Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Dog's Life - If You're Lucky

This is a story of a girl and a dog.  In March of 2010, my daughter – who spent way more time than she probably should’ve done on animal rescue sites – found a Bernese Mountain Dog that had been surrendered to animal control authorities.  We knew that he’d been found wandering at large, and while there was no evidence that he’d been beaten, he certainly had been neglected.  He was between 3 and 5 years old at the time (we never did figure out just how old he is), and was intact, which contributed to a certain amount of aggression on his part towards other dogs.  My daughter already had a Bernese, one she’d raised from a pup, and while Wylie didn’t seem to be suffering for the lack of another dog in the house, it made sense to think that he’d enjoy some company.  And that’s how the rescue began.
Bentley (for that was his name) was in Quebec, at least a 10-hour drive from our home in Halifax, but that didn’t deter my daughter. Not even in March.  Fortunately, there were no late winter storms to impede progress, and on March 14th, 2010, Ben came home.  Some things we discovered almost immediately:  he smelled rancid.  As if he’d never had a bath.  He was utterly filthy.  His teeth were a mess, very likely a combination of malnourishment and trying to chew his way through collar and chain to freedom. 

 Ben’s first day in Nova Scotia. Even here, you can see he looks thin through the body, at odds with that big head and those huge paws.

Ben was introduced carefully to Wylie, and it went really well.  No posturing, no jockeying for position.  Wylie didn’t seem to have a need to be the dominant dog, and Ben seemed content to just take it slow.  They adjusted to one another rather quickly, which was great.
Ben’s first big trip was to the dog wash.  And here’s where we found out something else about him: once he was in the tub, soaking wet and getting scrubbed, we realised that this dog was not so big after all.  In fact, he was much smaller than we had realised – with that huge head, and those massive paws, the broad and long body, he LOOKED like a BIG Berner.  But when he was wet, we realised that he was not much more than a stack of bones held together inside a fur coat.  At that point, he probably weighed the same (or even less) than Wylie, who, though a purebred Berner, was a smaller dog.  It made sense, then, that what Ben needed was love and food – in that order.

Ben tolerated the dog wash – he seemed to know he was being cared for.  But as he was rinsed, we could see just how heartbreakingly thin he really was.
Once he was clean and fresh-smelling, we were all much happier.  And this is when we learned something else about Ben.  He would stand around the house staring intently at whomever happened to be home.  REALLY intently.  And panting while he stared.  At times, I honestly wondered whether he was going to attack someone, because the panting was sometimes close to a growl, and the stare was more like a glare.  We really couldn’t figure that out, and it was very disconcerting.

A girl and her dogs.
My daughter worried that Ben was not too bright – he would watch her give commands to Wylie: “Sit!” “Down!” “Stay!” but showed absolutely no inclination to follow suit.  Even when spoken to directly, even when issued a command with his name attached to it, Ben would just stand there and stare.  We couldn’t figure this out, either.
Eventually, within a couple of weeks (it seemed like much longer to us, and probably longer yet to poor Ben), we figured out part of the puzzle.  Firstly, Ben was rescued from Quebec.  La Belle Province.  The place whose official language is FRENCH.  Ohhhhhhh…. Ben didn’t comply with “Sit!”  But he knew what “Assiez-toi!” meant.  OK, he was French.  We could teach him English!  The second thing we figured out was the panting and intense staring… he didn’t hate anybody.  He didn’t want to eat anybody.  He wanted to be TOUCHED.  That was all.  Just to be touched.  As soon as a hand went on that big head , nails gently scratching, the panting and staring stopped.  How long had this lovely boy been ignored, we wondered?  Ben never did lose the need for touch – if you were sitting there, with Ben leaning on you, you were going to scratch him.  And if for some reason you stopped, he butted his massive head into your hand, reminding you that your job was not done. 

This need for touch also manifested as a desperate need to be with his people – well, with his PERSON, really.  He was almost glued to my daughter – she was his rescuer, and he knew it.  And she loved him, even when she was sometimes exasperated with him.  And he knew that, too.  We learned very quickly that if she went out, even if Wylie was with him, Ben didn’t do well without her.  And it was proven to be a very, very bad idea to leave Ben altogether on his own, because he tried – literally – to get through a window to get to her.
Ben had issues, all right.  This attachment disorder meant that he really couldn’t be left on his own – it might have been possible to keep him physically safe, but emotionally, he was going to be a wreck if he were on his own.  And the house was going to be destroyed.  Thus began 5 years of ensuring that Ben was never utterly on his own.  That changed all of our lives, and it made for a huge balancing act.  It was at times unbelievably frustrating – but my daughter persevered.  Ben was a member of the family now.  He was loved, he was safe, and he and my daughter belonged to each other.  Both Wylie and Ben looked to my daughter as the leader of their pack, and they both wanted to please her.  Ben might not ever have been quite as clever as Wylie (personally, I always thought that he simply felt no need to do as many tricks as Wylie did – I suspect he felt it beneath his doggy dignity!), but he grew more secure and seemed to understand that where my daughter was would always be his home.

Happy Ben – is there much better than letting the wind race past you while you sit in a convertible?!

We all fell into a pattern with the dogs.  Even the Siamese cat, Sacha, accepted the invasion of another giant dog into his world.  Occasionally (usually when it was cold, if I’m honest), you might find both Berners and Sacha curled up napping together.  Sacha took it upon himself to inspect the boys’ food dishes, in case there was something there that he wanted.  Both dogs, each of whom was easily 6 times the cat’s size, stood by helplessly, imploring with desperate eyes any nearby humans to get that cat out of their food.  They knew better than to nudge him out of the way themselves!

Ben and Wylie kept a respectful distance from Sacha, though if it was very cold, you might find Sacha tolerating their presence close enough to him to generate more body heat!

Ben loved to go out with Wylie and my daughter.  They’d go to the beach, where he’d run in joy – galumphing around the water’s edge, carefully selecting just the right bits of seaweed for his snack, always with a huge smile on his face.  They’d go to the park, where he was generally ok on-leash but always happy to reach the off-leash section, so he could run again.  We learned here that Ben wasn’t fond of other dogs – he seemed to consider Wylie his brother, and bore him no ill will.  But he did not want other large dogs around.  Smaller dogs didn’t bother him so much – he’d look at them somewhat bemused, but with no ill intent.  Larger dogs, on the other hand, seemed to incite him to attack.  And so we had to be careful about that as well!

Ben gets a new cushion!

Ben was a kid magnet, as most Bernese are.  Children look at a Bernese and think (and often say), “Oh, look!  It’s a teddy bear!”  And Ben did kind of lumber around bear-like, so it made sense.  Children often approached to say hello to both dogs, and my daughter would nudge Ben forward, keeping Wylie a bit behind – Wylie isn’t too sure of children.  They make him skittish, and rather than risk that he might snap at a small, friendly hand, my daughter felt it would be better all around if Wylie were in the background for these events.  Ben, on the other hand, was built for children:  they wanted to hug him, pat him, scratch him.  He’d sit there forever (or until a hapless parent dragged away a child who insisted s/he was not ready to go yet), enjoying the attention.
Within a year of bringing Ben home, he’d grown from about 70 lbs to 115 lbs.  His coat grew thick and glossy. He panted less and smiled more.  He ran with Wylie.  It wasn’t all perfect – he was terrified of thunder storms (but let’s face it, many dogs share that fear), and he really did turn out to be a pretty needy dog.  But I don’t know anybody who met Ben who didn’t like him.  He just brought out the best in people.

One of their favourite places – a beach where they could run. Ben wasn’t crazy about the water, though he’d paddle a bit if persuaded.  He did like to select choice bits of seaweed for snacks, though.

We knew that Ben was older than Wylie.  We knew it was likely that he would die first.  If we thought about that at all, I suppose we thought that perhaps he’d just quietly die in his sleep, with no pain, no fear.  That’s probably the best way for anybody to shuffle off the moral coil, whether they are canine or human.  But that’s not what happened.
Over the past year or so, Ben began to slow down.  He didn’t run as much.  He wasn’t quite as interested in play (though he still would play with Pig, a plush toy with a squeaker of which Ben was inordinately fond).  He began to have a harder time getting around – we thought it might be because ceramic tile and hardwood floors were difficult to navigate, often leaving him splay-legged and somewhat helpless.  He began to sleep more, and we thought, “Well, it makes sense.  He’s getting older, he’s got arthritis, it makes sense.”  We reminded ourselves that after all, he could be as old as 10 or 11, which, for a large-breed dog, is significant.
But then, about 2 months ago, my daughter brought him to the vet.  Something wasn’t right, she knew.  It wasn’t just arthritis.  It wasn’t just age. Something was wrong.  My daughter knows her pets as well as any new mother knows her baby.  She knows every inch of their bodies.  She knows where there are lumps, and where there aren’t.  She knows where there are patches of dry skin.  She knows the spot where they love being touched best of all.  So when she said that something was wrong, it was very easy to believe her.  This was one of those instances, though, in which we all wanted her to be wrong.
Ben had cancer.  Were there treatments?  Some, for sure.  But would they really extend his life?  Give him a better quality of life?  Ben was a senior dog, remember – it was possible that the treatments themselves would be too much for him.  And if they did keep the cancer at bay, how long?  And what would his quality of life be like if he was treated.  After consultation with the vet, much research and deliberation, my daughter decided that it would not be doing the best thing for Ben to provide treatment.  She would continue to love him, to treat him with care, and to spend time very deliberately doing with him the things he loved to do.  And when the time was right, she would bring him for one last trip to the vet.  Ben had a ‘bucket list,’ not one that he created, obviously, but one created for him by his girl, the person who knew him best.  And last week, we crossed off the last two things on the list – a trip to the beach, and some ice cream.
Trips to the beach used to be extended adventures.  This trip, with Ben alone, and no Wylie, was not such an event.  On June 30th, we headed for the beach. Ben loved being there – you could see that.  But he tired very quickly.  After 15 minutes, he was lying down in the sand, happy to be there with us, but not interested in prolonging the running.  We stayed another few minutes, and headed back to the car, Ben loping happily along.  We stopped on the way home for ice cream, and my daughter snapped the bottom off her cone, filled the miniature cone it created with a tiny bit of ice cream, and gave it to Ben to enjoy.  Then we went home.  When we got back to the city, she had to lift Ben out of the car.  He couldn’t manage on his own.
On July 1st, I visited with my daughter and Ben-sat while she took Wylie for a short walk.  I was getting ready to go to Quebec myself, and she pointed out what I hadn’t even realised: this would be the last time I would see Ben.  I was leaving the next morning, and upon my return, there would be no Ben.  I sat there in her dining room, hugging and scratching this big, happy dog.  He had grown noticeably thinner over the past 6 weeks or so, hardly eating, and sleeping 20 hours a day.  He felt more like the scarecrow dog she’d brought home 5 years earlier.  This Ben loved, though, and was loved.  As much as I felt his bones, I could feel that.  And I cried.  I cried in part because I knew my daughter’s heart was sore, and there was nothing I could do to make it better.  But I cried for me, too.   I had no idea how much I would miss this dog.
When I left my daughter’s home that evening, I checked myself.  “Get a grip,” I said sternly to myself.  “This happens.  You know it happens.  And this is what’s best for Ben.”  I knew that, all of it.  But barely off her street, I saw a man walking his dog… a Bernese Mountain Dog, as it happens.  And I started to cry.  Sobbed all the way downtown, chastising myself as I went.  How silly, really – everyone knows that owners typically outlast their pets.  This was no surprise.  And it was especially no surprise, because Ben had been sick.  Oddly enough, that made no difference at all.  There would be no Ben when I came home, and my heart was bruised just thinking of it.

Wylie turned 7 on July 3.  Ben was there to celebrate.

I spoke with my daughter on Sunday, July 5th.  That was the day of Ben’s last vet appointment.  He had gone out for an early solo walk with my daughter – no Wylie.  My daughter wrote:
                Our beautiful, sweet Benny crossed over the rainbow bridge on Sunday afternoon.
For those who don't know, Ben was diagnosed with Lymphoma in May and has been steadily declining since then. In the last few weeks, he essentially stopped eating and was rapidly losing weight. He did enjoy his daily PB sandwiches though, and treats for the most part.
His body was failing him, and his mind was tired. Our previously 120 lb boy weighed 97 lbs in May and was down to 86 lbs on Sunday. As much as it crushed us, we knew it was his time.
We spent the last several weeks working through a bucket list with Ben, and thankfully had the time to accomplish everything on the list, and were able to make our last weeks with Ben as positive as we could.
Saturday night we had a movie night, equipped with snacks and loads of love. We also had a big brushing session (a Benny favourite). Sunday morning, Ben gobbled up two PB sandwiches and handfuls of treats and went for a solo walk with me. We went as far as his body would allow us, the majority of it was off leash with him walking by my side. The walk only lasted 10-15 minutes or so, but they were glorious minutes.
I am honoured to have been able to welcome Ben into my family and to have loved him unconditionally for the past five years.
I wish I could write more, but my heart isn't ready.
Rest in peace, my sweet boy.

It’s going to be very strange to go back to Halifax with no giant, gentle Ben to lean on me.  There will be no brick-shaped head to nudge my fingers into action if I lapse and stop scratching him just the way he likes. 
I don’t think my daughter would change her life had she known that Ben’s life would end this way.  Neither would I.  We bring animals into our world and care for them, love them, and in return get unbridled love and joy.  They leave muddy pawprints around, they sometimes eat things they shouldn’t and barf all over the living room.  Sometimes they bark too loud, or too long.  Maybe they’re so afraid of storms that even giants like Ben try to climb on top of you for protection.  But our hearts are better for knowing them, even when their leaving hurts us.
Ben is a prime example of how rescue works.  If my daughter hadn’t found that smelly, scrawny, attachment-addled Berner, our lives might have been a bit easier, but they wouldn’t have been as much fun.  She loved him into the wonderful dog he became, and he was as bonded to her as any puppy is to its mother.  She was his girl, and we all knew it.  What I know is this:  if my daughter hadn’t found Ben and brought him home, his life almost certainly would’ve been shorter.  And it would not have been as good.  She gave him all she could, and what she gave him was good.  I am glad for them both (and yes, for me as well) that Ben came into her world.