Posts Tagged 'dog memorial'

Love for My Service Dogs

The Patients for a Moment (PFAM) carnival is up right now at Chronic Babe. The theme, appropriate for Valentine’s Day, is Show Me the Love.

If you follow After Gadget, you know I deeply loved my last service dog, Gadget, and all the aspects of our relationship that made him so special and important to me. However, I have never written specifically about what was unique and lovable about each of my service dogs (SDs).

It may seem stunningly obvious that most service dog partners are passionate about their SDs. For not only do they provide us with the companionship, comfort, and fun that pet dog owners experience, they also contribute to our freedom, independence, and safety. Still, not all SDs are created equal, and not all partnerships click as well as others. Every dog, like every human, is an individual.

I think most SD partners probably try to keep it to ourselves, out of a sense of guilt, loyalty, or a fear of being judged and misunderstood, but in my experience, we don’t usually love all our SDs in quite the same way; each dog has their strengths and weaknesses, in harness and out. Many might say, “I love all my dogs equally, if differently,” which I’m sure is true. It feels true for some of my dogs, but not others. Quite simply, there are some I’ve loved more (or the most).

It’s not that they haven’t each been equally deserving, but that we all have our quirks, and what makes us happiest is so subjective. There is the heart, and there is the mind, and no matter how much the mind may argue, the heart knows what it knows.

If you’ve seen my new About Sharon’s Dogs page, you know my history with each dog. That page is filled with a lot of facts about my first pet dog, my two service dogs, and my current service-dog-in-training, Barnum.

For this post, I’ve decided just to focus on Jersey and Gadget — my service dogs whom I have loved and lost.

Barnum is not yet my service dog, although I feel confident that he will be, eventually. I love him so much, I can’t imagine life without him, but I also know we have so far to go. Knowing that, having been on similar journeys in the past, I cannot predict in what ways our love will grow and transform. I only know that it will.

Barnum and I are a work in progress. The curtain has already come down on Jersey’s and Gadget’s stories, yet there’s always more to tell.

Act I: Jersey

Scene I: Arrival

Jersey was my first service dog, my first dog that I owned and trained as an adult, and my first bouvier des Flandres. As such, she will always be special.

Part of our love was forged by how hard it was for me to acquire her — how I had to convince the people involved in bouvier rescue that, despite my disabilities, I could handle the responsibility of a bouvier (or any dog). To say that she was therefore a sort of trophy does neither of us justice; it dehumanizes her, and it diminishes the very real relationship we had.

Nonetheless, the fact that we did so well together, that I did train her as a service dog, despite all the dire warnings I encountered and discouragement I received before I got her, was a vindication. Because this was my first time training a dog in a serious way, each little achievement was a joy. Therefore, a lot of my love for Jersey stemmed from my pride in both of us.

Scene II: Sit

I remember when Jersey “got” sit. We had been practicing sit, for a couple of weeks, a few training sessions a day, when one day, out of the blue, Jersey ran up to me and . . . sat! If she had been a human child, as her butt hit the floor, she would have thrown back her head and flung wide her arms, shouting, “Tada!”

I thought it was funny that she was offering the behavior before the command. This was before I started clicker training, and although I used food rewards, I was used to pairing the cue with the behavior as I taught it. I didn’t know yet that dogs learn behaviors first, and that attaching the cue comes later. I thought Jersey was a little silly for offering a sit without being prompted.

Nevertheless, I was thrilled. Fortunately, I knew enough to reward her for the sit, and to keep rewarding her for “throwing sits at me,” until I started discriminating and only rewarding those that were paired with, or preceded by, the cue for sit.

Jersey sitting outside, after finishing a walk

Jersey sits in the snow after a walk.

[Photo description: Jersey sits outside, her paws wet from a walk in the snow.]

This was the beginning of our working relationship, and the joy we both had in training — and succeeding — was a very strong bond.

Scene III: Nibbles

Bouviers are typically extremely devoted to their own and rather standoffish with strangers. However, even with their people, they are not terribly demonstrative. Typical bouviers are Velcro dogs who want to be with their person, no matter where their person is, following them around the house, just keeping an eye on them or being near them, but not needing a lot of physical affection, and even less often, soliciting it.

This description fit Jersey to a T. She was certainly friendly to everyone, dog or human, in a gentle, quiet way, but she didn’t really care about anyone but me and a few select people, such as her dog walkers. She was truly a “one-woman dog.” She followed me everywhere in our small apartment, and although she rarely sought out affection — she preferred to have her subjects come to her — when I did scratch behind her ears or under her chin, she would close her eyes and “purr.” Sort of a quiet moan of happiness.

The only time she showed outright affection was in the morning. Upon waking, I’d often find Jersey sticking her nose in my face to sniff me while I lay in bed, then “nibbling” my arm. Her other favorite nibbling location was the bathroom, when I first got up to pee in the morning.

Fortunately, I had read about nibbling on a bouvier list before Jersey did this the first time, or I might have thought she was trying to hurt me. It’s a show of affection where the dog, with their mouth almost closed, chatters their teeth against your skin, as if flea-biting.

Nibbling is quite a lovely behavior if you’ve got clothing or a blanket between the dog’s teeth and your skin. However, if she nibbled my arm in the summer, when I was in short sleeves, my skin got pinched between her front teeth, and it hurt! I tried not to exclaim with pain or surprise, because I could tell it startled her and hurt her feelings.

However, on one memorable occasion, the morning before I was to have a first date with someone I met through a personal’s ad, I was giving Jersey a hug as I sat on the toilet. Wagging her little stump of a tail, Jersey reached up and nibbled my neck — leaving a mark! I had told my date that I wasn’t seeing anyone else. What would she think if I showed up with a hickey? Somehow, saying, “It’s not what you think. My dog gave me this,” sounded worse! I wore a turtleneck.

Scene IV: The Stare

Jersey was a prototypical bouv in some ways, but in other ways, she completely defied the breed standard. For example, bouviers are supposed to be “fearless,” and were bred partly as guard dogs. Jersey didn’t have a protective bone in her body. She didn’t bark. She didn’t growl. If anything startled her — such as my falling down — her motto was, “Run away first. Investigate later.”

She was truly “the silent partner” in our relationship. That didn’t mean she didn’t know how to communicate with me.

Jersey eyes Sharon

Jersey keeps close to Sharon and keeps her eye on her

[Photo description: Jersey sits in profile, her head turned toward Sharon. Jerseys fall covers where her right eye would be.]

Jersey used “The Stare.” If she needed to go out, she stood near the door and stared at me. If it was time to eat (which was any time between when I woke up and she ate breakfast, and then again, any time after 3:00 PM or dusk, whichever came first), she sat and stared at me.

If I had friends visiting, and one of them moved between Jersey and me, Jersey got up and repositioned herself to make sure her Stare Beam was unimpeded.

Her stare was very intense and completely focused. She knew that if she just stared long enough, eventually I would feed her. Of course, I always did.

Having one eye — even when vision in that one was clouded by cataracts — did not make one bit of difference. If anything, it seemed as if Jersey’s stare was all the more concentrated, coming from that single orb.

Jersey peers over the futon

Jersey directs her stare beam at me.

[Photo description: Jersey peers over a green futon, her chin resting on it, one eye peeking out, her two black pointed ears in stark relief before the maroon wall.]

When I think back on my relationship with Jersey, my love for her is mostly that of gratitude for her forgiveness in all I didn’t know, her absolute devotion to me, and the smile that still comes to my lips when I see that one brown eye, staring at me.

Scene V: In My Dreams

After Jersey and I had been partners for a while — I don’t remember how long it took — I realized that she accompanied me not only in all my waking activities, but in my dreams, too.

When I try to explain what it’s like to be a service dog team, this is sometimes how I explain it. That the dog is truly an extension of me. This goes so deep that my subconscious knows it, too.

This is a kind of love that’s hard to convey, that of being two parts of one whole, physically and mentally.

Act II: Gadget

Scene I: Love at First Sight

I recently wrote at About Sharon’s Dogs how I fell in love with Gadget pretty much instantly.

Black and white of Sharon and Gadget looking into each other's eyes

Love at first sight.

[Photo description: Black and white photograph of Sharon and Gadget, ten years ago. Sharon sits on a wooden bench of a back patio, smiling down at Gadget, who stands looking up into her face. The sun highlights Sharon’s long, dark hair and Gadget’s curly, gray brindle coat. There are trees and shrubs in the background, beyond the wood railings.]

While Jersey was beautiful — she had, after all, been a show dog — Gadget was just too cute.

Despite the uneven color of his coat, due to digestive and allergy issues that had caused rusty-brown patches where he’d been licking and biting himself most of his life, and his chopped-off beard (which had been a straggly mess, apparently), Gadget was absolutely adorable.

He had that bright, inquisitive spark that animated every aspect of his facial expression: his brown eyes, his twitching nose, his ever-adjusting eyebrows, his long, expressive ears. His ears were soft and silky, and when he ran — which he did at any and every opportunity — they flew up and down, making him seem just that much more alive.

Black and white photo of a young Gadget, staring into the distance

A young Gadget stares into the distance from my porch.

[Photo description: Black and white photo of Gadget from the neck up. His ears perked, he looks alertly into the distance, birch trees blurred in the background.]

Jersey’s ears had been cropped, which always seemed cruel to me, not only for the pain she endured as a puppy for this pointless fashion statement, but also because every summer, the deer flies headed right into her exposed inner ears. Mostly, though, I just loved the feel of Gadget’s ears, how much he could communicate with them, and how much he enjoyed having them rubbed.

Gadget was very photogenic, and it was my good fortune that soon after I adopted him, I dated a photographer. I sent some photos of Gadget to a friend who lived across the country.

My friend’s emailed comment, upon receiving the pictures? “How can you get anything done with that face around the house?” (She’s so much more tactful than I am. When she emailed me a photo of her newborn baby boy, I said, “He looks like a baby!”)

Scene II: Energy

Yes, he was very cute. But even more than his appearance, it was Gadget’s energy that thrilled me.

For one thing, he had so much of it! One of the traits that made Jersey “easy” in so many ways was how gentle and laid-back she was. Gadget, super enthusiastic and uncontrolled, was therefore much more difficult — and much more fun!

Gadget jumping over a pole across two kitchen chairs

All four off the floor! Indoor agility, anyone?

[Photo description: Gadget in mid-air jumping over a thin, yellow plastic stick about three feet above the ground, held up by a kitchen chair and a step-ladder. In the background are a kitchen counter and a refrigerator.]

I’d say I’m falling into sexist stereotyping in feeling that Jersey’s sweetness and manners were not as captivating as Gadget’s bad-boy charm, except that my first dog, Lady — as her total misnomer of a name makes clear — was female and also full of smarts and energy (and an aggressive attitude toward other dogs).

Gadget’s characteristics were due to his personality, not his body parts. Everything he did, he did with gusto: Training, thinking, eating, running. He was so hungry for life.

He wore me out, but I often laughed through my tears. I took him for walks that exhausted me, but they weren’t nearly enough for him. We went to my mailbox, three-quarters of a mile away, with me going at my scooter’s top speed (about seven or eight miles an hour) the whole time. Gadget ran back and forth all the way, so he really got more like three miles in than one-and-a-half. Yet, when we got home, and I was ready to hit the sofa and collapse, Gadget ran laps around the outside of the house!

Scene III: His Mind

Gadget was fleet of foot, yes, and he showed such joy in running I liked to say he must have been a greyhound or a thoroughbred horse in a former life.

Gadget runs with grocery bag from van/end of ramp

One of Gadgets favorite skills, carrying groceries to the house

[Photo description: Gadget runs down a black metal wheelchair ramp, his ears flying, with a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth. Sharon is behind him, at the end of the ramp, with her big green cargo van behind her. It’s a bright, summer day, with lots of sun and a green lawn on either side of the ramp.]

His mind was just as quick. Training with him was thrilling. He took to it so easily, and our communication was so effortless, that it is only now — when I have worked my butt off for a year to completely relearn how to clicker train — that I realize how intuitive and brilliant Gadget really was.

There are two myths about service dogs that cause a lot of anxiety, misunderstanding, and broken hearts: 1. That any dog can be a service dog, and 2. That only one-in-a-million can be a service dog. I’ll leave discussion of these myths for a future post, but I can understand why a dog like Gadget could make people believe that any dog can be a service dog.

Clicker training is a step-by-step process. To have a fruitful session, I, as the trainer, have to know ahead of time what my goals are for the session — what criteria I am looking for and reinforcing, and if those criterion are met, what the next step — the next set of criteria — will be.

Gadget on ramp with bag in his mouth, lowering it onto ramp

Gadget prepares to drop the bag in the right spot.

[Photo description: Gadget holds a white cloth grocery bag in his mouth, which he is lowering, ready to drop it on the ramp on which he stands. The presence of the railings on the ramp show he is near the house now. Sharon is on the ramp about four yards back.]

Training Jersey had accustomed me to following this slow, orderly process. Gadget, however, quickly taught me that it wasn’t enough to know what my criteria were for the first step or two of the behavior before a session. I had better know how the entire skill would be built, from steps A through Z, because frequently, after one or two reinforcements for the first step, he would move right to the next step, and then often skip several steps altogether, seeming to intuit, on his own, what the entire purpose of the session was.

I frequently started sessions with the idea that I was introducing the foundation behaviors for what would eventually be a highly desirable service task, and within a few minutes, he would already be performing the finished skill, with nothing left to do but put a name on it (so I could cue the skill in future), and generalize it to other locations or objects.

Because we were training service skills, these sessions were immensely gratifying in several ways. One was that I knew he would be making my life easier with these tasks very soon; this offered tremendous relief and hope. Another was that it made us both feel so good about ourselves and each other; I thought I was a great trainer and he was a great learner, and he loved to problem-solve and earn treats and have my undivided attention.

It also forged a connection that would be critical to us for the rest of his life: communication.

Scene IV: Communication

The adage about communication is that it’s a two-way street, but this metaphor is too simple for the kind of communication that took place between Gadget and I. A lot of people think that communication between dog and handler is about commands, but that’s such a small part of it. And when the handler is also the trainer, the communication goes even deeper.

It started with training and living together, with all that we learned about each other and how to ask and answer each other:

  • “What next?”
  • “Is this what you wanted?”
  • “I’m waiting for you to do this thing before I do that thing.”

Then, in our working partnership, communication involved all of the above, plus how to move together in a huge variety of spaces (familiar and new) and with a great variety of assistive equipment. Not least of this was how much my functioning in a range of areas (voices, legs, arms, stability, coordination) changed drastically, and fluctuated even within new “levels.”

We were so able to predict each other’s intent that I really took it for granted. I remember, after Gadget died, emailing with someone whose heart dog had also died of cancer. They were not a service dog team, but they were a working dog team — her corgi herded sheep. She was the first to point out to me how obvious it was from the videos of Gadget and me working together that we had had a long, deeply connected partnership: how we moved together, how we communicated, “the dance.”

Gadget Watches Sharon Read Poetry to Elementary School Kids

Gadget even paid attention to me when surrounded by a group of rowdy small children. (He seems to be paying closer attention to my poetry than they were...).

[Photo description: Sharon in an elementary school library, a folder of papers in her hand, wearing an oxygen cannula, leaning forward with her mouth open, as if reading or talking. Gadget lies on the ground next to her in a green pack, looking up at her. In the foreground are several first-graders, looking in many different directions, some of them obviously moving around.]

Scene V: Part of My Body, Part of My Dreams

The caretaking Gadget did for me when I got Lyme disease rose to a new level. When Gadget got sick, our bond became that much stronger. The caretaking I did for him when he got lymphoma rose to a new level, too.

We spent every waking moment together, and a lot of the non-waking ones, too. After he died, I continued to dream about him.

We fell asleep together

We fell asleep together.

[Photo description: Sharon lies sprawled, asleep on her bed, turquoise T-shirt and pink pajama pants. Her head lolls to the side off her pillow. Between her legs, with his head resting on her abdomen, lies Gadget, also asleep. One foreleg stretches across Sharon’s knee, the other is bent against her thigh. They lie on a bright red comforter, with a large beige cushion propping Sharon’s upper body against the wall. An overbed table on the left side of the frame shows paper, pens, water bottles, and a jumble of other indistinct items, making it clear Sharon spends her days and nights in that spot. Sharon and Gadget both look completely relaxed and unaware that they are having their picture taken.]

I still can’t believe he’s gone.

Just like Jersey, when Gadget and I were working together full-time as a service dog team, he entered my dreams. Wherever I was, and whatever I was doing, in my dreams, Gadget was there, too. There was never an “I,” there was only a “we.”

After he died, I talked about feeling like I’d suffered an amputation, and having a sort of psychic phantom-limb pain. It’s not as metaphorical as it sounds. Just as one might reach out a hand to open a door and realize the hand is no longer there, I often turned to Gadget to open the door, to carry a message, to pick up something I dropped, and then realized he wasn’t there. The action was as instinctive as lifting my own hand would have been. It was a shock, over and over, that simple things were now so much more complicated.

At a pet loss bereavement chat online, a met a woman who lost her pet dog to cancer around the same time as I lost Gadget. She knew she would never get another dog. She told me her father, a widower, understood. It was how he felt about her mother. She’d been his one true love, and he didn’t feel the need to ever have another. That’s how she felt about her dog who had died.

I knew I would get another dog. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone having a service dog and then choosing not to have another, although I suppose it must happen. Still, that’s why we use the term “successor,” and not replacement.

Barnum will be Gadget’s successor, but no matter how great our love or our teamwork, no dog will ever be Gadget’s successor.

My love for him always feels too big to fit into this little blog space, no matter how many posts I write.

-Sharon, the muse of Gadget, the spirit of Jersey, and my current clown and acrobat, Barnum, service-dog-in-training

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.

Without Gadget, Who Am I? A SD-less Service Dog Partner’s Identity

Every month, there is a disability blog carnival. Every month I start a blog for it and don’t finish it by deadline. This month’s carnival topic, “Identity,” is particularly close to my heart, so I’m forcing myself to squeeze out this post on time.

My identity, for years, has been inextricably bound to being a service dog partner. In fact, my avatar is ServiceDogPartner for most sites that require them.

How does this identity play out in everyday life?

A telling, one-word answer is “We.” Any activity, especially if it involved leaving home, required, or was enriched by, the participation of my service dog; therefore, we were a we/us, not an I/me:

  • “We’re going to the doctor tomorrow.”
  • “We went for a walk.”
  • “We picked apples in the back yard.”
  • “The manager gave us a hard time about entering the shop.”

In fact, the first big “Aha moment” I had about what a difference a service dog could make in my life was when Jersey, my first SD, and I went to the grocery store without human help, for the first time in years.

Jersey in profile

Of course, I had trained Jersey, devoting all my energy to the endeavor for many months, in the hope that she would make me more independent, less restricted, but I don’t think I actually believed my own pep talks to myself until that day at the grocery store. What a revelation.

Jersey went everywhere with me. She reduced my isolation. She helped me participate in activities around my home that I otherwise couldn’t have done. For example, I was able to garden because she carted the tools and plants out to the yard and offered bracing and walking assistance when I became too exhausted. At the store, she carried my money, pills, water, and grocery list in her pack, as well as small groceries. When we got home from the store, she carried the bags from the van to the house, and from the door to the fridge. In little ways, every day, she helped me save energy that I could use on writing or talking to friends or just resting.

That was at a time when I was less disabled than I am now, and with a service dog who knew half the skills Gadget did. Jersey changed my life, but Gadget revolutionized it.

Sharon, Jersey, and Gadget

How can I even put into words what Gadget meant to me, how inextricably he was entwined in my life, how he was a part of my body, mind, and soul? It’s a struggle I have every day now, as the anniversary of his death descends on me, and my grief at his loss feels overwhelming. I grope for language that can convey who he was/we were. My unexpressed grief is like a magnet attracting hard, metallic shards of sorrow, anger, confusion, and fear; it grows larger and heavier, digging into my heart and weakening me.

Where do I begin?

This is the crux of the issue in so many ways: Where did I begin and Gadget leave off, or Gadget begin and I end? How do I continue without him, without this part of myself? Without him, who am I?

Maybe accepting my inadequacy to truly convey what Gadget was for me is the essential first step in beginning to define it, or at least hint at it:

  • Gadget was always with me, even in my dreams. This was true with Jersey, too, after we’d become a working team. Just as, after I became disabled, in my dreams I also had MCS and CFIDS, there came a point where Jersey was by my side in my dreams. When Jersey retired and Gadget took over, he entered my dream world even more quickly than Jersey had. Even in my subconscious, he was an extension of me. As I’ve written in previous posts, after he died, he haunted my sleep.
  • Gadget was my hands. He turned lights on and off. He opened and shut doors. He picked up things I dropped.

This video shows some of the skills above and belowRead the video transcript here.

  • Gadget was my legs. He brought me water. He brought me the phone. He helped me transfer.
  • Gadget was my voice. He carried messages to Betsy from me. He understood and followed signed requests. He let my PCAs know I was awake and needed their assistance.
  • Gadget was my memory. He alerted me (sometimes woke me) if the oven timer was going off or if someone was at the door and I’d otherwise sleep through the appointment.
  • Gadget was my safety. He knew how to run to my landlord’s house with a message if I was stranded. He helped keep me warm when I was without heat during the week-long ice storm power outage. He stood by me, barking and growling, if a strange person entered my home unannounced.
  • Gadget was my strength. He helped me stand up and walk when I was too weak or dizzy. He helped pull my manual wheelchair if I couldn’t use my powerchair. He carried or carted things that were too heavy for me.

That tells you what he was to me, but not who he was.

  • He reveled in his strength and speed. He liked to slam the doors shut. He loved to run, to wade in the water, to go on long walks off-leash, always checking in to make sure I was following, or doubling back to me before sprinting off again.
  • He kept me company. He was warm and soft and loving. He would plant the top of his head against my chest so I could scratch behind his ears. He put his head on my leg in the car.
  • He was calm, grounded, wise, and still. He let things roll off his back. He was patient and relaxed. Not much got to him. He was a dude.
  • He loved to train and to learn. He loved an intellectual challenge. He liked to figure things out. He made mental leaps that left me breathless and my lesson plans obsolete in moments.
  • He was trusting and knew how to relax. When invited onto the bed, he’d drape himself over me, or push me out of the way with extended legs. He let himself be poked, prodded, manipulated, squeezed by me, my PCAs, and countless veterinarians.

We fell asleep together After our nightly tick-check, we were both so relaxed we fell asleep just like this.

  • He was funny and sassy. He was his own dog. He wasn’t above sneaking around to get his way. He’d let himself outside when he wasn’t supposed to, or leave my room to visit with his favorite of my PCAs when he was supposed to be in my room with the door shut. This is what happens if you give a smart dog the tools to obtain his own freedom and independence.
  • He was my best friend and my comfort. I loved the way he felt, the way he smelled. My hands knew every inch of him, every bump on his skin. My eyes knew every spot or stripe of his coat.
  • He was my traveling companion. He was home.

I needed these parts of him just as much as the others, because his separateness, his unique personality and doghood, was part of our relationship and thus our partnership.

After Gadget died, I’d turn to look for him to help me in the ways I’d been accustomed — to open doors, to carry messages to Betsy, to bring me the phone. I felt as if a piece of my body had been severed, as if I was reaching out my hand to open the door and discovering I had no arm. I felt such deep pain, loss, and confusion when I realized again and again that he was not there that it felt like emotional phantom limb pain: the parts of my body and mind that lived in Gadget had died, and now I was no longer whole, but the pain of what had been there lived on.

Now, without a service dog — a non-partner — who am I? Where have those pieces of myself, and the pain of the shadow parts, gone?

In some ways, the pain has dulled. I don’t feel there has been much actual healing, more of a sense of physical and emotional numbness, the exposed nerves on ice. I have mostly adapted to not having the assistance I did before, mostly forgotten what it was like for life to be easier. I think this is a typical part of living with disability — we become habituated to our limitations and therefore don’t realize just how much pain, exhaustion, isolation, or limitation we are dealing with, until something (a medication, a piece of medical equipment, a personal assistant) eases the difficulty. Then we think, “My god, why didn’t I get this help years ago?”

Having Barnum in my life muddies the picture. He is my dog. He provides companionship. But he is not (yet?) a service dog.

He takes away energy, uses my strength, taxes my limbs. I am giving, giving, giving and getting nothing back, physically. Emotionally, it’s a cocktail: I am exhausted, frustrated, and mentally and emotionally overworked most of the time, yet he also makes me laugh, makes me feel loved, provides companionship, gives my life goals and direction.

Nonetheless, training a successor without a current SD in place keeps me in limbo. He is not yet a service dog. He cannot even be called a service-dog-in-training, because he does not yet have the obedience or public access skills or the beginnings of the service skills necessary to earn that title. Still, almost all my time and energy feed the hope and belief that some day he will be my service dog.

I hate existing in states of betweenness, living on hope or the promise of future gains. It was one of the promises I made to myself when I first became disabled by chronic illness: I would not devote my life to cure, not spend all my mental, physical, emotional, or financial resources on experimental treatments that might someday have the potential to reduce my illness somewhat — or not. I do get treatment. I do seek improved health and function. But, for fifteen years, I have refused to sacrifice my life now — which is real and true — for an ephemeral maybe of the future. I’ve seen too many people put their lives on hold until they get better, only to come to the crushing realization five, ten, fifteen years down the line that they are still sick or disabled, no better off for their grasping after a cure, just older, and without the skills or assistance they could have used their energy on to have a richer life with disability.

Yet, here I am, doing much the same. In my heart, I am and always will be a service dog partner. Even though I have no canine assistant now, my life revolves around cultivating one, even knowing that there is always the chance we might fail. Barnum could develop a physical injury or illness or a temperament issue, or suffer a training catastrophe, that would render him unfit to work as a service dog. We could become a great SD team and then have him get sick, traumatized, or die before his time. Even if he does turn into an excellent SD, living out a long, healthy, happy working life, the fact remains that I am sacrificing a great deal now, every day, for that future.

I have arrived at the answer to my question: Who am I without a service dog?

I am a person who is willing to lay almost everything on the line, including one of my fundamental beliefs about the best way for me to live with disability, in order to become an active service dog partner again.

When Life Gives You . . . Melon Heads?

I know I’m not supposed to think this, let alone write it on a public blog, but, as Michael Kors likes to say, “Let’s be honest.” Barnum is not as smart as Gadget.

(Don’t hang me out to dry! Read to the end, please!)

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe when Barnum gets older, he’ll surprise me. Maybe it’s because of all the training mistakes I’ve made. Regardless, Gadget was 12 months’ old when I adopted him, and Barnum is now eight months, and the distinctions become more and more stark with each passing week. These two dogs really couldn’t be more different.

There are many kinds of intelligence, so I’ll get specific.  I’m talking about doggy “school smarts”: trying to figure out what the trainer/handler wants from you, having the confidence to try out behaviors (and make mistakes), a gusto for training (assisted by a gusto for food), and a general ability to problem solve in everyday life. In all but the first category, Gadget leaves Barnum in the dust. (Barnum, however, is so anxious to give me what I’m looking for in training situations that he actually can easily become anxious and frustrated; he wants desperately to succeed, and is vociferous if he feels confused. He also is incredibly sensitive to unintentional cues, which means he’s super tuned in to me and body language. This makes some aspects of training much easier, and a lot of it much harder. All of which is making me into a better trainer — goddamnit!)

Barnum doesn’t intuitively grasp how to do what I used to think were basic doggy skills — until my first Bouvier des Flandres, Jersey, showed an astonishing lack of them. I attributed that to her not having had a very enriching first half of her life, but now I wonder if it had more to do with nature than nurture. For example, I’ve had to teach Barnum how to nudge open a door with his nose if he wants to get to the other side and how to use his paws to get at a treat inside his crate or behind an easily movable object. He hasn’t yet figured out that just by his sheer mass, he can move the (very lightweight, and thanks to his frequent full-body blows, very flimsy) screen door as he brushes against it. Instead, he waits for me to hold it open for him. If it’s partially closed, or swinging shut, he’s afraid of it hitting him. On the other paw, now that he’s learned he can nudge open other doors that are partially closed, he tries to open totally shut, latched doors (by pawing at them). And he doesn’t give up when the door doesn’t budge. Let’s be honest: he hasn’t yet connected all the dots.

Contrast this with Gadget, who, on our “gotcha day” drive home, pulled my sleeping bag out of the cardboard box in the back of my van, pawed and nosed it into the perfect nest, then curled up in it for a nap. That one act (rather, that series of complex behaviors to reach a goal he’d conceptualized from the outset), convinced me that Gadget was gifted, a natural-born problem-solver. (It’s also another example discrediting the assertion that dogs don’t think abstractly.)

I expected Barnum to become that kind of thinker. I figured if I started off with a promising puppy and did lots of clicker training from the beginning, lots of mental enrichment, I’d have a prodigy — an even more inventive dog than Gadget. But, as so many other parents have learned, babies — regardless of species — come with their own personalities.

Gadget learned cues and behaviors four or five times faster than Barnum does. In one of our first training sessions, he learned how to shut a door — in three-minutes. I had to stop teaching Barnum to shut a door because the sound and movement of the door closing frightened him (even though in general he is actually much less fearful than Gadget was). I train from one to four hours per day with Barnum, in several sessions, with breaks. We probably average about two hours a day total. I’m putting in far more work and getting much slower results than I expected, and certainly less than I got with Gadget. On the other paw, I’m also trying to build a much stronger foundation and not cut corners, like I did too often with Gadget. I’m holding on to hope that all this training now will pay off in more solid, reliable, and eager work in the future. (Please, please, please, Training Levels, let me live up to my expectations!)

Maybe it’s not so much a matter of intelligence. Maybe it’s youth and other interests. Specifically, Barnum has the distraction threshold of a paper bag because everything (except me and food) is so unbelievably compelling. He is so distractible that I can’t get him to move out of my way on the ramp once he’s crossed the threshold of the door, because he is arrested by looking at the gravel — every single time. We go out the door multiple times a day, every day, but the gravel never loses its fascinating appeal.

Gadget had his passions, and beyond them, he didn’t bother himself. Gadget loved to run and run and run, to train and learn, to eat, to chase (squirrels, cats, big game like bears and deer, and at the end of his life, pick-up trucks), to play with other dogs (if it involved running and chasing) and that was mostly it. The fact that one of his biggest passions was training (in part because he was so food driven) tends to overshadow the others. He loved me and the few other people in his family pack, in that quiet, aloof, dignified way Bouviers have, and he was protective of our home. He had no use for other people, which is also very Bouvy. He didn’t have much interest in play. He’d retrieve a ball a few times to humor me, and in return, I’d dole out some treats. (Yes, I was bribing him to play with me. It was totally not clicker training. I had to show the treats before he’d go for the ball.) He made it clear that he’d much rather be problem-solving — how to open a different kind of door or retrieve a new object or sniff out a stuffed Kong I’d hidden in a diabolically difficult place. He loved shaping, the ultimate form of puzzle-solving for a dog communicating with their handler via clicker. He loved to think, and he loved to earn his food.

And now here’s Barnum: The only dog I’ve ever had who leaves food in his dish. He doesn’t like peanut butter. (What dog doesn’t like peanut butter??) He’s not so into Kongs unless they’re packed solid with raw meat or cottage cheese, and even then, he often leaves them after a few licks. His attitude toward food can be summed up in one word: “Meh.” Of course, a dog’s gotta eat, and yes, if he’s starving or there’s nothing to distract him (and I mean nothing — no sounds, movements, smells at all), then it’s worth working for food.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic of clicker training, he is much more interested in treats than he used to be. The power of earning the food, of training me to feed him, lends a higher value to all earned food. But he still only works for good treats. He spits out kibble if he knows I have something better. He even lets his favorite food (cheese) fall out of his mouth if his focus is elsewhere. I could hold a steak in front of him, and he’d duck around it to continue stalking a grasshopper (which, if he caught it, he would eat). I’m absolutely not exaggerating. He really would ignore the steak. He also often prefers to eat sticks and rocks to meat or other delectables.

More differences: He’s the first dog I’ve had who is happy to entertain himself, who actually likes being in the yard finding his own amusements, and doesn’t need to follow me around wherever I go (though he does keep an eye on me). It goes without saying that he loves to dig, and to destroy plants and shrubs by digging them up. So now we have a massive, ugly fence around our garden. Digging is new to me, too.

We named Barnum after the circus because he early showed his acrobatic tendencies. (I still need to post the story of how he got his name. Sorry, readers!) But it’s become more apt due to his clownishness, as well. For instance, he is entranced by watching his reflection in the glass doors. He doesn’t just stand there looking. He jumps up and down on his hind legs, catching serious air, watching himself bounce. He barks at himself. He gets a ball and holds it in his mouth as he jumps up and down. He runs back and forth between the doors, watching himself speed by. Barnum knows he is looking at himself, not at another dog. For one thing, he often watches me or makes eye contact with me in the reflection, using it as a mirror.

“What’s up Mom? Watch me!” (Grabs ball, bounces up and down, drops ball, barks, grabs ball and runs, skids, returns to original glass door, bounces more — all the while making eye contact with me through the glass.)

Here’s a short video of Barnum jumping and barking in front of the doors. Please note that usually he does less barking and much more — and higher! — bouncing. But it was late, and he was tired. I’d also recently started teaching him to bark on cue, so he was feeling quite barky. (We hadn’t established the cue yet, just the behavior.) I didn’t caption the video, because there’s no talking. Read the text description here. Access note: I sometimes tilted the camera sideways, so part of the video’s sideways, which might be symptom-inducing for some. (This includes me. I’ll know not to do that in the future.)

In fact, the first time I put a pack on Barnum to get him used to gear, he showed a Tim Gunn-esque sensibility. Once he felt comfortable in the pack (mostly, he still hates gear), he trotted over to the glass and checked himself out! He actually turned his head this way and that to get more angles. “Oh yeah, I’m a dude.”

Unless it’s hot (another difference — Barnum detests the heat, loves the snow and cold), he wants to be playing all the time. His signature move is to roll onto his back, all feet in the air, and swing his head to look at the nearest person, practically shouting, “Rub my belly! Lavish me with affection!”

Barnum Rolling in the Grass (7 months)

Barnum, at seven months, very much the playful puppy.

He even sleeps in “dead bug position” — a very relaxed, happy guy.

In fact, I think he’s actually a more well-rounded dog than Gadget was. He knows more different styles of play than Gadget did and plays better with a wider range of dogs. He has broader interests: he doesn’t limit himself to only squirrels or prey that’s turkey size or bigger, like Gadget did. Barnum will stalk and chase anything that moves, literally: bugs, song birds, laser dots, balls, toys, leaves blowing in the wind. (Oh, how he loves the wind.)

Jersey hated the van, and Gadget barely tolerated it. Barnum loves to go for rides, sniffing the air out the window and looking over the dashboard to take in the world going by. When we arrive anywhere, he is excited! Who knows what smells and sights and sounds await? Thrilling! Gadget and Jersey had to counterconditioned to numerous phobias. I’ve yet to expose Barnum to a strange noise he’s afraid of; chainsaws, airplanes, amplified live music are all just fine. The usual bugaboos for many dogs — skateboards, bicycles, grocery carts — don’t freak him out, either.

The biggest difference is that Gadget was cerebral, while Barnum is a love. A sweet, gooey, tender boy.

The telltale (pun!) sign is — no surprise — Barnum’s tail. Unless he’s concentrating hard on something (such as a moth), that tail can start wagging at any moment. I’ve never seen a Bouvier tail that wagged so much, even in videos of Bouvs excitedly working Schutzhund or herding. It wags fast. If I praise him, he curls his body with pleasure, dropping his ears and head, and wagging very fast. He will come over to me, and his little stubby tail is wagging so hard that his whole rear half is swaying to keep up. He’ll throw his head against me and press into me, and while I pet him, he wags ferociously. He shows such pure joy at receiving any kindness — praise, petting, chattering. Sometimes, he prefers praise to food, which is hard for training, but very endearing.

He is a believer in kisses. Lots and lots of kisses. On my lips, on my ears, on my nose. Anyone who gets on the floor in this house is in danger of getting French kissed or their ears cleaned or both.

Barnum at 5 months kissing Sharon on bed

He doesn’t reserve his love for family, either. It’s true that as he ages, he is getting more of the Bouvier aloofness with non-family, but he still rushes to greet anyone he sees (just lately, with a nose in their crotch) — whether they want to have anything to do with him or not. When big, strange men come into our house, he doesn’t even bark! He waggles over for some petting.

In other words, when he’s not aggravating the crap out of me by chewing everything he can find or staring at (seemingly) nothing when I want his attention, he’s enormous fun. In general what he lacks in focus, he makes up for in enthusiasm. However, when he’s playing, he is all focus and all enthusiasm. He thinks tug is the most marvelous game in the world, and fetch and balls and stuffed squeaky toys are great, too. Oh my goodness, yes — especially plush squeaky toys. He loves to tear them to pieces to extract and chew on the squeaker. While Jersey’s and Gadget’s toys lasted their whole lives, Barnum has already destroyed almost all of their toys as well as his own. I recently bought a bunch of stuffed animals at a garage sale for 25 cents each, just so I could let him dismember something for cheap.

Most of all, he’s a wonderful playmate, which I desperately need. I have few human friends these days. Indeed, because he requires a lot of heavy-duty play, Barnum is my best form of physical and occupational therapy: throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging, throwing and tugging. His favorite game is for me to hold up a toy and tell him “Get it!” so he can leap into the air and grab it, then we tussle over it. I ask him to release it, he does, I throw it, he brings it back, and we tug some more. It’s a serious workout. (Thank god for pain killers.) It’s also hilarious, joyful, and life-affirming. He makes me laugh more than any other dog I’ve ever had.

I don’t know if Barnum is the perfect service-dog candidate. Only time will tell. Lots and lots of time and effort; lots and lots of working and training. We are so far behind where I thought we’d be at this stage, I just try to focus on the little victories; otherwise despair can creep in. When I see the big picture of how far we still have to go, it’s a bit nauseating.

Yet, when Barnum wiggles up to me, cuddly and tail-wagging, a toy in his mouth he wants me to tug, and then just hearing my voice, he wags his tail faster, I rub his ears and my frustration disappears. He is clearly the perfect candidate for one job: mending a broken heart. Thank god he’s already on the job.

I miss you, Gadget.

Thank you, Barnum.

Love,

Sharon

We always welcome your comments!

Back Back Back: A Year Ago Today

Back, back, back
In the back of your mind …

When you sit right down in the middle of yourself
You’re gonna wanna have a comfortable chair

-Ani DiFranco

Backdrop

I’ve been feeling depressed lately. I thought it was mostly health stuff. Ten days ago, my doctor told me that my complete blood counts (CBCs) were showing abnormalities, and that I had to stop all treatment for Lyme disease and coinfections — eight medications in all, including intravenous and intramuscular antibiotics — because medication toxicity was the likely culprit. If my blood work was normal for a month, we could discuss how and which treatments to resume. If it didn’t, I’d need to see a hematologist. She added that if my medications were not the problem, the cause might relate to “bone marrow,” such as “leukemia.” Terrific.

I had the leukemia flag waved at me a few years ago by a doctor trying to convince me to go to the ER, which I’d been refusing to do. His scare tactic worked. I went, and it turned out to be a lab error, as I’d expected. In this case, we have several weeks of abnormal tests to prove it’s not lab error, and I really like my current doctor, but I think casual cancer references should be illegal.

Background

A few days ago I received copies of the blood work my doctor’s concerned about. Some of the things that were wrong, such as abnormal lymphocyte counts, reminded me of reading Gadget’s CBCs. In fact, the reason I can decipher a CBC is that after Gadget started chemo, I studied his every week. I researched what each abbreviation stood for and what it could mean for his health. I bought veterinary manuals. I learned all I could about canine lymphoma and its treatments. He ate a homemade cancer diet and received Western and Chinese herbs, supplements, acupuncture, and chiropractic. The average life expectancy of a dog on Gadget’s chemotherapy protocol (Madison Wisconsin or CHOPP) is a little over a year. Gadget lived half that.

When Gadget was diagnosed, I also had a feeling of foreboding — about myself. Even as I was sure I could beat the odds for him, I had a bad feeling about what it would mean one day for me. Gadget and I were as close as I thought it was possible to be (until we got even closer, during the months he was sick), and we shared many of the same health problems: food sensitivities, bad reactions to drugs and chemicals, neurological issues, thyroid problems. I had raised him as healthfully as I thought possible. Like me, he was exposed to no pesticides, no cleaning chemicals, no preservatives or additives in his food. We lived in the country, and he drank clean water and breathed clean air. With his lifelong health problems, I’d always known that the longevity deck was stacked against him, due either to genetics or his early life. I suspect he came from a puppy mill. Still, I had never thought it would be cancer that would take him from me. My friends and family were similarly shocked: “Cancer? No, it can’t be cancer. Not Gadget. Not with the way you care for him….”

When I accepted that it was cancer, I thought, “I’m next.” A lot of people with MCS get cancer. I don’t know how often it’s directly related. In some cases, it’s clear that the chemical injury that caused the MCS also led to cancer. In others, it isn’t. Cancer is so common in the general population, it might just be coincidence for most. Regardless, with all my own illnesses and my history of chemical injury, and the fact that I got sicker instead of better despite all my efforts, when Gadget’s diagnosis was confirmed, it was hard for me to shake the feeling that it meant something for my health too. After all, we were two parts of the same body/soul, with so many of the same obstacles thrown in our paths. Some part of me settled into a silent conviction that it was my job to care for him until it happened to me, too.

Then, all the work of battling cancer distracted me from myself. Focusing all my energy on Gadget’s physical health and his happiness kept me too busy for the next six months to allow those thoughts again. When he died, they resurfaced, but I pushed them away. Until now.

Backslide

As I wait out this month for my test results, my symptoms charging back as treatment is withheld, I’ve become depressed. At first, I wasn’t sure why. There are a lot of potential reasons: Feeling sick feels bad, in itself. Not knowing why I’m doing worse — is it the tick-borne diseases letting loose, or is it something else? — is scary. If it is Lyme & co., will I be able to return to treatment, or will I spiral back down to where I was two years ago, back to a life of severe loss of function and intractable pain that felt marginally bearable largely because of Gadget? Could it be that mood/behavior changes, which can include feelings of hopelessness, had returned along with my other neurological symptoms? In this case, how could I know which of my feelings were “real” and which were the bugs eating my brain?

Backtalk

You might think that Barnum would cheer me up, but I’ve actually found raising him in the shadow of my grief to be confusing. Sometimes, I feel joyful, triumphant, and proud that despite my inexperience with puppies, his challenging mixture of personality traits (to be enumerated in future posts), and my significant — and currently, extraordinarily unpredictable — limitations, we are managing to make a go of it. Other times, I am so angry with myself and wracked with guilt by mistakes I’ve made or frustrated by his puppyhood — the concepts he doesn’t understand, the final steps of housebreaking, the exuberance that just isn’t fun when it involves bodily harm or the barking zoomies at 3:00 A.M. — that I question whether getting a puppy was the right decision. I argue with myself:

Me 1: “Gadget wasn’t like this.”

Me 2: “But Gadget wasn’t a puppy when you got him.”

Me 1: “But I never questioned that Gadget would be a great service dog. We struggled with a lot of things, but I had total faith that we’d be a team.”

Me 2: “But that was partly ignorance! You didn’t know all the things that could go wrong. Now you know so much more about the many reasons a dog can wash out, and how a dog has to want to work. Back then, you just took for granted that a dog that had more gusto than Jersey would love to work. Plus, you have more disabilities now, which makes it harder to raise and train Barnum and ups the ante of the number of tasks you’ll want him to learn.”

Me 1: “Ugh.”

Backcountry

I’ve just finished listening to a book called Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, which is a deeply moving book about an intensely close relationship between a rescued stray and the author, Ted Kerasote. Although Merle was not an assistance dog, he and Kerasote had a working partnership, as well as a deep and intimate love. Kerasote is a subsistence hunter in rural Wyoming, and Merle helped him locate elk and other game. All of Kerasote’s meat was what he procured from the wild, so they weren’t just sharing a game; they lived off this teamwork. The subject matter, alone, was bound to make me continuously reflect on my relationship with my dogs, especially Barnum and Gadget. Kerasote — who gave Merle freedoms impossible for most dog owners — challenges a lot of traditional, as well as current, thinking on dog care and training. Combined with my struggles and deep feelings of inadequacy as a puppy raiser, this focus kept me comparing myself and my canine relationships with that of Merle’s idyllic life with Kerasote.

Finally, of course, any book about the life of a dog must end with the death of that dog. Merle died of cancer, and the journey of illness and death that Kerasote traveled with Merle was very similar to what Gadget and I experienced. I finished the book yesterday. For the past two days, leading up to Merle’s death, I cried over and over. When I otherwise had no energy to move, I’d lay still except for the sobs jerking my body. I frequently envied Kerasote’s abilities and resources, physical and social, to care for Merle and provide a death and funeral for him that I was not able to provide for Gadget.

Backtrack

I thought these were all the reasons I’ve been thinking about Gadget more than usual while simultaneously feeling his presence in my memory murky and hard to grasp — as if Barnum and Merle somehow were obscuring who Gadget really was, what our relationship was, why I felt this pain under my breastbone that I could not name. Until today, I hadn’t known what to do with it but obsess darkly, eat chocolate, and cry.

Then, Carol, my PCA said, “Today is May 8, isn’t it?”

I rarely know the date; even the month can be a stretch. I checked my calendar and nodded, yes, the eighth.

Carol said, “It was exactly a year ago that I took Gadget to the hospital, wasn’t it? May eighth? ”

That stopped my heart. It was.

Back, Back, Back

I was very sick that day, like today, like yesterday. I couldn’t speak or get out of bed, and I was in a lot of pain. Gadget’s eye had looked pink the night before, and I had flip-flopped over monitoring it at home, taking him to the ER, or taking him to a regular vet. On the morning of Friday, May 8, 2009, I sent Gadget to VESH (Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital) with Carol. Part of what decided me was that VESH had an ophthalmologist on staff. Even though she was not scheduled that day, I was assured she could be consulted if necessary. I had a history with SD eye crises: Jersey had glaucoma, a common problem among Bouviers, and even though I had taken her to several vets from the time I adopted her (long before it was an emergency), it had been misdiagnosed repeatedly. By the time it was diagnosed, the affected eye was permanently blind and terribly painful and had to be removed.

Jersey in profile

Jersey's blind side -- the missing eye hid by her fall (bangs)

Afraid Gadget might relive this trauma, and frustrated by my helplessness at not being able to accompany him, I spoke at length to the receptionist at VESH via HCO relay, stressing the importance of getting Gadget’s intraocular pressure checked on both eyes and compared to each other. I told her that glaucoma was a breed problem in Bouviers, that a reading within the “normal” range should be suspect if it is still much higher than the other eye, and I asked the examining vet to call me by relay during or immediately after the exam. She assured me that they were very familiar with assessing and diagnosing glaucoma. This eased my mind slightly.

If only it had been glaucoma.

Backhand

I waited. It felt like forever until the phone rang. It was Dr. C. She was the doctor who had treated Jersey when she was dying of multiple-organ failure from unknown causes in 2006. Jersey was thirteen then, retired, and whatever killed her, either an extremely fast-moving infection or cancer, at least she’d lived a long life and didn’t suffer a protracted illness. Nonetheless, I hated hearing Dr. C’s voice. I hated her, irrationally because I associated her with Jersey’s death.

Within a few minutes, I despised her.

“Sharon, it’s good you brought Gadget in,” she said. She sounded cheery, and I thought her next words would be, “It is glaucoma, but we caught it in time.” Or that it was another eye problem that could be treated since we’d moved fast.

Instead, she followed up with, “Gadget has lymphoma.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it. There must be a mistake.

I started crying, but she couldn’t hear me because we were on relay. Dozens of questions leapt to mind, but I couldn’t interrupt her, because we were on relay.

She continued, “If your dog has to have cancer, lymphoma is the best cancer to have.” She explained that, depending on treatment, he could have another two to thirteen months to live.

This was the “good” news? He had the “best” cancer? I wanted to reach through the phone and hit her.

Backtrack

Over time, however, I learned the truth of what she said. Most canine cancers strike quickly and leave no options for treatment or cure. Lymphoma is one of few that usually responds well to chemotherapy. Gadget had five good months on chemotherapy. We reveled in swims and hikes at the pond, romps with other dogs, walks down new paths, even some new skills — just to add interest and a sense of accomplishment to his life.

Clear skies, clear water, Gadget returns to me.

When another cancer struck — mast cell tumors — Gadget’s decline was swift and heartbreaking. He died November 19, 2009.

I feel robbed; a year ago, I expected to have Gadget here with me today. If Gadget had represented the mean, one year post-diagnosis we’d have one more month with him in remission. That was the average for the MW protocol at VESH: thirteen months. But, for there to be an average, half the dogs must live longer, and half the dogs must live shorter. Of course, Gadget could not sit in the middle of the bell curve, because Gadget was never average.

My sweet boy, I miss you. I want you back.

As always, we welcome your comments.

-Sharon and the muse of Gadget (with Barnum, puppy-in-training)

P.S. Right before I was about to publish this post I got a note from Rochelle Lesser of The Land of PureGold Foundation . This is a wonderful organization. They educate about so many crucial issues — working dogs, humane training, canine cancer, nontoxic pet care, and more. They also gave Gadget a grant to cover some of his cancer treatment, for which I was very grateful.

Currently, they are running a contest to raise awareness about the importance of nontoxic, real food for dogs in preventing cancer and other health problems, and I was astonished to learn that so few have entered! I am only one of two so far! Rochelle even did a touching quickpress about Gadget and the last birthday cake I made for him.

The first ten people who enter the Bone Appetit Recipe Contest receive a bag of free, nutritious dog treats! (And the grand prize is phenomenal.) They gave me strength in championing Gadget’s fight to survive. Please lend your support to this very important (and fun!) contest.

Beginning After the End

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.

Sharon asleep in bed with Gadget sleeping between Sharon's legs with his head on her thigh.

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 AfterGadget, 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


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