I generally write my blogs about ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ with instructional content that I think will help people get into and enjoy the sports we are so passionate about. Occasionally I will write something personal about what’s going on in our lives at the moment and as a lifelong dog owner and enthusiast, I like to think that sharing this type of blog might also be useful to my audience of dog lovers.
I have written before about when to stop running with your dog and the importance of rest and recovery for dogs in general but this blog is more specifically about how I’ve had to deal with the gradual decline in fitness and activity in my oldest dog Judo.
To give you some background, I rescued Judo when he was about 5 months old and was a little scrap of a dog, full of worms, dumped with his brothers and sisters at the Many Tears Animal Rescue’s door-step. I was looking for a companion for my other rescue dog, Tegan and I have always (I say it grudgingly!) had a soft spot for collies. His name was the one given to him by the rescue on the day he went to the centre to identify him and I just never changed it, according to my vets and Pit Pat UK, the name Judo for a dog is unique and I found out recently means ‘gentle way’, which is so perfect to describe Judo, I wish I had known earlier.
Judo has been canicrossing with me since he was about 14 months old and has attempted the West Highland Way with me, completed the Cotswold Way with me, taught me how to bikejor and gave me the confidence to compete on the bike. Judo has been the most focused and reliable canicross dog I’ve ever had, I even used to loan him out to others so they could enjoy an easy run at social runs and races. I really felt the loss when he had to retire from harness sports in 2017 due to spondylosis which meant running in a harness wasn’t suitable for him any longer.
At the end of 2018, I discovered both Judo and my other dog Tegan, had heart murmurs and the vets discussed how this would eventually develop and degenerate over time. But the advice was to keep allowing them both to enjoy an active life because the heart is essentially another muscle in the body and so exercise, (as long as done at their pace) would be good for them. Sadly I lost Tegan the following year due to a mass, which couldn’t be operated on and as heart-breaking as that was at the time, she had been fighting fit right up until 2 days before that took her from me.
Judo on the other hand has been gradually slowing down over time, we’ve added and increased medications to help support his heart and he’s had regular cardiologist appointments to make sure he’s still receiving the best care possible. For the last 6 months, I have been watching his activity levels reduce and his enthusiasm and ability to keep up with our walks has also slowly gone, to the point where he now doesn’t accompany us, other than on the shortest of walks. This is what I have found most difficult to deal with and have genuinely struggled to come to terms with.
My beautiful, active, little pocket rocket has turned into a very slow, sedate, old boy whose greatest pleasure comes from licking the plates before they go in the dishwasher! For a good few months now I realise I have actually been grieving for the loss of my active dog, even though he is still here.
Now some people might find this difficult to understand, after all, he is still here and is still enjoying his life, albeit in a very different way to how he used to, but anticipatory grief is a recognised form of grieving and Carrie Kearns discussed this with Canine Arthritis Management in this blog: Anticipatory Grief – CAM Conversation in 2019.
Carrie runs Animal Bereavement Counselling through her website: https://animalbereavementcounselling.com/ and the main take-away I have gained from her advice is to ‘Use this time not to lament and think about what is to happen. It will never be far from your thoughts but don’t let it steal away the time you have.’
I have spent a long time trying to work out how I could include him in our activities and not leave him behind, feeling guilty if I did leave him at home whilst taking the others out and getting really, really upset about the inevitable conclusion to his condition which means he will no longer be in our lives. Judo has been a constant in my life for the last 13.5 years and his quiet, gentle and funny ways will leave a huge hole in my heart and for a while, it’s been all I can think about.
I have always considered myself a fairly rational person but when it comes to being able to rationalise the decline of my dogs’ active life and health, I have found it very difficult to put any of it into perspective. Those who know me have seen my anxiety about doing the right thing for him and the fear I have about having to say that final goodbye. We had another vet appointment this week and they have confirmed we’re doing everything we can for him now and it’s just a matter of time, which is just breaking my heart.
I have however decided to take Carrie’s advice and make every last day count, she mentioned a few things you can do to enjoy whatever time you have left with a dog on limited time and these include:
- Make a bucket list, what would your pet love to do if they could get away with it?
- What foods were forbidden but now with the days reducing they can eat as a treat?
- Where is their favourite place to be?
I booked us into a dog-friendly light show in early December that meant he got to be sociable and wander around with other dogs and people which he loved. We took an extended break over Christmas at our favourite place and made sure there was time for activities which included Judo. I have always taken loads of photos but I’ve been making sure to take more, aware that any of these things we do might be the last time we do them with Judo.
It might seem a bit strange to be so focused on the sad ending which is inevitable but when you’ve had a dog as active as Judo has been his whole life, the difference in him has been night and day. So it has been hard to ignore the decline and even harder to incorporate his needs into our regular day without acknowledging that he is now a senior dog who needs extra special care and attention that involves very carefully restricting his activity when his whole life has previously been about getting him out to enjoy being active.
I feel I need to explain to people, the best way I know how, why I might not be doing so many events at the moment, why I am sticking to specific venues for races and not travelling too far away from home. My whole focus has had to change from our usual adventures away, to making sure Judo’s needs are being met and he is as comfortable and happy as he can be now, which often means just being in his own space at home.
If there is anyone else out there experiencing this, I’d love to hear from you. I can offer little advice but I can tell you, you have my deepest sympathy and I fully understand the term ‘anticipatory grief’ now in a way I never did before.
In trying to finish this on a more positive note, I am going to enjoy all the time we have left and now I’ve accepted and understand the process I’m going through, hope I can give Judo the best last days which is nothing less than he deserves, having been my side-kick and original team member since we started our crazy career in canicross all those years ago.
“Dogs die. But dogs live, too. Right up until they die, they live. They live brave, beautiful lives. They protect their families. And love us. And make our lives a little brighter. And they don’t waste time being afraid of tomorrow” – Dan Gemeinhart