Have you ever had someone come into your life, turn it upside down, and then as a result you are a much better person?
In August of 2009, I was looking to add an older brood momma greyhound to our household. Someone who had done her time racing, had amazing puppies, and now was ready for her very own couch. A sweet lady who was eight years or older, a “been there, done that” kind of gal. She would be low maintenance and nothing much would bother her. After land shark puppy rearing, a simple life with humans would be easy peasy! Naps, walkies, and noms? What more could a girl want?
I came home with a 2 year old spook named Sunshine.
What Is a Spook Greyhound?
For everyone not familiar, a spook is a dog who acts fairly feral. They’re scared of EVERYTHING, seriously everything; leaves rustling in the wind, a stranger half a football field away, dishwasher turning on, cars driving by, other dogs barking, basketballs, any and all children… We could be here for the next year listing everything that causes anxiety! I believe this spookiness is a result of some genetics. Fearful greyhounds don’t necessarily make bad racers but our Sunshine never raced. My guess is that they got her to the training track and went “Nope! Get this lady a couch!”
Sunshine was my second adult-life dog. I was so over my head, drowning would have been a kinder death. She was scared of everything and I tried so hard to make her feel safe. For the first year I would sit down and cry on a weekly basis. Scared dogs are so very overwhelming. I threw myself into research and learned an incredible amount. I’ve probably already forgotten half of it!
We tried every natural remedy for fear out there. We tried medicating her thyroid, a thundershirt, calming collars, essential oils, holistic methods, calming supplements, etc. If it’s out there somewhere in Google land, we tried it! During that whole time we attempted to tackle one scary thing a day. Our philosophy was that it was okay to be scared, but it was not okay to run away from the scary situation. Be a Big Brave Bear! We marched forward confidently and muddled through the best we could.
I learned to ignore lots of advice. The worst advice was to ignore a dog when he/she is afraid, otherwise you are re-enforcing them to be afraid. Well that’s a steaming load of poop! No living being wants to live in fear. If you ignored Sunshine, she would escalate rapidly. “Hey mom, that looks scary…” very quickly morphed into “Sweet Baby Jesus Woman! WE ARE GOING TO DIE! Mayday Mayday, pay attention!” Years into our relationship, all she would need in order to feel safe again was some direct eye contact from across the room, a smile, and a nod. She really was my big brave bear. To have that level of debilitating fear yet work to successfully conquer it was breathtaking to witness. I learned so many hard lessons with Sunshine.
Hard Mommy Lesson #1: be an unapologetic bitch.
Don’t let the vet take your dog into the back. If it takes one person pulling on a leash, another cheerleading on the back with loud scary baby talk, and another pushing her from behind, stop the circus immediately. Grab your dog and leave. Do not return. They are idiots and should never be allowed near animals. Apologies to all future staff members who deal with me and my animals. If needed, I will be a bitch and not feel bad for it. I will question you and never take your word. Everything you tell me will be researched independently. I pay you to help me with the care of my babies. I do not pay you so I can worship at your church of vet school.
A few years in we found our current vet. All other previous vets have claimed to be greyhound savvy. They were liars! This amazing vet sent us home with a cocktail of meds after our first appointment and within 12 hours, I had a brand new dog. Which brings me to…
Hard Mommy Lesson #2: do not be scared of meds.
If medicating your anxious dog can help improve life, roll with it! Focus on daily quality of life. That includes mental just as much as physical. I still kick myself for all those wasted years she wasn’t on the right meds. Before medication, a scary incident would have shut her down or made her extra spooky for days. But on meds she happily bounced outside for her potty walks and was able to function through life as a normal, shy dog. When scary things happened, we shook it off and moved on. So my advice is to turn to medications for your fearful dog sooner rather than later. My little spook became a big-time traveler and an expert hotel-room pup who thrived on fun adventures!
For all those tears that were shed, the payoff was so much greater. I learned so much about training, and behavioral modification, and socialization, and doggy language. I can read eyes waaay before body language starts, and I am well educated in the importance of routine and rules. Those things make a pup feel safe and secure.
Hard Mommy Lesson #3: rules are meant to be broken!
Keep laughing and have fun! That saying “My name is NoNoBadDog, what’s yours?” used to make me so angry and heartbroken. No one should feel like a bad dog. They need to be set up for success! 100% human error! Then I had a Sunshine come into my life. If there was fun to be had, she would find it – to hell with the consequences! Fun trumps correction any day! You could yell at her and she would hold eye contact with a “yeah, but it was totally worth it!” glint in her eye. Eventually you had to give in and laugh! She made sure I learned how to roll with the unexpected, and laugh about it.
This is life, you can’t take anything too seriously! Sometimes you have to chew a hole in a wall, eat a remote, coat the kitchen floor in corn syrup, redecorate the house with powdered sugar or fish food. If we went through all the memories, we would be here for hours!
Hard Mommy Lesson #4: how to navigate a severe crisis.
This lesson is much more sobering. You have no time to research, you are just panicked and lost. On September 19, 2017 at 2pm, my life changed forever. Sunshine had a very long seizure, then had three more within eight hours. We saw four different vets that day and she ended up being admitted into an emergency hospital. The faces of every single doctor fell when we told them she was a 10 year old with no history of seizures. One vet even asked me when I had gotten her – clearly clinging to the hope that she was a new addition. The odds are not on your side at that point. Everyone we saw bluntly set the expectation for a brain lesion.
She was only in the hospital for 20 hours. We essentially brought home a paralyzed dog. They picked the perfect medications. Goal one was to get the seizures to stop, success! Unfortunately her body just didn’t know what to do with all those meds. One of the side effects of the medicine was agitation. The hardest part of the next week was to have her paralyzed and whining without understanding what she needed or wanted. We were normally so in sync, I always knew what was going on inside her head. Not this time.
Upon discharge from the hospital we were told we had to go to a neurologist to get an MRI and possibly some other diagnostic procedures. We were told that these are not things our primary vet could do, that she wouldn’t have enough knowledge of seizure medications. There were no other options. The swirl of panic and competing emotions was insane. It was the worst emotional roller coaster.
I am so grateful to our primary vet. She has an odd ability to calm me down, approach things logically, and make me feel like I have options. Options keep me calm. Options mean logical decisions are needed! I need a plan. Our vet is no stranger to the profession, so she did feel comfortable navigating seizure medications. She’s not at the level of a neurologist, but if the goal was to keep Sunshine comfy and spoiled rotten, we could get ‘er done!
We made the decision to focus on keeping Sunshine comfortable. She’s my shy spooky little baby who is not going to cope well with strangers, doctors, an MRI, or anything out of her normal. The odds were a brain lesion, but what if she was just becoming a seizure pup? I was so stupidly hopeful and stubborn on the outside.
Sunshine was paralysed for six days. I slept on the couch with her and basically never left her side. If I needed to shower, her daddy was on puppy watch.
We were due to go on an annual vacation two weeks after her first seizure. Penalty-free hotel room cancellation was four days before check in, so I waffled for a bit. Our vet warned us that we would have to manage her stress levels as a seizure dog because additional stress can trigger a seizure. We had a vet trip the day before we were due to leave for vacation. I was prepared to pull the plug on it and pay the hotel room penalty. Our vet walked into the exam room, glanced at Sunshine standing there, and blurted out “I hope you didn’t cancel that hotel room!”
I treasure those vacation memories and pictures so much! Sunshine was able to go hang out on the beach, dig in the sand, and nap in the sun. It was a perfect last vacation for our little baby.
Life slowly adjusted to our new normal. Each additional seizure-free day was a celebration that gave us a little more hope that she would be okay. Her coordination and balance were off, maybe even getting worse. But we talked to others who had seizure pups, and that appeared to be normal. We could deal with our new normal!
Hard Mommy Lesson #5: when to let go.
The night of November 6, 2017, Sunshine had a hard time settling in her soft-sided bedtime kennel. We had a morning potty and I took her back upstairs to try and get a little more sleep. I brought her up on the bed with me, hoping she would settle and cuddle for a bit. That’s when I noticed her eyes were blank. She just wasn’t there. She wasn’t focusing on me. This wasn’t my little baby anymore. I shook that haunting thought off and we all went back downstairs. She started pacing and pacing and pacing… Then she started getting stuck in corners. I would go and back her out of a corner and she would find another one to get stuck in. Very odd behavior.
I called the vet the second they opened. I was told that this behavior would be an indication of brain swelling. We could give her some Prednisone and maybe we could get another week with her. At first, I didn’t hear the second half of that statement. All I heard was “go to Costco and get the Prednisone for Sunshine.” The Prednisone did seem to help her and she settled in for a nap. It seriously took four hours before the second part of what the vet said hit me like a train. An actual train may have caused less pain.
I started evaluating the fairness of shoving more meds at her to keep her comfy for another week. Brain swelling wasn’t something that would get better in her case. Was the prednisone for her or for us? My job as a fur mom is to make sure none of my babies are ever in pain or scared. My feelings don’t matter, they are a last consideration. What will a progressing brain lesion look like on the outside? How will that feel to her? Would it be painful? Will she be scared? Will she just be confused?
I’ve always said one day too early is better than a second too late, having secretly wondered if I was strong enough to follow through with that.
I made the most chaotic rambling pro/con list then asked for a call back from our primary vet. I cried on the phone with some dog friends while asking their opinions. Our vet may be the wisest person I know. She basically shared that she always felt like she waited too long with all of her personal animals and that she didn’t think scheduling an appointment before Sunshine got any worse was the wrong decision.
They had availability at 8:30 that evening and I asked her to book us. I was able to give Sunshine 2mg of Xanax before her appointment. I didn’t want her to feel one tiny spark of fear. That decision just about killed me. The Xanax put her right back to normal, where we could doubt our decision. I almost felt like maybe that morning hadn’t actually occurred, that we had dreamt it all. We even had a rooing sing along before we left the house…just like this one from 2015.
That was the single hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, the most difficult day and night I’ve ever had to live through.
Then came the crashing waves of self hatred for the tiny bit of relief that was felt. For 49 days I never fully relaxed. I was in 24/7 caretaker mode. I never really slept at night. Our lives revolved around alarms, peanut butter, and medicine dosing. They were 49 precious days that I would give anything to have back.
Next things to hit were the second thoughts. Did we opt for a day too soon for our comfort, or for Sunshine’s? In my heart, I know it was the right decision. I wish my brain would just shut up. I don’t think I could be strong enough to live with myself if I had waited too long. Is that cowardly?
I wanted to curl up in a ball and die. Life has a funny way of moving forward, even if you want to curl up and die. Foster dogs come and go. Kitties and pups need to be fed. Poop needs to be scooped. We saw that our youngest guy was joining me in my depression a little too closely and really needed a playmate. So we adopted a new little girl, another shy little baby. She hasn’t taken away any pain or replaced the hole inside me, but she’s brought a little bit of laughter back to the household. Laughter that humans, dogs, and even the kitties needed. This new, shy little girl gave us something to work towards with making her feel safe and at home. I wonder what Hard Mommy Lessons she will teach me?
The name of the game is fake it until you make it. It’s been seven months and I’m still faking it most days. My goal is to keep everyone healthy, happy, and alive. Eventually, I will add myself to that list.
The most helpful advice I have received was to “grieve in whatever time frame or fashion you need to.” I’m not sure that time will ever end. I’m not sure I’ll ever be unbroken. Not sure I want to be unbroken. Does being unbroken mean I forget about my little one? I’m starting to think that being a little broken is better than being whole. If I could go back in time, knowing all the heartache, would I still bring home that shy little dog that refused to come out from behind the couch to see us? Not a single doubt in my mind. I’m not even a shadow of the person I was eight years ago.
Our oldest just turned 14. I feel guilty for saying it’s not fair that Sunshine never even got to be an old gal. Then I feel the horror of having to go through this all again. When I hear or read, “You’ll know when it’s time,” I have to suppress the urge to kick someone. I didn’t know when it was time. I still don’t know if we made the right decision. But we tried our hardest. And that’s what I’ll do time and time again with each and every every one of my babies.
I read this quote daily and it seems to help somehow. Fairly certain I fall into the “stupid” category.
Dogs don’t live forever. You have to be brave to love them. And maybe a little bit stupid. Love is almost never in your best interests – whether human or canine. Loving something other than yourself may make you a better person and loving something other than yourself may make the world a better place. But there’s a price to pay and you’re going to be the one to pay it. And the more you love the more it hurts when it’s just suddenly gone. Dogs don’t live forever. And we know all of this and we do it anyway. So maybe in the end we’re more stupid than brave. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. – Michael Owens, Director of The Sighthound Underground