Friday, September 30, 2011

They are dogs

"For a dog it is all about quality, not quantity. All a dog wants is another great day. When there are no more great days it is time."

Almost 2 years ago now I said goodbye to Cato. He'd escaped the yard and been hit by a car right in front of my house on the way home. He was Houdini in winter when there was no work. He'd get bored. He'd pull up fences from the bottom and dig under, jump, climb, whatever was necessary. He'd go visiting then come home. I live on a very busy road so this was a source of constant worry for me.

Cato was alive, laying in the road. Two drivers, one in each direction, parked their cars across the road to block traffic. I took him to the emergency clinic. He was there overnight, and came home the next afternoon on lots of pain killers. Thoracic x-rays showed no troubles, but clearly he was not right. So we continued the meds and waited, not quite a week. Clearly he was not okay and not getting better. I drove him down to Tufts Foster Animal Hospital late one night when I knew there was more to his condition than bruising. I discussed the situation with the intake vet. There would be no neurologist till morning, and that was what was needed. The assumption was that there was damage to one or more of the vertebrae in his neck. We discussed options for examination, and treatments and prognosis if this were the case. There was a very good chance that Cato would not be able to return to a normal active life. I emphasized to the vet that whatever we found, my decisions would be based on the quality of the life he could expect after treatment. If he could not be returned to an active lifestyle then I would not pursue treatment. They would use x-ray and/or MRI to look at the vertebrae. I instructed them to use the x-ray first, and if that told the story we would not need to go to the MRI. I do my best to take good care of my dogs, but I’m not wealthy. I already had spent $2,000 for Cato at the emergency clinic. Having lived with him for the week since the accident I had a hollow feeling that there were no good options.

I left Cato there and went home for the rest of a miserable night. The next morning I waited frantically for news from Tufts once the neurologist was able to look at the case. They called me to let me know they were sedating him for the MRI. I asked about the x-ray, which was supposed to happen first. He would need to be sedated for a good neck x-ray as well. I was pretty much at the end of my emotional rope at this point, when the vet explained that they needed the MRI and were scheduled for it and he had to go in now, despite their not having taken an x-ray. I was not in a rational frame of mind to argue further.

The MRI showed that the atlas, the first vertebra connecting the skull to the spinal column, was knocked out of place, the worst location for trauma to the neck. Still no x-ray. We began to discuss treatment options, primarily putting the atlas back in place surgically. Putting the vertebra back in place was high risk, the trauma might kill him immediately and could well leave him on a respirator for a few days. There was a risk he would not start breathing again. More importantly, the repair would be forever fragile. They emphasized that he could live a “normal life” but their definition of normal was no work and no running and jumping. I said that was not sufficient quality of life to justify treatment. They stalled on any decisions as they were making some inquiries on other treatment options.

A while later that morning we spoke again. The x-ray confirmed the diagnosis, which meant we could have done the x-ray and never spent the $1,000+ on the MRI. They had researched an option of realigning the vertebra manually with no surgery required. They were eager to go forward with this option. The problem was the repair would be just as fragile as if they had done it surgically, meaning no quality of life for Cato. I would put him through this just to spend his final years locked up. His life would be hell. This was a dog that always wanted to be in the middle of life. He was both mentally and physically exuberant.

I told them I would not pursue the treatment. They seemed taken aback, and indeed worked hard to persuade me to have him treated. I was emotionally exhausted. I’d given in to their urgent last minute arguments on the MRI, frantic for Cato’s welfare at the time. I was not going to give in to putting Cato through the treatment to live his life as a prisoner, always locked up, watching the other dogs, never again to work or play or run freely, consumed with frustration. They countered me, and implied that I was unwilling to spend the resources on a dog just because he could not work for me again. My contact kept bringing up “just because he can’t work”. I’d already told them he was retired from trialing. I still used him for some farm work despite having other fully trained dogs, because for Cato the work was his life. And did they really think that when not working he’d be happy to just trot around the yard, never allowed to run full out with joyful abandon?

There was no question in my mind about the right decision for Cato’s welfare. I do not believe in “life at all cost”. Breathing is not living. I was direct and eventually my contact accepted this. I drove down to be with Cato for the end, and returned with his body to my vet to be cremated. Cato was a huge part of my life. He took me from novice to the National Finals to the World Trial. When I was clueless he persisted on the right course. He forgave constant errors and upsets on my part. He slept in my bed every night.

We had many, many great days together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Finals

Well I did it. I traveled out west to run on the famous range ewes at the national finals. I only had one dog qualified, Fina, who is prone to mental lockups under pressure on big courses. Nothing ventured, nothing learned.

It turns out Fina manages the range girls tremendously, but as suspected she had trouble keeping her head together on the bigger course with some pressure. She had a "Fina Melt" twice. She basically tunes me out and just moves the sheep, which is an improvement as she used to just lay down and watch the sheep leave. In between her melts she was fabulous, but her second melt involved bringing the sheep backwards on the drive some distance, losing most of our drive points. No semi finals.

I spent hours watching runs, observing how different handlers and dogs approached these sheep. The western sheep are not the fire breathing dragons I was expecting, but they are tough and fun. They are not conditioned to move off the dog, so the dog needs to be definite. It seemed to me that the dogs who came forward with no hesitation were not questioned in the end. These yearling ewes were huge, stared at the dogs and stomped their feet. They could make a formidable impression and not all dogs were willing to ignore their threats and continue forward with intent. If the dog kept coming the sheep would turn at the last moment. If the dog was hesitant and slow then the sheep stepped forward to see if they could press the dog back or just put their heads down to graze. Once the sheep were moving the dog needed to keep pressure on or they would stall, and the sheep tended to mill and squirm as they were moved so there was work involved in keeping them on a line.

All and all I had a great time. I have a sense now of the skills my dogs need to work range ewes. Mind you I'm not sure how I will be able to strengthen these skills with the tame eastern flocks I have access to. I want to go back and try again. Next time with more than one dog, and hopefully more than one trial so we have a few chances to work out managing these willful sheep on a big open course.