Life with Copper

“Love me, Love my Dog” 
“This home is maintained for the comfort and convenience of the dogs”
“Warning: Watch Dog  - Watch that you don’t trip over him”

Many of us live these needlepoint sampler phrases to one degree or another. But for those of us with disabled dogs, they’ve become a way of life. It’s a lot of work to live with a disabled dog, but there are also lots of rewards. Those who know Copper, my Australian Shepherd, don’t have to ask why I don’t put him down. I surely wouldn’t be putting him out of his misery since he’s not miserable to begin with. He’s still an active and comfortable old dog, despite being a paraplegic. 

I got Copper as an 8 year old with severe fear of noises and poor eyesight. I’ve worked hard to help his confidence, and he’s made huge improvements over the years. In late 2003, then 12 years old, he started having trouble coordinating his hind legs and walking on the tops of his hind paws. We saw a neurology specialist who diagnosed a probable infection in his spine. We ran lots of tests, and for many months we tried various medications and supplements. Nothing really helped. He progressed to needing a cart, (a “doggie wheelchair”), for going out on walks in the early summer of 2004. By the end of that summer, his hind end was down completely. Since he’s in no pain that I can tell, I turned down exploratory back surgery for him and decided to just manage the symptoms. 

Fortunately, Copper has adjusted to it all much easier than I have. For inexplicable reasons he seems to have traded much of his psychological problems for the physical ones, which seem much easier for him to deal with. He has come out way ahead in the bargain and has positively bloomed in this past year. With a little help, he’s quite mobile, it’s just different than with other dogs. 

The cart gave him back the freedom to go out on hikes, to the beach, and just plain strolls around the block. It’s quite an attention getter, which means more pats and kind words from people we see. Not much gets in his way. Small dogs and children, look out! He’s a lousy driver, and he gives a whole new meaning to “heeling” as he occasionally slams a wheel into my ankles or rolls over my feet without a thought. Other dogs? His front end, dignity, and ego are in fine shape and he will stiffen up in a stance that sends its intended message. Youngsters that need discipline still get the cussing out he’s always delivered when necessary. He allows unfamiliar dogs to investigate the cart, but they always respond to Copper’s personality as if there’s nothing different about him.  Rocks? Mud? Large tree roots? Well, almost no problem. Occasionally his “inner mountain goat” will find an obstacle just too big to tackle and he will flip the cart over. Like an adventurous toddler, falling down is only a very temporary setback. Once I right him, he’s off again looking for trouble. 

At home where I don’t use the cart, Copper drags his hind legs to get around. It looks distressing to the uninitiated, but it doesn’t seem to bother him much. It seems to be a fact of life for him that he accepts; just as he accepts that he can’t turn doorknobs or reach treats on a high shelf. He has a ramp from my bedroom into the yard; so it’s easy enough for him to get in and out at will when the door is open. It’s amazing how quickly he can move like this when he’s got cause. The DWP meter reader, noisy passersby, or a cat in the yard will send him “running”. Running more like a sea lion than a dog, off he goes down his ramp to defend his turf with a barrage of noise.

Of course it’s not all rosy. He’s often incontinent, so my bedroom looks much like a nursing home these days, with the necessary supplies at the ready. Taking him out in a sling to go potty, in the pouring rain and before any caffeine, is just no fun at all. Packing up his cart and kit is a lot like taking a baby anywhere; we often have quite a bit of luggage. Going any place new often requires thought and planning. My back often groans at lifting him in or out of the car. We’ve also run into the more usual problems of aging dogs, such as hypothyroidism and a touch of cognitive disorder.  His basic care is probably more time consuming and costly than most other dogs. But those are all my inconveniences, not his. 

It’s definitely worth any inconvenience to see Copper get excited when I bring out his cart or a treat. When I see him and my other dog, Leilah, get silly with each other, or see him follow her around sniffing every other tree at the park, I forget about the mess I had to clean up that morning. Seeing him race unexpectedly into the lake at the Santa Fe Dam after a duck (fortunately his cart floats) makes me realize that he still finds life exciting. Watching him bask in a rented kayak, with occasional alerting at the sea birds, makes me see how he still enjoys it all. Seems that no one’s told him he’s disabled.

Copper, in honor of your 14th birthday this month, I want to publicly thank you for all the lessons you’ve tried to teach me, about acceptance, grace, and spirit. Keep on truckin’, old man! 

-Francoise
January 2005

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