James Wanless

this is where I write

Brody the rescue dog

After Darby left us in the fall of 2013, it was really hard thinking of adopting another dog for some time. We felt robbed of time we expected to have with her, and given that we confer people-like status to furry friends in our house, the thought of another dog almost felt like we were replacing her. Whether people or animals, one really isn’t replaceable by another.

However, as we hit 2014, I’m not sure whether it was just that enough time had passed or the sense of renewal that comes with a new year, but both Connie and I began looking at adoptable dogs online. We both felt conflicted; that perhaps we weren’t ready for another animal or some level of guilt. However, we both also knew that we just missed having an animal around. It just feels right to us to have a dog. And, if you’re anything like us, when you begin looking at dog photos, you’re pretty much done for. Resistance is futile.

Finding Brody

We found the fellow pictured in the first paragraph via Petfinder, adoptable via a local rescue society. I have a few thoughts on them, but I’ll leave those until my closing paragraphs on this post. One of his favourite things is to offer you his paw, while he always has a kind of mopey countenance.

Our best guess is that Brody is a Boxer-Pit Bull cross, now weighing in the mid-60’s. He was a rescue dog nabbed from a kill shelter last October/November in a somewhat impoverished area of Los Angeles (San Bernardino). I’d say the best way to describe his personality at the time was “skittish,” as he mostly slumped around with his tail a little between his legs. I don’t think he had a name with him when he was brought up from the US, as he didn’t even respond in the slightest to his uninspiring moniker, Clay. However, barring his skittishness, he’s probably one of the most affectionate animals I’ve ever seen, craving contact and snuggling at all times. He rolls around playfully on the ground at the drop of a hat, particularly when greeting us upon returning home.

It was also clear that he wasn’t a stray. He has never been a problem left alone at home, always walked well on a leash and teaching commands has seemed more an exercise in reminders than net-new training. Whatever the case, most of his training has been quick and easy, and he’s so food motivated, that he tends to catch on quickly. Aside from slowly building back his confidence, or possibly in part because of his insecure/skittish personality, we have encountered a few fear aggression traits that are a bit slower to overcome. We’re not sure why, but his reactions also manifest themselves with smaller dogs.

In short, he really reacted poorly to any kind of surprises. In particular, with me, if I approached him directly or moved suddenly he would occasionally take it as an affront. Hugging him from behind if he didn’t know I was there elicited a similar reaction. He has never bitten, but displayed some moderate growling and, on a couple of occasions a small snap. Finally, the stickiest of behaviours shows a small protective instinct with my wife. If he’s on her lap and I engage, he doesn’t react harshly but does tend to do a low growl under his breath. It’s hard not to wonder if he experienced an abusive male in his past – where both women and himself were concerned.

eeyore1.gif from http://www.disneyclips.com

Brody’s our little Eeyore.

We got in touch with Sarah Dykes of Bad Dogs Gone Good and had an evaluation/training session. It’s made quite a difference. Sarah performed a brief analysis (providing a written report after the fact), after which we worked on some tactics for mitigating his reactions to surprise and his protective behaviours with me, and finally we all went on a walk and worked on some redirection when encountering other dogs to which he reacts. Aside from the behaviours we want to correct, Brody generally has a little mopeyness about him. Sarah nailed it when she called him a “sweet little Eeyore.”

I can’t say enough about Sarah’s approach. While we still very rarely get a low protective grumble, through the approaches we now use we are able to virtually eliminate reactions with other dogs, and by approaching Brody a little differently ourselves, he’s had pretty much no surprise-triggered aggression since our session with her. With Brody now behaving more appropriately, it appears we’ll have our little Eeyore for years to come.

Adopter beware

When I first contacted the rescue, I got an immediate response, almost overly enthusiastic. However, we had a very good phone conversation and, claiming she wanted to see where she was considering adopting ‘Clay’ to, the head of the rescue was to bring him out to meet us the next day for 1pm. As she ended up running very late the next day (and would be at least 3 hours late) and I had to work, I said I’d have to look at a later option. She then offered to drop him off overnight “to see if we wanted him.” We thought this a little odd, but were very interested in him, and we agreed to have her bring him out the following day instead.

brody imgEverything seemed fine with meeting this sweet and gentle dog, though as you can see by the picture above (taken within a day or so of adopting him), he was significantly underweight. He also arrived very dirty and with overgrown nails. To our way of thinking, though, we liked the dog in general and have a very soft spot for helping a rescue. While he came with proof of neutering and rabies from the California kill shelter, she had no other vaccination information. Getting this information is particularly important, as you don’t want to be double-vaccinating dogs unless you have no choice. We would ultimately have to take this risk.

I was assured by her that he had all his vaccines, but that she was just unsure of which of her vets the volunteer had taken him to. In retrospect this also seemed odd to us, since as of that time in January, she’d had the dog for at least a month. However, we agreed to adopt him provided she sent all remaining vaccine information after she got home. She was happy to do so, and we paid her $450 in adoption fees. I also note that, at this stage, no behaviour or dental problems were identified by her.

The promised papers never materialized. The first time I called her a few days later to enquire, I reached her and she claimed again that she had the documentation but didn’t know how to get it to me. As she had my email address and my home address, this simply didn’t wash. I told her as much and she promised again to send it. I never did receive this documentation, and all further attempts to reach her were met with unanswered emails or the inability to leave a voice message in her permanently full voicemail inbox.

Upon taking him to the vet a few days post-adoption, and taking a good look ourselves, Brody’s significant dental damage became apparent and we found his neuter stitches still in place, four months post-surgery. He had broken lower canines on both sides and most upper/lower middle teeth were down to the gum nub, while all other teeth are good. The vet’s guess is that this was due to cage stress from his time in California, when he probably broke them chewing on the bars of his crate. At this time, he’s not in any discomfort nor does he experience any eating problems. As such, until the teeth pose a problem, we’ll just have to accept his gummy smile as part of the uniqueness that is Brody.

As I wanted to at least alert others to some of these issues, I posted a review of the rescue on Yelp. Oddly enough, I heard back from her within a few days. A very nasty berating from her ensued, suggesting I should have been “man enough” to contact her directly with the concerns I’ve outlined above. The fact that I tried repeatedly to do just that, and that repeated promises of documentation were broken meant nothing to her. The conversation was mostly her yelling at me, stating “my lawyer says” liberally throughout her tirade. I got her to commit, once more, to providing documentation and in exchange, I would remove the Yelp review.

As you might guess, I lived up to my end of the bargain, but have no documentation. We’ve had to get him vaccinated to be safe, and I don’t see it as much of a risk since her claim of his being vaccinated was apparently complete bullshit. At the end of the day, while I hope to never talk to this woman again, we’ve got what is turning into a great companion and that’s the main thing. I did a little research, and our experience with this rescue society is not unique.

In closing

Since I have no desire to interact with this person again, I’ve purposely avoided publishing links or personal information about the rescue society. If you are looking to adopt a rescue and this raises concerns, please contact me (look at my site URL, it’s exactly what you’d think) and I can email you information. If you keep nothing else in mind, any reputable rescue society should have a solid handle on all behaviour and health issues, and will never try to adopt out underweight animals.

As for Brody, we’ve loved not only the personality transformation we’ve seen, but he’s become extremely attached to all of us. With the exception of some very minor remaining issues, we’ve got a great dog now. We’re looking forward to the summer months and expanding his interactions with other people and dogs via hikes and maybe some trail runs.

The way she probably wanted to go

The most shocking thing was simply the suddenness of it all. A month ago, as far as we could tell, we had a healthy dog closing in on 11 years old. By all outward signs, Darby might buck the big dog trend and live to 13 or more. Then she developed a limp and now she’s gone. In fact, she’s been gone since this past Tuesday, but I really haven’t wanted to talk or write about it much.

I won’t re-hash what’s in the post linked above, so take a look if you’re interested in the diagnosis. In the end, if there’s a silver lining, it’s that we were able to choose that Darby not suffer. Being as aggressive as this cancer is, though, ultimately it meant that we didn’t get as much time with her as we would have liked after finding out she was terminal.

While my sense of propriety means I could never think of taking pictures at the end at the vet, the scene was somehow fitting for a mooch and cookie snarfer the likes of Darby. Due to the care she received at Blueridge-Cove Animal Hospital, going to the vet was never a negative thing for her, so when we took her for her final visit, she was her usual excited bundle of nerves.

While my eldest son was sick with the flu and couldn’t make it, Connie, Tyler and I were all in attendance. I’m not sure how most vets do it, but at Blueridge you don’t actually remain when the dog is euthanized; rather you stay with the animal while a very strong sedative puts them out. The rest is, thankfully, handled discreetly after you leave.

It was all about the cookies

Once guided into the examination room, we found a blanket on the ground. We got Darby relaxed and lying down; no small feat when her typical pattern is to explore the entire space and then settle her gaze and snout upon the cookie jar, with laser beam intensity. Doctor Kennedy came in and administered a needle and then proceeded to dump very nearly the entire contents of said cookie jar on the ground before her.

While I don’t speak dog, at least not much of it (I picked up a word here and there, spending so much time with Darby), I’m pretty sure she uttered something to the effect of, “Holy shit, I’ve never seen this many cookies at once, let alone eaten them!” There must have been 60 cookies in front of her. She happily began gobbling and slobbering them down, making that snorty, joyous sound all dog people know and love.

After a minute or so of pure pig-out bliss, you could see the sedative taking effect. The pace of snarfing slowed, but as she got sleepy, she desperately wanted to finish the serving. After getting probably 2/3 of the pile down in the first minute, it became a cookie every two seconds, then every ten and, by the end of probably two minutes, she had stopped.

It was a valiant effort, and she likely put away 45 cookies. It couldn’t have been more than five minutes, total, before she was pretty much out cold, passed out on a pile of cookies and drool, like a drunken sailor on a bender.

It’s all about the dog

You’ll notice I’ve only described the dog’s experience above. I probably don’t need to write much about her people in the room. There was lots of petting, snuggling, kissing and crying as the three of us – thankful for being able to choose she not suffer – recognized the gravity of the situation and that we were spending our last moments with an animal we’d been with most every day for nearly 11 years. We stayed in the room for, easily, half an hour past Darby falling into the deepest of sleeps.

A beautiful touch at Blueridge, which I noticed upon leaving Darby in the examination room, is the euthanasia candle in the waiting room. It’s a small, but important thing, I think. It lets the family know that they are sensitive to your needs and lets any others entering the space know that someone is saying goodbye to a loved one. We received a sympathy card in the mail from them the other day, and the only remaining piece will be the clay paw print we chose to have made. It, along with her collar and probably five or six photos yet to be chosen, will go in a framed montage, to be hung in a place of prominence in our house.

You’ll also notice that I’ve only focused on her final moments here. A bigger retrospective with lots of pics is coming later. I don’t want that journal entry to have anything much in it about her diagnosis and passing, as it will be about the amazing animal that she was.

Devastating news far too soon

As friends and acquaintances have asked, I’ve had to tell this story too many times now, and we’re not yet at the final chapter. I’m writing this partly as reference for further requests, and partly to get the words down just as I want them. I probably still won’t get it right, but you can’t hear my voice crack in my writing.

Anyone who’s been to our place, and those who’ve encountered or walked with us in our neighbourhood, know our beloved Darby, the nearly 11 year old Shepherd Lab cross who’s been the apple of our family’s collective eye for 10 years and four months. A testament to adopting an SPCA shelter mutt if ever there was one, Darby was diagnosed with aggressive, terminal bone cancer this past Sunday, August 25th, 2013.

As this is moving rapidly, I’m just going to journal the diagnosis and current state of affairs. And, as I’m able to process further developments, I know more words about her will come. For now, after three days of hell and more to come, this is what I have.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Fresh off a play-filled visit with one of her old dog buddies the day before, on August 11th I noticed a barely perceptible limp on our afternoon dog walk, and chalked it up to an exhuberance-induced tweak of some sort. Over the following week, the limp became far more pronounced and Darby was taken to the vet for x-rays on that Friday. Based on how she was limping it appeared she was favouring her right shoulder. The imaging focused on that area and all bone structure looked fine, with the vet’s opinion being that she was just dealing with a stubborn strain.

The limp continued to worsen still this past week, but we began to notice she was actually favouring the left paw and not planting it heavily as she walked. This past Friday we noticed some swelling on the left front lower leg just above the paw joint, so we took her into the vet again this past Saturday. After looking at the swelling, the vet wanted to get more x-rays of the left leg this time and, despite the fact our clinic normally does no x-rays on weekends, told us to bring her back Sunday at 1pm.

The vet did have one picture from the previous week of both paws which hadn’t been reviewed before, with just a bit of each leg in the image. The left leg looked abnormal, with a dark mass above the paw joint, and so we got a picture of the full leg without having to sedate her again. Based on the new x-ray, the vet confirmed that Darby has osteosarcoma, a fairly common bone cancer among primarily larger breed dogs, which typically occurs just above the paw or shoulder joint. The segment of bone already affected is roughly the size of a thin egg and while it’s hard to see from my phone pic below, the cancerous bone tissue in the leg image to the right is starting to run up the middle of the leg.


The right paw above (her left) and left leg have advanced sarcoma

No realistic options

If a dog is young and you happen to find this before symptoms appear, you might get lucky with amputation or limb-saving surgery, followed by a chemo/radiation regimen. When a dog is Darby’s age, and the tumour is this advanced and causing a limp, there’s nothing you can do to significantly alter the inevitable, particularly as the cancer has almost certainly spread by now. In fact, if the leg holds out longer than expected, we’ll likely begin seeing laboured breathing and coughing in the near future. As she’s limping, but apparently happy and fairly comfortable at the moment, the thought of pumping her full of chemicals and radiation on the off-chance of adding a month or two to her life, isn’t my idea of compassion. Is it worth making her sicker for that?

When I asked about the number of months we might be looking at, I was told we weren’t talking months and that we’d likely have to put her down within six weeks, if not sooner. From the reading I’ve done, and the speed with which things are developing, this appears to be the case. I also spoke via Twitter with a friend whose dog had the very same thing, and they went from initial limp to euthanasia in two weeks.

Including a toe last year, Darby has had a couple small tumours removed in the past three years, and aside from this, has been in remarkably good health her entire life. To most people she appears and acts several years younger. At this time, she’s on some pain and inflammation meds and not struggling badly yet. As this progresses, she will likely get to the point that she can’t walk on it and the risk of a fracture will increase day by day.

Decision time approaches

My wife and I are taking turns working from home now. We have agreed that, as soon as she can’t support herself or stops using it altogether, we’ll put her down. For now we can’t leave her alone in case she should suffer a fracture. In that case, an emergency euthanasia trip to the vet would be immediate. We’re hoping we’ll be clear enough on the signs that we can book it a couple days in advance and prepare. With the speed at which the limp and swelling has developed, unfortunately, we’re operating on the assumption that we’ll be lucky to see two more weeks.

Veggie bouquets and animal brickbats for the Canadian Red Cross

I’ve never wanted to be one of those vegetarians. In truth, at one time several years ago, I probably was one of those vegetarians. You know, proud of my lifestyle choice and verging on being preachy and sanctimonious about it to others. I volunteered for, and donated to, the cause and advocated on behalf of animals to the point of being absolutely convinced that everyone who didn’t make similar choices was wrong. I am sure I offended as many people as I educated.

The Canadian Red Cross

Is animal welfare important to the Canadian Red Cross?

I still donate, but I’ve mellowed and, while I still believe strongly in the values behind vegetarianism, I also try to take myself a little less seriously, even if that means taking a few light-hearted jabs from co-workers and just letting a lot of stuff go. I found it impossible to turn the other cheek, though, when I received an email from the Canadian Red Cross last week.


Seasonal wishes for religion, animals and greed

Given what Jesus purportedly stood for, I’m not sure he would have been too keen on how we’ve contorted his birthday celebration into an orgy for the senses. The reality, though, is that fewer people are attending church and, for many of us, Christmas is simply an excuse for overindulgence of all kinds. I’m probably no different than most people. I enjoy getting more time with my adult sons, sharing a few treats with family and friends, eating a little more than I should and getting some extended time away from the office.  We haven’t exchanged gifts for years, but enjoy the sense of warmth and togetherness the season brings.

Since I assign no religious significance to my seasonal celebrations I always end up a little melancholy this time of year when I think about everything Christmas.  As such, as we prepare to tuck into our Boxing Day leftovers, the things I wish for pretty much remain constant, year in and year out.  I don’t really think the following things have a snowball’s chance in Hell of changing much, but wouldn’t it be nice if they did?