Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cart tracks in the snow.

I was told repeatedly upon moving here that it never (or extremely rarely) snows in Portland. So when weather reports started calling for possible snow this weekend, the natives scoffed. Sure, it snows in the hills and higher elevations, but not in the city, they said. So as I was lying in bed this morning listening to NPR, I was surprised to hear the announcer say that chains were now required on I-5 in the Portland metro area and that sections of local highways were closed. What?! Could it be…? Sure enough, I got out of bed and opened the curtain to see a blanket of white outside; and it was still snowing! Of course, I put Ali in his cart right away (even before coffee!) and out we went. Ali must have seen snow in N.J. during the first two years of his life, although I’m not sure how much. When he was living in the kennels at The Seeing Eye (where I worked for a year, and where I met Alec), he only went outside for a half hour during those days when he was scheduled to go into town for training. That whole year was mostly indoors for him (except when I would come on the weekends with my trainer friend and take him out for surreptitious walks around the sprawling grounds – shhhh. It was so rewarding to see him get to go outside. He was often anxious and frantic in his kennel and never had a chance to be a "dog." It broke my heart every day to see him so frustrated). And his first year of life was spent in the home of a “puppy raiser” 4-H family who apparently neglected him to the point where they were removed from the program (they pretty much kept him in his crate or tied up outside alone for long periods of time – a puppy!). So I’m not sure how many times he experienced snow in N.J. by the time he came to live with me, I was living in Georgia. We had snow once in Athens, but it was the kind of snow where the blades of grass were still visible. Today, it's real!

So I got him “saddled up,” and when I threw open our front door the expression on his face was comically quizzical. He hesitated; what’s this stuff here? Then out we went, him squinting in the snow, not quite knowing what to make of it. At first I think he wanted to go back inside. (He is not a big fan of the rain, so I think in his mind snow might be of the same ilk: stuff falling from the sky? On me? Not cool! It was also quite windy and cold – 24 degrees! I know that’s not cold for other regions of the country, but it sure is here. I’m new here and all, but I have done my research and the annual average low temperature is about 40 degrees.). But then he relaxed, probably in part because my energy was pretty happy/excited. We walked around the neighborhood and at one point I let him off his leash in a parking lot so I could capture the moment on video (from what I understand, this "snow in Portland" thing is rare, indeed!) and he started frolicking like a silly puppy. He did great in the cart, and its wheels were packed with snow when we got back home. Now he is snoozing like the angel he is after our small and unexpected adventure.

In general, Ali is doing really well, getting around better and better outside his cart, and continuing to improve. More updates soon…we have to go out and play some more in the wintry wonderland! The sight of his little tire tracks in the fresh snow makes my heart feel warm.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Portland, so far...

This is our first update from our new city! We have been in Portland now almost two months and much of this initial period has been dedicated (both in terms of time and mental/emotional energy) to getting us settled into our new home and establishing new routines; besides the fact that we moved to a place where I barely know anyone (change enough!) there have been many additional changes for Ali. (True to form this blog post is going to be about Ali, but just in case you are wondering: I love Portland so far and am very happy here. I think it was a good move for both Ali and me.)

There was definitely an adjustment period for Ali after the move, but he is now settled in and doing quite well in his new surroundings. We are plugging along with the physical therapy, and I thank my lucky stars every single day for Ali’s continued progress, good health, and his amazing joie de vivre…and of course, his companionship. If you are new to this blog, you may want to check out the first post. Alec has come so far since those early days and weeks after surgery that it is easy to forget how amazing, how vast, his improvements have been. In eight months he has gone from being completely paraplegic and unable to urinate on his own to, well – how he is today!

He is getting around quite well by himself in the apartment and at the office, “walking” with an abnormal gait where he often drags (or “knuckles”) his back right foot, but walking nonetheless. This “walk” is not quite ready for prime time and he still uses his doggie wheelchair and the walk-about harness when we go outside. Because of the knuckling, I have to be very careful about him injuring his back right foot, which he has done several times, from scrapes to ripped toe nails (our use of “soft claws” nail caps have helped solve the latter problem). But I am encouraging him to practice walking, and my main challenge is to maintain balance between letting him practice bopping around (especially in the office, where he has a lot more room to explore than in our little apartment) and making sure he does not overdo it. Compared to the challenge of expressing his bladder all by myself, which I did for the first several unforgettable weeks after surgery, this doesn’t even qualify as a challenge! At the recommendation of his new rehab place, we are also using a sciatica wrap on his right leg for a few hours every day, which helps him to take steps and not knuckle (this is basically a wrap that goes under his foot and up around his ankle and helps keep his toes up when he walks).

As I mentioned, there have been plenty of changes for Ali above and beyond what a “normal” dog would face upon moving to a new place. Ali has moved many times thanks to me, and he typically handles it very well. But compared to previous moves, this one involved more adjustments. First, there was the matter of finding a new rehab facility where Ali could continue his underwater treadmill therapy. We started going to a veterinary rehab facility here called Back on Track, about which I have mixed feelings, but I am trying to keep an open mind. After a few initial setbacks on the treadmill, which could have been due to the fact that there was about 3-4 weeks between sessions during the move, Ali seems to be back to where he was before we left California. We are continuing to do the treadmill sessions once a week. We were lucky enough to be getting a break at our last rehab place, which is not the case here, and the weekly sessions cost more than twice as much ($55 vs. $25). There is one doctor and the rest are vet techs (or possibly training to be vet techs; there are so many I’m not sure) and they don’t even have the same person in the water with Ali each week, so it is much different from California where we primarily worked with Juli. But my main concern– and everyone I talk to thinks this is weird – is that they have loose dogs running around the facility, usually several. They have to whisk them away into side rooms when Ali comes down the hall (because he’s a bad shepherd!), but whoever heard of a rehab place with loose dogs running hither and thither? They also have two treadmills in the room, which means there is usually another dog on the other treadmill at the same time Ali is in there, so of course that is distracting. However, I think the treadmill is important for him and we are making it work so far. He is doing quite well with the chaotic situation, all things considered. There is only one other rehab place in town and I may give them a try at some point too.

My second goal was to find a safe accessible place where I could continue to take Ali swimming on a regular basis, an activity that in my opinion has been invaluable for him both physically and psychologically. I spent a lot of time during our first few weekends driving around to scout out possible swimming locations, after quizzing many random Portlanders and searching online to get ideas. After a few initial trips to less than ideal spots, I believe I have found our regular spot! George Rogers Park, recommended by my colleague Stephan, is in the town of Lake Oswego, a 20-min. drive south of Portland. This park is right on the Willamette River and is completely accessible. There is a steep staircase leading from the parking lot down to the river, which almost made me turn away before I noticed the long handicapped ramp, with about seven switchbacks, snaking back and forth, bisecting the steps leading to the beach. Unbelievable! I was so happy when I saw that on my reconnaissance mission, because it has been hard to find places on the river that Ali can actually get to using his wheelchair. The beach itself is flat and sandy and the water is calm. There are usually other people and some dogs there but not too many and we have not had any problems yet (knock on wood!). The park also has trails that I think a lot of people take their dogs running and hiking on. Since it is the cold rainy season, fewer people are down by the water, which is good for us. This morning was our fifth trip there. As I have written here before, I never took Ali swimming without a “buddy” in California, just because there are too many things that can go wrong. However, because here I lack the social network I had in Calif., I have no choice; it’s either brave it alone or he doesn’t swim. The latter simply not being an option, I now take him alone and am nervous every second doing it, but just hope for the best! I also have some pepper spray in case of errant dogs or people. I am never happier than after a successful swimming outing. Ali just has so much fun, and he can really let loose in the water and chase the ball at top speeds, which he obviously can no longer do on land. It is very satisfying for me to see him having fun in this way, getting to engage in one of his former favorite pastimes: fetch!

The third big adjustment was our new office and the surrounding downtown environment, which is different in many ways from ALDF headquarters in California where we spent the last three years. I will write more about that soon, but today is Thanksgiving and it's time to start preparing the vegan feast: Tofurkey roast, cranberry sauce, stuffins, sauteed rainbow chard, garlic smashed potaters, lots and lots of gravy, and something special for Ali too! But first I want to say THANK YOU to everyone who has left nice comments for Ali and me on this blog. I am incredibly grateful for your support and encouragement, and I have appreciated your kind words. I am thankful for so much, but most of all I am thankful to be spending Thanksgiving with my best friend, and thankful for every single second we have spent together since that happiest day when he came to live with me five years ago. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Good-bye California…Hello Oregon!

Wickersham Park in Petaluma, where we spent so much time over the last 6 months...farewell!

The Relo-Cube... which is hopefully right now en route to Portland with all my belongings!

Ali and I are leaving California and moving to Portland... tomorrow! I have been too busy preparing for this big move to write anything about it, and I will keep it brief. Suffice it to say that after living in Petaluma for six months I am very happy we are moving on. There are many reasons why Sonoma County has not been working. And although I loved San Francisco (except for the commute!), moving back there is just not an option anymore because 1.) Every dang place has stairs and 2.) Rents are way too high for me to live alone, and with Ali's condition I am just not prepared to risk another Craigslist experiment and move in with total strangers. Luckily for me, ALDF has a secondary location in downtown Portland and I have been granted permission to transfer to this smaller office. Although I am daunted by the thought of starting all over again with Ali in a new city – not to mention one where it never stops raining! – there are many reasons why I feel this move will be a good one for us. I recently found the perfect apartment, too, which seemed like an auspicious sign. It's an affordable one bedroom, totally on the ground floor (no more steep ramp for Ali to negotiate), carpeted (so Ali won't slip), and in a nice neighborhood within walking distance to lots of great stuff, including a park. We are leaving tomorrow morning; the drive is about 9 hours. Big moves are always difficult, especially when doing it alone, but luckily I have amazing friends to help.

Most importantly, the improvements Ali has made over this last week are nothing short of amazing. His right leg is taking full steps in the cart now. I was able to get an appointment for Ali to be seen one last time by Jackie, the rehab specialist at UC-Davis, before we moved. I was hoping she could suggest some new rehab techniques for me to try now that he is starting to take steps. She basically said to keep doing what we are doing and to continue underwater treadmill sessions if possible in Portland. More soon…I have to finish packing the van. Wish us luck on our new adventure!

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Swimming at the Russian River on Labor Day went really well. Ali had a blast, as usual. Thank goodness he loves tennis balls so much - the compulsion to retrieve them keeps him excited to swim and swim! I believe I mentioned the amazing physical benefits of swimming for a dog in Ali’s condition, but the psychological benefits are also immeasurable. A few days later we had an appointment with the underwater treadmill and Ali took a few steps in a row (unassisted) with his right foot! Remember last time I mentioned he placed his right foot just once and Juli said that was a “milestone?” Well, that was one week earlier. This time he took three consecutive steps in a row several times during the session. Progress! After I was able to take him swimming three times over Labor Day weekend, I had a feeling I saw some improvement. Juli confirmed it when she saw him on the treadmill. It could just be the normal course of his recovery, but I have a feeling the swimming could be accelerating things. It’s certainly not hurting! Same thing with acupuncture and everything else we are doing. I want to give him every chance. He continues to amaze me.

Yesterday, Ali took steps with his right leg in the cart for the first time without knuckling. He did it a few times at the park by Kevin’s house. I couldn’t believe it! We had taken him swimming the previous evening in the American River. Then last night, after we drove home from Sacramento, we met friends at the Russian River for another swim session. After swimming, while Ali was standing up on the blanket, he took 2-3 steps independently with his right foot! Everyone saw it. We all whooped! It’s amazing. First a couple steps in the cart and then while standing on his own…all of this happened in one day. His right leg is waking up! I really think he is going to walk again. I have never said that out loud before, but I said it this morning when I saw him take a few more baby steps on his own, while placing his right foot. I have always been afraid to say anything like that because on some level I must admit I am superstitious about doing or saying anything to "jinx" it...whatever the hell that means. It doesn't make sense, but that doesn't stop these irrational beliefs from taking root in my psyche. But you know what? It felt good to say it. It has been exactly seven months since his surgery. I remember because it was the day before Valentine's Day.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Underwater Treadmill Redux.

Ready to go!

Note the rubber ducky in the corner. It squeaks; Ali likes!

Those who have been following along will remember that after Ali’s first successful session in the underwater treadmill a few months ago, he balked the second time and refused to walk, so we decided to give it a rest for awhile. In the mean time we continued with swimming therapy in the river and our standing exercises at home. Well, as I mentioned in my last post, we decided to try the underwater treadmill again and I am happy to report that Ali has decided he loves it now! Last week, he was so excited he tried to climb into the tank while still in his wheelchair, which is great. It’s cute how enthusiastic he is now about going to the Animal Care Center for these weekly appointments. I think we have done a good job of making it fun for him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has such a good attitude about everything! He is such a sweet, happy boy. People remark on it when they see us on the street or in the park. First they notice and ask about his wheelchair, then they say, “He looks so happy!” And he is. We both are. I’m happy because I know how lucky we are; he’s happy just because. And isn’t that one of the cool things about sharing your life with a nonhuman animal: this zen-like just because? Not to digress into turgid sentimentality, but sometimes when I look at this dog, as am doing now over my laptop screen, in addition to the usual feelings of fierce love and quiet admiration, every now and then my heart melts, turns to liquid, and I feel it rush to my feet. This isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds, but it can be an overwhelming feeling at times. It makes me feel helpless. What do you do with such a strong feeling? You recognize it and honor it as best you can with your actions, I guess. What else is there?

Alright, leaving crazy I-love-my-dog-so-much-it-makes-my-head-hurt land, during the last couple treadmill sessions, Juli has noticed some further improvement in his back right leg. Between two sessions she said his right leg had more movement than the week before, which is pretty exciting. The last two weeks he has been able to move his right leg on his own, whereas the week before she had to bend over the whole time and complete each step for him. He is still “knuckling” on his right foot when he steps, but last time he placed his foot once on his own, which Juli said is a milestone. She also said the muscles in his back legs were less tight and more supple this week, which is cool because during the last week I have been massaging his legs during standing exercises at home (per her recommendation to relieve some of the tightness), so it seems the massage is helping. After a week of not being able to swim (nobody to help), Ali has gone twice this weekend and we are going out to the Russian River again later today to meet Steve. So he has gotten some great exercise this long holiday weekend. I just hope the Labor Day revelers do not make the river too crowded today! It is always more difficult with lots of people and dogs around. Swimming Ali regularly is an ongoing challenge, but a necessary one to tackle because it is so incredibly therapeutic and the benefits for him are invaluable. Okay, now go forth and hug your companion animal and appreciate the unsettling yet not unpleasant feeling of your own heart melting.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

6-month update: realism and optimism

Photo: Yesterday, Ali stood up and took a couple steps off his bed when he noticed I was getting his peanut butter Kong from the freezer. He has been doing this more lately – standing up on his own and taking a couple baby steps without falling over.

It has been six months since Ali’s surgeries and he continues to make functional progress. We are back at Animal Care Center doing underwater treadmill therapy once a week. Although Ali balked at the treadmill the second time, he is doing okay with it now. We think it is probably because his confidence level is higher as he is much stronger and has more mobility in his hind limbs. I have also worked hard to make it fun and not stressful for him. It’s not too difficult. He is so social that he loves going there and seeing people, and I just make sure I have lots of treats on hand along with a tennis ball to distract him. He has been walking 6-10 minutes on the treadmill each time. In the water he takes independent steps with both legs, but needs assistance with placement of his right hind leg.

Out of the water, he can take active steps with his left hind leg and his right hind leg is showing motor function down to about the knee, according to Juli. I think this is amazing considering his right leg was barely moving at all a few weeks ago. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence but it was when we started acupuncture that I noticed his right leg started to make subtle movements; now it is moving quite a lot in the cart! We also raised the cart about an inch and now he can take active steps with his left leg while in the cart. Before he was not able to clear the ground and place his left paw – he would “knuckle.” But with the added height he can take actual steps, which should be good for him. (Although the added height has caused us to have to make some other adjustments to the cart involving foam and duct tape – looks pretty DYI but we need to make sure the added height does not pressure his front shoulders too much. It’s challenging to get the correct balance.) The right leg is moving some, but not making complete steps. He continues to stand up on his own and it seems much easier for him now. I think is making great improvements with his balance. He can almost take a few steps on his own and he is really good about catching his balance if he starts to sway – he is able to reposition his left leg pretty well to catch himself.

We continue to go swimming as often as we can, which usually is not more than once a week, but ideally I would take him every other day if I could. There are just no good swimming spots around. The Petaluma River, close to our house, is really an estuary and as such is subject to the ocean tides. If it is low tide it is very treacherous to try to swim Ali there (speaking from experience – Ali and I have both sustained minor injuries on the exposed rocks. Luckily, I haven’t face planted on these jagged rocks yet, a fact Maggie was marveling at last time we were there. It’s only a matter of time, though, if we keep turning up there at low tide, and it will be extremely counterproductive if one of us gets seriously injured!). It is really only safe to go when the tide is high, but it only happens occasionally that the tide is high enough either after work (but before dark) or on the weekend during daylight hours. Plus, I am dependent on Maggie’s schedule and availability because I cannot take him out without assistance and she is my only friend in this godforsaken little town. Even more rarely we make it out to the Russian River, about an hour’s drive away. I go whenever I can, though – which means whenever one of my two friends who live out there can accompany me and Alec. I try to make it happen as often as I can because, although it’s hard trying to coordinate, I think swimming is the best thing for Ali to do regularly. I really think it has contributed immensely to his back strength, and I’m sure coordination as well.

We also continue to do acupuncture, once every 1-2 weeks, as well as standing exercises at home.

Alec’s official status at this point is “ambulatory with assistance; mild-moderate pelvic limb paraparesis.” Paraparesis means a slight paralysis or weakness of the hind legs – as opposed to paraplegia, which is complete paralysis of both legs. After his surgeries he was classified as “non-ambulatory and deep pain negative” and then “ambulatory paraplegic.” So parapetic is the proper word to describe his current condition, not paraplegic. In case you’re interested in the fine points. I am.

The neurologist had noted on his three-month evaluation report that “peak recovery may occur at 3-6 months post-injury; however recovery continues through a patient’s lifetime.” So this six-month mark is a little scary to me. I know it shouldn’t be, but as long as these improvements, incredible improvements, really, occurred before six months had passed…I don’t actually know. I just know I heard myself saying proudly several times when people remarked on this or that improvement he had made: “And it hasn’t even been six months yet!” Well, now it has been six months and part of me is afraid that he will stop progressing. I mean, that has been my fear all along. And it is not an ungrounded fear; nobody knows what will happen. The physical therapists talk a lot of being “realistic” but also “optimistic.” There are no guarantees in this field, and I remind myself of that a lot when I realize how far he has come and how grateful I am for that. I just really hope his right leg improves the point his left leg has, but that is not a given. Mobility could stop at the knee. But I guess I need to focus on the optimistic part of the equation. I feel like I have done a good job of balancing the realism/optimism equation thus far (of course, Ali’s amazing progress has helped with that!), and I know the six-month mark is just an approximate guideline; of course I know that. Juli has a client whose dog is two years post-surgery and just started walking on her own. So, we won’t give up! Bring on the next six months…I’m ready. And really thankful for how far he has come in just six months.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Franken-shepherd, and a loss next door.

Ali had his fourth acupuncture treatment last week. Starting with the second time, Dr. Canon hooked his needles up to a little box of wires that transmit electricity (see photo). He looked like such a Frankenpuppy hooked up to those wires! The gauge on the electric box goes up to 4, which she said most dogs can handle, but once we reached 2 Ali’s hind legs sort of twitched and he sat straight up, indicating he felt something, even at that relatively low dose. So she let him “pickle” at number 2 for 20 or so minutes. The fact that he reacted to such a low dose of electricity suggests he may be more susceptible to the therapeutic aspects of the acupuncture so I think his “sensitivity” in this regard is actually a good sign. The last two weeks he was able to handle her turning it up to 4 (I could actually feel the current pumping through his muscles – they kind of pulsate – it was weird!).

Like Dr. Canon and others have said, it is difficult, or maybe impossible, to be able to tell with any certainty if acupuncture is working. Even if Ali were to show improvements after his sessions, we can’t necessarily know if this is attributable to the acupuncture, his “normal” course of recovery, or something else (like the other therapies we are doing). But, at about $40 a session it is relatively inexpensive and I do want to try everything feasible to give him the best chance. And acupuncture will not, from what I understand, hurt him, so I am not that concerned with being able to scientifically say whether it is working or not. The more I learn about this disease and recovery from it, the less I realize is actually definitively known. Nobody really knows what the heck is going on, basically. But I can say within the last few weeks that I have noticed his right leg moving slightly in the cart where until just recently there was nothing. I am going to keep monitoring this and hoping, hoping, hoping his right leg “wakes up” so it can catch up with the left. Who knows, maybe the acupuncture is helping! But I really do think I am seeing something over the last few weeks in his right leg that wasn’t there before.

On a sad note, my neighbors’ dog passed away this morning. His name was Scooby-doo and he was one of those adorable chow mixes that looks like a Teddy bear with a lion’s mane. I knew he had been sick, they thought it was Cushing’s disease, but last I heard they were treating him with some kind of medication. He was ten years old and they adopted him from the LA pound when he was 6 months old. Ali and I were heading home after our morning excursion to the park and I saw them on their porch and waved hello. Shane came up the fence separating our yards and I noticed he was crying and of course I had an awful sinking feeling. He said trough tears, “We lost Scooby this morning.” He was having trouble speaking; I felt so bad. Needless to say they really loved him and as he told me what happened and explained he was in shock I recognized all the terrible emotions I felt when I lost Kobi and how I felt when I almost lost Ali…that desperate, bottomless, raw grief that clutches your heart and squeezes until you can barely breathe. The world goes all crooked and nothing seems real. My heart broke for him and his wife and I wished so much I could just take their pain away. After I lost Kobi, I said I would never adopt another dog (I already had Ali), that the pain of losing him was just too much to go through again. Now, although I wish I didn’t and instead could just enjoy and appreciate every single second with him, I think a lot, probably too much, about losing Ali. I try so hard not to go there but it’s hard for my obsessive brain sometimes. I just love him so much. There are no words. He is a very precious individual to me. Our relationship, while of course different from my relationships with people, is special and unique. I honestly don’t know how people with kids do it. I would definitely be one of those crazy overprotective moms who would not let her child out of her sight until he was 18. I like to think I wouldn’t be, but I know myself…I am a worrier. I get that from my mom, of course. She would call me when I was away at college to warn me if it was going to rain that day and to tell me to be careful outside. She refuses to get on a plane and she did not want me to move to California because it was going to fall into the ocean any minute. You know the type. I am much more laid back and adventurous than she is (it would be hard not to – no offense, mom, you know I love you!) but I can’t shake off the anxiety completely. I am afraid of a lot of things: mountain lions, idiot drivers, heights, small spaces, and countless other everyday terrors. But most of all I am afraid of failing someone I love, someone who is dependent upon me to take care of them. And this overwhelming protective urge…I feel it so strongly sometimes. But there is only so much you can do to protect someone else.

Anyway, after Kobi died and I said I would never get another dog, people told me I would change my mind eventually. It’s been two years and I’m still not sure. Of course I have had Ali this whole time. I don’t know what it would be like to not share my life with a dog. Then again, it hurts so much to lose them, and we are pretty much guaranteed to lose them unless we meet an untimely end ourselves, given the huge disparity in our relative life spans. I strive for the Buddhist ideal of un-attachment – I know attachment only leads to suffering – but knowing and feeling are two very different things and I have not quite gotten it down yet.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reasons to be happy.

Photos: Ali doing his “standing exercises” at our front door. He can stand for quite a while on his own now; not that long ago, I’d have to hold him to keep him from falling over. Also, Ali in action doing swim therapy. We found a closer place to swim at the Petaluma marina (5 min. drive vs. 50 minutes to the Russian River), but it has not been without problems - however that is a story for another post!

Well, there are certainly many reasons to be happy, but I am cautiously optimistic (okay, let’s face it, pretty darn excited) about some recent developments...mainly the fact that Ali has not yet hit a plateau, i.e. stopped improving (yes, I just knocked on my wood paneling when I wrote that, even thought I am NOT superstitious, ha ha).

We had our appointment at UC-Davis last Tuesday and met with Jackie Woelz, the rehabilitation specialist at the veterinary medical teaching hospital. I really liked her (so did Ali) and the best part was how clearly impressed she was with Ali’s condition. She said I was doing a great job with him and she could tell we had been working hard at home. She was most impressed with his strength through his middle and back – in fact, she said she had never seen a dog so strong through his core who was not yet walking! Jackie’s reaction made me feel pretty good because you never really know if all the standing, etc. is actually doing anything. But seeing how impressed she was made me realize how far we have come in the last five months. She said both the standing and swimming therapy combined have helped make him strong.

While she was evaluating him and showing me new variations on his current home therapy program, Ali was basically standing for the entire hour and a half appointment. Jackie said, “I’ll give you another first…” and she told me she had never seen a dog able to stand for that long, without getting fatigued, who was just 5 months out of surgery. Obviously, this is something else to be happy about! I’m sure Jackie has seen a lot of cases like Ali’s over the years (the vet school at UC Davis is highly regarded), so it really meant something to me that she was that excited about his physical condition.

Juli had told me a while back she can always tell when her clients are not doing the at-home therapy with their dogs. She said many times these dogs regain mobility in their legs, but their back/core is not strong enough to hold them up, so they just sort of drag and flop around, not really able to walk. So I am glad that Ali is strong! If he continues to make improvements in the area of mobility - in other words, if he regains normal motor function in his legs (could it happen??) - he will be strong enough to support himself. I don’t know if my math is accurate (in fact, generally speaking, I am quite sure it is not!), but it would seem that building up his muscle strength and addressing the post-surgery atrophy is half the battle for Ali right now. Of course the other half – movement – is the sexy part; but he needs to be strong too!

So, the plan moving forward is to continue to do standing exercises with him as often and for as long as I can, and to encourage him to take steps while doing it. Jackie said Ali was giving us a lot of material to work with. He can almost take steps with his left leg now, but his right leg holds him back because it does not have as much mobility. We have moved his standing exercises to yoga mats at home since he can do them without the cart now. While he is in standing position, I stand or sit behind him (or hover round him taking photos, ha ha) and make sure his form is good while massaging his hind legs and along each side of his spine (to stimulate the nerves). It continues to be a little challenging because, although he was a perfect angel at UC-Davis, when I am alone he just wants to turn around and look at me! He won’t stand straight; he just keeps twisting around. Jackie suggested putting the yoga mat in front of a door or window, which I did, but he is not interested in what’s outside as much as he is in turning and to look at me! Oh well, we have to keep trying.

Our saving grace is the peanut butter Kong. I am guaranteed at least twenty minute of good solid standing each day for the time he is working his way through the jumbo Kong toy, which I fill with peanut butter and freeze each morning. His attention is so rapt while he excavates the peanut butter that he stands still and does not try to wander off while we do these very important standing exercises. We have another appointment at UC-Davis next week during which we will try the land and water treadmills; for now, though, Jackie said the best “equipment” for Ali’s therapy is my own two hands.

Finally, my boss just told me I don’t have to go on the work trip I mentioned a few posts back (the Taking Action for Animals conference in DC), which is great because it will save me at least $300 in boarding costs for Ali (not to mention the stress of leaving him). Yay! I am so relieved because I have NO money. Of course I am also disappointed because I really wanted to go to this conference and if circumstances were different… but circumstances are not different, and so this is one more reason to be happy.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sociable shepherd.

Maggie and I had a party at our house last weekend - a vegan potluck BBQ in honor of July 4th and our belated housewarming - and Ali had an absolute blast. Unlike many dogs, he is completely unperturbed by fireworks or crowds of strangers tromping through his house…in fact he seems to thrive on it (the large groups of people in his house, not the fireworks). This is rather strange, given his generally higher-than-average level of anxiety, protective tendencies, and oddball neuroses about things like moving water. But there you go – all dogs are individuals with their own inexplicable little quirks! I correctly anticipated that once people started arriving I would be functioning as Ali’s virtual caboose all night, grabbing his shepherd handles to lift his back end and ferrying him from room to room so he could greet, investigate and socialize with people at his whim. But my watchful friends were able to help with this task, so I did actually get a chance to relax and enjoy a cold beer or six. Ali was so tired by the night’s end he could not keep his eyes open. I rarely see him this tired – even swim therapy doesn’t knock him out like a good night of intense social interaction. I may have to throw parties more often...anything for Ali! The one I am most looking forward to is the one where he can walk up to his friends and greet them on his own. Dare to dream!

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Two years ago today my first dog, Kobi, passed away. As human beings we have a need to mark important passages, but this day is no more special than any other, really, except that it marks the day I was forced to make the hardest decision of my life. Seven and a half months before this fateful day, Kobi was 13 years old and in seeming good health (except for the slowing I thought was normal for an older large breed dog) when I discovered he had cancer. They were 98% sure it was lymphoma, a type of cancer that responds relatively well to chemotherapy. What could I do? Those of you who have been reading my blog will guess! I felt I had no choice but to, of course, start treatments. They said the chemo would not make him sick the way it does people and that he could live another two good years if his cancer went into remission. The operative word being “good” – I never would have kept him alive if he was suffering.

Kobi came into my life while I was home from college in the summer of 1994, about a month before I moved out of my parents’ house and into my very first apartment (I had been living in dorms before that). My summer job was at a boarding kennel, and there Kobi was day after day, because someone who worked there could not keep him in his new apartment. I fell in love and stayed after work to play with him every day. One day the guy told me I could have him and the rest was history. I was naïve back then and didn’t know about the tragic pet overpopulation problem. I had always thought I would have to buy a Siberian husky if I wanted one (yup, like many, I had a youthful obsession with the breed) and could not afford it, yet here a perfect beautiful mischievous creature fell into my lap. Oh, did I have no idea what I was in for!

Kobi was my constant companion for 12 years. He was there through so many relationships, residences, and life upheavals I have lost count. I always advise people not to get a dog if they will be moving a lot. Kobi and I moved on average once per year during those years and it was HARD finding rental places that would take big dogs. I could have saved a lot of money and stress had I been dog-less. Never ever would I have considered for a second giving him up, though. He was one and a half years old when I adopted him and I was his third “owner” (his first bought him in a pet store at a New Jersey mall). I vowed to him I would keep him forever, and keep him forever I did. When we started chemo treatments, Kobi responded so well it was amazing. I will never forget in the early days after starting chemo the day we went on a hike along the Russian River with Ali and my friend Steve and his dogs. Kobi was running faster than I had seen him in several years with an unmatched exuberance. It was like he was two years old again. He outran all the dogs and barely seemed tired. That memory still makes my heart warm. As his treatment wore on there were good days, bad days, and for me, many sleepless nights, but the good days always outweighed the bad. Until that last day.

Kobi was too smart for his own good, or maybe my own good. He was a difficult dog to live with, especially as a first dog because I was very naïve about dog behavior back then. Kobi was fiercely independent and never once came when I called him, much to my repeated chagrin when I would make the mistake of letting him off the leash at some park or on a hike. He was an infamous ruiner of picnics and pillager of garbage. He could escape from any enclosure, whether it was over, under or straight through, or by figuring out how to undo the lock. He was clever and had a wicked sense of humor. He did not cuddle and did not care to be petted. He did not need me at all. He was the very embodiment of free spirit. Kobi taught me what unconditional love was – not because he loved me unconditionally (ha! yeah right!) but because inexplicably, irrationally, and with no encouragement whatsoever from him, I felt this mysterious emotion…an emotion that is imbued with action. It carries a commitment.

Ali and Kobi lived together for 3 years. They got along just fine but I would not say they had a strong bond. Kobi did not really bond with anyone, human or fellow dog. They were very different dogs. Where Kobi would run away at the first chance he got, Ali would stick by my side and – surprisingly – come when I called. While Ali would play all day long (stick, tennis ball, squeaky toy, whatever – whatcha got?), Kobi would very rarely run after a ball with comically fleeting enthusiasm, only to get distracted and drop it three seconds later. Where Ali had separation anxiety when I first adopted him and could not stand being left alone, I think Kobi’s only anxiety was the agony of being imprisoned in a human world and not allowed to run wild. After living with Kobi for so long, Ali’s blatant and unrestrained affection for me nourished my love-starved soul. This is not meant to disparage my headstrong self-contained dearly departed friend Kobi. On the contrary, his spirit made me admire him tremendously – as difficult as that “spirit” made it to live with him at times. Because of those difficulties, I really learned what the word “commitment” meant, well before all of this happened with Ali.

Of course, I could not have foreseen what happened with Ali. I had some savings that were rapidly depleted once I started chemotherapy with Kobi, and then I got a credit card just to charge his medicines and treatments. Prior to his illness, I had zero credit card debt, only student loan debt. But as I have said before, I can think of no better reason to go into debt, so there I went. And in case you’re wondering: no, pet insurance does not cover chemotherapy. But I would not change a thing. I was able to buy Kobi seven extra good months doing his favorite things – going to the beach, the river, romping through the woods, and trying to run away until the very end, even though he had slowed down considerably. He never stopped trying.

On the morning of July 10, 2006, he couldn’t try anymore. The cancer had come back with a vengeance and apparently attacked his nervous system. That morning he could not get up. He couldn’t move. Even then, I still thought as I rushed him to emergency, he has had so many ups and downs, they will fix this too. But there was no fixing him this time and his cancer doctor told me the words I never wanted to hear: “If this were my dog, I would euthanize him today. I wouldn’t wait.” He said it was the “beginning of the end” and Kobi wasn’t going to get better this time. There were no treatment options left. I stayed with him for hours, asking him to give me a sign. He lifted his head once, but never again. I agonized over the decision. But I knew I could not keep him around for me. I could not be selfish. I had to do what was right for Kobi. But what was that? Who put me in charge? Sigh. I did, when I took him into my care all those years ago. Even though he had been sick for months it still came as shock to me. I told the doctor I had hoped, barring living forever, that he would pass away in his sleep. He told me it rarely happens that way. So I told him I loved him and a bunch of other things and then said good-bye.

Today I will visit the beach where Kobi spent so much time during his last months and remember his long, amazing life and all the lessons he taught me about responsibility, love, commitment, and freedom. Ali accompanied me on this pilgrimage last year, but because the beach is not accessible to dogs in wheelchairs, this year he will not be able to…so I will keep it short. I have so much more to learn.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tiny Needles.

I took Ali for his first acupuncture session with Dr. Nicole Canon at Sebastopol Animal Clinic on Thursday. I know nothing about acupuncture and had not seen it done before. Just as I had heard, the needles really are tiny! Ali did not seem to mind at all, he was a very good boy, but then he had to sit very still with the needles in for 15 minutes (including one right on top of his head, a few in his back, and a couple in each leg)...always a challenge for a wiggly, anxious German shepherd! Again, he was really good, and I amused us both by taking pictures like those I have posted here. Dr. Canon said it’s usually 3 sessions before she sees any improvement, so I will bring him back once a week for two more weeks and then usually the treatments become more spread out. Acupuncture could potentially help his front legs and/or back legs. It would help his front legs because of the overcompensating pressure being applied that is causing his joints to wear down (similar to arthritis). It will be hard to know if it there is improvement in this area because he is currently on painkillers for his front joints, but I am hoping to be able to take him off this medication eventually. And I’m sure you know what we are hoping for with regard to his back legs!! So, keeping my fingers crossed it will help. It should not hurt, and I want to give him every chance. He is trying so hard! Tomorrow we have an appointment with another canine rehabilitation specialist at the UC-Davis veterinary medical teaching hospital; wish us luck!!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Second time's a charm.

Ali pushed himself into a standing position ALL BY HIMSELF for the second time yesterday evening… and this time I was able to grab my camera fast enough to take some pictures! He stood longer this time than the first time (at least long enough for me to snap seven photos, all the while cooing “Ali, Stay! Good boy! Good!!”); maybe it is easier for him to balance on our air mattress, or maybe it was because his back legs were in a wider, more natural stance. Either way, I am so glad I was able to capture the moment on film this time!!! I am so proud of my baby shepherd. We have so much farther to go, but this is progress! And that's all I keep wishing for.

Friday, June 27, 2008

I really wish I had a picture of this!

Ali stood up yesterday by himself! I mean, it was only for a few seconds. Then he folded over sideways onto his bed like a drunken sailor. And his back legs were not in a normal position (they were too close together and kind of in a line, one behind the other), BUT he pushed himself into a standing position all by himself!! I was gathering my things to leave work at the end of the day and Ali was being his usual I-know-we're-getting-ready-to-go-somewhere restless self and I turned around and he was actually standing up on his bed. Aghast, I said “Oh my god – are you standing up??” I wish I had my camera ready, but I didn’t. I don’t think I would have had time to snap a picture anyway. Needless to say, I was thrilled and he looked pretty pleased with himself! Lately he has been doing a good job pushing himself up with his left leg to change positions on his bed and a few times it looked like he was trying to stand for sure. But this is the first time he has actually succeeded. And I think that’s awesome...even if it was just for a few seconds!!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Over a Barrel.

Photo: Ali in the van waiting to go home after work today. Oops, his booties have holes in them! How embarassing. Seriously, I ordered a new pair and they are on the way...he goes through them fast!

So, I have to travel (for work) to Washington, DC at the end of July for the Taking Action for Animals Conference. I assumed I would board Ali at the Animal Care Center, where he was hospitalized and had his surgeries, because while he was there the techs had mentioned another German shepherd in a doggie wheelchair who boards there when his people are out of town. I was relieved to learn this was an option, as I obviously can’t board him at a regular kennel facility. Last week I called to ask the rates, knowing full well it would be crazy expensive, but in no way prepared for what they told me: "rehab boarding" (special rate for large, non-ambulatory dogs) is $120 per day. Holy CRAP, I say! How can they possibly charge that much (and keep a straight face)?? Well, my friends, because they have me (and others like me, I suppose...but more so ME because I am poor!) over a barrel. My work trip was going to be 5 days (2 days traveling, 3 days conferencing), which adds up to approximately… shoot, where is my calculator?... okay, got it…$600! For a work trip, mind you, not even some fabulous vacation I actually am choosing to go on. How can I afford that? Have I mentioned that I work for a non-profit?? Oh, and they charge per 24-hour period, not per hour. So if you are a few hours over, they still charge you the whole $120. Nice.

But can’t I get the “I spent $16,000 in your facility already, damnit” discount?! Yeah, no…um, that doesn’t exist.

So, hating to do it, I asked my boss if I absolutely had to go. In addition to tabling at the conference, ALDF is hosting an attorney/ law student reception for our members on Saturday evening and, as student liaison, she really wants me to be there for that, so she said I could just fly in for the reception, while Maggie is going to attend the whole conference and table in my place. So this reduces my trip to 3 days (2 days travel, 1 Saturday reception). Plus my mom offered, without my even asking, to pay half of his boarding fee, which was really, really sweet. Finally, Maggie really wanted to go to this conference, so I am happy for her that she gets to go now. Still it would be nice if I didn’t have to go at all, but this will cut Ali’s boarding time almost in half, so I have to be grateful for that. And I have to travel for work again in September and October, so this will be a recurring problem that I need to deal with.

But isn’t there anyone who can watch him for me? Good question! Many of the people who have watched him in the past are no longer options because their houses and apartments are perched atop stairs... now insurmountable obstacles for Alec. Kevin, who often took care of Ali before when I traveled, could be a good solution because he lives mostly on the first floor with just a few steps leading up to his house. Although the steps would be a problem for me (I can barely lift Ali high enough to get him in and out of the van), Kevin is strong enough to actually pick Ali up and carry him, so could probably easily lift him up and down the steps. But Kevin is out of town for two months...

Could I leave Ali home? Well, I thought so. Maggie offered to watch him without hesitation when she learned how much it would cost to board him. I really appreciated this; she has been so incredibly helpful ever since we moved in together (and even before) and has been simply the best roommate to have while dealing with Ali’s situation. However, Maggie shares with me the not-so-strong problem, with the difference being I am totally used to all the difficult little everyday things involved with taking care of Ali. Lifting his back end up and into his cart is no small feat (especially given his propensity to wiggle about!) and the ramp at our house is actually pretty difficult to negotiate given it is quite steep. There is just a lot involved with caring for my 67 lb. beloved baby shepherd loaf, stuff I have gotten used to.

Now, all of this could be learned by another person, right? Sure! That’s what I was thinking, until the day after her generous offer, when Ali completely tipped over in his cart while going down the ramp. This scared the heck out of me. It happened so fast; his cart just caught the edge of the bottom of the ramp when he tried to turn too quickly – even with me holding onto him – and over he went. Then he started flailing and I didn’t know what to do but struggled to stay calm and keep him calm so he would not hurt himself. I could not get him upright in the cart the way he was down so I had to unhitch the cart and get him out of it, which I did, and begged him to “stay!” lying down on the sidewalk while I righted the cart and then got him back in it. He seemed fine, but I was mildly traumatized. I kept having flashes of it happening again. If that happened on my watch -- me, who guides him up and down the ramp multiple times a day -- how many things could go horribly wrong while someone else was watching him?? This is not to say I don’t trust Maggie – I really do. The best way to describe it is that it felt like an ominous sign (especially given the timing). Not that I am superstitious (well, maybe a little… which reminds me that I heard an interesting piece on superstition the other day in honor of Friday the 13th on NPR and the psychologist was saying that there is not one set of traits superstitious people share but that they do tend to score higher on measures of anxiety – you know, superstitious beliefs as a way to maintain the illusion of control over one’s world. That makes sense to me and despite my penchant for rationality, being of the anxious persuasion I definitely fit the profile.), but for whatever reason that scary little accident told me I would not be comfortable unless I boarded him. So that’s what we’re going to do. But hot damn, why do they have to be so expensive?!!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Plan B

After Ali’s first successful session with the underwater treadmill, the plan was to go back once a week, gradually increasing his time in the hydrotherapy tank. I guess Ali decided he did not like that plan, because the next time we went back he refused to walk. Juli, the therapist, would not struggle with him, saying it is not good if he is fighting it. So we left and, feeling disappointed, I cancelled our remaining appointments. Ali had done so well the first time; I had really high hopes! But for some reason he was feeling stressed the second time. Because I had mentioned Ali liked to go swimming before his injury, Juli suggested an alternative to the hydrotherapy tank: taking him to a river to see if he would swim. So that weekend Kevin and I took him to the Napa River and, despite some stress getting him up and down an unexpectedly steep embankment and navigating the ridiculously rocky river bottom, it went really well. I started off slow, letting him wade (me holding his back end up) and then I gently tossed a tennis ball to see if he wanted to swim and he did… he was even kicking with both his back legs!

Each week since, I have taken him to Johnson’s Beach on the Russian River in downtown Guerneville, usually with a friend or three in tow, to swim for about 20 minutes. The Russian River is much better suited to the purpose of therapeutic swimming; it is flatter with a sandy bottom. Once we arrive, I load Ali up in his wheelchair and let him wade around with his wheels in the shallow water for a few minutes. Then I take him out of his wheelchair and, holding onto his “float coat” (life vest thingy) with one hand and rear harness with the other, I walk him into the water until it is deep enough for him to not touch, and then I toss a tennis ball until he seems like he is getting tired. At first we did this for 10 minutes but I have gradually increased the time to 20 minutes. I always expect him to crash after all that exercise and I need to be careful he does not overdo it, but surprisingly he never seems tired afterwards! Juli says anything that gets his back legs moving is excellent therapy, and swimming is great cardio and good for him psychologically. So that is Plan B. Out with the treadmill, into the river...stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I love this dog so much.

It’s crazy to me to think that many people would have euthanized him either before surgery or after, when he could neither walk nor go to the bathroom on his own. Basically when he was at his lowest, and I was at my most frightened, wondering: how can I possibly manage his condition all by myself? Yet, I never considered not trying. That thought only would have crossed my mind if he were suffering, which he was not, despite his new limitations. There were countless challenges with taking care of him in those early days and weeks - sometimes when I think about it now it seems like a dream - and I'm not sure how I did it.

But it’s amazing to me how far he has come in just over three months. I know he will walk again someday. I will never give up on him! And even if he never walks again, so be it. He is not in pain and remains the same happy, playful, goofy, sweet Ali he always was. Sure, there are things he can’t do anymore, but that’s true of people who are disabled too. And while dogs are not able to conceptualize or think about their disability the way people can, this actually seems to serve them quite well in terms of adjustment; dogs don’t dwell on their disability in the least. It’s the human caretakers who are most inconvenienced, of course: financially, physically, emotionally, socially…there are many lifestyle sacrifices that come along with taking care of a disabled dog. As far as I’m concerned this is what we all sign up for when we invite a helpless being into our lives with the tacit promise to take care of them (not to degrade Ali and his brethren by calling them helpless, but dogs have been [over]bred to be utterly dependent on humans and, in our anthropocentric society, they are, indeed, “helpless”). At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I really wish other people valued their companion animals half as much. Yes, I have worked in animal shelters and have seen firsthand just how easily people discard their pets. Even with the magnitude of his injury and the massive cost of treatment, it never crossed my mind not to do everything I could for Ali. So, I have to go into debt. People are in debt for way worse and far more frivolous reasons than saving a life or helping out a friend in need – regardless of species. It just kills me to think of the comment one of Courtney’s friends made when she told him what was going on when Ali was still in the hospital: “a bullet would be cheaper.” All I can say is, I’m glad I don’t know that guy. Okay end of random rumination. I have to go hug my amazing dog now.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

It looks like he is just standing there, but…

…this is an important part of Ali’s physical therapy: weight bearing. At least twice a day we come to the park and I have him "stay" for ten minutes in a standing position so that he can put weight on his back legs. This type of exercise is important to counteract the effects of atrophy, which are already quite pronounced (his right hind leg, the weaker, is more atrophied than his left). If and when his motor function returns, it is important that he be strong enough to hold his own weight – otherwise we will have a situation where he can move his legs but is not strong enough to do really anything with them (stand up, walk). I also do “sit-to-stand” exercises with him a few times a day, which are pretty much as they sound. I start with him in a standing position and ask him to “sit” back onto my knee. Lots of praise! Then, with me supporting his hind end, I encourage him to push off and stand up. We repeat this a few times...as many as a wiggly, restless German shepherd can tolerate! This is good for strength and reawakening muscle memory.

So, in terms of Ali’s ongoing physical therapy, it is important to have him bear weight on a regular basis. It can be challenging; ten minutes seems like nothing but it can feel like an eternity to both of us while we are just standing there. I try to distract him with sticks and cookies to make the time go by quickly. It’s hard of course because he is a dog and standing still is not exactly a natural posture at the park! He is such a good boy, though. I can only imagine how much more difficult this exercise that looks like “nothing” would be with some other dogs who are less inclined to want to please their guardians (my late great husky, Kobi, immediately comes to mind!).

It is also challenging because people just love to walk right up to us in the park, with their dogs no less, even when we are hiding behind a rosebush trying to be inconspicuous. Of course no dog – no matter how well-behaved – can stay still in these circumstances so I have to politely tell them we are doing physical therapy and cannot talk at the moment, and sorry, but no, he cannot meet your dog right now. Ali’s wheelchair is an oddity and I knew he would draw attention but I am patently shocked at how many people flat out stare at us, turn their vehicles around in the street, and just approach us constantly with questions and comments, some innocuous and polite, others just plain annoying and nosy. Some dogs have reacted badly to Ali’s wheelchair and so I am much more cautious about him meeting other dogs in the park. In fact, I pretty much avoid it now. But I can’t take any chances. My neighbor’s dog recently tried to start a fight with Ali after they came up to us in the park and she assured me her dog was friendly. As soon as they sniffed noses her dog went for Ali and I had to pull him away from her – trying to make sure his wheelchair did not tip over in the process! Immediately she apologized and said she realized too late that her dog might react badly to Ali's wheels as she barks at strange objects...including people in wheelchairs (!). Um, I wish you had thought of that beforehand! Anyway, Ali was alright but it has made me even more cautious than I already was, which is why it is a constant challenge dealing with people walking right up to us with their dogs, without even asking if it is okay first. Even when I turn around and walk in the other direction they sometimes follow us! And this is not an off-leash dog park I should add, lest I sound overly harsh. There are signs posted that your dog must be on a leash. It is a de facto dog park however and I really don’t care if people violate the leash law, as long as their dogs are under control, which unfortunately usually they are not! Nothing new – careless dog owners abound in general – but the stakes are higher for sure now that Ali is disabled.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Both Dr. Tieber and Juli were happy with Ali’s progress at his re-check appointment on Friday. Dr. Tieber thinks he definitely has some pain sensation and this is good. She did not seem concerned about the cross extensor reflex. She said this is just a sign of a severe upper motor neuron lesion but does not mean he will not recover motor function. We put him in the underwater treadmill and he did well. When the tank filled up with water and Juli (who was in the tank with Ali) let go of him, he was able to stand with the weight of the water helping him. Although he wasn’t able to walk by himself on the treadmill, his left leg was definitely moving. Juli said he was not strong enough to break through the water on his own, but he was initiating movement and then she would help him complete the arc of a forward step. The right leg is his weaker and though she did not feel it moving she thinks there is “something there.” I am going to bring him back for hydro-therapy appointments once a week moving forward. He will only be in the tank for about 5 minutes each session until he gets stronger. Combined with the exercises we continue to do at home, it is my fervent hope he will continue to improve a little each day. I know he can do it!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ah, moving...does it ever go smoothly?

I am happy to report that the move went very well! Except for the unfortunate accident I had involving a beer bottle, my wrist, and a lot of blood. No, I wasn’t drunk! I wasn’t even drinking. I swear. I was unloading my van, trying to get Ali’s big orthopedic bed out, when an errant 6-pack started tumbling toward the door (in that weird combination of slow and fast motion). A couple bottles hurtled past me to the ground and smashed in the gutter and in my panicked attempt to keep more from falling somehow I caused another one to crack open and the jagged pieces hit my wrist on the way down. What a mess…glass and beer everywhere (hi, new neighbors)! Once the blood started gushing and I saw where the three main cuts were (one was right in the suicide place, scarily near my vein, and the other was so deep it would more accurately be described as a “gash”), I started to get faint and called my roommate Maggie at work, just so someone would know where I was in case I passed out and bled to death, and she came immediately with our dusty ALDF first aid kit and bandaged me right up. She is awesome!! Why is this relevant to my Ali blog? Well, it was my right wrist and it was really painful (not to mention disgusting) for a couple days and I need both my hands and arms to deal with Ali without hurting us, so it was tricky. But a little over a week later I am completely healed and trying to be much more careful around glass. Although I think I may be accident prone.

To get to the raison d’être of this blog, Ali is doing really well and has settled nicely at our new place in Petaluma. He is using the ramp successfully and the park across the street is very convenient for us. I take him there 3 times a day (2 on work days) to exercise, go potty, and do ten minutes of standing exercises in his cart. He and Rita, Maggie’s dog, are getting along great and I couldn’t ask for a better canine roommate for him right now. She is pretty low key which is good, because he wanted to play immediately when he met her, and when Ali plays he throws his whole body into and even likes to spin around (his infamous “play spins”), so I had to watch him pretty carefully to make sure he did not overexert himself. It has been interesting adjusting to life outside of one room, because of course he sometimes wants to travel from room to room, or greet Maggie and Rita when they come home, and meet new people when they come over. I have to watch him so he does not drag himself, which he definitely was trying to do a lot at first (and still does sometimes) and when he wants to get up I run over and grab him by his Walkabout rear harness (aka his “shepherd handles”), which I leave on him all day until we go to bed, and assist him by lifting his rear legs so he can walk where he wants using his front. The rest of the time he is on one of his beds. Getting to and from work has been a challenge (obviously compared to the convenience of living in my office, ho, ho, ho). Everything takes so much longer, getting him in and out of the car is kind of tricky (and making sure he doesn’t get himself into some weird position while I am driving), but we are getting into the new routine. Last week we were able to join in our first staff dog walk since his surgery over two months ago, which was great. The other dogs were not quite sure what to make of his wheelchair at first, but it didn’t stop Alec from his favorite activity while walking with a group dogs – trying to pull to the head of the pack so he can be the first one in what must appear to onlookers like a dog parade.

I still need to keep his walks short and it’s better for his joints if he walks on grass (hence the park across the street being so convenient), but Juli, his rehab therapist, says eventually he can take long walks in the cart. For now though, she emphasizes that physical therapy is the most important thing I can do with him in the cart, more important than going on walks, and I need to keep doing his exercises throughout the day. She showed me a new exercise where I assist him to sit and then stand several times throughout the day for one minute. She came by last weekend to help with his cart problems and showed me a way to get him to urinate in the cart and it is working so I am very happy about that! Moreover, she believes she see some slight movement at the top of his back legs, where they meet the rest of his body (this is called “proximal motor”). She also believes he has deep pain perception (I pinched his tail once in front of her and she saw him react – the reaction I could not get for the neurologist during our initial re-check exam back in March). Since Juli believes Ali is showing some improvement, she suggested I make an appointment at Animal Care Center with the Dr. Tieber for another re-check. She said because she is not a doctor she can only “assess” Ali’s condition but not “diagnose” and thinks I should get a neurologist’s opinion on what she believes she is observing (i.e. some return of motor function).

After we see the neurologist, Dr. Tieber, we are going to have a rehab appointment with Juli and put Ali in the hydro-therapy tank for the first time. I really hope Dr. Tieber confirms what Juli is seeing. I feel like he is improving too – it seems like I can see his legs moving slightly sometimes in the cart – but I am afraid to get my hopes too far up. Our appointment is on Friday morning. Wish us luck!!!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Moving out of the ALDF office tomorrow!

It has been nine weeks since Ali’s second surgery, which means we have been crashing at ALDF headquarters for two months (if you just tuned in, we are living in my office because my former apartment in San Francisco has stairs and we needed to be on the ground floor for Ali's recovery). Strangely, living in my office has actually become comfortable. It just goes to show how adaptable we are, I guess! Ali has adjusted amazingly well to not having use of his back legs and I have adjusted to living at work in a hybrid office/dorm room the size of a shoebox. The thing is, at this point, living here is a known quantity, whereas my new place has all manner of exigencies and contingencies. There is a whole new routine we will have to create and then there is that ramp…I will have to saddle him up in his cart (a routine in itself to which we are both still adjusting) and use the ramp every single time we need to leave the house. No more sling-walking him outside to go to the bathroom (my back finally stopped hurting, so that actually became easier). I will have to start loading him in and out of the van (with another ramp) to go to work, and in and out of his cart every time we get in and out of the van. Then there is Seniorita (Rita, for short), my new roommate’s dog, whom Alec has not even met yet. This will be interesting!

I am trying not to completely freak out, but moving is always and inherently stressful. Throw in a paraplegic German shepherd with a brand new wheelchair and a new canine roommate and I imagine things can get real interesting real fast. There is also a park right across the street that appears to be a de facto off-leash dog park. It will be nice to have a big grassy area in such close proximity for Ali, but I am not sure how he will be about meeting other dogs in his wheels. He is usually fine at dog parks (as long as he is off leash), but I also need to be concerned with him not moving too much, so I’m not quite sure how this is going to be. My new neighbors also have two dogs who are outside a lot, so…lots of unknown factors, which are making me oddly reluctant to leave my cozy known quantity of an office/dorm room. We have a nice routine here that is working. But it is time to go. I can see how people become shut-ins, though, sort of. I am taking the day off tomorrow to make the move just so I can take my time with Ali and all this newness. Tonight though, I am going to pour myself a glass of wine and stop worrying.

Because I have been kvetching about Eddie’s Wheels all day and I am tired of it, just a quick update about Ali’s inability to urinate in the cart. Juli, the fabulous and amazing canine rehabilitation specialist, came by today and rigged a soft saddle on the part of the cart that was pinching his urethra. It seems to be working part of the time. I will know more soon. But it’s nice to know she is willing to help us. I don’t know what we’d do without her! Oh, and she let me know I am not the only person who has had problems with Leslie from Eddie’s Wheels. Apparently, another physical therapist she knows refuses to work with her because of her attitude. But she also told me that Eddie’s Wheels carts are the best on the market and far superior to other brands, in her opinion. So hopefully we can make this work for Ali. But if anyone stumbles on this who is considering a cart for your dog, beware the urethra-pinching saddle if you have a male dog! They won’t tell you about it beforehand but it can be a serious problem. I am afraid Ali may have developed another urinary tract infection from not being able to properly urinate those first couple days in the cart. So this is a serious flaw for which they should take responsibility and be compelled, from a purely ethical standpoint (unbridled capitalism not withstanding), to start disclosing. This not a chair or an ipod they are manufacturing; it is a wheelchair – a ticket to mobility, freedom, and life – for a living being whom somebody loves very, very, very, very, very much.

Photo: Ali in the ALDF kitchen today, before his mid-day stroll.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Hmm, not so "petit" after all...and completely disenchanted with Eddie's Wheels.

Well, it looks like the “little problem” might be bigger than I thought. Leslie from Eddie’s Wheels unfortunately has been less than helpful. First she suggested I try “compressing” his bladder in the cart to get a stream flowing, since part of DM (degenerative myelopathy) is losing sphincter strength. I reminded her that Alec has IVDD, not DM, and explained that he has full bladder control and has not needed to be expressed in over a month. I also let her know that it’s basically impossible to express a dog who has control of his bladder muscles. I told her the only “accident” he had was the day after he got his cart because he was not able to urinate in it (despite the fact that I had no warning of this potentiality). And I said it was my understanding that dogs could urinate and defecate with no problem in these carts and that I would have considered different designs had I known this might be a problem. Finally, I let her know lifting his tail had worked a couple times, and not worked a couple times.

Her reply: “Most dogs can urinate with no problem in our carts, but a small percentage of males do have problems. I am sorry that your dog is one of them. Usually shifting the dog in the saddle solves the problem.”

Well, gee thanks! I only spent $500 on a cart that my poor dog, who has been through so danged much, can’t even urinate in (a serious problem given that a not-empty bladder virtually guarantees a urinary tract infection), which might be fine except for the fact that it says this on their website:

"Your pet can easily relieve itself and perform its normal bodily functions while in the cart."

No mention of the "small percentage" of males who have problems, which of course would be helpful for customers to know before purchasing their cart, a rather expensive item. I can’t believe they would not even mention this “little problem” – a potential risk that the cart will pinch his urethra, thereby making it impossible for him to continue to urinate normally. And then act like it’s MY problem after they sell me the cart! Rrrrr. Yes, I am pissed off. Because Alec has had to deal with so much already and I really thought the people at this company actually cared about their clients’ companion animals. I guess once the sale is made, things change.

Luckily, Juli the rehab specialist is an angel and has been so helpful to us. She encouraged me not to return the cart – which they were only going to refund 2/3 the price of anyway…if I returned it in “new condition.” After paying shipping costs, I probably would have gotten $20 back. Not to mention no more walks for Alec until I ordered another cart and that we wouldn’t be able to move out of the office for several more weeks…ugh! Juli is convinced we can make it work and she even offered to come by tomorrow to see what she can do. We are so grateful for her. She is so much more helpful than the people who actually sold us the product. Thank you, Juli!! Tonight I shifted him around some and he was able to get a stream going, so maybe I will be able to fix this problem on my own. I hope so. No thanks to you, Eddie’s Wheels! I really hope they add a disclaimer to their website so other people will be aware of this potential problem before they put their dog in it.

Photo: A much happier moment right after the cart arrived, before I knew the thing would squish his urethra! Ali is enjoying a flying saucer filled with peanut butter, which successfully distracted him while we put him in the strange new contraption for the first time.