The crackling static from the baby monitor wakes me at 3 a.m., followed by a loud bark. I reach for the handheld video monitor that I keep by my pillow and turn it on. The unit shows four small screens for the four cameras downstairs. My four-year-old Great Pyrenees, Tonka, is standing at the back door, which means he has to go out.
Such is life with Tonka; sometimes we sleep through the night and sometimes we are up several times. I don’t care that we are up yet again. I am just happy that he can get up and walk out the door, since it was not that long ago that he couldn’t. He is a big, happy, goofy guy who thinks life is one big adventure full of people and dogs to meet and greet. The only hiccup on his journey through life is that, medically, he keeps encountering obstacles.
As a puppy, Tonka was pulled out of a Virginia shelter by Appalachian Great Pyrenees Rescue. He had been dumped there and left to his fate because he was born blind. While volunteering at the rescue, I was immediately taken with how smart and feisty the little guy was. It didn’t take long before I fell in love with him.
While Tonka was being neutered and having a hernia fixed, I spent a few weeks getting the house ready. I read Living with Blind Dogs by Caroline Levin and followed her tips. I got down on the floor and crawled around to mimic his height and Tonka-proof things. Outside, all low branches had to be removed, and sections of the yard with things like roses had to be fenced off. I used lLemon extract to scent all the doorframes and big objects with corners. A four-inch-wide strip of the sticky-backed plastic went on the top step of the stairs so he would know where they were.
I picked up Tonka on April 16, 2008. A friend drove on the return trip home so that I could take care of him. Tonka started to get nervous about 20 minutes into the ride, so I curled up with him on the back seat and sang him to sleep.
The biggest hurdle was teaching him steps. With no visual reference point for new things, a step could be a six-inch or a six-foot drop. I found that the key to training a blind dog is threefold: patience, trust, and repetition.
Every dog is unique in what motivates him; some require praise, some want food. Tonka is a little of both, so I sat in the middle of the steps with a piece of chicken and put it to his nose and then down on the first step. His little paw would reach down, and when he didn’t stretch quite enough to make contact, he would pull it back up and sit there thinking. We did this for a while, and every time he would reach down I would say “step.” Patience and lots of chicken finally won out and he mastered the stairs.
That first year was full of fun, taking him everywhere to experience the world with new sounds and smells. I kept a running dialog, telling him about everything and naming things we encountered. This was how he learned about the world and how to navigate with commands like “left,” “right,” “come around,” “come to me,” etc. It was during that first year that we discovered that Tonka also suffers from seizures, but luckily they are infrequent and don’t require medication.
At age two, he acquired glaucoma in his left eye. There are several treatment choices. The two options for Tonka were to remove the eye and sew it shut or insert a prosthetic. It was a very difficult decision. I did not want people to see his missing eye and approach with a “poor thing is blind” attitude, so I had numerous conversations with Tonka’s ophthalmologists and trusted them to take care of my boy. Today his prosthetic looks like a normal eye that moves and blinks.
At age three he collapsed, and thinking he was just having a bad seizure, I rushed him to the vet. I was shocked when they said his heart was in arrhythmia and he needed a cardiologist, who discovered that he had a patent ductus arteriosus, which is basically a leak in the heart from a valve that should have closed when he was born. He underwent heart surgery with the doctor using a catheter to deliver an occluder through an artery in his leg and up to the hole and plug the leak. The surgery went well, his checkups have been excellent, and he no longer takes heart meds.
The end of 2011 presented something sneaky that none of us were prepared for. First he started defecating while walking, followed by a slight limp in his left hind leg. Thinking it was mild hip dysplasia, I put him on a painkiller and strict rest. The limp became worse and his foot started knuckling under and dragging, so he went to see a neurologist. The exam found deficits consistent with a problem in the lower back area. I also consulted an orthopedic to rule out hip or knee problems, but neither exam produced a definitive diagnosis. An MRI and spinal tap were performed and the results were within normal ranges.
He soon became semi-incontinent and would dribble urine upon standing or stretching, sometimes defecating in his sleep. I had to learn to express his bladder and his bowel to prevent urinary infections and so we would not have accidents at night. When standing, his hindquarters sank toward the floor and he could not rise from a lying position on his own.
Nights were hard on him, and he did not want to be left alone, so I mostly slept on the floor with him. He could not walk outside without something to protect his paw, so I used dog socks and wrapped duct tape around the toe area because dog boots were too heavy. He was fitted for a cart with the hope of keeping him mobile longer and to build up muscle so he could go to the park to visit his friends. He needed social contact, but the support rings on the cart put pressure on the affected nerves and made things worse.
With no clear cause, I decided to try rehabilitation therapy, and so Tonka started acupuncture, B12 shots, and therapy. His therapists have been working miracles with him every week.
That first month, his mobility slightly improved and he started lifting his foot a little higher to try to clear things. He no longer scuffed as he walked. He stopped dribbling upon standing and would semisquat to defecate. He could now feel that he had to go, and started barking again to be let out.
Three orthopedists and three neurologists evaluated Tonka with no concrete diagnosis. The last theory was a tumor in his neck or head. A month ago he started showing symptoms in his other hind leg. An MRI showed no tumors or lesions, which is both wonderful and frustrating at the same time. Since nothing has been found to fix surgically we are continuing the therapy, and now they work on both legs.
It has been a long, emotional roller coaster over the past eight months, but Tonka continues to make progress. He can walk fairly well and can even manage a jog when he is very excited. We go to the park and “see” his human and doggie friends. He stands without sinking, and will stop to relieve himself 98 percent of the time. His bladder does not always completely empty, but we have not had any accidents. He still has some difficulty getting up on his own at times, but we are working on that. Most nights Tonka sleeps all the way through. However, if his bladder is not empty and he doesn’t -– well, I don’t mind getting up and walking outside with him.
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