Accepting Our Dog's Limitations
The importance of letting go of expectations & loving the dog in front of you.
Maybe you have a reactive dog. An aggressive dog. A dog with separation anxiety. A dog with medical challenges. A dog with chronic pain. The list goes on... and you're not alone. I've had my own personal experience with a difficult dog & I'd like to share a few of the lessons I've learned along the way.
Maybe this should have been second nature for me and in retrospect, I feel some shame around it all, but accepting my dog’s limitations was a hard lesson that took years for me to learn.
But hey, I learned it. And what's life all about if we aren't here to experience, learn & grow.
A little background. I adopted Bailey (that goofy dog rolling in the grass with me!) in January of 2016 from a rescue in Seattle. They estimated she was about a year old and labeled her as a Golden Retriever/Rottweiler mix. With her wavy golden locks and big blocky head, it seemed a reasonable guess. After swabbing her cheeks & packaging her drool into a box to be analyzed by doggie scientists, a DNA test revealed she was a cross between Staffordshire Terrier, German Shepherd, Boxer, Dalmatian & Chihuahua; results I’ve taken with a grain of salt and that still make me giggle today.
So, I’ve concluded that she’s just an adorable mix of who knows what and that’s enough for me.
When I adopted Bailey, I did my best to be thoughtful about the decision and choose a dog that would match my lifestyle. But at the same time, I created a world of extraordinary expectations for my new dog. She was going to be my adventure buddy, business partner & best friend. I dreamt of us hiking together for years to come & hoped she could join me on my daily walks with client dogs. She would be even-tempered, social, friendly, athletic, easy to train, great with kids, good with cats… the list goes on.
The rescue mentioned traits like “doesn’t have a mean bone in her body” and “perfect hiking partner” in her bio, which only added to my expectations. But understandably, a rescue can’t know everything about the dogs they’re adopting out. They’re simply doing their best to shine a positive light on dogs that need a new home.
When Bailey came into my life, I immediately brought her on my group walks with client dogs. I took her hiking & backpacking into steep terrain. We frequented the dog park and scheduled wild play dates with her doggy friends.
The signs were subtle at first, and I’ll admit, I wasn’t the best observer or listener. She would slow down on walks, sometimes coming to a complete halt. I’d tug her along and shrug it off, thinking she was just being “stubborn” about where we walked. During play dates with other dogs, she became aloof, choosing to spend most of her time alone & ignoring invitations to play.
It was a warm summer night in August, just 7 months after I adopted Bailey, when we went for a routine romp at the dog park and I returned home with a limping dog in pain. So began our journey into a world of frequent vet visits, multiple surgeries, rehab, physical therapy & now, a lifetime of managing arthritis.
On that fateful day in August, Bailey had torn her cruciate ligament (CCL) on one of her hind legs. It wasn’t more than a few weeks of conservative management (in hopes of avoiding surgery) before the CCL tore in her other leg. With both legs out of commission, I poured over countless articles about treatment for CCL tears, and eventually scheduled an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon. Over a period of 6 months, we went through TPLO surgeries on both knees and months of rehab & recovery.
Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy (or TPLO for short) works to stabilize the knee so it can function properly again, even without the cruciate ligament. It’s done by changing the structure of the knee, cutting off a portion of the tibia bone & re-aligning it with metal plates & screws. Recovery from the procedure requires weeks of crate rest while the bone heals & months of limited activity… and for many dogs, a greater risk of developing arthritis.
Once we completed “official” rehab & the surgeries were long behind us, I had hoped that Bailey would regain strength & I’d be able to condition her to hiking again. In my heart, I still believed she was meant to be my adventure partner. But her path to recovery has never been linear. As soon as I thought she was doing better, she’d slow down on walks, wake up stiff or even limp. The diagnosis: arthritis.
On many a bad day, you’ll likely find me curled up on the floor next to Bailey, tears in my eyes, wishing away her pain. I'd scroll through Facebook, greeted by pictures of other people's dogs hiking & backpacking in the Cascades. The envy always crept in. Why can't MY dog be normal?
We had good days, too. Oh the splendid, good days… when she appeared to be feeling better, I wouldn't waste a second before getting our gear together & into the mountains.
But in the last year, her enthusiasm for hiking swiftly disappeared once again. And it was due time I let go of my relentless expectations of her. In all fairness, I never should have put those expectations on Bailey in the first place.
Regrettably, I have no doubt, at times, pushed her passed her limits. Tugged her along on walks or hikes, not understanding that what I labeled as “stubborn” was actually a dog in pain trying to communicate that something hurt. My need to have a dog that could hike with me overpowered my ability to listen to the truth.
Letting go of my expectations and loving the dog I had (not the dog I thought I wanted) was the greatest gift I ever gave myself, and Bailey.
My relationship with Bailey is not what it once was. I’ve finally stopped molding her into the dog I wished her to be, and honor, cherish & respect the dog that she is. I'm a better listener and pay close attention to her subtle signs of communication. Instead of hikes, we drive to the lake for sunsets. Instead of long walks, we play training games at the local park. When she slows down, I slow down. I’ve learned that Bailey’s journey was never a path to full recovery (my arbitrary ideal of the perfect dog when she would finally be fixed) … but simply a path to feeling healthy & happy each & every day, whatever that means to her.
The reality of owning a difficult dog, whether it be medical or behavioral issues, is not easy. But shift your perspective & it can be a gift. Difficult dogs push us to work harder, think deeper & challenge us to look within ourselves. The darker days may be more frequent, but it makes the light just that much brighter. For Bailey and I, the expectations are gone and there is space to live & love together in the present, just as we are.
Bailey & I have learned a lot about managing arthritis together. If you want to learn some of the tips & tricks we’ve learned along the way, stay tuned for my next blog post!
Owner of K9 Ascent