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A DOG'S LIFE
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When her dog Scout was left paralyzed, Shawna Richer had a choice: put her down, or help her get back up. The next nine months showed her the lengths - physical, financial, emotional - to which people will go for their pets
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By SHAWNA RICHER
  
  

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Saturday, December 15, 2018 – Page O1

Shawna Richer is The Globe and Mail's Sports and Features Editor.

I lifted Scout from her dog bed the way the surgeon had instructed, one arm cradling her bottom and the other under her front legs, and gently carried her to my bed. I set her on the comforter up high near the pillow, and lay down facing her. Running my fingers over her soft floppy ears, I stared at her back, shaved to stubble, afraid to touch below her shoulders. It was after midnight but I stayed in my jeans and sweater on top of the covers, wanting to be close to her.

After six nights in intensive care, I didn't want Scout to sleep alone in the living room, where she normally spent the first half of each night before bounding onto the bed and burrowing behind my knees. She usually slept stretched out, or if it was hot, on her back, four legs in the air, or if it was cold, curled in a ball nose to tail. Tonight she was limp, a puddle of black fur, 27 half-inch surgical staples and a near footlong incision down the middle of her back.

Scout yawned, and I did, too.

She closed her eyes and sighed. I lay awake for hours, rubbing the scruff of her neck, feeling her soft breath on my arm. I woke up in my clothes.

A three-year-old Labrador retriever/Border collie rescue, Scout has the ears, short black coat and webbed toes of a black Lab, and the markings, feathery tail and behind, size and temperament of a Border collie. She's intelligent, athletic, obsessive, sometimes anxious and compulsively protective. I haven't been in the bathroom alone since the day I brought her home.

People who have not loved a dog will never experience the most honest, pure and unconditional relationship a human can have. But to love a dog is to sign up for heartbreak. You'll surely outlive them. Accidents occur and illness happens. When you love a dog, you have a say over a life that has a price on it. You know the judgment that comes from loving a pet so much you'd do just about anything for it.

And as I lay on the bed with her in those early morning hours, I wondered how far I would go for her. Was there anything I wouldn't do? I already knew the answer, but I still wasn't prepared for what was to come.

St. Patrick's Day more than hinted at spring. We were in High Park, in west-end Toronto, where many of our Saturdays began. I planned my weekends around Scout's exercise - a long trip to the park, trail or beach first thing in the morning. Scout, afraid of the subway as a puppy, had come to love it because it took her to this inner-city forest. She thrilled with exploring the woods, rooting out chipmunks and chasing squirrels from one treetop to the next.

We had spent two hours at the park and were about to leave when Penny, a dog Scout loved to squirrel with, showed up. I decided we would stay a little longer.

After a while Scout fell into running with a small pack of dogs.

She lived to run. Last winter, she chased a snowplow along a fence stretching a half-kilometre back and forth for an hour, so tirelessly that the driver stopped and apologized to her for taking so long to clear the drifts.

They raced among the trees in a blur. Suddenly, one of the dogs changed direction and Scout, usually the most nimble in a pack, collided with it. The impact drove her into a tree a few feet on. The sound she made - a piercing scream - I will never forget.

I am not a runner, but I crossed the distance between us so fast I don't remember doing it. Scout whimpered and tried to come to me but collapsed. Stay there girl, I said, as a small group of people gathered around, murmuring.

Panting and trembling, Scout wobbled to her feet. Her back paws bent over on themselves grotesquely. Her brown eyes were glassy. I was breathing but the air wasn't reaching my lungs. I looked up, squinting into sunlight-obscured faces, searching for Penny's owner, Daniela. We took the subway here, I said, not hearing myself say the words. Daniela took her daughter in one hand and Penny's leash in the other. Get her to the car, she said.

On the way to our vet, I sat between Scout and 10-year-old Maya, who was quiet. Scout stood staring out the window. She even ate a few treats that Maya passed across. Maybe she's faking because she wanted a car ride back home, I said, trying to sound upbeat.

Once at the vet's office, Scout walked from the car, up a small flight of stairs and into the waiting room. She padded slowly up and down the hall. The vet suggested I go home, three blocks away, to wait, because her lower body X-ray would take more than an hour. I was on the couch still in my dirty sweatpants when the vet called to say Scout had a dislocated toe. My terror began to ease.

We'll give you some painkillers and no running for two weeks, she said. Come shortly and take her home.

But when I arrived, the vet met me in an examination room alone. Over the past hour her back legs had begun buckling.

She needs to see a neurologist, the vet said, adding that she'd already called ahead to the Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Scarborough.

In the taxi, Scout panted and trembled in my lap. A vet tech with a small gurney met us in the parking lot and took her inside. I wouldn't see her again for four days.

The on-call veterinarian was reassuring at first, saying he didn't think that the impact could have caused a serious spinal injury. I had a choice, he said: I could take her home and keep an eye on her, or they could watch her overnight. I felt uneasy. He asked if I wanted a spinal X-ray. Embarrassed, I asked how much it would cost. Four hundred dollars.

If it was your dog, would you? He nodded.

The X-ray revealed a fracture, a tiny chip between Scout's 12th and 13th vertebrae causing compression on her spinal cord. The vet reported she still had movement in her back legs and felt deep pain, a good sign. Once that disappears, permanent paralysis is far more likely. She'd need surgery, he said, but they preferred to operate on weekdays when the hospital is fully staffed. They'd watch her overnight.

All I wanted was to see her, but he said it was best not to; she needed to stay still and calm. I worried she was scared and alone.

I'd been texting and talking with my best friends, Sue in New York and Kim, who lives in Toronto, since I'd arrived at the hospital around noon. It was now after eight and each text and call had become graver.

Kim said she'd pick me up. She is Scout's best human friend and loves her as if she were her own dog. When Scout was a puppy, Kim paid her a visit almost every weekday afternoon. When my credit card maxed out at the hospital, Kim was there with hers.

As we drove to my place, I reasoned out all the scenarios to Kim, some medically impossible - she would stabilize overnight and be fine - and others apocalyptic - she would die without me having seen her. We stopped and bought some beer, and took it to my apartment.

We talked until after midnight, asking questions that made us ache. What if Scout was permanently paralyzed? Should she be spared that? Would it be more cruel to put her down or keep her alive? What would my active, energetic dog want? I looked at her empty bed in the corner, her bone and toy duck in the middle of the floor. I was willing to live with a pile of debt if pet insurance wouldn't pay. But what did I really want? I just wanted the dog I had 18 hours earlier.

The next morning, the doctor called. Scout's hind end was now paralyzed. There was a reasonable chance surgery would leave her able to walk to some degree or another, but no one could make any promises. It would cost somewhere between $11,000 and $15,000.

The other option, unspoken, was euthanasia. I tried to navigate the logistics I'd spent the previous sleepless night on. Bills, work, Scout no longer a regular dog. I couldn't focus my thoughts, but my heart felt clear. She took care of me and I would try and do the same. If surgery didn't fix her I would confront that later.

In deciding how far to go to save a pet with health problems, people fall on two sides - those who'd do whatever it takes, pay staggering bills, take leaves from their jobs, and those who see a broken animal as a costly nuisance, something that can be replaced. I've heard from vets about people who, wanting to do the right thing, take a sick or injured pet for help but don't return, avoiding the bill and work of recovery. Is there always a right answer? What role does suffering and quality of life play? And how do you navigate it when you're in the middle of an emergency, swamped by uncertainty and unknowns?

As our journey unfolded over the spring and summer, there were times I found myself questioning whether I was really up for the struggle. Was I crazy for willingly sacrificing so much for my dog? I called veterinary behaviorist Nicholas Dodman, author of The Dog Who Loved Too Much and co-founder of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, only to discover he and I were kindred spirits.

"Some people are sensitive and powerfully empathetic, they can project themselves into another situation, whether it's a suffering dog or a child dying of malnutrition on the other side of the world," he said. "And there are people who, unlike the more sensitive ones who bond very closely with their dog, with their family, their loved ones, actually have no capacity for empathy at all. Those people don't understand people like us, and we don't understand people like them.

"To look into [a dog's] eyes and watch the lights go out as they go to sleep, it's so heartbreaking I can't imagine anybody apart from the toughest people can do that without being seriously affected. So the decision becomes let's not do it, let's give healing a chance."

Scout came into my life in the middle of a January night in the parking lot of a Super 8 near Rochester, N.Y. A rescue worker plucked all 11 pounds and 12 weeks of her from a crate on the back of a truck and slipped her into my arms. It was raining and I tucked her inside my pea coat.

She snuffled my neck. You're home, I whispered. And although I didn't realize it at the time, so was I.

I have loved many dogs. Carmel, a redbone coonhound and my first childhood dog, was a stray my dad brought home. A conservation officer, he often encountered abandoned mutts. We got Benny from the Hamilton SPCA after Carmel, determined to be free, ran away. Benny, a Lab/ German shorthaired pointer puppy with salt and pepper fur and black spots, lived to 14. Then Bear, a black Lab/German Shepherd mix arrived. He died at 12, suffering from stomach cancer. Benny and Bear are buried in the back yard at my parents' house. At times, our house was a foster home for lost dogs, such as the old hound with cut paws and bleeding gums my dad found, and the golden retriever covered in ice from head to tail. He'd take stray dogs to the vet, give them food and a bed, and find them a new home.

Until I adopted Scout, I'd been a dog person in search of a dog of my own.

I found her on the rescue website Petfinder and it really was love at first sight.

Her face was gentle and curious, with old-soul eyes. She had four white paws and a blaze of white the shape of Texas on her chest. In the litter's adoption video, she was the one always at the bottom of the pile. I had settled on two possible names - Scout and Charlotte - from favourite books growing up. But when her warm, plump puppy body was in my arms, I called her Scout.

I'd wanted a Lab mixed with something smart and sweet and stumbled on a litter of Lab/Border collie pups in Mt. Airy, N.C., in December, 2015. The rescue pulled dogs from high kill shelters and adopted them to the northeast United States and Canada, employing a truck to deliver dogs to their new families every two weeks.

I hadn't planned on getting a puppy. I'd never felt brave enough to try to take care of something that required so much attention. But I had wanted a dog of my own for as long as I can remember. I imagined that having a dog would be a good antidote to depression; it would get me out of my own head, serve as an anchor outside of work and make me feel safe. A dog would push me out of the house and into the world, and it would keep me home, too, when it was better to be there.

With Scout, I had something to focus on other than myself.

Housebreaking alone was a full time job. On weekends, I was up by seven o'clock, because no one can sleep with the Looming Dog Alarm Clock. I made small talk with strangers, as long as they had a dog. I stayed in more at night, busy with belly rubs, teaching tricks and playing tug of war. Everything was nicer with her around. Reading books and watching movies. Sleeping. Walking. She followed me everywhere.

Training her made me feel good at something. She was the best comfort and company, a mostly serious dog full of concern, unless there were squirrels to be chased, a ball to be thrown or a lake to be conquered. She made me laugh every day. Love does find you.

As Kim and I drove back to the hospital for Scout's surgery, neurologist Andrew Barker and orthopedic surgeon Carl Porter called to explain how they planned to relieve the pressure on Scout's spinal cord and realign and stabilize her vertebrae with plates and screws. Dr. Barker said the injury was unusually traumatic, akin to being hit by a car or falling off a cliff. He'd never seen anything like it.

Even though I likely wouldn't be able to see Scout afterward, I felt she'd know I was there. In the waiting room for nearly six hours, Kim read and I mostly stared at the wall. We saw people sob after learning their dog had to be put down. We watched a couple arrange to spend hundreds on cremation and a memorial for their cat.

For the past few years, I've paid around $70 each month for pet insurance I never expected to use until Scout was older. I'd called Petplan earlier that day to let them know what happened. Send us the invoices, they said. But until a claim is submitted, there's no way to gauge eligibility. Claims are typically rejected for something in the dog's previous medical history, a pre-existing condition often breed specific or belief that something is covered when it isn't. This is what often stops people from buying it.

I felt lucky to have the insurance, and ability (with short-term help from Kim) to cover the costs up front. Not being able to afford veterinary care is usually what keeps people from trying to save their pets. In Canada, we rarely have to make a choice about medical care for the people we love.

But health insurance for the pets we love is optional and I know many who don't think it's worth it. A growing trend when facing enormous vet bills is to start a GoFundMe campaign. I bought insurance because I'm cautious and worry too much. Now I panicked they might not pay.

Scout emerged from surgery with a good prognosis, even though her back end was paralyzed. The doctors called each morning after rounds. They said she was stoic and sweet to everyone that tended to her, pulling herself to the front of her cage and licking their hands. This surprised me because she was so wary of strangers.

A few days later, I got to visit.

They brought her to me in an exam room on a blanket on the floor. A bandage the size of a hand towel covered her back. She was attached to an IV. She had a catheter. She was heavily drugged. She put her head on my leg, closed her eyes and fell asleep.

If she was going to walk again, intense rehabilitation therapy would have to start soon. The day Scout was discharged, Kim and I looped a towel under her back end and lugged her clumsily to the car. It was like carrying an octopus. Her back legs hung limp and dragged behind her. Her paws grazed the parking lot. Her tail drooped.

Once home, she slept. And slept. When the Tramadol and Gabapentin wore off, she panted and trembled. Twice a day, she fought each pill, refusing to swallow, pretending to swallow, chomping them to pieces and spitting powder in the air. Wrapping them in chicken skin did not fool her. I had to get the hang of tossing the capsules way back in her throat and massaging them down.

She hadn't had a bowel movement in days. She couldn't pee unless I massaged her lower belly.

She wouldn't eat and neither could I. In a week, she lost nine of her 40 pounds. I lost 10.

Suddenly, I didn't recognize my life. I rotated from cumbersome trips outdoors to hours sitting by her bed as I tried to work, laptop on the floor. At night, I held each foot and slowly rotated her legs in wide circles, the way the exercise chart we'd been sent home with showed, even as she slept.

I watched her constantly. One time, I left her on the bed to go refill my coffee cup and she cannonballed over the side trying to follow me, landing on the floor with a thud, unhurt.

I felt alone and constantly fearful, afraid Scout wouldn't improve, afraid insurance wouldn't come through, afraid, inexplicably, that something else was going to happen. I ordered an expensive dog first-aid kit from L.L. Bean. I ordered her a seatbelt. I was nervous driving, even walking down the street. I was convinced another freak accident was around the corner.

I tried to treat the smallest progressions as significant. After a week or so, I noticed Scout's tail twitch. This seemed like a big deal.

TVEH's Instagram showed determined dogs on stability balls and treadmills, dogs getting laser therapy, one success story after another. I made an appointment with the hospital's physical therapist Jenna Cook.

Living downtown means not owning a car. Getting Scout to Scarborough two days a week meant renting one. The bills, and my Hertz points, mounted.

Scout loves a car ride more than food. She was excited to go to the hospital. But she didn't like being left there. As the months passed, her anxiety worsened. In the waiting room, she trembled and yelped. She jumped off a moving treadmill before having diarrhea on the floor. Eventually, her intestinal distress became so severe that Jenna couldn't work with her and suggested I sit in on her appointments, which seemed to help.

Dr. Barker advised that recovery would unfold over months and years, but Jenna said dogs that don't improve in the first 90 days typically don't walk again.

She and her assistant Felicia Rayner worked with Scout on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and gave us exercises to do at home.

For the first four or five weeks, Scout sat like a sledge hockey player, on her butt, legs straight out. Her muscles had atrophied and her limbs were stiff as metal rods. Once so athletic, she felt small and brittle. I'd sit behind her and pull her legs in tight to her body and gently push her butt up, over and over. Sit. Sit like a dog, I'd whisper.

I'd pull her to all fours, and plant her back feet repeatedly, trying to spark muscle memory of how her feet should work.

While bouts of anxiety were something I've long dealt with, I found myself chronically distressed. Many nights, I scrolled through the Instagram accounts of people with old, ailing and physically impaired dogs. Paralyzed back legs, paralyzed front legs, three legs - and to a dog they looked active, happy and loved.

One of the sweetest dogs I follow on Instagram is 17-year-old Bear (@bear_the_dog_unchained). He was rescued a few years ago after living his entire life tied up outside a home on Long Island. He appeared on Good Morning America and Kerrie Rank of Selden, N.Y., a teacher, was chosen from hundreds of applicants to adopt the burly black Lab/ Chow Chow mix with soft eyes and a sweet face. Even before Scout's accident, I was drawn to her devotion to Bear.

On the second day home, he ran past Ms. Rank, out the door and into the neighbourhood. He's an old dog and she wasn't expecting a runner. She called a fencing company and a handyman and installed an enormous and expensive fence around her property.

When Bear slipped on her wooden kitchen floors, making "the most horrible howl," she was on Amazon immediately, buying a gigantic rug for the kitchen, and every other room in her house with beautiful old wood floors.

After Bear suffered a bout of vestibular disease the handyman was back to build a ramp. She even laid turf outside to give him better traction. The home improvements and vet bills have been costly but the biggest expense is emotional.

Ms. Rank was struggling with scoliosis but ran with Bear when he was still up to it twice a day, even in winter, until the day of her surgery. She'd return from each outing crying in pain.

Bear, who has arthritis, suffered a second bout of vestibular disease and now sometimes struggles to find strength in his back legs. He is restless most nights and Ms. Rank is up with him.

"It's been an unproductive year. It's amazing I still have a job," she tells me, and I know exactly how she feels. "But I would do anything for him."

Same.

Before the accident, Scout went to dog daycare five days a week. She had friends and a life outside of me. Now, we were together all the time. I hated being away from her, and she didn't like it, either. If I had to leave to run an errand, she exhibited separation anxiety. So I didn't. If I had to go out more than a few hours, I got her a babysitter.

I developed a shockingly expensive food-delivery habit.

I felt increasingly lonely and isolated, unable to separate Scout from anything else in my life. Jenna said that rehab would be bonding, but I worried Scout was absorbing my anxiety. I reached out to Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition scientist who wrote Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, to better understand what was going on between us.

"Something like this can increase the strength of your connection with your dog," Dr. Horowitz replied. "You have a heightened attention of how she's doing; of her pleasures and pains.

You're looking at her more. That increases the bond. She can pick up on your stress, so the less you can feel hyper-worried about her, the better she'll do."

Life felt smaller with each passing day. Our bond deepened, for better and worse.

Three weeks after the accident, on my birthday, I got an e-mail from Petplan. For 20 minutes, I was too nervous to open it. I sent it to Sue to make sure I hadn't misread that they would cover 90 per cent of the more than $15,000 we'd spent in a week. They would pay for rehab therapy, too, which cost nearly $700 a month and could go on more than a year. I cried for half an hour. We have gotten more than double what we'll ever pay in premiums.

While the bulk of Scout's medical expenses were covered, the emotional toll of the ordeal continued to overwhelm me. I tried to create a life that revolved around her care and recovery while still allowing me to work, which became another constant worry. I developed a routine.

Work at home on non-rehab days.

Drop Scout at the hospital and go to the newsroom on rehab days.

Hit rush-hour traffic both ways.

Pick up the car. Drop off the car.

Rehab exercises at home three times a day. Catch up on work at night. I was emotionally exhausted, unable to compartmentalize the demands of Scout's recovery.

She factored into every decision.

Jenna insisted I set up hurdles in my living room because Scout couldn't walk without dragging her back feet, which meant when we walked outdoors on the sidewalk, she often returned home with broken nails and bloody paws. I built a course with a baseball bat, hockey stick, two snowshoe poles and a Swiffer handle.

For a week, Scout refused to come near it. When she eventually did, her right leg helicoptered to the side and dragged with every step, but with practice, she began picking up her feet a little higher.

Some weeks, Scout looked better but some showed little progress. When there was no improvement I felt hopeless, and selfish for pushing so hard. Maybe this was as good as it would get.

Why wasn't it enough? My depression over the summer became so severe I was seeing my psychiatrist almost weekly. I tried to learn from Scout, who never seemed to have a bad day.

In the beginning, when she couldn't move her back end, she moved her front and dragged the rest behind. She learned to use her front legs to pull herself upright and wiggle her butt to turn around in bed. Her tail, once immobile, now flailed uncontrollably, either from nerve damage or working overtime to keep her balanced. She thrilled with every trip outdoors even though walking resembled lugging and dragging.

She peed by putting all her weight on her front legs and holding her back legs in the air like a circus performer.

As the months passed, she grew more confident on the living room rug but was afraid of hardwood floors. Without traction, she sprawled like spaghetti. I bought extra mats and created runways. But she wouldn't leave the living room. Instead of crossing three feet of bare floor to get to the door, she'd leap crossways to her bed, then fling herself from her bed to the mat, only to look over at me panting, tongue out, pleased with herself. She was resourceful. She lived in the moment. Twice a week, Jenna and Felicia worked her out like a professional athlete on a comeback from injury.

Small occasions became celebrations. A month after the accident, Scout raised her right leg to her neck and scratched clumsily.

In May, I caught her dream running and her back legs paddled, too. I started taking her to Riverdale Park, where she could stumble on the grass and pretend to be a normal dog.

In June, we went to Lake Ontario, where she bunny-hopped along the shore, wiped out in the waves, pulled herself up and kept going. She started to swim. Jenna said it was making her stronger, so we went to the beach four times a week. She started sleeping in her own bed. One day in July, she met me at the door, tail wagging for the first time since St. Patrick's Day.

In late August, Scout, Kim and I took a trip to Maine I'd planned before the accident. Scout tripped after chipmunks in the woods and swam in deep salt water, paddling after her ball for hours. A week after we got home, she inelegantly hauled four legs up the five steps to our house without help. On the first day of fall, she followed me into the bathroom for the first time since March 17.

She became Jenna's fastest dog on the treadmill, maxing it out at five miles an hour.

My fear began to ebb slightly.

Helping Scout was helping me.

In October, Jenna left TVEH to join Southern Ontario Animal Rehabilitation in Burlington and we followed her. I continue to be in awe of what she has done to bring Scout, who is now doing hydrotherapy weekly, closer to the dog she was. A few weeks ago, Scout jumped onto the couch by herself.

Scout and I will never be the same, but she keeps getting better and I do, too. I finally understand unconditional love. I have no doubt that something I love loves me back as much or more. What felt like a gut-wrenching decision in March really wasn't one at all.

But I worry constantly about her.

Is she happy? Does she feel secure? Can I keep her from harm? I still feel guilty. I brought Scout home to make me feel safe, but I couldn't protect her.

Before the accident, I planned to enroll Scout in agility. That will never happen. I'll probably never let her run with other dogs the way she loved to. I hold my breath every time another comes near her. When an overexuberant hound resembling the one she collided with charged up on her at the beach, she pancaked to the sand and slunk away in fear. Dr.

Dodman believes Scout will remember what happened forever.

Her back end will always be a little out of time with itself, and it's unlikely she'll ever run the way a dog should. When she chases her ball, she bounces and fishtails and sometimes wipes herself out.

She still wants to run as fast as she can. We both keeping putting one foot in front of the other.

Associated Graphic

PHOTO BY DEBORAH BAIC

Scout as a puppy in January, 2016, soon after finding her forever home. She was rescued from a high-kill shelter in North Carolina. COURTESY SHAWNA RICHER

Scout chases squirrels up a tree shortly before the accident that left her paralyzed. COURTESY SHAWNA RICHER

A CT scan shows the plates and screws surgeons used to repair and reinforce Scout's spine. COURTESY OF TVEH

Shaved and bandaged, Scout rests at home after undergoing spinal surgery. COURTESY OF SHAWNA RICHER

Scout's hydrotherapy session at the Southern Ontario Animal Rehabilitation centre in Burlington. DEBORAH BAIC

Jenna Cook helps steady Scout on a treadmill at Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital. DAVE CHAN

Scout is active again but she struggles to co-ordinate a new bouncing gait when running. DEBORAH BAIC

Shawna Richer sits with Scout on the front steps of their home in Toronto. DEBORAH BAIC

Shawna Richer and Scout go for a walk in a Toronto ravine. DEBORAH BAIC

Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Huh? How did I get here?
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