out to pee, and he’d head down the ramp to the gate and wait. I’d just let him out and follow him. Most of his walks around my home were off-leash anyway, because there was hardly any traffic, and Gadget knew to sit at the side of the road when a car came by.

Gadget stands in forest

Gadget once sussed out a surprisingly wheelchair-accessible trail that we followed into the woods around the pond.

In those last couple of days, even if he sometimes wandered and then seemed to collapse with weakness, so that I became scared he’d not be able to stand again, he always did; and if we went for a walk, he perked right up. His step was bouncier and quicker. He became alert to the smells, sights, and sounds around him.

In fact, two days before he died, my mother came to spend the day because we thought it might be his last; that morning was the first time he had laid down outside and then had trouble regaining his footing. However, when I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk, he did. My mother, Betsy, and I put on our coats, and we put on his orange vest and headed out. We saw a neighbor and told him Gadget was dying.

“He sure doesn’t look like he’s dying to me!” he said.

“Well,” I said, trying not to cry, “he is.” What I should have said was, “That’s because he’s Gadget.”

We moved along slowly, so he wouldn’t feel rushed. We turned around after a short time because we didn’t know how much strength he had left. He wanted to keep going.

That night, around 2:00 A.M., I let him out to pee before turning in. Although he’d been wobbly and unsteady that day, he went to the gate. He wanted a walk. It was bitterly cold, and I wasn’t wearing a coat, but he wanted to go for a walk, so we went. I just followed behind him. This was different from how we had walked even a week before. Normally, I raced along as fast as my chair could go, and Gadget was free to stop and sniff or mark something, and then come roaring past me before stopping to enjoy another roadside attraction.

However, I didn’t know how far he could safely go, and I didn’t want to push him beyond his limit of enjoyment or safety. I was concerned, too, that if he collapsed, I didn’t want to leave him alone in the dark while I went home to get help. Nevertheless, I let him lead the way, and when we got to a gully at the side of the road that was often filled with water — a vernal pool in the spring, and the equivalent in fall if it had rained a lot — he waded in. We’d had a wet fall, so the water was up to his belly. He drank and drank.

I was afraid he would have trouble getting back out, so I moved toward home and called him. To my relief, he made it out of the pool and followed me home.

The next day, he didn’t want to eat. Not vanilla ice cream, not anything. He didn’t show an interest in anything, except . . . the pond.

“You wanna go to the pond?” I asked him. And he tilted his head, lifting his ears. He definitely wanted to go. We put on his orange vest, and he headed right to the van.

At the pond, he was slower than usual, but he was steady, and he definitely enjoyed himself. We knew it was most likely his last time. We had already decided that I would probably call the vet to come the next day. I was still unsure, though. I kept hoping Gadget would somehow give me a sign. I didn’t know what to look for. Seeing him enjoying himself there, but so not himself, was bittersweet. I knew bringing him had been the right thing. I knew he wasn’t yet ready to go. I just didn’t know when I would know, or how.

Again, that night, when I let Gadget out to pee before bed, he went to the gate. Betsy and I debated whether we should take him to the pond. We weren’t sure what he wanted or what he was up for. We decided that I would just let him lead me, and Betsy would follow us in the van in case we needed a ride to the pond. She needed to get dressed in warm clothes.

It was twenty degrees out, after midnight, as Gadget made his way, and I followed. When we came to the fork in the road where we normally went right, toward the pond, he took a left. Again, he headed for the vernal pool. This time, I was concerned. He had experienced several episodes of difficulty getting up that day, and I was alone with him at night, in the cold and dark. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I knew he was going to go in, and I wanted to stop him, but I didn’t. I don’t know if I told him no and  he ignored me, or if I even had a leash with me or not. I’m pretty sure I didn’t, or I would have been able to stop him.

All I remember was the layer of ice over the leaf-filled clear water of the roadside pool, and Gadget wading into it, breaking through the ice and entering the water like it was a cool embrace. I was increasingly scared that he would not be able to get out.

I was right to be scared. When I called Gadget, he couldn’t get out. He didn’t flounder or sink, but he tried to climb up the bank and then gave up. He just stood there in the water up to his chest. He was very still.

At this time last year, I was not very mobile. I had improved vastly from the previous year, when I was almost never able even to get out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. However, I was still largely unable to stand or transfer myself or do anything beyond the one walk a day we took. Even that — riding in my powerchair — was something I had to push myself very hard to do. In fact, a couple of weeks after Gadget died, I crashed very hard for several months, perhaps because I overextended so long and hard to care for Gadget.

In other words, I was not in any condition to pull a wet, 75-pound dog out of a mud-bottomed pool. But there was no way in hell I was going to leave Gadget in that freezing water. I was trying to decide what to do when my van appeared. It was Betsy. I was so relieved.

I told her that he was stuck, and we’d have to pull him out. She was not happy about this. I tried pulling him out by the collar, without success. I didn’t have enough leverage. I put one of my legs in the icy water, shoe and clothing and all, up to my thigh. Then we were both stuck. I couldn’t get him out, and I didn’t think I could get myself out, either. I called to Betsy, urgently, to come help me get Gadget out of the water. She had to step into the pool, too, with both legs, which she was extremely unhappy about, and she lifted him out. Then she helped me out.

“I think he wants to go to the pond,” I told her.

It had seemed like an outlandish scheme so late at night, with a dying dog, but nothing really felt normal — or abnormal — anymore. We stood there in the road, wet and shivering, debating whether to go to the pond or not. We decided the first thing we all needed was to get warm. Then we would decide.

I sent Betsy ahead to get Gadget home and dry him off and warm him up. She had to lift him into the van because he was too tired to jump in. I didn’t want to slow us all down by using the van’s hydraulic lift to get my powerchair in and out. I rode my chair home, feeling extremely cold as I willed my slow chair to go as fast as it could. Mostly my mind was on what we would decide — about everything — when I got back.

When I arrived, Betsy had brought towels out to the van to dry Gadget off and bundle him up. He was on his dog bed and seemed to be okay. Betsy and I were both freezing.

If we were going to the pond, I didn’t want to bring Gadget inside. I was sure that his adventure in the icy roadside gully, combined with trekking from the van to the house and back, would wear him out beyond a possibility of going to the pond. If we were going to go, we needed to go right away, so Gadget could stay put until we got there. Regardless, Betsy and I needed to dry off and get into warm clothes.

I still couldn’t tell if it was a good idea to go or not. Yet, by now I was certain this was Gadget’s last chance to go to his happiest place on earth. We decided we would go, and if he seemed interested when we got there, great. If not, at least we would have given him the option.

I didn’t want Gadget to be alone in the van, so I went in the house to towel off and put on dry clothes, while Betsy watched over Gadget. Then I went to the van — blessedly warm and dry — to stay with Gadget while Betsy went in and changed. We were both equipped with flashlights this time — and a leash.

When she came back out, it was 2:00 in the morning. I asked Gadget again if he wanted to go to the pond, and this time he clearly indicated that he did. He looked more interested and engaged at the word, “pond,” than he had all day.

So we drove to the pond, Betsy and I wondering if what we were doing made any sense at all. When we got there, Betsy unloaded my chair (the one that did work with the lift), and we opened the side door. Gadget popped up and leaped out of the van! Apparently, we had made the right decision!

The sky was clear and full of stars. The air was crisp and dry and cold.

Gadget trotted ahead of us, all dog, sniffing everything, his nose to the ground. He marked his favorite bushes and trees to mark. Yes, he was moving more slowly than he had a month before, a week before, but if he wasn’t galloping, he was definitely trotting, sometimes running. He was happy.

Betsy and I were happy and sad, cried and watched him and talked a little. We looked up at the sky.

Then I saw a shooting star. I pointed it out to Betsy. Then there was another. She saw it, too. I wished on the star that Gadget would die that night in his sleep. I don’t really believe in such things, but it was my heart’s desire. It’s just what popped into my head, without any thought. (It turned out the shooting stars were meteor showers; I hadn’t known there were to be any that night.)

Gadget was in his element, and we followed behind. Betsy and I both felt a sense of peace and rightness. We agreed that I would call the vet in the morning. It was time. A last night at the pond was the right way for Gadget’s life to end.

We did not allow him to go to the side of the pond where we usually went, where there is a steep drop-off he could have taken to get into the water. Instead, we went around to “the swimmers’ beach,” which had sand and a gradual drop-off for safer wading. We were nervous about letting him go in, but we did. Gadget walked into the water, and there Betsy saw another shooting star above him. I told her that I knew things were going to be okay. When we called him from the water, he did come back. No more beach rescues.

When we got back to the car and loaded Gadget in, he settled right down in his bed. Betsy and I had already told each other we had felt a peace descend on us when we stood at the beach and looked up at the stars. Now, Gadget seemed to be exuding an aura of peace and tranquility, too. The restlessness I had sensed in him during the past week, and increasingly in the last couple of days, was gone. For whatever reason, he seemed ready, too.

Gadget did not die in his sleep that night. I slept very little and checked on him often, but he continued, resolutely, to breathe, though somewhat labored.

In the morning, we called the vet and said that we hoped he could meet us at the pond, as that was Gadget’s favorite place, and we wanted him to die where he was happiest. We told the vet we weren’t sure if we’d get him there or not.

In the early part of the day, I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he showed interest. But when we let him out, he wandered over to the side yard, not a place he normally goes, and as usual, we followed him. The trip around the house to the other patch of lawn appeared to have been all he could manage, and he sank down in the grass. I asked Gadget if he wanted to go to the pond, and he didn’t respond. That’s when I knew, absolutely, it was time.

Betsy and I sat on the grass, patting him and talking to him, scratching his favorite spots — behind his ears, under his chin, in his armpit. His last great effort came when the vet arrived. Gadget jumped up and barked at him. If you’d only seen him in that moment, you’d never have known he was sick. That he was dying.

Then he folded back into the grass. The vet explained what he would do — use an intramuscular injection first that was a combination sedative and painkiller, which would make him lose consciousness — and then give him the lethal injection which would stop his heart. Gadget went limp in Betsy’s arms immediately after the first shot. Unlike my cat, who had lingered and was clearly not ready to go, Gadget went immediately. He was definitely ready to die. Although I wasn’t ready to lose him, he was ready to go. He was tired, and he’d had his last great adventure.

Gadget stands at water's edge in silhouette with natural blue background.

His last great adventure.

A year ago today was my service dog, Gadget’s, last day. This post is about Gadget’s last night — which was unique, serene, and adventurous, all in one — much like Gadget was, himself.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we had already known for over a month that Gadget was dying. I had never been in the position before of nursing an animal through a long terminal illness and deciding in advance to euthanize at home. Most of my animals had died naturally. In a couple of cases, they died in accidents. The only animal I’d euthanized at home had been eight years ago, when my cat, Ferdinand, had very fast-moving pancreatic cancer. I made the decision in haste and realized too late it was the wrong one. I was haunted by terrible guilt. Only recently have I started to forgive myself for how Ferdinand died.

With a similar situation looming for Gadget, I worried a great deal about how I would know it was “time,” and when I did make that fateful decision, if it would be the right decision. His illness, especially near the end, was grueling, but the idea of losing him was unfathomable. The thought of taking the life of my partner, my beloved, my best friend, an extension of my own self, was sickening. I hoped he would die on his own, quickly and peacefully. I kept the number of a vet who made house-calls handy, and then I tried not to think about it.

As soon as it became clear we would have just a few weeks together, I dedicated myself to making that time the best it could be. A big part of this was taking him to the pond. Fiske Pond is a town-owned public park less than a mile from my home. It consists of a medium-sized pond with a trail all the way around, along with other trails, forests, and fields of grass. When he was doing well, we walked there and back. When his energy started to flag, a PCA drove us in my van.

Upon arrival, I’d let him off-leash, and he’d run and run and run, his ears flopping. We zoomed along the paths (the few that were minimally powerchair accessible) and down to the water. He always waded in — usually up to his armpits — for a drink. This was a source of amusement for Betsy and me because generally Gadget refused to drink water from a bottle or bowl unless he was practically in danger of heat exhaustion. In fact, he could be panting like all get-out, and I’d offer him water in the van right before we got to the pond, and he wouldn’t touch a drop. But no matter the weather or temperature or length of his coat, he always wanted to drink pond water.

“Mm, pond. . . .” Betsy and I would intone, mimicking Homer Simpson, when Gadget lapped up the filthy pond water. We joked that we should bottle it and sell it to city dogs, because obviously pond water — this pond water — was the best-tasting water. “L’Eau du Pond” was my favorite name for our imaginary company. However, we both conceded that the bottled water would never be as good as the real thing, because obviously it tasted best only if you were standing in it up to your armpits. Or maybe it was just easiest to drink that way, without having to tilt your head.

All of the pictures in today’s post are from visits to the pond. It was gorgeous there, year-round. We called it “The Happiest Place on Earth.” (No theme park could ever hold a candle to the myriad smells, the other dogs, the swimming, the running, the number of trees to mark.) We meant it was his happy place, but really, it was Betsy’s and my happy place, too, because Gadget was so jubillant there — and he was so gorgeous when he ran — that I was filled with joy just watching him. We both went as fast as we could over the bumpy terrain, up and down the hills, pushing our limits, reveling in the freedom neither of us had access to much of the rest of our lives.

Gadget knew that if I put his orange vest on him, it was recreation time — either a walk or some other fun outing. If I told him to get in the van in his orange vest, he was thrilled, because that meant the pond, for sure. However, he generally already knew we were headed there because he knew the word, “pond.” We had to be careful never to say it unless we were about to go, because we didn’t want to raise his hopes falsely. We had a lot of conversations like this:

Sharon: I think I’m going to take him out soon, to the you-know-where.

Betsy: To the p–

Sharon: (Interrupting) Shh!

Betsy: The P-O-N-D?

Sharon: Yes.

Betsy and I got quite silly about winding him up during his last year of life. If you said, “Pond,” around him, he would race around, bouncing and whining with anticipation. Thus, we developed “The Pond Song.” I don’t remember how it started, but one day Betsy or I discovered that if one of us howled just the right note, Gadget would join in. We encouraged him to turn the whine into a howl, and soon after announcing a trip to, “The pond! The Pond! The POND!” We’d all be howling, “The Pond Song.”

As cancer started to take its toll, I was consumed by nursing him, night and day. Taking him for walks, feeding him his favorite foods, giving him his medication, and making sure he was comfortable in any way I could. When nausea first struck, and he didn’t want to eat, I gave him an anti-nausea medication that brought back his appetite. Eventually, when he was eating and drinking less, I gave him subcutaneous fluids. I checked on him constantly, night and day.

He seemed to be uncomfortably hot most of the time. He took to lying on the coolest spot on the floor instead of on his dog bed. He didn’t like to cuddle for more than a couple of minutes before he’d move to a new, cool spot. He drank a great deal. More than ever, he wanted to be at the pond. He still lit up when we arrived. He ran around, sniffing and marking. But he headed into the water with a swiftness and purpose that he’d never shown before. No matter how cold it was — even on days it was well below freezing — he waded all the way in and drank. Often he would go back in repeatedly to cool off and drink more.

He became slower, and his appetite was more unpredictable. He seemed very tired, and sometimes didn’t wander far in the yard before lying down. The last full meal he ate was a portion of his regular homemade food, followed by fried egg and french fries off my own plate, with us both on my bed. Eggs had become a staple — one of his favorite foods; my surefire way to get him to eat anything was to mix an egg into it. That night, he stopped licking my plate when there was still egg on it.

The next day, he didn’t want his food. I managed to tempt him with just fried eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese, which I spooned into his mouth. He was more interested in eating something if it came directly from me than if it was on a plate or in a bowl. I bought vanilla ice cream, because I’d read that sometimes it was the only thing a sick dog would eat. Sure enough, the following day, all he wanted was frozen yogurt or ice cream, and even those I had to first put a dab on his tongue before he got the taste for it.

It was clear that Gadget’s time was coming, and Betsy and I frequently discussed when I would know it was time to call the vet. I really, really didn’t want to call the vet, but I also couldn’t let him die before he was ready.

Gadget kept telling me he wasn’t ready by indicating he wanted to go for walks. Sometimes I’d let him out to pee, and he’d head down the ramp to the gate and wait. I’d just let him out and follow him. Most of his walks around my home were off-leash anyway, because there was hardly any traffic, and Gadget knew to sit at the side of the road when a car came by.

In those last couple of days, even if he sometimes wandered and then seemed to collapse with weakness, so that I became scared he’d not be able to stand again, he always did, and if we went for a walk, he perked right up. He became alert to the smells, sights, and sounds around him. His step was bouncier and quicker. I just followed behind him. This was different than how we had walked before. Normally, I raced along as fast as my chair could go, and Gadget was free to stop and sniff or mark something, and then come roaring past me before stopping to enjoy another roadside attraction.

However, I didn’t know how far he could safely go, and I didn’t want to push him beyond his limit of enjoyment or safety.

The turning point was when Gadget no longer wanted to eat anything — not even ice cream. He had also become unsteady on his legs and sometimes had to collapse where he was to rest before getting up again.

Well, for a dog like Gadget, if you can’t run, and you don’t want to snuggle, and especially if you don’t want ice cream, there isn’t much left. This happened Friday, November 18, 2009.

Further, Gadget was my most beloved of any animal (17 mammals, one reptile, hundreds of fish) I’ve ever had, including my previous service dog. He was my assistant, my heartdog, my partner, my beloved, my best friend, my other half.

Gadget’s Cancer Journey, in Words and Pictures

In May, 2009, my service dog, Gadget, was diagnosed with lymphoma. The next day, we started chemotherapy. We went to the vet every week for his treatments. He died six months and one week later, of mast cell cancer, on November 19, 2009.

Although I was totally wrapped up in his care, aware of the tiniest details that shifted from day to day. After he died, I was shocked by what I saw in some of the pictures in his last months. The photos so clearly recorded not just moments in our lives, but when Gadget shifted from living with cancer to dying of cancer, even though I wasn’t aware of the shift when it first occurred.

At the beginning of our cancer journey, changes in appearance were largely superficial. His left eye, whose abnormal appearance had brought us to the vet, never expecting the cause would be lymphoma, retained a subtle, but distinctive, ring around his cornea, even after it was otherwise asymptomatic. It didn’t affect his vision or cause him pain. It wasn’t something a stranger would notice, but I, who had looked into those eyes every day for eight years, always saw it.

Close-up of Gadget's face, turning to look over one shoulder

Though I love this picture of him, I can't help but notice the ring at the edge of his iris, vestige of lymphoma.

His coat, which had been a wiry, gray/silver brindle, also changed. He lost his harsh outer coat and was left with just the soft undercoat, which became a uniform charcoal.

The Laughing Bouv

Gadget laughing at life, before cancer struck, his coat in its full Bouvier glory.

However, during the first few months of our battle with “the beast,” these outward changes remained meaningless to me. Gadget went into remission right away on the Madison-Wisconsin chemotherapy protocol, and he showed every sign of being happy, feeling great, and not being aware he was sick.

He loved his new homemade cancer diet of meat, eggs, and vegetables, all drenched in salmon oil. He didn’t even mind the gazillion supplements that were mixed into his food.

More importantly, he and I spent lots of time together, just enjoying life and letting him be a dog. We went to the pond, his favorite place, every day that I could get out of bed to take him. His favorite time to be there was Friday at four o’clock, when his doggy play group met.

Gadget and Tessa take a dip

Gadget and Tessa take a break from playing to cool off and have a drink.

Gadget, Cider, Tessa, Shay leave pond

Gadget, Cider, Tessa, and Shay (Tessa's person) head home after a good romp.

He even had his first (and last) birthday party, which he truly enjoyed. He was thrilled by the great food, the guests (canine and human), the games, and all the attention.

The birthday boy awaits cake

The birthday boy awaits his cake.

Gadget streaming muzzle

Bobbing for Biscuits (homemade liver cookies!) was just one of the joys of the day.

Then, in September, he developed a little bump on his neck, below his right ear. It grew so rapidly that I saw and felt it change on a daily basis. From my recent crash course on canine cancer, I knew this was a very bad sign and suspected a mast cell tumor (MCT). Indeed, that’s what the needle aspirate proved it to be. While battling (and winning against) lymphoma, Gadget had developed a second form of cancer. I was surprisingly unfazed when we received the news. I was ready for it and was simply impatient to get to treatment and cure, for MCTs, if caught early and excised completely, are usually considered cured. We scheduled him for surgery.

The aftermath of surgery was a nightmare, unlike anything I’d ever experienced with an animal that had gone under the knife (including when my previous service dog, Jersey, had lost an eye to glaucoma). Gadget had to spend the night at the hospital — the only time we were ever separated for a night. Betsy went to visit him and said he was crying the whole time. She spent hours trying to comfort him, even sleeping in her car in the parking lot when the staff asked her to leave for a while.

The next morning, I couldn’t get there fast enough to bring him home. I sat impatiently in my powerchair outside, waiting for him to be brought out. Carol, my PCA, reported that Gadget was still crying as they unhooked him from his tubes and bandaged him for discharge. We thought Gadget was in emotional distress, that he would perk up as soon as he saw me.

When he emerged, the side of his head and neck were shaved, with a huge incision that stretched from just below his right ear to the bottom of his neck, almost a foot long. I had been prepared for that and got over the shock quickly. Moreover, I was pleased with how neat the stitching was and how well the wound appeared to be healing. The skin was already fusing. What I was not prepared for was that Gadget was still moaning in pain, even when Carol brought him outside and he saw me.

Gadget wailed and groaned, unlike anything I’d ever heard. He only stopped when the van’s engine turned over, and we backed out of the parking lot. At that point, he sighed and rested his head in my lap — as he usually did on the way home from chemo. He knew we were reunited and going home, and that seemed to calm him. I thought we’d gotten over the worst.

Gadget in van

He rode with his head on my lap, a comfort to us both.

Again, I was wrong. When we got to the road, he started moaning again and didn’t stop. He cried, continuously, throughout that day and night.

It was torturous. I barely slept. His cries grew louder and louder, until he was practically screaming.

I kept calling the hospital, pleading for help. They suggested increasing dosages of his antihistamines and pain medications, which made a minor difference for short periods. But he grew increasingly restless and agitated.

Finally, a vet tech heard him screaming in the background during a phone call.

“Is that him?” she asked, aghast.

“Yes!” I said, caught between relief that someone there finally “got it,” and frustration that it had taken so long for the staff to respond to my desperation. I had already called them, beside myself, described his wailing and pacing, several times. Had they thought I was exaggerating?

Having heard Gadget’s distress “in person,” the tech had a new sense of urgency in her voice as she put me on hold to consult with a doctor. She came back and said it was possibly the lidocaine patch he was wearing on his foot causing a bad reaction. She said that some animals didn’t tolerate the drug and became agitated and restless, in which case the wailing was not from pain, but from this bad reaction. We didn’t know if this was the culprit, but I was desperate enough to try, even if it would mean having to take him back to the hospital for intravenous pain medication instead. I cut the patch off his foot and tried to clean the area as best I could. I was in such a hurry to get the damn thing off that I had forgotten to put on gloves, which I’d been instructed was necessary to prevent me from getting dosed with the drug, myself. It was only when my fingers started tingling and I felt the beginnings of numbness and nausea that I remembered and quickly gloved up before continuing. The tech had told me it would take several hours for the drug to leave his system completely, so I might not notice a change in him for quite a while.

Within a couple of hours, Gadget was much calmer. I was limp with relief as his wails receded and he was finally able to rest. I gave him more of the other pain medications, and soon he was comfortable. He still had to wear the Elizabethan collar, but he was serene again. The results came back from the pathologist — the tumor was a grade two malignancy that had been removed with clean margins. The oncologist said we should consider him cured. At the time, hearing the word, “cure,” made it all seem worth it.

I don’t have any pictures of the little lump that required such a huge incision, of Gadget’s abject misery, of him bumping into doorways and furniture while wearing the E-collar. I was too busy taking care of him to think of documenting it. Besides, we tried to take pictures of happy times, the times we wanted to remember. The MCT was just a “bump” in the road, he was cured, and I didn’t look back.

Betsy began to take many more pictures in the couple of months that followed, pictures that reveal a Gadget who never returned completely to how he’d been before. New problems kept cropping up — all seemingly unrelated. A limp caused by arthritis in his toes. A very bad cough (which, again, his specialist did not take as seriously as I thought she should). And then, another bump. This one was on top of his head, next to his left ear.

Gadg kisses Betsy

Gadget still looks "normal" and engaged, sniffing Betsy's breath. However, he was starting to get a little "quieter" at this time, and only a few small patches of his coat shows its gray, wiry brindling; the rest is the soft, charcoal undercoat he was left with at the end.

I showed it to the vet at his next chemo appointment, and she said it was nothing to worry about, just a wart. However, the “wart” grew and changed very quickly. It became crusty, then opened and oozed. I knew — though I desperately hoped I was wrong — that it was another MCT. Sure enough, when the vet next saw it, she was not so blithe. She also was more attentive to my concerns about Gadget’s cough, which had become a severe hacking that kept us both awake the previous night.

Gadget’s doctor aspirated the lump and took chest x-rays. The x-rays showed a small something, which the oncologist had not expected, but she thought it was likely not serious. However, she was unsure, so to be on the safe side, she sent them to a radiologist for a second opinion.

When she called me with the results it was one blow after another: The lump was another MCT, and the chest x-rays showed an enlarged lymph node, and a small area of pneumonia and a consolidation in one lung.

That was the first time I broke down with the vet. Until then, I had tried to be organized, clinical, and in control. I took notes, I reported, I researched, I instituted protocols. However, when I found out about the new tumor and the abnormalities in Gadget’s lung, I couldn’t hold back the tears.

“Are we just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?” I sobbed. “Is there any point in continuing?”

The vet was extremely sympathetic. I could tell she felt terrible delivering so much bad news. She said she did think it was worth continuing to treat because overall Gadget still had a good quality of life. While it was possible that the lung abnormalities indicated a return of lymphoma or a spread of mast cell cancer, it was also possible that it was simple pneumonia and would respond to a strong antibiotic. It seemed worth it to try the antibiotic and see what happened.

The antibiotic did help — right away. The vet and I were overjoyed. Gadget’s cough went away, and for a few weeks, I thought we’d dodged a bullet. I knew he had another tumor growing on his head, but I was waiting to decide whether to put him through surgery again until his lungs were totally cleared up. I believed we were still in the fight.

At this point, I found out later, Betsy and my friends and family all realized that Gadget was dying. I didn’t. His appetite was good, he was eager for walks, he still wanted to work, he ran wild at the pond.

Yet, there was the occasional time his appetite wasn’t quite as robust as before, so I gave him his supplements in peanut butter, instead of mixing them into his food. And yes, there was the very slight limp that arose from too much running to be aware of. But he was still active, still wanted to work and play, still seemed happy. I was too deeply immersed to see the pattern. Or maybe I wasn’t ready. Probably both.

The pictures tell a different story. We have a lot of them from this period onward, taken by Betsy. She tells me I asked her to take more pictures of him. I don’t remember doing that. Subconsciously, I wanted to capture the time we had left, but I didn’t let myself think of that.

Cuddling on the couch

We're tired (but I try to hide it for the camera). Normally, Gadget would have been much more excited to be allowed on the (new) couch.

Then, at the end of October, Gadget’s cough came back, and suddenly we were finding little bumps all over him. They were tiny, and if we didn’t already knew what we knew, we probably wouldn’t have worried about them. But by now, the writing was on the wall. We mapped them to bring to his next appointment, and counted 17 in all.

The night before his appointment, he became somewhat lethargic, and his abdomen suddenly swelled. We took him to the vet the next morning, knowing something was terribly wrong. The vet took one look at him, and I could see defeat. She listed all her concerns. She wanted to do an ultrasound, and if there were internal abnormalities — if he had come out of remission — to take needle aspirates. It was not an invasive procedure — it was relatively quick and required no sedative or anesthesia. A needle aspirate was less painful than a blood draw. I readily agreed. We had been down this road at diagnosis.

The results were bad, but inconclusive. His internal organs were riddled with cancer — misshapen and discolored, with numerous tumors throughout his abdominal cavity. What we didn’t know was whether it was lymphoma or mast cell cancer. It was not a typical way for lymphoma to come back, but lymphoma could do almost anything. However, the vet said it was also not completely typical of MCT.

It made a difference to me to try to find out which cancer it was, because if this was a lymphoma relapse, we could try a chemotherapy rescue protocol. There was reason to hope he might respond well to that, as his lymphoma had responded so well to chemotherapy in the past. However, if it was MCT, there was very little to be done by this stage. The doctor sent the cells she’d aspirated to the pathologist to try to get a determination of what we were dealing with.

Again, the news was bad. The cells were large, round cells, highly dysplastic (abnormal due to advanced cancer). Because they were round cells — which both lymphoma and MCT have in common — and because they were so abnormal (without nuclei), the pathologist couldn’t be sure which cancer it was, but he was leaning toward MCT. I asked Gadget’s doctor what her opinion was, and she also said MCT, though she couldn’t be sure. I was devastated.

We decided on one last chemo attempt — a drug that could work for either MCT or lymphoma and was totally noninvasive because it was given orally, as capsules. By this time, I knew nothing would save him. I just hoped it might beat back the cancer enough to make him feel better. The vet even agreed to pill him outside in the parking lot, so he wouldn’t have to be separated from me (or me from him), and he wouldn’t get smelled up by the chemicals inside the hospital and need a bath when he got home. This was also his introduction to Pill Pockets, which he loved, and which I came to rely on for many pillings during the remainder of his life.

I switched to hospice mode — palliative care. My goal was to keep him comfortable and happy for as long as possible, at home. No more trips to the vet. He got to eat whatever he wanted. He didn’t have to take supplements or meds, unless they would make him feel better. On prednisone, the end-stage treatment for canine cancer, Gadget perked up, his appetite came roaring back, and I tried to do everything I could to bring him joy.

Since his favorite activity was going to the pond, especially to play with the other dogs, we set up a special play group for him. I thought it would probably be his last — his abdomen was grossly distended and he was wobbly and tired.When I met my friends and their dogs in the parking lot, we didn’t know what to expect, and I was teary and frightened, grateful for their love for Gadget and support of me.

Gadget surprised us. He had a terrific time. He had always had a rather obnoxious crush on a yellow Lab named Cider, which he expressed by trying to hump her. Sure enough, Gadget took off — a little slower than usual, but just as game — and mounted Cider, who easily wriggled out from under him. We all laughed. I quoted Monty Python in Gadget’s honor: “I’m not dead yet!”

One of the last play groups

Visible from this angle is Gadget's shaved, bloated abdomen, which did not keep him from playing, swimming, and trying to put the moves on his favorite blonde (on the right, waiting for her cookie).

As it turned out, Gadget enjoyed two more play groups before he died. He was slowing down, but he still liked eating and going for walks.

Close-up of Gadget's head, looking tired, on couch

Gadget near the end, obviously tired.

Eventually, his only true passion and excitement was in going to the pond. When it became too far for him to walk there, Betsy or a PCA drove us. As soon as he jumped out of the van, he’d be off, sniffing and marking, then heading down to the water — no matter how cold it was — to wade in up to his armpits and drink and drink.

Gadget runs ahead of Sharon across a field.

Even in his last days, Gadget races ahead of me at the pond.

So it was that his last great adventure, the night before he died, took place at the pond. A night that was both wild and serene, when the weight of decision was lifted, and we shared a truly special experience. But that’s a story for another post.

Looking at these photos of Gadget when his spark was beginning to fade is painful and confusing. Partly, I feel the simple and terrible sadness of seeing him when he was less than himself.

Partly, it’s the questions these pictures raise: Was I so focused on treatment and care that I lost sight of what he needed most? Was I still holding on for him near the end, or for myself? Was he happy those times he rallied and seemed to be enjoying himself, or was he just putting on a good show? It all comes down to the question, should I have released him sooner?

Yet, when I try to imagine doing any of it differently — the chemotherapy, the supplements, the alternative treatments, the weeks of hospice — I can’t see making other choices. I have absolutely no doubt that without the chemo, he’d have died within weeks of his lymphoma diagnosis, a couple of months at most. Chemo was good to him; he almost never had any nausea, lethargy, or other side effects. In fact, we often stopped at the pond on the way home after a treatment for a run and a dip. We had several months of our working partnership and loving companionship, thanks to chemo. I can’t fathom missing that whole, beautiful summer of soaking up every joyous, precious moment with him.

Obviously, if I’d known that the MCT on his neck was just a tiny manifestation of a many-headed hydra that was taking over internally, I wouldn’t have put him — or myself — through the hell of that surgery. But I couldn’t have known. And at the time, surgery seemed like such a quick, clean option — one with a much higher likelihood of success than the half-year of chemotherapy we were slogging through for an 80 percent chance for an additional six months of survival.

Even at the end, when I knew he was dying, how could I have robbed him of his play dates, of his cherished treats and meals, of his pride at opening the refrigerator or my bedroom door, of all the time he spent letting himself be loved? How could I have killed him before I absolutely knew it was his time?

I couldn’t have done it any other way.

The pictures tell a story, yes, but they do not tell the story. They can’t tell the whole story. And neither can I. Gadget was the only one who truly knew what he was experiencing, and I could only guess and interpret then, and I can only question and yearn and remember now.

I let go. I remember. I yearn.

I remember. I yearn. I let go.

I yearn. I let go. I remember, again.

I don’t regret any of my choices, but I yearn. I yearn. I yearn.

-Sharon

Please share your memories and mental snapshots of Gadget in the comments.

A Year Ago: Re-Post, in Memorium

Gadget died shortly after noon on November 19, 2009. I am working on a post about his last night, which was actually quite beautiful, strange, and special. It was sad, but not depressing. Aspects of it were actually joyous, funny, and a little bizarre! I hope to post it by the 18th.

Today’s post is a reprint of the first After Gadget post, because it captures so much of what I was going through when I was mourning him afresh.

On the anniversary of his death, Betsy and I will plant daffodils on Gadget’s grave. The bulbs were given to us by a neighbor as a bereavement gift last year.

We will also partake in other rituals, including reading the notes and cards we received last year.

To add to those words, I request that those who knew Gadget, or were touched by him in some way in his life, via internet or youtube or in real life, please post your thoughts and memories about him in the comments section here during the coming week. Or how any particular blog postings about Gadget have affected you.

This community means a lot to me. Your words would mean a lot on our day of remembrance.

Thank you so much.

Peace,

Sharon and the muse of Gadget

BEGINNING AFTER THE END

(First published December 26, 2009)

Here are some numbers:

On November 19, 2009, Gadget, my Bouvier des Flandres service dog, died of cancer. That was five weeks and three days ago. He was nine-and-a-half. We waged war against the cancer for six months. Depending on who you quote, from one-in-four to one-in-eight dogs in the US will die of cancer this year. So, we are in good (or rather, bad) company.

But this blog is not about numbers. It’s about surviving a devastating loss that most people are very sympathetic to, yet few really understand – the loss of a service dog.

It’s about a dog who liked to chase squirrels, slam doors, and let himself out when he wasn’t supposed to. He loved stinky things like cheese and liver — and long-dead carrion! — and me. We shared a fierce, deep, quiet love.

It’s about celebrating him, mourning him, finding ways to live without his love and without his practical assistance. It’s about the emotional and physical journey of grieving a star of a service dog while beginning the raising of a new pup. It’s a place for others who have, or will, experience a similar loss to find comfort and joy.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

Why start this blog now?

Why not the day after Gadget died? From a practical standpoint, that probably would have made more sense, but nothing about death is practical or neat. Until now, I’ve been too much in shock to do much of anything. I still am in shock most of the time. In fact, right now, writing this blog is the only thing that does make sense.

Why This Blog?

First of all, it’s a way for me to grieve and make sense of this loss. I’m a writer, and so far I haven’t found a way to “cope” that feels like it works. Writing about Gadget, sharing his life and story with the world, seems like the natural path. I’ll share my feelings and my memories of Gadget as a joyful, loving spirit; as a working partner; as a teammate in training and creative problem solving; as a playmate and clown; as my means of survival. In words, in photos, in video. Fortunately for you, he was beautiful.

Gadget with long hair in the winter, lying in the sun

Gadget last winter.

I also hope that for you, if you’ve gone through a similar loss, this will help you grieve, too. Grief in all its forms is welcome here: numbness, anger, denial, sadness, loss, relief, questioning, or whatever you feel.

There are very few resources that I’ve found for grieving the death of an assistance dog.

There are groups who understand the loss of a beloved pet dog. I belong to one such listserv, and it has been a lifeline. The people on it are loyal and open and funny and kind. I love them.

Still, some parts of my loss are unlike theirs. Tonight, for example, I had a lot of trouble getting out of my bedroom because I couldn’t open my door. And I couldn’t call for help because I’m often nonverbal. If Gadget was still alive, not only would he have opened the door, he would have been happy to open it. It would have been fun for him, a game. He would have wondered, “Will I get some liver for this?”

When people help me, even when they are doing it because they love me or they’re being paid to help me, or both, they are never thrilled to do it. Sometimes they are resentful, frustrated, irritated. Sometimes they’re not bothered at all, but I worry that they are, anyway.

When I cry over the loss of Gadget, it’s not just his soft fur, his wet nose, his deep brown eyes, his beating heart against mine, it’s also how much physically harder and more limited my life has become. How much more dependent and scary. His death has created so many layers of aloneness in my life. Some of these layers of aloneness are common for pet bereavement, but some are unique to assistance animal loss.

Sometimes it is even hard to get support from others who have lost service dogs. There are groups for assistance-dog partners who are grieving, but they may be small or inactive. My guess is that unless one is in the midst of grieving, it is too painful to be exposed to the topic. That emotional wound could reopen at any time, because — if we’re fortunate — we will outlive our assistance dogs, again and again. The choice to be a life-long service-dog partner is as Kafkaesque as it is fulfilling. Few who have escaped the black hole of that loss want to be reminded of staring into the abyss again.

This will be a refuge to cry, to remember, to distract yourself, to laugh, and to find little ways — or big ways — to move on. All forms of sincere emotion are welcome here. There is no wrong or right way to grieve. There is just emotion that moves through you, that rises and falls like waves, and the process of surviving loss.

The loss of an AD is not just that of the heart, but of love, companionship, independence, safety, and partnership.

The Coming Attraction

I will be getting a puppy in several weeks whom I will train to be my next service dog. The puppy is due to be born in a week, January 1, 2010.

Looking back necessitates looking forward, and vice-versa. Even as I mourn Gadget, I prepare for his successor. Training the new dog in a Gadgetless home will be part of my mourning process.

Here, you can join me on my journey as a severely and multiply disabled first-time puppy raiser!

It seems a ludicrous, risky undertaking. Even healthy people find puppies exhausting! Yet, I’d always planned for a puppy this time around, instead of adopting an adult or adolescent, as I’ve done in the past. I thought Gadget would be here to help train the pup, as his predecessor helped train him. Now it is just us humans to raise the pup, and me much more disabled than when I trained my previous SDs. Still, I am full of hope.

I am excited and nervous. I already anticipate the joy and frustration, the weariness and triumphs, and how it will take everything Gadget taught me to be very, very, very patient to get through two years of raising and training to get a working service dog again. A dog whom I am sure I will love and come to rely on, but who will never be Gadget.

There can only ever be one Gadget. He wasn’t my first service dog, but he was and for forever will be my best. (I think!)

I wish you’d gotten to know him as I did. But here at After Gadget, you will know him a little. Thank you for joining us in this journey.

Peace,

Sharon and the spirit of Gadget, forever my Muse

P.S. I welcome your thoughts and feelings on my journey or on your own journey — whether you are facing a current loss or have lived through it in the past. Leave comments below.

Gadget stands at water's edge in silhouette with natural blue background.

His last great adventure.

Eye Lock Day 10 + Vote for Gadg & Barnum! + New Service Skill?…

If you’re seeking info on the upcoming Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, please visit this earlier blog.

Today and yesterday I’ve been quite ill and migrainal almost all the time, so not much got done. However, I have managed to squeeze in some training here and there with Mr. Barnum.

Suddenly, we’re making Big Progress with eye contact, and I can now get us to 10 seconds pretty fast AND (drum roll, please) I have started to introduce our verbal cue (again). My voice hasn’t been working much the last couple days, so I’ve actually been whispering the cue, and I think that has made it less distracting for Mr. B.

We continue to work on our LLW, working walk, and stand-stay, which are the other skills we need to pass Level 2, as well as incorporating more zen, sit- and down-stays, etc. Two interesting new developments:

1. Barnum wants to train more now — more often — and seems more interested in offering behaviors and shaping. He seems to be gaining confidence and not feeling quite so much need to wait for me to tell him what to do. I’m trying to be patient and wait him out, make him think for himself. Sometimes when he seems to be cruising along and I think he really knows what we’re doing, he will suddenly go into “deflated” mode and — after offering a sit or stare — will just lie down and wait. Then I wait for something clickable. Or eventually I give him something else to do to move him around, like a hand target, and wait for an accidental behavior to click.

2. Today, pretty much by accident (looooong story), Betsy ended up taking Barnum for an extremely long run/walk (because I was too sick to walk him), and when he got home, instead of being tired, he was begging for training! Further support for my theory that maturity, hunger/growth spurts, and more exercise makes him more eager to train. I am taking advantage of that as much as possible! I hope I bounce back from this crash lately so I can give him more exercise again.

In fact, we have started working on our first real service skill! It’s an easy one, and one I feel relaxed about, so we can just have fun and go at our own pace. I’m very excited about how well it’s going! I’m actually starting to consider him a service dog in training (SDiT), as opposed to a “hopefully-maybe-potential SDiT candidate”!

Please Vote for Barnum and Gadget in the Dogster Photo Contests!

Please vote for my boys! It’s fast, easy and fun. Just click on the links/logos or the three pics below to take you to each of their pages. (Barnum has two pages because of a technical glitch, Gadget has one.)

Here is Barnum’s entry for “Smiles and Grins.”

Vote for Barnum in the World’s Coolest Dog Contest.


dog photo contest

Clicking on the pic above will also take you to Barnum’s entries for “Ball or Frisbee Player”; “Naughtiest Dog”; “Sleeper”; and “Jumper.”

VOTE for Barnum in The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show!

Here’s Barnum’s entry for “Tongue/Slobber”:

Please vote for Me at The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show

Here’s Gadget’s entry for “Working Dog.”

Please vote for Me at The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show

Clicking on Gadget’s pic above will also take you to Gadget’s pic for “Car Dog”; “Water Dog”; “Patriot”; and “Costume.”

VOTE for Gadget in The 6th Annual World’s Coolest Dog & Cat Show!

Thank you!

Sharon, Barnum (SDiT??) and the muse of Gadget

Happy Birthday, Gadget

It just wouldn’t be an After Gadget post if I didn’t start with an “On the one hand happy, on the other hand sad” sentiment, would it? Thus, in order not to disappoint. . . .

On one hand, Barnum and I having been rockin’ it. I’ve been at my pinnacle of functionality since Lyme hit in 2007, and I’ve squeezed out every bit of strength, energy, and mental focus to train and play as hard as I’m able. As a result, lots of skills are coming together. Most are Levels work — perfecting some of the skills from Level One (L1) that I was not satisfied with, as well as making great progress or even exceeding criteria for L2. But I’ve also been establishing a solid play retrieve, which I’ll want for exercising him in bad weather; continuing to hone his elimination on cue (got him to pee with one foot on a brick yesterday!); getting him more clicker savvy and “operant” (thinking for himself and offering behaviors instead of looking to me for direction) by playing the muffin tin game, the “101 things to do with a box” game, and free-shaping him to figure out on his own how to nudge doors open to get what he wants behind them.

In fact, he is now demanding to train, getting restless, bored, and adolescently tantrummy if we don’t train a few times a day. If we’re on a roll, and I keep the excitement and success level high, rotating behaviors, we can do sessions of 45 minutes or an hour, which is pretty darn good for a seven-month-old pup!

In short, we’re loving each other and thriving on our teamwork. It is truly a joy to work and play with him now, and even his forays into teenage prankishness — ruining the zipper on my extremely expensive and new organic barrier cloth, getting his sandy paws on my bed, slamming into the Plexiglas shield on our screen door so hard that he has severely cracked it (“Let me in NOW!”) — I pretty much laugh off. (The fact that he hasn’t had an accident in the house since June 20, which I blogged happened right after he passed his L1 test, has really been lovely, as well!)

I thought I was getting away with pushing myself too hard; then my body sent me a strongly worded memo. More of a “cease-and-desist order,” actually. I crashed in a serious way this past week. Gradually my voice went away, and my pain got worse, but I kept pushing until I was immobilized by pain and exhaustion, completely nonverbal, and largely unable to move my limbs. (With all the lovely nausea, brain fog, dizziness, etcetera, that goes with it.) Okay, body, got the message, thank you.

The silver lining is that I was able to not freak out (well, maybe just a smidge), and to remember that this was an opportunity for latent learning to kick in for my star pupil. And when I was able, it gave us a chance to practice training from me lying down and nonverbal, unable to get out of bed, which will likely be conditions Barnum will need to work under at times in the future.

On the other hand — you knew it was coming — Gadget has been on my mind even more than usual. In fact, I think one of the factors that has made training with Barnum so challenging and compelling is how different his process and personality are from Gadget’s. It really forces me to stay in my head and become a better trainer because I can’t rely on just doing what I did with Gadg. I have to flex my creative muscles.

But this time of year is heavy with memory for me.

Last year, Betsy and I started our vacation on the weekend of July 25 with a birthday party for Gadget. We don’t know for sure when his birthday was, but I thought it was probably in July, based on my having adopted him from rescue in July 2000, when he was just about one year old. Officially, we were celebrating his ninth birthday, but really we were celebrating him. Celebrating that we’d made it this far, that he was happy and healthy — in complete remission from the beast of lymphoma.

It was such an excellent party. I had never organized a dog birthday party before, and I was worried I would feel silly and awkward, overly sentimental. But it was wonderful. Gadget had the BEST time. I was so glad I did it.

Two of his dog friends came, and he played with them. It was a really hot day, so he was uncharacteristically playful in the kiddie pool my parents had brought just for him for the party. He kept trying to lie down in the pool to cool off. However, it was too small for him, making his butt bump against the side. So he’d just sort of hover, letting his chest get wet, but no further. Quintessentially Gadget! (After the party, seeing how much he liked the pool, we bought him a bigger one, which he almost never used — of course.)

Gadget streaming muzzle

Bobbing for Biscuits never felt so refreshing!

I broke the cancer-diet low-carbs rule and baked liver biscuits and a dog cake, and all the dogs loved them.

Gadget's birthday biscuits

The dogs were wild for these liver biscuits. Apparently, homemade really does taste better!

 

Gadgets cake

Who doesn't love peanut-butter-and-carrot cake with cottage-cheese icing?

We introduced our canine guests to some light agility . . .

Bug and Tessa learn agility

Even a low jump is high for Bug!

. . . and, of course, everyone wanted to play “bobbing for biscuits.”

Gadget, Tessa, Shay, me bobbing for biscuits

Tessa supervises, as Gadget bobs for biscuits.

The human guests were also totally into it and so kind. It was not weird at all; it was actually one of the most fun parties I’ve ever had! Our guests brought really sweet, thoughtful gifts; I had not expected people to bring gifts at all. Carol, my PCA who absolutely doted on Gadget, made him the “party hat” he’s wearing below. It looked so festive, and he didn’t even mind wearing it.

 

Birthday Boy

The party animal in full regalia.

Carol’s other gift was rather poignant: She gave him a terrific fleece vest for winter, which he never had the chance to wear. Like me, she didn’t entertain the possibility he wouldn’t be with us when the snow fell.

Everyone just loved him up. He really seemed to know it was his special day. Some of my favorite pictures of Gadget, in this post, are from that day — thanks to my Dad, who brought his camera, and my Mom, who kept saying, “Manny! Manny! Get a picture of this!”

With Gadget in complete remission, we were able to just celebrate him and feel GOOD. I thought it would keep going on like that. I tried not to think too far ahead, but I couldn’t help imagining his next party, a year later, for his tenth birthday. By October, that hope had slipped away, as mast cell cancer began taking over.

I miss him so much.

Sharon, Gadget, and cake

Such a good boy. He didn't even drool on the icing.

Still, for one glorious day in the sun, we were all happy, living in the moment, letting him eat cake.

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (birthday boy in spirit), and Barnum (puppy-in-training)

What’s Missing: A List of Ten

Suddenly, now that a date has been set and puppy products purchased, it’s real: the puppy is coming, and I’m hit hard with missing Gadget. My whole body aches with it. I fall asleep missing him and wake up missing him. My friends who have gone through this tell me it’s a normal part of the transition period, but it still hurts like hell.

Here are the top ten things I miss most about Gadget — in this moment.

1. His Breath

At night, my loneliest time, I miss the sound of his breathing, the lullaby of someone else in the room with me: the steady snore, the periodic “whuff” or snort, and most of all, the nightly, settling-in, extra-long, dog sigh. (If you’ve ever had a dog, you know the sigh I mean.)

Gaget panting

Gadget breathes

Many years ago, a friend who is a midwife and childbirth educator told me that the rate of sudden-infant death syndrome is lower among babies who sleep in the same room with their parents than among those who sleep alone. This made intuitive sense to me: a baby is still learning everything — why not how to breathe? I picture a baby’s inexperienced lungs receiving rhythmic respiratory reminders throughout the night.

These days, my insomnia is particularly bad. I have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. When I wake, I gasp, drawing a huge, shuddering breath, my muscles screaming with pain. Gadget, my partner, was an extension of my body/mind. Without him, I’ve forgotten how to breathe; I have grief-induced sleep apnea.

2. His Snout

I know it’s supposed to be called “a muzzle,” but that feels alien, distantly formal, like calling Betsy’s — my human partner’s — “face” her “visage.” I love dog snouts in general, but Gadget’s was, of course, perfect.

He loved to have it rubbed. Scratching the underside, his chin, made him purr. If I stopped, he’d shove his face into my hand for more.

Gadget snout joy

Snout bliss

Rows of little hairs grew along the top, and no matter how long the rest of his coat got, there were always new little tufts there to massage. If I got distracted, letting my fingertips wander to the bony bump on either end of his snout, just below his nostrils, trying to figure out what they were, he’d pull his head away in annoyance. I’d apologize and return to running my knuckles, up and down, up and down the bridge of his snout — from his eyes to his nose — and he’d go limp and sigh with pleasure.

3. His Nose

Of course, his nose was part of his snout, but it had a wonderfulness all its own — black and wet and spongy. I love all dog noses, but his was, of course, perfect.

Gadget Nose

The very best nose

When we did scent work, I thrilled at his nose rising in the air, nostrils quivering. I was fascinated by watching him scent out the remote control I had asked for or the Kong I’d hidden for him.

There was something marvelous in him being able to do so easily something that will forever be impossible for me. I was proud of him, which was silly, because that boils down to being proud of him for being a dog. On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly why I was right to be proud.

 

4. Talking to him

The other day, Betsy and I had a minor squabble, then she left the room. I turned to Gadget on his bed and said, “Yeah, well, that’s her issue, isn’t it?”

But Gadget had been dead for two months. There was no dog bed, no crate, no Gadget. I was talking to nobody. When this happens, I try to distract myself with something else, like writing this blog.

When I was crabby, it was good to turn to Gadget and complain. At the end of my gripe, I’d ask, “What do you think?”

If he didn’t respond, such as if he was sleep, I interpreted as agreement. If he looked over, I might elaborate until he flopped back down, or I felt better, whichever came first.

When something good or exciting happened, he was the first to know: “I got nominated for a Pushcart!” Or, “Betsy’s coming home early!”

Sometimes I just filled him in on the plans for the day: which personal care assistant (PCA) was coming when, what time I hoped to be able to take him for a walk, if there was anything special I might need from him, how I was feeling.

Now what I want to tell Gadget most is how terribly, terribly I miss him.

5. His nose, again

Each dog-nose print is unique, like a child’s hand print. A couple of weeks before Gadget died, one of my PCAs cleaned all the “dog nose” smears off the glass doors. I probably asked her to, unable to contemplate a future when I would miss those smears.

 

The glass door

Nothing to see

When the glass was really smeary, it got in the way of my seeing the flowers or birds in the back yard. Now, I’d rather not see so clearly.

6. Talking to him, again

When my psychological symptoms got bad — from parasites and bacteria damaging my central nervous system — I lost a lot of friends. As a result I learned how to isolate myself when the rages, depressions, and dark obsessions moved in, blotting out the rest of the landscape, so that I would not take my feelings out on people I cared about. I learned to keep quiet until I “normalized.”

But now I realize, I wasn’t isolated, and I did have someone to talk to: Gadget. Not only was he always with me, but I could say anything to him. He didn’t care if my feelings were “rational,” or “fair,” or “reasonable.”

If I was in a rage, I took him for a walk. Then Gadget was happy, I was happy, and whomever I was not raging at was happy.

Gadget listens to Sharon

He listened.

I actively trained him as my service dog, but when the need arose, without my realizing it, he became my therapy dog, too.

Now, when I’m alone, I really am alone, and it’s the loneliest I’ve ever been. This time, there’s nobody to blame: no microbes, no people, not even myself. There is just terrible, terrible longing.

7. His breath

People keep mentioning “puppy breath” to me. Some email excitedly, “You get to smell puppy breath!!!”

Others warn me against it. Two of my PCAs disagree.

“Skunk breath,” one says.

“It always smelled like turnips to me,” the other says.

“Raw turnips or cooked turnips?” I probe.

“Raw.”

I’d been looking forward to puppy breath. Now, not only am I unsure whether to anticipate or dread it, I also am realizing it won’t smell like Gadget’s breath.

“Dog breath” is not typically considered a compliment, but that is because most dogs don’t receive good dental care. That’s why older dogs usually have “dog breath,” because it’s actually “tooth and gum disease breath.” Since Gadget’s teeth were brushed daily, unless he’d just eaten something very pungent, his breath just smelled like breath.

Gadg & Sharon's nose and lips

We were this close

If you love and live with someone, as long as they don’t neglect oral hygiene or haven’t just eaten crushed garlic with sardines, you tend to associate their breath with the good things: kisses, laughter, snuggling. I want all those things back. And yes, I know, I’ll get them from the puppy, but I want them from Gadget.

8. Talking to him, still

A lot of people talk to their dogs without their dogs understanding the words. We expect dogs to understand our emotion and intent, but only other people to understand the words. However, for the last two years of his life, Gadget often understood me better than most people — literally.

In 2007, I developed sudden-onset intermittent vocal-cord apraxia. This means that a lot of the time I can’t speak English, though I can make involuntary noises like laughing, crying, or shouting in surprise. Sometimes I cannot say a word, sometimes my voice sounds the way it did before Lyme disease, and sometimes it is hoarse or stuttering, with varying degrees of intelligibility.

Fortunately, I knew basic American Sign Language (ASL). However, if nobody around me had known ASL, I’d have been a hammer looking for a nail. Again, I was lucky: a few friends, Deaf and hearing, signed, and so did Gadget.

Gadget could not, of course, produce sign, but what counted was that he understood my signed commands for almost all his obedience and service skills. I’d taught both oral and manual cues when we’d trained, never dreaming how necessary the signed commands would be.

Last year around Christmas, I couldn’t voice at all. Betsy went to her family’s house for the holiday, and my mother stayed with me. Mom had taken an ASL class but was unable to remember what she’d learned. On her first night, I tried in vain to sign, gesture, point, mouth, and vocalize a request for her to shut the door. (Due to pain and exhaustion, I was unable to write her a note.)

Finally, I hit upon the obvious solution. I called Gadget (by making a kissing noise), then signed, “Shut door.” He understood immediately and shut the door. Now my mom finally knew what I’d been trying to say!

“He knows more sign than I do!” My mom said. I gave Gadget a treat and a pat, and he went back to bed. For the rest of our visit, my mom and I relied heavily on Gadget to help with communication.

9 & 10. His nose and his breathing, finally

I am trying to get back to my practice of meditation. It has helped me cope with loss and isolation before.

When Gadget was sleeping, or just lying near me, I’d watch his nostrils dilate and contract. It was a form of meditation — I watched his breath instead of my own. We shared the same rhythm. It was beautiful.

When he lolled against me or put his head in my lap, I felt the light whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of warm air against my thigh, it was the most soothing caress. I didn’t care that his beard left dirt and dog food smears on my pants.

 

Gadget rests his head on my leg

Warm dog breath on my leg

In meditation practice, when you lose focus, you are told, “Come back to the breath.” In this blog, I keep circling back to the breath. I started with it, and I must end with it. When he stopped breathing, his life was over — his last expiration, my pain and inspiration for this blog.

I long for his alive, breathing nose.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget

We welcome your comments, as always.

P.S. I’m working on getting some video up as interludes that show Gadget following signed commands.

Birth, Death, and Dreams

I’m having the dreams again.

The death dreams. They started the morning Gadget died and lasted every night for a week. Then they went away for six weeks, until right before the puppies were born. This timing seems backwards — the punishing sadness of death right when I’m so elated over new life — but what I’m learning about grief is that often feelings that seem to be the opposite of what they “should” be are actually flip sides of the same coin.

As I mentioned last week, I’m planning to raise and train a successor to Gadget. I’ve had my eye on a very special litter of pups that was to be born New Year’s Day.

5 newborn pups lying in a pile

Will one of these tiny newborns become my next service dog?

But the litter arrived two days early. Maybe there’s a puppy as eager to meet me as I am to meet him? I got an email from the breeder December 30 that seven bouncing baby bouvs had arrived — five boys (picture above) and two girls. I’d been eagerly anticipating this litter since before I knew Gadget would not be here to help me raise the pup. When I heard the puppies had indeed arrived — and early! — I was goofy with excitement. I’m already stockpiling adorable supplies.

newborn puppy's head held in hand

Could this be the one?

Puppy Love, Puppy Loss

The song, “Puppy Love,” has such a happy title, but it’s actually a lament. I tasted that — lay down to sleep that night, anticipating puppy pictures, and was jerked awake three hours later to a “Gadget death dream.” The dream was about this blog.

In the dream, I was working on After Gadget, but Gadget was still alive — and dying. I’d received angry comments to a recent post. Apparently, I’d wronged someone’s aunt (it was a dream, after all). It felt vitally important that I make things right in this mythical blog. Meanwhile, Gadget was in his decline; he should have been my priority, and I felt tortured that I was neglecting him. I was struggling to simultaneously cure the blog problem and take care of Gadget’s every need.

I woke up with that awful, shaky feeling, looked for Gadget at the foot of my bed, and remembered that, of course, he wasn’t there.

Immediately after Gadget died, every night, for a week, I dreamed that Gadget was dying and needed me terribly, and also that he was dead — both felt equally true. Every morning, I jerked awake to check his breathing, his heart rate, make sure he hadn’t vomited, give him his next dose of pills. Yet, I woke up heavy with the sadness of his death — chest tight and eyes itching with tears.

Here’s where the flip sides of the coin comes in. While these two ideas seem contradictory — “Gadget’s dead,” and “I need to help Gadget now” — in fact, I think my grief-addled brain equates them. The overriding feelings in the dreams are equal parts heartache and urgency. Instead of, “He’s dead, therefore he’s beyond my help,” I land on, “He’s dead, therefore I must act now to bring him back.” The knowledge of his death actually heightens the emergency. If I can only act fast enough, do exactly the right thing, I can erase his death.

A Lifestyle of Rescue

Gadget was a rescue in the usual sense — a dog who’d been thrown away, essentially for being a dog — but I didn’t just rescue him by adopting him. I continued to rescue him from health problems from the moment he arrived with chronic diarrhea and skin problems, to stopping his heartworm medication when I realized it caused him seizures, to diagnosing his thyroid condition myself when the vets missed it. I spent eight years working to keep him healthy. Then, he got lymphoma, and I spent six months completely obsessed with beating his cancer — with saving him once and for all.

I look back at photos from our first year together.

Black and white photo, sun highlighting Sharon and Gadget's eye contact

When Gadget was not yet two . . . and I was nowhere near 40!

We both looked so much younger and healthier than in the pictures from recent photos, even when he was in remission. I wasn’t even aware that struggling against Gadget’s health problems was as much a part of my lifestyle as trying to adjust to my own illnesses. Now, not only have I lost my best friend, assistant, and around-the-clock companion, I’ve suddenly and extravagantly failed at what I’d devoted myself to for almost a decade: keeping Gadget, and our partnership, alive.

My rational mind knows I did everything I could; but what I think I know and what I actually feel have very little to do with each other. For example, I know that death is permanent. I don’t even believe in an afterlife. Yet I keep looking for Gadget. On the rare occasions I break down and sob, what I ask myself, over and over, is “Where is he?” I am literally and figuratively still looking for him, only most of the time, my (rational) mind pretends otherwise. Most of the time I don’t cry because I don’t truly believe he’s gone.

My heart — or, if you prefer, subconscious — is more honest. My dreams demand that I give Gadget what my deepest self awaits: a miracle.

See Right through Me

This makes “the blog dream” so transparent. Here, in my little internet domain, I have control. I decide the topics, the layout and photos, and choose each word. Where it mattered, I was powerless; I tried as hard as humanly possible to prevent this blog from coming into existence. I never wanted there to be an “After Gadget,” or not for a very long time. Gadget and my relationship had always been about creating safety, independence, and freedom for both of us, but in the end, I couldn’t give him the control over his destiny that he’d faithfully provided me his whole adult life.

My mind keeps falling for its own tricks, and old habits of trying to save Gadget die hard: As soon as I started blogging about the dreams, they stopped, because my conscious mind has taken over the work of my dreams. Day after day, I’ve written, revised, and edited this post. I type lying down when I’m too sick to sit up; I use the thesaurus constantly because my injured brain is too tired to find language on its own. I keep trying to get it right, pouring my energy into Gadget again. If only it can be perfect enough — then what?

The Difference

In canine cancer, there are just a few grains of fact scattered on a shore of unknowns. When Gadget was diagnosed, I had to cram years and years of research into weeks. I had to rely on unfathomable drugs, unproven supplements, controversial herbs, and vets who could never live up to my expectations of omnipotence and omniscience.

On the other hand, writing is my home. It is my center, my wheelhouse, and my sword. In fact, it’s really the only part of my life for which Gadget was not essential. (To give him his due, he provided fabulous fodder for several humor columns, but he was by no means my only subject.) Through writing, I personally convinced my federal representative to cosponsor a bill relating to Lyme disease, one of my disabilities. Through writing, I’ve escaped an inert body again and again to live a hundred characters’ lives. Through writing, I’ve earned respect and paychecks; I’ve knocked down doors not open to my corporeal body.

When I used to write, before Gadget’s cancer and my Lyme, Gadget sometimes curled up under my desk or rested his head on my knee. But we maintained separate worlds, followed our own minds.

The rest of the time, we maintained a constant connection. Even when off duty, running free at the pond, Gadget would turn and check on me. Was I still there? What did I want? Where were we going? He was always looking back at me.

Close-up of Gadget's face, looking back at the camera

The Gadget "Look"

Now that I’ve devoted this blog to him, will he appear, looking back over his shoulder, across the kitchen or the yard, along the street or between the trees?

A small part of me wishes it were so. But I know it’s no longer his job to seek me. It’s my job to eventually, somehow, stop looking for him; to show the world what he taught me; and hopefully, to find myself again.

This blog represents my baby steps. In every picture or video I sort through, in every sentence I craft, I recognize his focus and intelligence, his beauty, sense of humor, and quiet dignity. This work wrings the tears from me, because to think deeply about Gadget and what he meant is to feel deeply my love and loss for him. I can’t stay frozen in my denial when I write.

What’s been clear to me for many years is that Gadget made me a much better person than I would otherwise have been. Not just in my treatment of him or other dogs, but toward myself and other people. And although he was not necessary to my writing, I’m discovering he helped me here, too, in a sneaky way. He bred patience, thoughtfulness, and focus, all of which I need to communicate his own character. Further, to write well, it helps if you can bring integrity, courage, and kindness into your process. If this blog works at all, it is in large part because Gadget helped me internalize these traits.

Where does the puppy come in?

There’s no doubt that Gadget made me a much better dog trainer, as well as a more caring and empathetic canine caretaker and partner. I have a treasure trove of experience — what I did right and what I have vowed I will do differently next time — that will be invaluable when I raise the new puppy.

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

I invented makeshift indoor agility for cold, snowy days.

When the puppies were born, the timer on “next time” began ticking, closing in on “now.” Gadget imparted a mountain of practical knowledge, of techniques, “how-to”s, and tricks.

But he also taught me in less quantifiable ways, because he tested me. Gadget was not an easy young rescue. He required patience, creativity, ingenuity, patience, intelligence, patience, courage, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love. I know for sure I will need to call on every ounce of this learning — especially that hard-won patience! — to raise a puppy into a service dog while I am severely ill.

Birth, Death, and Dreams

Some believe that all the characters in a dream represent a part of the dreamer. That would mean that not only am I the person struggling to make this blog work  — this enterprise built on what was lost. I’m also the one who desperately needs my help, and the one who is gone forever.

The Sharon partnered with Gadget is gone forever. A piece of me died when my partner breathed his last. Indeed, Gadget’s absence sometimes feels so painful, I can barely catch my breath. I’ve learned how literally accurate the term “heartache” is. It’s not a metaphor at all.

As to the others in the dreams? The one who needs me and the one embarking on the daunting new venture? The puppy, of course, is the first, and I am the latter in relation to the puppy.

Babies are ultimately needy. I will have to help the pup with its every need in the first few months, and, to a lesser extent, for the rest of its life.

There’s also no denying this puppy is already saving me, has been saving me since before Gadget died, when I knew a puppy would arrive this winter, regardless. That knowledge gave me something to look toward when all felt lost. The puppy is my hope for joy and laughter, a sense of purpose, and my eventual re-emergence into greater independence and freedom.

In other words, the puppy is the blog. This entirely new, separate creature who will not be Gadget, but whose care, love, and training will be so heavily influenced by all Gadget taught me.

Much like with blogging, I’m following a unique path. I haven’t mastered the art of frequent, pithy, focused little posts that seems to be the quintessential blog. I’m still laboring. And as a first-time puppy raiser with so much riding on it, I’m going to efforts just to prepare for the pup’s first few days in my home that most people find unfathomable (and a little bonkers).

I’m OK with that. Some thought I was nuts to adopt Gadget. They thought him wild, uncontrollable, totally unsuited to being trained by a young disabled woman as her service dog. But I knew otherwise. I saw his potential and knew he was a dream.

He still is.

Peace,

Sharon and the Muse of Gadget

We welcome your comments.

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