The last six weeks have been nothing but a constant barrage of vets and specialists. For Panzer it’s been an onslaught of new places, new faces, sterile rooms and white walls, poking, prodding, listening, analyzing, getting stuck with needles and injections, thrown into tanks full of water, being muzzled and touched and held down by unfamiliar hands, being grabbed and probed with metal objects that smell funny and are cold to his skin. It’s been blood work and injections and scales and shots. It’s brought him nothing but anxiety and discomfort and pain and stress compounded on top of more stress, a never ending train of vets and techs and physical therapists who flit in and out of his life, making him wary.
A week before his diagnosis, we were proud to say that he’d come a long way, behaviorally speaking. He went from being people and dog reactive with a zone of 20 feet to being capable of handling strangers with strange dogs in the same room with him for up to 30 minutes at a time. That’s all been shattered now. His distrust for people has returned, his anxiety has increased, his reaction is seeping back in.
And who can blame him? While we have been desperately trying to extend his life, he’s been paraded back and forth while we tell what we know of his story to the 6th vet or the 10th receptionist. So far, he’s seen our regular vet, a neurologist, an acupuncturist, a hydrotherapist, a holistic vet, and a second opinion vet. That doesn’t include their staff, which is ever changing. He’s met more people in the last six weeks than he has probably met in his life, and the experience has not been pleasant.
His routine has changed dramatically and with each new vet we meet, it’s changing more, and while it may be anthropomorphic, I think he would argue it’s changing for the worse. It’s become ramps in and out of cars, play restrictions, diet changes, crate rest, medications, supplements, leashed walks, limited exercise, toy privileges revoked, harnesses fitted and refitted, his training has come to be specialized to what he needs to know to keep his neck and spine still as much as possible. It’s become a world full of “no” where it was once a world full of “yes”. No, you cannot jump up on me, even though I used to love the feel of your paws against my shoulders, you were always so very delicate when you placed them on me. No, you cannot jump up on the bed; you must be trained to use this ramp. No, you may not hurl yourself at Shelby, in reckless abandon, leaping and romping in your youth. No, you may not death rattle your beloved soccer ball, in fact, let me have that; you cannot have it at all, as you cannot be trusted. No, you may not run around off leash to chase that bunny through the yard. No, not one throw more, it’s been your 10 minutes of exercise. No more discs, you can hurt yourself by jumping up in the air, no, if you are going to try and play with Shelby in the house you will be crated, no, you cannot simply walk up the steps on your own, what if you fall? No more tug, no more roughhousing, no more running, playing, romping, jumping, chasing, flitting, shaking, howling, no, no, no.
I’ve tried to make it up to him. Instead of running around in the yard chasing balls, I’ve thrown fistfuls of treats into the air and asked him to find them. I hide his ball around the house and try to get him to search for it. He has an unlimited and endless supply of marrow bones and peanut butter-filled Kongs and puzzle toys. We work on mat work, with lots of treats and a high rate of reinforcement. We work on impulse control. We work on waiting at the door, but his anticipation grows with his frustration. He’s begun barking at me during these exercises which require him to contain himself. When I ignore the barking, he growls, not in a threatening way, but in a way which tells me he is miserable. I can almost see his insides trembling with pent up energy that he is not allowed to express. We take him to the river to swim, as much as we can, the only exercise he’s allowed to do until it wears him out, the only time he’s allowed to chase his precious tennis balls and wubbas until he can’t stand up. I buy him new wubbas, his favorite, at least once a week, to apologize in what way I can, but when he death rattles them, shaking them ferociously from side to side, whipping his neck around like a banshee, they’re again removed, so I feel guilty for buying them at all.
At night, he paces and pins his ears and whines and pants, his feet flapping, knuckling over. Sometimes he falls down, and he’s restricted once more to his crate. When he is allowed to exercise, it’s frantic and desperate and the uncontrollable energy he has is unleashed on the world in a way that makes me nervous and causes me to end his game. His recall is beginning to fail him, his nerves are shot. We find ourselves asking him almost constantly, “What’s wrong Bubba?” But we both know.
Panzer hates his life. And we hate ourselves. And we fight. We fight about Panzer and death and quality of life, we fight about money and dogs and rescues and puppies. We fight about dishes and laundry gone undone. We fight about dog toys and harnesses and safety and muzzles and treatment. We fight about training and treats and diet. We fight about where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going. Some nights, we sit on the couch, seething, unable to speak to each other without screaming or crying or both.
We drug Panzer, to keep him calm, loading him up on tramadol and Frosty Paws. We beg and plead and yell and sob and pray and bargain. We try to understand why us, why now? We hold each other, and I scream and hit Joe’s chest and tell him, “Why can’t we save them?” And he says, “You want to save P because we couldn’t save Smokey, but we can’t, we just can’t.”
The receptionist at our regular vet tells another client when we come in for yet another appointment and Panzer barks at her obese Beagle that, “Joe and Aimee like challenges.” I smile grimly and shake my head. Not challenges like these.
Shelby goes unnoticed, neglected. She resumes puppy-like attention seeking behaviors which have long since extinguished, pawing at our faces, barking down the steps, jumping on our laps and nipping at our hands. Because we are so busy caring for Panzer, her training falls by the wayside, her aggression increases. She barks and growls, hackles raised, at everything she sees from her window. Her trigger becomes like the point on a needle; she is worried all the time.
I resume training with Shelby; she quickly remembers what it was like to be a good dog, remembers what it was like to be loved and cared for. Some of the aggression fades; her herding training gets back into swing. We’re hit with another medical bill. I have to cut her off the sheep, to pay for more costs for Panzer. She gets antsy again. I force myself to get up earlier and earlier each day, to get in long walks with Shelby and some mental exercises for Panzer. We stay up later, so I can work with them both. Bags form around my eyes, my temper flares. I find myself crying for no reason that I can discern. Neither one of us wants to go home. We just want to run away. Wedding plans get put on hold indefinitely.
One afternoon, I’m sitting at a red light, on my way home from the grocery store. Right leads home, left does not. I think to myself, “I could just run away. I could turn left and keep driving until the Philadelphia Airport. I could get on the next plane to the Balkans and finish the research for my book like I always wanted. I don’t have to tell anyone where I’m going, I’ll just leave.”
But I think about home, about Joe’s face, about the police who would come, about Panzer and Shelby, each sitting in front of his/her respective window, waiting for the telltale sound of mommy’s car pulling out in front of the house. I lay my head on the steering wheel, the light turns green, I turn right to go home.
Last night, I sat on the couch and took some time for me. I read a book and while I read, Panzer leapt onto the couch. Instead of telling him to get down, I let him be. He threw himself across my lap, his spine folding over my legs, his head lolling off the side of the couch. I pet his head, his ears, his cheeks. I ran my hands down the soft fur of his body and all the way down to his tail. We couldn’t pet his back end when we first rescued him. When I stopped, he shoved his head under my hand for me to start the process all over again. I tried not to notice the way the movement of him pushing against my hand bent his neck. His ears were up, his commissure loose, smiling a doggy grin. Joe paused his game just to watch us. Shelby walked up and laid by Panzer’s head, and the two mouthed each other, play growling at one another, their teeth clanking against each other as they used their muzzles as swords, swinging back and forth.
I set my book down and pet them both. I don’t need to run away, I thought. I have everything I want, right here. I looked at Joe, tears coming to my eyes, “I think I’m ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“Ready to accept.”
He sighed and put the controller to his video game down. He was preparing himself for another argument or a philosophical rant that ended in an argument, at the very least.
“Ready to accept that it is what it is, ready to accept that I’m trying to save Panzer for me, not for him, and that maybe, the best thing for him, is just to let him be a dog.”
Joe didn’t smile. He looked at me, very seriously, “Are you sure?”
I nodded, “Yes, but we’re still using a harness.”