Friday, May 18, 2012

Lok's Story

I have written Lok's eulogy in my head a thousand times--a symptom of living with a dog one knows will probably never be old--but now that he is gone, I can't remember any of what I planned to say. I'm sure none of it could do justice to who he was and what he was to me anyway. But he deserves to be remembered, so maybe I will just try to tell his story.
In the shelter. The first picture I saw of him.
Lok's story begins on January 25, 2006. He was born "Pup 2" in a litter of 3 boys to "Bonnie" and "Jasper." From there, his story gets lost until September 27, 2007, when he was relinquished to the Rice County Humane Society, almost two years old. On his kennel card, his owner of just four months had written "Good dog. Needs to be able to run." Someone had named him "Buddy" but he never claimed that name.

First day home.
Fresh out of law school and a new homeowner I went looking for a border collie, a sport prospect. I wanted an agility dog. Lok was the first border collie to show up in a shelter near me so I went to pick him up on October 27, 2007. When I got there, they showed me another border collie mix, who in all honesty I should have taken. The other dog was friendly and interactive. Lok laid by the door and made no attempt to socialize. He seemed shy, withdrawn. But he was the pretty one and I wanted him, so I took him home. A man with a British accent was visiting the shelter: "You here for the Collie?" he asked me. I told him I was. "Nice dog," he said.

First rawhide in his new home

While appearing to be shy and withdrawn inside the shelter, the second we stepped through the shelter door, he was a transformed dog. Head and tail up, he pulled on the leash with all his strength in no particular direction. As it happened, all he had wanted was OUT. I learned early on that he was a free spirit. Independent. He didn't want to be confined or tied down. When he stuck around it was because he wanted to.
Snow dog!

He hated being on leash and never did learn leash manners. He would walk as far away from me as the leash would allow--not pulling ahead, but pulling to the side as he walked forwards. He wanted to be in the same room as I was, but preferred to lie down in a corner or under the table. He eventually learned to  show affection in his own way--every morning I would sit on the floor with him and he would press his forehead into my chest. That was our special "cuddle time" and other than that he avoided touch most of the time.  

Favorite green disc. He would bite the snow through it. I think he liked to hear the crunching sound.

He had a penchant for leaving. When we went to classes or to visit people he was nervous. He would instantly scope out all the doors. When he decided it was time to leave, he would go to the door and wait, or if he was on leash he would strain in the direction of the door. He would slip out at the first chance and start trotting in whatever direction he judged home to be. We took one agility class, which he hated, except for the jumps and tunnels. I still remember the one sequence he liked--jumps and tunnels in a straight line towards the door! He ran that sequence like his life depended on it, and then just kept running!!

He liked jumps and tunnels. (Photo Credit Melissa LaMere)
 Yet he seemed to instantly claim my house as home. On the first day, he walked in, laid down and started chewing on a rawhide. Despite trying to leave everywhere else in those first few months, he never once tried to leave home. He was content at home, especially in his back yard, which was his sanctuary.

Lok and first foster Nova.

I never "owned" Lok. He was his own dog and belonged to himself. I was blessed to be entrusted with his care, and eventually, I like to think that I became his closest friend.

When I let him outside, he would run to the middle of the yard, turn to face the door, then lay down and wait, and wait, and wait, for me to come out to play, no matter how long it took, even if he was buried by snow.

He was my first dog and I struggled. I know now that I couldn't have possibly had an easier dog, but at the time he seemed impossibly difficult to me, in some ways. He seemed not to like people much, including me. He seemed unhappy much of the time and didn't understand play. The toys I bought for him sat untouched. When I tried to train him he would shut down, lay on the floor, and refused to move. He was obnoxiously infatuated with the beeping buttons of the microwave, barking anytime he heard them--it seemed like the only thing he ever got excited about. And he developed a habit of digging in the yard, covering himself in filth minutes before I needed to leave for work time and again.

So we learned together and we struggled together. We fought one another. I don't know that either of us considered the other to be our ideal in those first few months. I wanted a happy, energetic, playful dog. Lok seemed to like just about any man better than me. We took classes at the humane society and Lok earned his CGC. I tried to teach him to play. The one game he seemed to enjoy was "chase" and in this way I taught him his rock-solid recall. He enjoyed being chased in the yard and would even play bow sometimes. I chased him a bit and then sat down and waited for him to come to me. When he did, the game would begin again. Eventually I got him to start chasing sticks, but still he would not play with toys. I would throw a ball and he would stand there, unmoving, as if he didn't even see it. Here I had this dog I couldn't take for walks, who wasn't all that into training, who wouldn't play, and often seemed like he couldn't care less if I was even around. Sometimes I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Sometimes I thought about returning him.

Jolly balls were always a favorite. Until the vet had to remove a bunch of peices of them from his gut.

Things started to change for Lok and I after I read the book Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt. It wasn't the book's exercises that I needed, it was the prologue. In it, Leslie talked about accepting and appreciating your dog for who they are. She spoke of her dog Rumor for whom she had grand competition plans, but one day she realized that Rumor would rather stay home. She spoke of how she honored that choice. I looked at my dog, who, if I'm being perfectly honest, I didn't always like much in those first few months. He wasn't what I wanted him to be and I resented him for it. And I suddenly realized that *I* was the one with the problem. There was nothing wrong with Lok and I was being incredibly unfair to him by constantly expecting him to be something he wasn't. I resolved to do better. I can't say that I was perfect from that point on, but my thinking truly began to shift.

Shortly thereafter in my never-ending quest to get Lok to play, I brought home a 99-cent frisbee from Petsmart. On the first toss he ran and caught it out of the air. I think anyone who has ever watched their dog catch a frisbee for the first time knows what that felt like. There is just something about a dog catching a disc. Even more, there is something about YOUR dog catching a disc YOU threw. And when the dog has refused to play with any other toy up to that point, it feels downright miraculous. We were hooked!

One of our first playdates

For our first nine months together, the disc was the ONLY toy he would play with. I ditched my agility dreams, found the Minnesota Disc Dog Club and we started pursuing Lok's favorite thing in the world. We trained toss and catch, we trained freestyle. Still, I wasn't happy. He didn't tug, he didn't jump, he didn't understand the concept of playing "close up" and sometimes he bit my hands. We would go to the park for an hour and work the same sequence over and over and over again, Lok trying his heart out, but missing the disc over and over and over. "What is wrong with you?" I thought. "Why can't you get it?" And when he bit me, I punished him before making him try it again. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't terrible to him all the time, but I think it's important to admit these things. Remember mistakes so they aren't repeated. Most of the time we had a great time playing together. He was amazing at catching a disc and loved it more than anything. I wish he could have played longer.

We started competing and we did pretty terribly. Especially in toss and catch. It seemed he got worse every competition we entered. He lost discs all the time. I spent more time running onto the field to retrieve discs that he missed than I spent throwing. The more we failed, the worse I threw, the worse he caught. Until one day, he started missing even short freestyle throws. They would sail by his face, unnoticed. "He's just not paying attention," I thought, as I adjusted my throwing technique, adjusted my criteria for him, and made him try again. Some he caught with ease, others he seemed not to see . . . until finally it occurred to me, maybe the reason he doesn't seem to see them is because, he can't see them.

I scheduled an appointment with an ophthalmologist, thinking surely whatever it is will be an easy fix and we can get right back into the game. He couldn't possibly be blind. He was only 2 years old. Instead, I found out that Lok had Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). His retinas were deteriorating. He had significant  vision loss, and eventually would have no sight. "Devastated" doesn't come close to how I felt. Despite assurances that blind dogs "adapt well" I cried for days. For his loss. For mine. For all the times I had pushed and scolded when he couldn't catch the disc, or bit me trying. For all the times he had tried as hard as he could to do it right and given me everything he had to give, and I couldn't see it. I was more blind than him.

Eventually I picked myself up and resolved to make the rest of Lok's sighted time and then the time he would spend blind as good as it could be. We still played disc. I figured out what his limitations were and adapted to them. Short throws, right in front of his face, not too high. The peripheral vision goes first with PRA, so he couldn't see anything to the sides or above his head. We played only in bright light, then only in shade when the bright light seemed to hurt his eyes. He even started flyball, which he may have loved even more than disc! He only got to do it for a couple months. I hated to pull him out, but couldn't risk his safety when he started crashing into jumps. Lok and I had been training in obedience and he had earned his Rally Novice title. We continued to train in obedience, but Lok's sight loss seemed to result in a lack of confidence, especially on stays. He didn't enjoy it, so we took a break from that as well, which turned out to be more or less permanent. We started skijoring/canicross, which he could have continued to do blind, but he was not a big fan. I realized that Lok was happiest "just being a dog" and gave him permission to be that. We played, we went to the dog park. As his sight decreased, his willingness to be on a leash increased, so we started going for walks. Without his sight he had to rely on me more, which I think probably killed him a little bit inside, but may have been the best thing that ever happened for our relationship.

As Lok's sight continued to decline, so did his confidence when he was anywhere other than an open space outside, with a toy. I started coming home from work to find that my perfect house dog had destroyed things. He had to be crated during the day. When he started destroying his crate, he went on Prozac. The Prozac helped immensely, and he was a much happier dog. He stopped chewing his crate trays, stopped licking his paws, he was no longer sitting in a puddle of drool when I got home.

But then the seizures came. After the first one, the vet thought the Prozac might be causing them. We took him off Prozac and his anxiety returned in full force, but the seizures didn't stop. I decided that the anxiety was a bigger quality of life issue than the seizures--after all I couldn't quit my job and stay home with him every day. So he went back on Prozac, along with phenobarbital for the seizures. Despite all the medication, within a year the seizures increased from every couple of months to every couple of weeks. Unlike most epileptic dogs who are normal between seizures, they seemed to damage Lok's brain and it took weeks to recover cognitive function between seizures. His life changed drastically. He didn't really understand training anymore, forgot most of his commands, stopped coming when called. He lived for toys and running only, and I decided he could do whatever he wanted. He didn't have to train. If he didn't come when called, I'd just go get him, no big deal. He liked to play, he liked to be brushed, he like to go for walks and go to the dog park. We would just do those things. I started to suspect he may not be around as long as I might like and resolved to give him the best life I could for however long that may last.

On top of everything in June 2011, Lok ended up in the ICU for five days for an obstruction surgery, an infection that nearly killed him, and another surgery to fix the infection. His doctors were amazing but when he continued to get worse inexplicably, I wondered if maybe life had gotten too hard for him and he was ready to give up. I sat with him in the ICU at 1:00am. Lok was never in the business of taking orders, so I asked him to live. He did. He came home on many different medications and in the weeks after his surgery dealt with phenobarbital poisoning, an infected catheter site that refused to heal, antibiotics on top of antibiotics. And on top of everything the seizures got worse.

(Photo Credit Larry Hotchkiss)

Somehow everything but his brain managed to heal and we went about life as "normal" for awhile. Lok even played in a disc dog competition again, and the JOY and confidence he radiated for that one day won him the Wazee Spirit Award. That was the thing about Lok--he never earned a medal, but you've never seen a dog happier to chase a piece of plastic. His joy and enthusiasm won him many friends and even attracted the attention of a reporter who wrote an article about him.

(Photo Credit Larry Hotchkiss)

 In the last few months of his life he needed to be guided everywhere by the collar, did not remember the most basic of commands, and spent much of his time confined to a room to contain his aimless wanderings (if not confined he would run into things and get bit by Jun for invading her space). This was not a happy time in his life and I won't belabor it because it didn't define him. Despite his many challenges, if he had an open field and a toy he was a happy dog. During the times he could barely walk he would run for a ball. Blind, confused, and unable to find his way around the house, he could somehow still track a rolling disc and catch it clean, bringing it back and spitting it out at my feet again and again. When I first joined the MNDDC there were lots of debates about what "drive" meant. It turns out the definition is simple. If you want to know what drive is, just look at Lok.

(Photo Credit Larry Hotchkiss)

They say a dog will let you know when it's time. I've heard people speak of "having peace about" putting a dog to rest. I never understood how that was possible, but it turns out it's true. The day he died was the only time since he first snagged a disc out of the air that he turned down a toy. He was ready. We were blessed with an uncharacteristically beautiful afternoon on March 27, 2012. We spent the day in the sunshine in the back yard, his favorite place in the world, and there he slipped peacefully to the other side, finally truly free.

(Photo Credit Sarah Beth Photography)

I spent a couple of days angry at how life had failed him. Guilty that I couldn't fix him and give him all the happy and healthy years he deserved. But the anger and guilt quickly gave way to gratitude. Gratitude that he was at peace and no longer suffering and that I had the opportunity, painful as it was, to put him to rest with dignity.  To be charged with caring for a life, including its end, is a heavy responsibility and I am deeply and overwhelmingly grateful to have been entrusted with his. He was a gift. He taught me innumerable lessons: love deeply; forgive easily; assume the best; value the individual; savor the moment; slow down; nothing is guaranteed; and in the end, nothing matters but love. As I sit here I cannot think of a single aspect of my life that isn't covered in his paw prints.

January 25, 2006 - March 27, 2012
Forever in my Heart
(Photo Credit Sarah Beth Photography)

Elo is . . .

 . . . everything that is good about dogs.