Old Dogs and New Tricks - by John Sealander


Anyone who says that old dogs can't learn new tricks hasn't spent much time around an aging Dalmatian. It is common knowledge that Dalmatians can be strong willed and stubborn. Maybe so. I'll be the first to admit that Spot, the Dalmatian I know best, has certainly had his stubborn moments. As Spot grows older however, what I used to view as strong willed behavior I now see as resiliency. With each new illness and infirmity, Spot's will to live life on his own terms seems to grow stronger. His refusal to give up in the face of long odds is really quite remarkable.

Spot is almost 14 years old. Medically speaking, he has not led a charmed life. When he was eight years old, he had spinal surgery to remove a benign tumor inside the spinal column that was pinching his spinal cord and threatening to paralyze him. Although the odds of his surviving this surgery were only 60%, he bounced back and made a full recovery. Four years later, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and had a three-inch section of his large intestine removed. Spot survived this surgery as well, although the cancer had already spread to his liver. On top of all this, he also suffers from arthritis, hip displacia and has recently torn the anterior cruciate ligaments in both of his rear knees. If even half of these setbacks had happened to me, I would probably have just given up. Spot never did. With each passing year, his youthful stubbornness has turned increasingly to a mature resiliency that has allowed him to adapt and compensate for his decreasing strength and mobility with a grace that few humans could match.

We really thought Spot was going to die when we learned the seriousness of his intestinal cancer last New Year's Eve. During the surgery itself a few days later, the surgeon came out and asked us if we wanted to complete the procedure, because he had discovered that the cancer had already spread from Spot's intestine to his liver. The best he could offer was a few weeks to say good-by. After spending one of these weeks at the hospital in intensive care with a fever and other post-surgery complications, Spot was finally released to us to come home. When we asked the doctors when we should resume his regular heartworm and allergy medications, the surgeon said that heartworm was the least of our worries.

Maybe the vets were just letting him come home so we could say goodbye, but Spot has other ideas. After a few very rough days and night, he began to make a remarkable recovery. In two days his fever subsided and within a week he was eating normally again. It was almost as if he had lost his will to live in the hospital and regained it again with a vengeance when he was back on his own turf again.

It was heartening to see Spot continue to grow stronger with each passing week, as he learned to adapt and even thrive on a new cancer fighting diet that was a radical departure from anything he had know in the past. Everything was going just fine until one day he fell on an afternoon walk and didn't get up. A quick trip back to the same surgeons who had removed his intestinal tumor a few months confirmed what we had feared. Spot had torn or ruptured the ligaments in his left rear knee. Torn ligaments are a common problem in older dogs and surgery is often recommended. In our case, the surgeons said it might be better to do nothing however. Elevated liver enzymes as a result of Spot's liver cancer made him a risky candidate for anesthesia. We elected not to proceed with surgery. The doctor's said that 70% of dogs with torn ligaments in one leg could still get around just fine using their remaining good legs. This was reassuring and certainly seemed to be true. Within three weeks, Spot had learned to adapt and compensate once again by discovering new ways to get up from a sitting position and redistribute his weight to his remaining good legs.

Unfortunately, Spot turned out to be one of the 30% of dogs where one bad knee eventually leads to a torn ligament in the other. Three months after the first knee went out, he tore the ligaments in his other rear leg as well. Now, things were more serious, because he was unable to walk at all. Back to the surgeons we went again and this time we all decided that even though surgery was risky, we really had no choice.

Spot isn't stupid. It didn't take him all that long to learn the difference between a regular vet clinic and a surgery center. After serious spinal and abdominal surgery, plus minor but necessary surgery to repair a ruptured blood vessel in his ear, Spot knows exactly what the smells in the lobby of a surgery center mean. He was terrified when we took him in on the scheduled day for the Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy procedure we all thought would provide his only hope of walking again. Spot had no idea what this long-range plan was however. He just knew someone was going to cut him open again. It was sad to see him shivering as he was led away to the pre-op prep room.

It was equally sad to see the perplexed look on his face when we brought him home the next day with a bright blue cast on his rear leg, and at least from Spot's point of view, in an even more immobile condition than he was before the surgery. I know that dogs are convinced that they go to the veterinarian in good condition and somehow always manage to come home sick. I have never been adequately able to explain the notion of cause and effect to Spot.

Nevertheless, once he was back on his own turf again, Spot once again became the canine equivalent of the Energizer bunny. He quickly adjusted to the nylon "Walkabout" harness he initially had to wear on his rear legs. Within a matter of days he learned to bark whenever he wanted to get up or go outside. Once we got coordinated, we really did pretty well together. Spot would take care of the front two legs and I would take care of the rear. I now know where the term "butler" originated. At some point hundreds of years ago, some poor domestic servant must have been assigned to lift the butt of an aging royal Dalmatian who could no longer get around under his own steam.

After hearing numerous stories of dogs who get depressed and lose their will to live after an injury that leaves them immobile, I was nervous about the lengthy recovery period that Spot was going to require to regain full use of his legs. He initially hated the physical therapy sessions prescribed by the vets to increase his range of motion. All he really wanted to do was return as quickly as possible to his regular routines and take his daily walks in the park.

Spot's stubborn refusal to accept that he was an old dog living a life of increasing limitations eventually became his strongest ally. We began taking walks in the park with me holding the entire weight his rear legs using the Walkabout harness. Within a few days he began making walking motions with his rear legs. A week or so later, so was supporting at least 50% of his own weight himself. We still use the harness, but now it is mostly to keep him from trying to run in typical Dalmatian style before the bone that was repositioned in his leg has fully healed. Walking up and down hills and through the thick brush of his favorite haunts are providing him with exactly the "range of motion" exercises he needs to fully regain his strength.

Spot never learned to heal at my side when he was young. Many Dalmatians don't, simply because they love to run so much that they are continually tugging at the end of their leash, urging their owners to go just a bit faster. Spot heals quite well now however. I am continually amazed at his ability to learn and adapt in his ongoing quest to keep up his old routines as long as he can. He has learned that with his "walk about" harness, he can go just about anywhere, while without it, he is still pretty shaky. Whatever works seems to be just fine with him.

Each new day brings a new surprise. Just a few weeks ago he managed to get up from an afternoon nap on the floor all by himself. Spot seemed just as surprised as I was, and wasn't immediately able to duplicate this amazing feet, but he's learning. A week later I saw him get up by himself again and this time there was a look of understanding in his eyes. Spot will never jump over fences or run with horses again, but he still has his pride and his dignity. This is what is keeping him alive.

I know now why my Dad still insists on driving his own car at 84. Aging is just as much a function of the mind as it is of the body. It certainly appears for man and beast alike, that as long as you believe you're young, in a certain sense you are.

Dalmatians take a lot of criticism for their stubborn and willful nature. I'm delighted that my own spotted friend has a mind of his own however. We're spent a lot of time together and the more I observe his reactions to life's many surprises, the more I become convinced that it was his youthful stubbornness that gave him the resiliency he has needed and called on again and again to bounce back after serious illness.

I haven't done a great job of training Spot over the years. He's done a pretty good job of training me though. When I look at his determination and sheer will to live, I realize that I could make a few improvements in my own attitude as well.


If you enjoy these stories and would like to help this wonderful breed of dogs, please consider making a donation to Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas. Your donation will help Dalmatian Rescue continue to rescue and rehabilitate the hundreds of Dalmatians that are abandoned in North Texas every year. To help give a deserving Dalmatian a second chance, just click on the button to your left. You can use any major credit card to make your donation instantly and no matter what you choose to give, you can feel a little better knowing that you have helped a dog very much like Spot find the one thing it really needs: a home.

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