The Clarity of Crisis

Last Sunday, Thomas did as well as he has ever done in Utility. In the order of exercises that begins with scent articles, always a tough one, he worked the pile efficiently without visiting the judge. He returned his glove straight and fast and obeyed his signals in spite of much hubbub in his line of sight, where Novice competitors were getting their ribbons. There were fronts and finishes in all the right places, and sits to go with them. It was a sign to me that the adjustments we’ve made lately in training —  reeling in his retrieves with a retractable leash, heeling with a light lead held low in my right hand — are working. It was also a sign that we’re both less nervous in the ring.

Good scoreWe still didn’t qualify, only because we failed the second half of the last exercise, which was directed jumping. Thomas did his first go-out and took the bar jump without any fuss, but on the second one he stopped halfway out, suddenly, as if something had bitten him. Then he turned to go the rest of the way, and stopped again. I told him to sit, but he was flummoxed, and took the bar jump a second time.

It seemed odd — if you can do one go-out, why not the second? But it wasn’t alarming. So many of Thomas’s bobbles in the ring over the years have been inexplicable. I tamped down my disappointment as quickly as I could, rewarded him and carried on.

A little while later, though, it struck me that something was off. Thomas kept lifting his leg — on trees, on blades of grass, on nothing — straining to pee. I’m used to Thomas marking; walks with Thomas are long, slow affairs, during which he analyzes many objects from different olfactory perspectives before selecting an angle at which to deliver a few carefully metered drops. But this was different; it was like he couldn’t get those drops out. Nothing had changed in his mood, and he didn’t seem to be in pain, so I took him into the Open ring. He popped over the broad jump effortlessly. Then he squatted and tried to pee. I scooped him up, left the ring with apologies and drove him home, where he deposited a large, warm pool of urine on the living room rug and stood next to it, stricken. I rushed him to the emergency vet.

Thomas Super Face-ErnieI’m writing this before the pathology results come back, because if the news is worse than it already is I may not be able to write it at all. Illness has a way of focusing your priorities, especially an illness that carries the specter of death. And almost every illness that befalls a dog augurs death, because dogs don’t typically get little colds and flu from which they recover like humans do. When dogs get sick, it’s because something inside them is growing or bursting or bleeding. It’s because they ate poison or contracted a virus that will very likely kill them. You don’t waste time Googling symptoms in these cases. You get help.

The Sunday-night veterinarian, Dr. E., was a young woman and a good listener. She suggested a urine culture, blood work and X-rays, but I asked for an ultrasound, too, because I was worried about Thomas’s kidneys — renal failure is a common hereditary disorder in cairns. She asked me to leave him for a few hours, and I went home to wait for her call.

Thomas’s kidneys, as it turned out, were fine. So were his liver, his heart and his stomach. The bloodwork was “boring,” Dr. E. said, “which is really good news.” But she had also taken a look at his spleen during the ultrasound, and there she found a “small, focal mass.” Nothing to worry about right now, she thought. But I’d heard enough enough about dogs and spleens to know that any splenic mass — focal or diffuse, small or large, benign or malignant — is up to no good. They have scary names starting with H, like hemangioma and hemangiosarcoma, a cancer whose symptoms have been described to me thus: “A golden retriever goes chasing after his ball and drops dead on the way back.” Any nodule on any mammal’s spleen has the potential to rupture and bleed and kill, often without any warning at all.

So the next day I went to see our everyday vet, Dr. Carlsen, to talk about Thomas’s spleen. Dr. Carlsen did his own ultrasound, and found not just one but three tumors there, each one bigger than the next. “I’d like to take it out,” he said, meaning the whole spleen. I asked if we could wait a couple of weeks; I had entered the Mission Circuit trials at the end of May. (Was I crazy, you ask? Yes, I was.) He told me he didn’t want to wait a day. He’d do it right then and there if it weren’t already late in the afternoon. I said I’d bring Thomas in the next morning.

It’s no mystery to any of us that our dogs’ lives are short. We expect to outlive them and generally do. I’ve outlived enough of them that I would expect to be hardened to the loss; instead, with every dog I’ve had a new surge of regrets, mistakes I understood in the clarity of death that I promised not to repeat again. With my last cairn terrier, Seamus, who lived into his teens, my sadness was that I’d never competed with him in obedience, as I’d always planned to. But on Tuesday morning, as Thomas woke up bright and happy about the new day, and I drove his clueless little self to Dr. Carlsen’s office to have one of his organs cut out, I suddenly wondered if we’d competed too much. Has training and heeling and retrieving gloves and picking out scented metal objects really been the best use of this wild little terrier’s precious life? Is Thomas enjoying what we’re doing? Has he been happy?

At a stoplight I turned to look at him, and saw the back of his head in his car crate, saw him tilting his gaze at the sights on the sidewalk, readying his body for the next lurch of the car, his sparkling charcoal crown of coarse terrier hair catching the light through the window. I wanted to ask him: Does your life have the meaning you want it to have? If you only had three months to live, what would you do? How’s the food?

And, by the way, do you know how spectacularly gorgeous you are?

But I also knew that if I’d gotten any answers, they wouldn’t have been coherent. Dogs are unreliable narrators, especially when it comes to answering questions they’d never ask themselves. If I’d put the choice to Thomas when I got him at nine months old — Do you want to learn to come when you’re called or tree squirrels until the sun comes up? — the answer would have been thuddingly clear (and, some days, it was). Lucky for him there wasn’t a choice. It was be trained or die. If he’d understood it in those terms, I’m sure he’d have chosen well.

Thomas' Beautiful FaceThomas stretches out on the couch tonight, recovering, a little uncomfortable still, eager to get back to business, bored. I still don’t know what caused his stranguria and subsequent incontinence on Sunday, but I’m grateful that it led us to this “incidental finding” that may have saved his life. We will know in a few days whether it did, whether there’s something else to be done, whether we’ll face new choices about treatments and drugs, or he’ll have the same healthy future as so many other spleenless dogs, who do field work and agility and function just fine. If we’re lucky and the latter is true, we will go back to our practicing and competing. I will keep reeling him in on retrieves, we will keep heeling with the inconspicuous leash, we will go to the park and practice our go-outs and hope that our next time in the ring will be half as good as the last. I can’t imagine there’s a higher calling for a dog than to have meaningful work to share with a human. I can’t imagine even independent Thomas would disagree.

Ernie Slone took the head shot of Thomas, my favorite, ever; my friend Valentina Sparrow took the other one.

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