Monthly Archives: December 2014

Rigel’s Song

Rigel_Jaspurr

I’d like to tell you a story, a true one, about the most amazing dog I’ve ever known… Rigel.  This telling will likely be covered in several installments, for he did many things in his life, and many things happened… to both of us.

In June, 1995, Kaiymun, a wonderful Alaskan Malamute I was proud to have known, was struck by a car and killed.  He had lunged and gotten away from me when a roommate’s chocolate lab, aptly named “Misery,” took off and crossed the road.  She made it across unscathed. Kaiymun wasn’t so lucky, and was struck by a car speeding (exceeding the speed limit a LOT) at 60mph. I rode with him in the back of a pickup, trying to do whatever I could for him, but I could tell his lungs were filling with blood. When he stopped breathing, I performed CPR, trying to keep him alive, unable to accept that my best friend was about to die.  I’d called ahead to CSU vet hospital and was met in the parking lot, but it was already too late. Kaiymun was gone. I was devastated.  I’d had him since he was 8 months old, and we did almost everything together.  I never even traveled without him.

Shortly after that, I stopped by the Humane Society to ask that they not send any license renewal materials for him.  My loss was fresh, the wounds deep. I wasn’t ready for another dog, and I wanted as few unexpected reminders as possible.  That was, however, the first time I saw Rigel. He was there already. He caught my attention somehow, but I didn’t even notice his blind eye. There seemed to be an instant connection, though. I didn’t understand it, so I left.

Two months later, my best (human) friend sent me a check for my birthday, accompanied by a note telling me to use it to adopt a dog and to get some things for said dog.  My wounds still ran deep, but they were no longer fresh. I didn’t feel quite ready, but I trusted my friend.  I deposited the check and went down to the Humane Society.

There, I saw dog after dog, but felt nothing. Then I came across Rigel’s kennel, and there I stopped.  Once again, there was something about this dog, and once again his destroyed eye, the infection, and his general condition were completely invisible to me- odd, since I tend to notice EVERYTHING. It was as though he were reaching into my soul.

I took him to the play yard to spend a little time with him outside the kennel.  It was there that I finally noticed his condition, and suddenly his adoption was a conscious choice. Here stood a dog severely underweight, his left eye destroyed and shriveled, with pus leaking from said eye.  Do I follow my instincts, or do I follow common sense? I couldn’t let go of or break that connection I felt. I trusted my instincts and adopted him, and named him Rigel, after the star in the Orion constellation- so that when we were eventually parted, I could still look into the night sky and see him there.

By the time three months had passed he’d put on weight, was healthy, and his dead eye clear of infection. His coat was now sleek and shiny.  He’d also rescued me for the first time, from what would have been a 25 foot fall onto rocks when I was bouldering in a chimney crevice. We did everything together, and he didn’t need a leash anymore for most things. Rigel was already demonstrating himself to be the smartest and most amazing dog I’ve ever known.

Anyway, it’s three months later and we’re shopping in the Old Town area of Fort Collins, where there was a holiday festival of sorts going on. A woman and her 2-year-old come up to me and tell me they know my dog. They tell me his name was Timo (Teemo). They tell me of the abuse. They tell me of his disappearance.  Given his condition when I adopted him, I believed them. I was rather apprehensive. I didn’t want Rigel’s previous owner(s) to know where he was or who he was with. Fortunately, the woman was pleased by Rigel’s improved condition and promised discretion, and to never to tell Rigel’s former owner that he still lived. I was still terrified that his former owner might discover him. I knew Rigel could never return to them.

Over the years, Rigel proved himself again and again. He prevented what might have been a deadly bouldering fall for me.  He found the way back down the mountain when my cousin and I were hiking and got lost in a sudden snow storm. He’d accompany a roommate to where she worked as a CNA in a convalescent home and worked as a therapy dog there. Rigel was now known and loved everywhere, from the mountains to the town center. Rarely would people see me without Rigel.

Then I got sick.  My blood was making cells, but they wouldn’t survive to make it to circulation. I had no immune system at all. In addition, I developed a kidney disease, developing a form that was considered universally terminal. At diagnosis, I was told I’d most likely be dead in 2 years.

Rigel poured his love and strength into me. He wasn’t a service dog, and I never even attempted to pass him off as one. However, he helped me as much as any service dog has helped anyone.  When I was in the hospital with life-threatening infections, he was permitted to visit- and I was told I always looked better after his visits. When I was home, yet too ill to go out, I could call up the supermarket half a block away, send Rigel over there, where someone would meet him, put what I’d ordered in his backpack, and send him home… Rigel was doing my shopping.  He became the one being I could depend on, and was my closest support system during that time. There were times my body wanted to quit, but I’d think of him and find the strength to keep fighting.  Eventually, I began to recover. I finished my undergraduate studies and moved to Baltimore to begin a career in research.

I didn’t like Baltimore. Even though I grew up in suburbia, and had spent a good part of my youth in and around big cities, I was never comfortable in them.  I found Baltimore to be dirty, and in the year I lived there, I witnessed many abuses and many crimes. I even reported a burglary taking place in the unit next to mine in the townhouse complex I was renting at.

One day, I came home from work to find Rigel missing.  Some kids had witnessed someone taking him from my yard.  I was devastated and distraught, looking everywhere for him, offering a reward.  I let the neighborhood watch know as well.  They were the ones who eventually came across him. Rigel had escaped his captor(s) and was making his way home at the time.  I don’t know what had taken place while he was gone, but after that he developed severe separation anxiety. Of course, I wasn’t leaving him in the yard alone after that.  He was going to daycare when I wasn’t home.  Even when we moved to Washington DC, though, the anxiety remained.  He’d chew through doors and break windows if left alone.  I tried to do all I could for him, but I couldn’t alleviate that separation anxiety.  When we were together, he was his normal self. Apart, he was a destructive force. I wished with all my heart he could tell me what had happened.

I later read about a dog that had had a similar experience… disappearing for a day or so and coming back with severe anxiety issues, almost identical to Rigel’s.  That dog had been a victim of bestiality… Essentially, the dog had been raped. I’ll never know if that’s what happened to Rigel, but I’ll always wonder.

Ultimately, we returned to Colorado, and upon our return, Rigel’s separation anxiety issues ceased almost immediately. It was as though he knew he was safe and had come home.  As always, I rented near a park, and everyone in the vicinity soon knew Rigel.  We stayed there until the end of his days.

Rigel was 18 when he died.  I’d known his time was coming for months.  He’d lost the ability to control his bowels (he’d wear Depends inside, with a hole cut for his tail- worked better than the doggy diapers I tried) and had trouble walking by then.  I refused to let go of him until he went on his own, or until he told me it was time.  There came a warm, July day when Rigel refused to get up.  He looked at me, and something went between us.  I understood.  He had had enough.  It was time.

Once again I’m crying as I type this, for I prefer to remember all of our good times.  Still, his last day was decent.  I kept him comfortable and gave him all of his favorite things.  Then, when the time came, I let go. That was 6.5 years ago.

Years before, I had vowed that when Rigel was gone, I’d one day have another Shiloh Shepherd.  I would name my dog Galen, and train him or her to be a therapy dog, and to scent cancer. My dog would be part of the medical practice I hoped to one day have, working alongside me… and I felt Rigel would approve.

Circumstances haven’t been kind to me, what with the accident, the spine surgeries, and the immune deficiency, but that dream, conceived WITH Rigel, is beginning to shape itself into a new reality.  My circumstances have forced that dream to be modified and adjusted, but life always requires us to modify and adjust our dreams. What’s important is that Galen has been born, and soon he or she will become my new partner in life, shepherding me into recovery, even as I nurture him/her into the wonderful and amazing dog I know he or she will be.  Together, I know we will be happy, and I hope together we can see other dreams reborn, and new dreams blossom.  It is a new tomorrow.  I know Rigel would approve.

Learning to Live Again, In Search of Me

Three years ago, on September 18, 2011, my life changed forever.  I’d been through fear and near death before, with an illness 15 years ago that was expected to be terminal, but somehow I came through that relatively unscathed, and ultimately became healthier than ever, with great promise for my future.  In the instant my bicycle went over the side of Mount Evans, I lost almost everything… my home, my job, medical school, and almost my life.  I also lost that happy, confident, person I used to be.  I’ve not forgotten who I was, but I’ve forgotten how to be that person, and I want that back so badly.  There are brief occasions when I glimpse that person, but how do I learn to be me again?  For three years I’ve been surviving… surviving that fall, and its injuries, surviving the 4 spine surgeries (so far), surviving an immune deficiency, and never looking to the future, still trapped in that moment when everything changed.

I’ve not forgotten my dreams and aspirations, but in my present state, they’re unattainable.  At the same time, I yearn for that person I was, an I yearn for the future I almost had… and I yearn for the ability to make what happened simply a nightmare, that’s whisked away from memory upon awakening.

I’m lost in foreign territory. I’ve tried therapy, medication, etc… but none of it changes anything.  I know there’s no logic to my constant anxiety, the crying, the fear.  If it were a fear of heights, I’d understand it.  If it were a fear of riding my bicycle, that, too, I’d understand, but my fears now simply aren’t rational, and often I don’t even know what I’m afraid of, but I’m afraid just the same.

My whole state of being has fluctuated widely on the 3 years since the accident, but after everything that happened with my last surgery, I suddenly lost those last residual traces of feeling, well, like me. I feel like a stranger to myself.

Not long ago, I recalled what my old dog, Rigel, did for me when I was ill all those years ago, but beyond that, and how he had a way of keeping me in the now, and keeping me from isolating myself.  Unloved by his previous owner, when I first saw him in the pound, I felt an instant connection, and instead of following the common sense of choosing a dog with both eyes, no infection, and well nourished, I followed my instincts, and never regretted it.

That was when I began in earnest trying to save for, and adopt, a Shiloh Shepherd.  Somewhere in my heart, I know the unconditional love of a dog, and the way a dog close to someone can always sense what they’re feeling, know what they need, could be the one thing that helps me find myself again, a new self, certainly, but help me to feel real again, and learn to live, instead of just survive.

Once I found I COULD adopt a Shiloh Shepherd, I began looking for organizations that could help me train it to be a service dog, to help with my spine injuries, of course, but more importantly help with the PTSD.  I also told my doctor about Rigel, and all he’d done for me before (I didn’t mention the words “service dog,” and his response opened the door wide open… He said he thought a service dog might be an excellent idea as a means of helping me.  Shortly after, I received a response from Guild Assistance dog Partners (GAP Service Dogs), not only saying that they could help train the dog I chose, but that there would be no exorbitant cost, unlike many other organizations.  Certainly they train their own dogs to place as service dogs, but they’re one of the only organizations that will also train dogs people already have to be service dogs… and in spite of many dogs not being their own, they also have one of the highest success rates.  Suddenly, everything was fitting together.

It even opened the door on one of my former aspirations… to train a Shiloh Shepherd to scent cancer. I don’t want to use the word “if” right now, so I’ll say WHEN I get better, I do hope I can do this with the pup I’m getting.  I hope I’ll recover enough to complete my medical training, and that my dog can work by my side, saving lives by detecting cancer in its earliest stages… the least expensive of exams with potentially enormous benefit to the patient, for caught in the early stages, cancer is far more treatable than it is later. There are already dogs who do this.  For more information, see http://www.dogsdetectcancer.org/about.

My Shiloh isn’t coming cheap.  My debt is going to increase substantially by getting this puppy.  It will be worth it, though, for many reasons.  The biggest, of course, is the potential for helping me in my recovery.  There are other reasons that are for the benefit of both me and my pup.  The ISSR Shiloh Shepherd breeding program has very strict rules about which dogs are permitted to breed, and those aren’t limited to the individual dog’s health and temperament, but the health and temperament of each dog’s siblings and beyond, not to mention looking at ancestry to try and avoid too much inbreeding.  As a rare breed and a breed in development, there isn’t a huge gene pool yet, and it’s important to try and pair dogs that aren’t closely related, to prevent the health and behavior issues that can develop with inbreeding.  In addition, every Shiloh undergoes a LER, or a temperament evaluation.  At the age of 1 year, every Shiloh also has its hips x-rayed and graded, and with careful breeding, genetic hip dysplasia has been practically eliminated from Shiloh Shepherds.

The largest focus for the ISSR program is to further develop the breed, focusing on stable temperaments, high intelligence, and excellent physical health.  A higher percentage of Shiloh Shepherds are in either therapy or nonviolent service work (including Search and Rescue) than any other breed.

The extra caution taken in this program is reflected in the cost of the dog… but well worth it. Rigel was likely a Shiloh, and formed a bond with me as no dog or animal ever has before or since. He was the smartest dog I’ve ever known, and had the best temperament.  I believe the Shiloh Breed to be more compatible with me and my needs than any other, based on my experiences with Rigel, what I’ve seen of other Shilohs, and what my research into the breed has shown me.  I can’t afford to be paired with the wrong type of dog.  Not with my health issues, physical and mental.  I already know what my needs are, and I’m not willing to settle for anything else.  I don’t expect this dog to be Rigel, but I do expect that our bond will be just as strong.

Part of my healing, I believe, also involves my taking responsibility for my puppy, making sure (s)he is trained properly, and ensuring (s)he is well provided for, loved, and most of all, happy. The puppy needs to be allowed to be a puppy to develop properly and properly socialized.   Even GAP service dogs knows this, and many trainings begin simply by letting the dogs play together for a while, so they can have some fun, blow off steam, whatever.  It’s good for the dogs, and it’s good for their people- we all like to see the dogs happy.  I’ll have to make sacrifices, but I intend to make sure my pup is well provided for, happy, and loved.

I’ve already begun training with GAP service dogs, for it’s not just the dog who needs to be trained.  I do too.  We both need to know what the other is saying, thinking, doing if we are to be a team.  Teamwork is needed in any successful service dog/human relationship.

The name I’ll be giving my pup, Galen, is a name I chose for him/her many years ago, when I first wanted to raise a Shiloh to scent cancer.  It means “Healer.”  Galen will be my healer, and this Shiloh so full of promise will hopefully shepherd me into my next stage in life… not just a life worth living, but truly living again.

Galen was born November 20th.  (S)he will be 3 weeks old on Thursday.  For the first time in a long while, I have hope again.  That hope, and what it hopefully brings, is more valuable than all the diamonds in the universe.

Rigel (with cat)                                                                            Puppies (and dad)

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