Sometimes it’s the journey, not the goal. And it took a devastating event, plus a bag of tricks, to show me that.
My goal was to break yet another record with my Saluki, Pepe. He was already a Best in Show, National Specialty Best of Breed, Best in Field (Coursing), and High in Trial (both Obedience and Agility) winner, the most accomplished, versatile Saluki of all time. He had titles in Conformation, Obedience, Rally, Agility, Coursing, and even, just for fun, Trick Dog.
At 11, he’d been long retired from the ring except for special occasions, but his wins on those occasions eventually brought him tantalizingly close to his Platinum Grand Championship, a title requiring 800 points (for context, a Champion title requires 15 points). He had 740. So at an age when most dogs are just lying around, Pepe came out of retirement with the goal of becoming the first owner-handled Platinum Saluki.
He loved being back in the ring, and quickly shaved down his needed points to eight. Then COVID struck in March 2020. All dog shows were canceled. We stayed home as the months ticked away.
On an August morning, I let the dogs out as usual, and as usual they thundered across the yard. Only this morning, one dog fell screaming and flopping—Pepe! I raced to him, desperately trying to find the problem. A broken leg? A heart attack? Then it hit me: Pepe was completely paralyzed from his neck down. A friend helped me hoist him into the car, and we raced to the vet school. They wheeled him in on a gurney. I had no idea if I would ever see him again.
The veterinarian said he was 100 percent paralyzed in three legs, and about 98 percent in the right front, which he could twitch in response to deep pain. An MRI indicated it was likely a fibrocartilaginous embolism (FCE—better known as a spinal stroke) or, more likely, an acute non-compressive nucleus pulposus extrusion (ANNPE). That’s basically when a disc explodes and shoots its contents out at high velocity, damaging the spinal cord. Both are more common in middle-aged or older large dogs during hard exercise. With aggressive rehab, many walk again.
Older dogs, and dogs affected to Pepe’s extent, have a bleaker outlook. Pepe’s physical therapy began in the hospital, with passive movement, acupuncture, and hyperbaric chamber sessions. By the end of the week, his “good” leg could support him a little if he was propped up. By the next week, he refused to cooperate. It was time to go home.
In the car, his left front leg curled under him and both rear legs jutted out straight behind and crossed. I lugged him around with a body harness. He hated this. He hated the passive range-of-motion exercises and being propped up to eat or to balance on a big ball. He hated everything.
His life had gone from fun to frightening, from proud to passive. After a week, he quit trying. Then I quit too. He was so miserable. It was hard to remember him as the glorious dog who loved strutting his stuff in the show ring or showing off his tricks. Wait—show off, tricks. I began to wonder.
Tricks to the Rescue
“Paw,” I whispered as I held my hand close to his good paw. Slowly, haltingly, he twitched his foot. It moved ever so slowly, so slightly, to touch my hand. It was his first voluntary movement. More importantly, it was the first time I saw joy in his eyes. Could this be the answer? All those silly tricks he learned for those just-for-fun Trick Dog titles?
I tried more. Best of all, he tried more! By the end of the week, he moved his “good” foot more and more in response to my hand. He was able to stand while being held by his two body harnesses, and even balance on his own for a few seconds, but he had not yet taken a step. So I tried something else—the old toy keyboard he loved. I placed it a few feet in front of him. His eyes lit up and he struggled to totter to it. He even banged on the keys with his good foot! He was smiling!
He grew stronger and started barking to do more tricks. With paw targeting (touching an indicated target with his paw), he practiced lifting and aiming his front feet. I introduced “other one” to indicate he must use the other foot. Within weeks, he was standing unassisted and walking with just his rear supported. With nose targeting (touching a target with his nose), he could be “led by the nose” in circles or elsewhere. We added Agility moves: a 2-inch jump (too high) and two weave poles (he tripped and fell). Failure didn’t deter him; he was used to training and trying, and he was happy, once again the center of my attention.
More weeks passed. He turned 12. We added more tricks, more Agility. One day he took several steps totally on his own! He conquered his tiny jumps and we added more, and higher. He conquered two weaves and added more. We added retrieving in the pool, although I had to help him stay upright while swimming.
Simple obedience exercises—”sit,” “stay,” “come”—built strength and balance. One day I called him and he trotted. We practiced trotting more. I started to entertain a ridiculous thought: Could he return to the show ring?
Thrill of Victory
One day in late November, I found myself doing something I never dreamed I’d do again: picking up Pepe’s armband. It was a big prestigious specialty show, and I had Pepe instead of his son, who had a different handler for the event. It was Pepe’s day, no matter the outcome. I’d never been so proud of him as when he took his turn. True, his gait was not what it once was, and he was so ecstatic to be back in the ring he was a bit out of control and broke into a gallop several times. He didn’t care that the judge pointed to his son instead of him for Best of Breed.
His tail, once paralyzed and limp, wagged like he’d won. Just being back in the ring, seeing his joy and determination, was the best win I could imagine. We prepared to leave the ring. But then—the judge pointed to Pepe! Pepe won Select Dog (runner-up male)! The win was worth five points. He needed only three more to reach 800! A month later he was strutting around the ring again, as if to say, “You thought a little paralysis could keep me down?” This day, at 12, following a 99 percent total paralysis, Pepe won his final Best of Breed, earning the points he needed to become the first amateur-handled Platinum Grand Champion Saluki.
At one time, that title had been my goal. In the end, it marked only another milestone. At a time in Pepe’s life when he had no titles left to train for, when he was expected to retire and let the youngsters take his place, we were thrust back into the most intense training of his life—training literally for his life. And of all the titles he’d previously won, it turned out to be his training for the Trick Dog titles—the titles we’d thought were kind of silly compared to the others—that saved his life.
Oddly, his rehab was perhaps the best bonding period of our 12 years together. The paralysis wasn’t so much a roadblock as a chance to take a better detour. For Pepe, he found himself once again the center of my universe. For me, I found true satisfaction lay not in the destination, but in the journey.