Wednesday, December 21, 2011


A few weeks ago, during "dog time".  I had a dose of reality and it all started with a gray whisker.  Lemme 'splain...

Just so you know, my definition of "dog time" is a secret, quiet time with my dogs that no one I know really knows actually happens.  Because it happens when no one else is around.  But, I'm spilling the beans now.... and.... If you are anything like me, you like steal away from the rest of the world and have these quiet moments with your pets, too.  Dog time at my house looks a lot like this:

My husband works every third night.  My kids go to bed by 8pm.  And dog time begins.  Now, this isn't the only time I spend with my dogs, but this is just our secret dog nerdiness time where we can completely geek out.  No plan, no agenda, no rules.  We just hang.  Sometimes we train dorky tricks, other times we just curl up and veg together.  We sync our breathing.  We stare at each other.  We just be.

This whole mess started a few weeks ago during dog time with Vegas, my 7 year old Belgian Malinois.  I was tickling his face when I saw IT.  IT stopped my heart for a split second.  I mean really, I've seen things like IT before, but I wasn't ready for IT... at all.  Not IT.  Not on this dog.

What is IT?  Well, IT is a solid gray whisker on the very black mask of my wonderfully perfect dog.

Now, Vegas is not exactly a spring chicken in dog years... but he is very athletic and lean and physically fit.  He stills acts and seems very young.  He thinks young.  He learns young.  Gray hairs sprouted on his chin as early as four years of age and lately soft white hairs have bloomed on his knee caps and feet.  So, a gray whisker, no big deal, right?  Ugh.  That whisker just knocked me out.

Last week, he got his Christmas Portraits taken by a professional photographer.  He loves to pose and will do so for hours if you want him to.  The portrait came in.  He is absolutely gorgeous.  Stunning.  A handsome fellow.  But all I see is IT.  I can't believe IT made an appearance.  IT lives.  Can you find IT?:

Do you see IT?:

How 'bout now?:

 Yep.  There IT is.

Something about IT made me spend the rest of our dog time remembering, recapturing and cherishing every moment with this dog.  Not necessarily heart-breaking or sad.  Just a dose of reality.  A dose of vulnerability.  This whisker... IT... made me realize that my smartest, fastest, strongest dog I've ever known is not only all of those things, but also vulnerable and mortal... and won't last forever.  I'm so grateful for the dog time I have with these special souls in my life.  They have so much to give, you know?  And it is my pleasure to love each and every whisker... even the gray ones.  No, especially the gray ones.  Every bit of their whisker-ness....

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What I know for sure...

There are a few things in life that I have known for sure.  100%.  No back and forth, no discussion or weighing or hemming or hawing.... Just sure... Absolutely sure.  I can recall everyone of them in detail:
1.  Marrying Dave --- love that guy.  I can't believe how much I love him.

2.  Ending my teaching career (which I loved with a passion) to start Action Pack Dog Center... Nothing could stop me from bringing this dream to life...
3.  Adopting my daughters... I knew when I first laid my eyes on them that they were my children.  I had no idea what it would take to adopt them, but, again, nothing was going to stop me.  I was sure.

4.  My cowboy boots.  I saw them across a crowded boot store and wild horses couldn't hold me back.

5.  And most recently... when I read this sentence in a Facebook status regarding the birth of a litter of puppies:  "one 'special' girl with a deformed front leg"...  I didn't know how or who or why or when, but I knew she was for me.

And so this is Ever: My 'special' perfect puppy.  I'm ready to give her all that I have and I hope it is enough....

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

And the Sun will Rise...

I thought the hard part was over... I was wrong.  This void, the fact that Riley is not here, the emptiness is painful.  The past few days, I've been reading and searching for dog quotes and poems and anything to hold on to that brings me comfort, validation... even sanity.  I wanted to share a few with you.  Some of these I found and some were sent to me from friends and loved ones who have experienced the loss of their soul mate dogs. 

My favorite:
“It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them. And every new dog who comes into my life, gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.”

The Edith Wharton quote below is the inspiration behind this photo.  Taken on our last night together.  I was happy and honored to be the heartbeat at her feet.  My little crooked tail angel.  Never to be forgotten.
"My little dog - a heartbeat at my feet."  -- Edith Wharton

My good friend Jamie sent me this one.  This beautiful message helped her when she lost her soul mate dog only a year ago:

"He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.) When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me... whenever... wherever - in case I need him. And I expect I will - as I always have. He is just my dog." - Gene Hill

Another Ridgeback lover, friend and dog trainer sent me this awesome essay.  I can't tell you how I sobbed when I read this:

From Henry Van Dyke, An essay called "A Parable of Immortality."
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says:
“There, she is gone!”
“Gone where?”
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she is gone!” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:
“Here she comes!”
And that is dying.

And to keep my mind, body and soul moving forward, I have relied on favorite lines from favorite movies. 

From Finding Nemo:
Dory:  Just keep swimming, just keep swimming....

From Castaway:
And now, here I am. I'm back. In Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass... And I've lost her all over again. I'm so sad that I don't have Kelly. But I'm so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

Monday, February 28, 2011

No Words

Riley went home today. 

The best teacher, friend and soul mate I could ever imagine.  God, I loved her.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Oncologist Visit

Monday, Feb 21, 2011  9:30am
I cleared my schedule knowing I was a "work-in" appointment.  Dave and I brought Riley's bed to ensure she would have something familiar and comfortable during this long wait.  Dr. Brown had me in the exam room by 10am. 

She went over our options.  1) Do nothing; Riley might last another two weeks.  2) Treat with prednisone; This would keep her fairly comfortable, and give her maybe 30-60 days.  3) Chemo; this would set the cancer in remission and on average, this option gives dogs 12 months. 

As the doctor left the room, my horrible internal war of ethics began.  What is right?  I listened to her labored breathing.  She has a couple of swollen lymph nodes sitting right on her trachea which make it hard for her to breathe.  I've always been a bit of a naturalist when it comes to dogs.  I like training without any leash or even a collar for that matter.  I like to use their natural motivations to capture desired behaviors.  I don't like force.  I like hands-free training.  I don't like making something happen.  I like to simply work with the animal before me, and see what happens.  The thought of chemo made me sick.  It isn't natural... This isn't what Riley would want... Is it?  Is life over-rated?  Is cheating death just a human quest?  Who are we to fight the inevitable?  Maybe dogs willingly, peacefully accept death.  I'm sure of it.  Of course they do.  It is as natural as birth, just part of the cycle.  Dogs are far more accepting than humans.  I am going to let her go.  I am going to treat with prednisone, until she lets me know it is time.  I sobbed and wondered if this is what she would want.  It seems more natural, Riley.  I can do this.  I can let you go.  You have given me so much... I can give you this.  I told Dave that I can do this.  I can let her go.

The doctor's main concern was that the cancerous tumors might have invaded the intestinal lining.  Chemo would kill those cancerous growths and leave gaping holes in her intestines causing her severe discomfort and pain as blood and bile leak into her body. 

I needed time.  I can't believe how fast this all happened.  She went from perfect to damaged in such a short time. 

The doctor recommended an ultrasound on her abdomen... just to see.  Dave and I agreed.  We had to know how invasive this was.  The results came back in Riley's favor:  no holes or tumors in her intestinal wall.  She is a good candidate for chemo.

Dr. Brown was so patient with me through this struggle.  I cried and didn't know how to move forward with a decision.  I told her that I just want her to feel better.  She assured me that with her first chemo treatment, she would feel great tomorrow.  Really?  I doubted it.  My oldest sister, Michelle, suffered from breast cancer and I remember her pain...her body aches. 

"So, she will get a shot and feel better?" I questioned.  "But, it is horrible for people... the vomiting, the diarrhea...the body aches!"

She assured me that this was not the case with dogs.  "You see," she said, "with humans, we give a powerful dose.  We almost kill the person to stop the cancer.  We do whatever we can that we think the human can take.  With dogs, we just do the minimum to stop the cancer.  To send it into remission.  You shouldn't see vomiting or diarrhea, even.  In fact, most patients feel fantastic the next day."


"Yes, fantastic.  Most owners will call us that night and say that the lymph nodes have already noticeably decreased in size."

"So, she will feel better tomorrow?" 

And as the vet nodded, I agreed to the chemo.  I feel weird about it.  I don't know if this is right.  But, we are doing it.  And we are taking it one treatment at a time.  As soon as she has more bad days than good... we are out.  And I talked to Riley about it and we are okay with this for now.

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011  8am
Riley waits for me at the food bowl.  Wolfs down her food.  She feels good.  She looks good.  Her appetite is back, her stool is solid.  Our little victory party involved her and I laying on the couch watching Vegas and Wigglestink romp, play bow and chase each other in the living room.  It felt like last week again... before this blew up in our face.  Riley and I watching the pups play.  And every once and a while, we give each other the knowing look... "Oh, those silly dogs," we say, "so glad we are so refined."  And we smile.

Monday, February 21, 2011

At a Loss

Friday, Feb. 18th, 2011   8am. 
For the first time in 10 and 3/4 years of life, Riley hesitated at the food bowl.  It was slight, but noticeable, especially when you've breathed this dog in day in and day out since she was only 7.5 weeks old.  I called the vet and got in at 10:20am.  Something wasn't right.  I felt her neck and felt lumps... lumps aren't good.

Friday, Feb. 18th, 2011   10am. 
At the vet, Dr. B. at Round Rock Animal Hospital, a vet I love and trust.  She feels Riley's throat and I watch her face for signs.  Signs, of you know, hope... relief... a quick fix.  She furrows her brow as she continues to feel Riley's shoulders, her armpits, her inside thighs, the backs of her knees.  I know what she is checking and I'm still looking for her face expression to lighten. 

She says, "I'm concerned.  This is lymphoma.  Cancer." 

I quickly repeat her words silently in my mind, amazed at how fast I can process this to be different, like, "I'm concerned this is lymphoma, cancer...."  That would mean she isn't sure, right?  She's just concerned about it.  Like it could be that.  Not that it is for sure cancer.  "No, Jana,"  I say to myself.  Those were statements.  Facts.  She was matter of fact.  A quick flash of my life with Riley before my eyes and I wailed.  Not THIS dog.  Not Riley.

Dr. B. gently shared her own experience with her dog who went through this.  She assured me that there are options, but there is no cure.  We started Riley on prednisone to ease any discomfort and set up an appointment on Monday at the oncologist.  If Riley did not start eating after having prednisone, I was to call Dr. Brown (oncologist) immediately and she would meet me at Heart of TX Vet Specialty no matter the time.

Oct. 21, 2005   2:05pm. 
A little over five years ago, while teaching my 5th period English class, I felt a pain like an ice pick to my neck.  I felt tremendous pressure on my chest cavity and could not breathe.  I could not project my voice.  With a whisper, I quickly prompted my students to continue drafting and if they needed me I would be at my desk.  I made it through the class period desperate not to scare my 7th graders with what felt like my imminent death.  Death?  Yes, I felt like I was dying.  I was suffocating, struggling to breathe and could not get the weight off of my chest.  Slowly, I began to take in short breaths.  I made it through the day and kidded myself that it was heartburn or something.  I had no experience with heartburn, so that must be how it feels, and I'm just a wimp.

My husband's relentless urging led me to make an appointment to check it out.  After a chest x-ray and a visit to the cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon, it turns out that what happened to me was pretty serious.  My lung suffered a 30-40% collapse caused by a pneumothorax, a blister, called a blib, on my lung that had burst.  It healed itself, but the doctor said it could happen again in the future.  If so, we do surgery.

The point of that is to say, hearing the news of Riley's cancer felt like a lung collapse.  I know that pain and it scares me.  I felt my chest cave and needed air and couldn't get it.  Gutted.  It feels like impending doom and like your organs are shutting down.  Like a fish must feel out of water, drowning in air.  Gasping for the very thing that is hurting you.  And it scares you because you don't know how to make it stop.

Feb. 19 & 20, 2011  The weekend before the oncologist. 
The whole weekend felt like a lung collapse as I waited to hear possible worse news.  So, I cried.  Sobbed.  Giant gasps and gulps of air to keep my airways open, even though each gasp caused pain.  The prednisone seemed to help Riley the first night.  She ate dinner, slow wagged and slept pretty well.  Saturday she seemed very content.  She hung out with me, investigated the high chair for scraps and bits of macaroni and cheese as usual.  Pretty good day.  Sunday was a bit hard.  Her breathing seemed labored.  She acted as if she couldn't get comfortable. 

I spent the day wanting to feed my misery.  It felt good to read and hear other's stories of how they dealt with their dog's failing health.  I googled lyrics of every cheesy love song and found Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath my Wings" and Aerosmith's "Don't Wanna Miss a Thing" to be most fitting.  I cried and nodded as I sang the lyrics softly to Riley.  How can I make her understand how much she means to me.  How can I let her know that she is the best dog in the world.  That she made me better... a better listener, a better teacher, a better trainer, a better friend, a better person.  She made me better at dogs.  Every dog I have the opportunity to work with should thank Riley for helping me reach them. 

A dear friend, Jamie, who is an awesome photographer offered to take photos of Riley while she was still strong... before, you know.... 

I called her in a panic.  "We better do it soon, like tonight."  She came right over.  I will forever love Jamie for this.  This... the memory of Riley... before, you know.... 

Riley was awesome for her photo shoot.  She is so regal and proud.  She has the ability to stand perfectly still and just breathe life in.