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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gotcha!: Celebrating Eight Years of Abbey

Last Wednesday, I sat down to begin work on a blogpost that I intended to make public on the 12th. I was only able to get the following amount of work done before I had to stop because I was finally experiencing the backlash of my exertions of my Florida trip:

The little whippersnapper back in 2004, two months after we brought her home.

Today is Abbey's "Gotcha! Day," her "adoptiversary." It's hard to believe it, but eight years ago on a sunny Tuesday, my mother and I showed up at the Seattle Animal Shelter before it opened to make sure we'd be first in line in order to adopt a sweet brindle stray we'd looked at over the weekend. Her shelter name was Keta; we'd already settled on calling her Abbey. We didn't bring her home until the 13th because she had to be spayed, but today's the day when she became ours. Or, more specifically, she became mine and I became hers.

She has brought us so much joy over these last eight years.

In these last few months, the first gray hairs have appeared in Abbey's eyebrows.

Since she was brought into the shelter as a stray, no one knew anything about her, including her age. The best guess that anyone could give was that she was 1.5-2 years old. That means she's somewhere in the vicinity of ten years old now and her age is beginning to show. Her eyes have acquired the bluish cast caused by lenticular sclerosis as her aging lenses densify. She's developed a couple of fatty tumors and I've found several sebaceous adenomas--benign fleshy tumors of oil glands in the skin often referred to as "old dog warts"--around her face. During her last physical, the vet noticed that she's displaying symptoms of sciatica in one of her back paws; just like her owner, she's not getting full information from her nerves in one of her feet! And that darling little Border Collie muzzle of hers has suddenly gotten quite gray. I've even spotted a few gray hairs in her eyebrows, evidence that a full "sugar face" (my favorite term for an elderly dog displaying a lot of gray/white facial hair) is on its way. She lost a tooth earlier this year and she no longer wants as long of a game. I've also had to reduce her food to not quite half of what it was in her prime because her metabolism has slowed down so much. As hard as it is to believe, my girl is getting old.

Her muzzle in 2008...
...and her muzzle in 2012.


My Abbey-just-planted-a-kiss face
So after writing those paragraphs, I decided to lie down and read for a while and Abbey, of course, was delighted that I was in bed because that meant we could have a nice cuddle together. Jumping up on the bed at my invitation, she came over to lick my face. That's when I smelled ammonia on her breath.

I'd noticed the day before that her breath had been unusually rank and had made a mental note that I really needed to recommit to brushing her teeth, but the ammonia odor took the concept of halitosis to a whole new level of ghastly. It also just didn't seem RIGHT. So I got out of bed again and did a Google search on "dog breath ammonia" and learned that it could be the sign of kidney trouble.

I have to say, I was rattled. I'd noticed, over the last couple of weeks, that sometimes the inside of her mouth and her tongue seemed a bit pale. Pale mucus membranes in a dog are never a very good thing, so when combined with the observation that she'd been drinking just a bit more water (I was refilling her bowl more often during the day), that her poop had looked slightly different recently, and then that awful breath, I was worried that she might be showing the first signs of some kind of serious health problem involving her organs. I wasn't able to get her into see the vet until the 12th, so Abbey spent her "Gotcha Day" being a good girl, first in the waiting room for half an hour, and then for another twenty minutes or so while the vet did a thorough exam that turned up nothing (and of course her gums were as pink as pink can be), and then while getting her blood drawn. Both of us were pretty tired by the time we got home. And then we had to wait all weekend for the lab results.

Pensive girl.

The vet called me Monday with the very good news that all of her blood work came back looking great. Her organs, her thyroid, her blood count, and everything else looked perfect. Why her gums are still occasionally pale remains a mystery, but I was very relieved to hear that her organs are all okay! The vet and I agreed to simply watch and wait. If she exhibits any other changes in health or behavior, we'll reevaluate, but as long as she is acting like her normal self, life can go back to normal.

This photo gives you a sense of Abbey's imperfect mutt proportions: long for her height and with very small head! She looks particularly silly in this picture because she's gotten distracted and forgotten to put her hind paw--the one that's exhibiting signs of sciatica--down.

This was my first major scare with Abbey. I hadn't been worried at all about the mast cell tumor that was removed from her flank last year, to the point that I was taken by surprise when it turned out to be cancerous. I've been sure to regularly remind myself over these last eight years that Abbey is mortal, that she will die, and that it's going to hurt when it happens, but it will also be okay. It's such a different thing to THINK something than to FEEL it, though, and the idea that something might be terribly wrong inside my dog was a horrible feeling. She's not my "fur baby," I don't equate her with a child or think of myself as her "mom," but I do take care of her, look after her welfare, spend most of my time with her, and love her deeply, so it was a new (and difficult) feeling to look at this vulnerable creature that I love so much and to know she might be sick. It made me realize, too, that one of the things that scares me about her death is not that it WILL happen, but I don't know HOW it will happen. I hope I'll be given enough time given enough time, when the end draws near, to see it approaching.

But the end is not yet here.

(Abbey is barking in her sleep as I write this. The sound of a dog barking in its sleep is one of the cutest sounds known to man, in my opinion!)

My mellow pup in her typical one-paw-up lounging pose.

And thus we can resume our routine of mutual pleasure. Abbey has slept in my room since my concussion last summer and for a while, due to her concern for my welfare and an unwillingness to be separated from me, managed to undo seven and a half years of perfect crate-training. I'm pleased to report with intensive training and the use of the Holy Grail of treats, peanut butter, she is back to submitting without argument to being crated while we are gone, snoozing in her downstairs crate when she's looking for a cozy retreat while I'm reading on the couch, and voluntarily sleeping in her crate at night, preferring it, in fact, to sleeping on my bed. We'd never given her many treats in the past, since she has a sensitive stomach, but she's demonstrated that she's highly food-motivated, and perhaps because she hasn't had many treats, she views individual pieces of cereal, like Cheerios, to be a powerful incentive! I've harnessed that willingness to work for paltry snacks into teaching her a new command, "Look," as well as upping the stakes on previously learned commands, like asking her to remain in a down-stay while I leave the room and walk around the house. She's a pretty smart cookie, that Abbey! The treat motivation has also worked really well in neutralizing that bad habit she'd developed of barking ferociously at people and dogs outside the car. I mention in this blogpost from a few weeks ago the intensive training session I did while we were waiting for a ferry and I'm pleased to report that it's practically cured her already! So don't listen to that old saying, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks!"

"I can has peanut butter?"

But most of our days are oriented toward leisure over labor. I invite her up on my bed in the morning for a couple of hours of snuggling and snoozing, then, when I repair to my study, she either joins me, and sleeps on her pillow, or remains on my bed and sleeps there. She takes an interest in my various comings and goings, though sometimes only by opening her eyes and wagging the tip of her tail, but always offers some kind of response when I talk to her (and I talk to her a great deal). She comes alive in the evenings when my parents come home, yodeling with joy as they arrive and thumping the kitchen cabinets with her wagging tail. After dinner she likes to play a jolly game and then it's back upstairs to snooze on the pillow in my study until it's time to go to bed.

She takes an active interest in everything I do. In this photo, she's watching me photograph crocuses by our front door. 

There's nothing more special than being greeted with a yodel! Abbey is singing out her delight in my return with a happy "woo-woo-woo!"

It's a very simple life, interrupted by occasional variations in routine such as car rides and, when I'm well enough, short walks, but the wonderful thing about living with a dog is that you learn to recognize that simple pleasures are enough. From her perspective, she gets a selection of wonderful cozy places to sleep, she gets to spend nearly all of her days with the most precious object in the world (me) and have frequent affectionate exchanges with me throughout the day, she has a larger pack that she loves that reunites each evening, she gets dinner (hurrah!), and a game, and then she can fall asleep each night in the vicinity of her beloved. Why on earth would anyone or anything want more than that?

So Abbey's a great example of living in the moment and finding tremendous pleasure in simple things, but she also makes my family laugh. We love her exuberance while playing games, the way she snuggles with her rope bones but will not not chew them, her eagerness to perform tricks in return for a measly Cheerio, her spins of delight on hearing that a car ride is in the offing, and her funny habit of hanging her tail--or her whole rear end--outside of her bed while chewing on her weekly rawhide stick.

She may not need as long of a game as she gets older, but this playful gal still loves her toys!

Abbey's "Booda Bank," her collection of rope bones that she considers too precious to chew on. "Did you grow up during the Depression, Abbey?" we tease her. "Was there a shortage of Boodas?"

Look at that silly mutt hanging her rump outside her bed while working on a stick!

And why be dignified when you can get belly rubs?

We love her expressiveness, too, the attentive way she listens, moving her eyes and ears and wagging her tail every time you speak or even look at her. It's so gratifying that we are in the habit of jokingly including her in conversations, pausing in discussions on topics such as current events, say, to ask, "So, Ab, are you running for office?" We like how she can use those eyes and ears and that tail to communicate with us, how she can clearly say, "Follow me!" by looking over her shoulder or request a tricks-for-treats session by looking meaningfully at my mother (Abbey regards my mother as the distributor of treats even though I do much of the training), perhaps poking her with her nose, and pricking her ears in a certain way. I love the way that she'll sometimes check in with me by gently bumping my leg with her nose, the way she'll lick my toes with delight when I get up in the morning, and how she'll quietly line herself up beside me as I prepare to transition to a different place, waiting for me to make my move. Our whole family loves to look at her and admire her brindle stripes ("Hey, Abbey, are you a tiger?") and her beautiful brown eyes. We like the way she lines herself up parallel to the carpet in the family room ("So, Ab, are you a mathematician? Do you study geometry?") or how she'll lie down with all her legs and her tail tucked completely out of sight beneath her. ("Hey, Ab, are you a seal?") And of course, we love to pet her, to stroke her wonderfully soft, thick, odorless fur and fondle her exquisitely velvety little ears. Without a doubt, Abbey makes our lives better.

Abbey patiently waits at my side in her "where to next?" position.

Her warm brown eyes are both beautiful and expressive.

Our beloved brindle animal on the move in our backyard jungle!

No words can properly describe the extraordinary softness of her darling ears!

It's hard to believe, in many ways, that eight years have passed (that's enough time for a child to be born and enter the third grade!) since Abbey came to live with us. They've been incredibly tough years for me as I struggled to gain control of my bipolar disorder, went through years of terrible withdrawal thanks to a problematic medication, and then was laid low by the disabling migraines. But every step of the way, Abbey has proved to be exactly the dog I've needed. She made me feel urgently essential to her existance when I was at my sickest, which helped me conquer my fears of being overcome by suicidal thoughts and allowed me to start getting better. Becoming a better pack leader for her so she wouldn't have to be so stressed out about trying to take care of me was instrumental in helping me uncover a confident and assertive side I never knew I had. She offered quiet comfort and companionship when I felt wretchedly nauseated or in pain during the withdrawal years and was my eager sidekick on walks when I finally was able to start regaining my strength. And her presence has proved invaluable once again as I've had to retreat from the world due to the demands of my migraines. I never feel lonely because she makes an amiable companion, happy to communicate with me and partake in my pleasures while making nary a sound. She likes nothing better than cuddling up against me if I'm too sick to get out of bed and that becomes a source of happiness for me on days when otherwise it would be easy to feel down. When Abbey is around, I never feel lonely. The way her eyes light up and her tail wags when I look at her is enough to brighten my days. Her love--pure, unswerving, instinctual, and total--has carried me through eight years of hard times. I will have many dogs in my life, but I have been so fortunate to have stumbled upon, in Abbey--who was chosen largely because of the patient way she was waiting in her kennel at the shelter--exactly the dog I've needed.

I am hers and she is mine.

I love the photograph below because Abbey is gazing at me a soft look of love in her eyes. She is waiting for me to follow her up the stairs and is holding still because I've pointed my camera at her. It sums up so much of what is wonderful about the two of us together.

It's been a joy to have you at my side these past eight years, sweetie. I hope we have many, many more.

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