German Shepherd With Degenerative Myelopathy
A truly inspirational story about a German Shepherd with degenerative myelopathy (CDRM) living life to the full - amazing courage and determination.
Journey with a White Dog
It was Sept 2012 and, in our role as new GSDR volunteers, we would head over to kennels local to us and take the dogs there out for walks to give them a break from kennel life. It was during these walks Bruce claimed us as his humans.
We weren't looking for another dog; we already had Bozo & Alfie (Golden Retriever & GSD) and simply wanted to do something to help. Bruce was a long term kennel dog, around 3 years old, who was having issues finding a home, partly because he came with a few issues – human & dog reactivity, a bite history & also a livestock incident blotting his copybook - and partly because he is half Husky which put the average GSD owner off entertaining him.
Though long- term dog owners, we'd never shared our life with a "problem" dog so the research started on managing prey drive and reactivity/fear issues, as well as researching the characteristics & needs of his Husky side. The aim was to try and help Bruce through some of his "quirks" and hopefully make it easier to find him the right home.
After the first few walks and chatting with the kennel owners it was decided that Bruce needed more - his high energy Husky side needed to run. Ants & I already had canicross equipment as we ran with Alfie so, in addition to our weekend walks, one of us would head over on a weekday to take Bruce out for a run which he loved. We also started to take Alfie & Bozo over to kennels on the weekends to walk with Bruce and get him used to socialising with other dogs and we quickly realised his "dog issues" were mostly down to over-excitement, frustration & lack of suitable socialisation skills.
We started to pick Bruce up and take him along to the area’s monthly socialisation walks and as soon as my car pulled up at kennels, Bruce would start singing the song of his “people” at full pelt to alert the kennel staff I was on my way to take him out. It was on one of these walks that we realised Bruce was starting to see himself as belonging to our little family/pack as, although he had to remain on lead; he tried to stick like glue to Alfie & Bozo on the beach. I think Bruce (& all the eastern volunteers) knew he was to be our dog long before we did.
On 2 Feb 2013, after doing some work on the garden to safely contain him, we brought Bruce home as a foster. He, Alfie & Bozo were already reasonably amicable with each other due to all the kennel visits & group walks but we knew that bringing Bruce into their home would be another matter. Bozo earned himself a new nickname of "The Pacifier" as he had a knack of dispersing any tension between Alfie & Bruce and I watched him carefully as he became my teacher on to how to handle the future weeks.
Two days after Bruce joined us we had a call to say Ants’ brother was seriously ill and I was suddenly left alone indefinitely to settle the "boys" together. It wasn't just the settling in that was a problem though, Ants and I have differing work schedules (him early morning to late afternoon and me early afternoon to late evening) and it’s what has always made having dogs "doable" for us as they're only ever left alone for around 4 hours tops. With Ants away, I needed help & Bruce didn't like people he didn’t know, in fact, he disliked them so much he had a bite on him if they tried to touch him.
Our then area coordinator told me I could take Bruce back to kennels but I really didn't want to confuse him, so, fortunately, my father is not only very brave but also very calm and it turns out Bruce loves calm energy. It was an extremely hard month that followed but we coped and one thing about Bruce, apart from the fact he's smart, independent & very much knows his own mind, is that he's a true, natural, comedian and knowingly cheeky.
His first month with us turned out to be hell, not due to his arrival/ integration as we thought it might be but, due to circumstances completely out of our control as Ants' younger brother very sadly died after almost 3 weeks in hospital. Bruce turned out to be our blessing as, regardless of what was happening or how we felt; there wasn't one day when he didn't make us smile and he gave us a focus to help us through. He'd earned his place within our family so at the Easter group walk on 31 March 2013 we signed the papers to say Bruce was stopping and the hard, but incredibly rewarding, work was about to really begin.
Right from those first meetings in kennels, Bruce loved to run. Focused on his "job", all Bruce's reactivity issues seemed to diminish while he was running, making him much easier for me to handle, and it was through running that I developed the skills and confidence to feel more able to walk him safely. As well as his running, Bruce also enjoyed some garden agility and swimming. All the activities he loved helped to calm and balance him from the slightly "wired" fella that first came to live with us, as well as improving & strengthening the bonds/trust between us.
Bruce's fear of strangers has always been his most difficult issue for us to deal with and what led me to undertake a Canine Behaviour Diploma. If given his space he is fine but if approached directly by a stranger, or if a stranger makes direct eye contact with him or tries to touch him, he will most likely lunge and, if given the chance, bite.
For this reason, Bruce is always muzzled around new people and for several meetings afterwards until we are absolutely sure he is comfortable with the person and that they understand the "rules" as to what he can cope with.
It was dealing with Bruce's fear of humans that led me to try Animal Communication the first time. Bruce had been with us almost a couple of years and had settled somewhat with new people in that we had developed a routine that meant we could manage situations and keep him relatively calm. It was Christmas time, a friend called in to see us and basically, I messed up – Bruce’s body language was subtly telling me he wasn't sure about the situation, but I totally missed it and he didn’t use to give any vocal warnings. Fortunately, he was muzzled & my friend is extremely understanding, acknowledging straight away that she had done something to unsettle him for which I was extremely grateful, however, I was hugely disappointed in myself and questioned whether we were the right people to lead Bruce through life. In a chance conversation with someone, a behaviourist who also practised Animal Communication was mentioned and I decided there and then to contact her. A few poignant points stick in my mind from the communication:
1) When asked why he behaved in that manner, his response was simply "survival".
2) When asked if he'd rather not meet new people, his response was "why do I need to? I have you".
3) At the end, I asked if there was anything he wanted to ask me and he responded: "Am I stopping?"
This floored me - he was basically asking if he was going to be staying with us or if we were going to send him packing. It broke me to think he figured we were going to give up on him too. For those that are sceptical, don’t ever write it off, about half an hour later I took Bruce out for a run, just him & me, and for the first time since I'd been running him, rather than pulling out front, he ran right by my side for the full 5k and it was a truly special moment.
We noticed things weren't quite right with Bruce around July 2017; 3 months after Hugo joined us via GSDR after having lost both Bozo & Alfie within a year of each other.
Initially, we thought he had injured himself during the rough play that he & Hugo love, but it was about 3 months later that we were given the news that he most likely has Degenerative Myelopathy.
We agreed from the off that Bruce would set the rules as to how long we kept him going and when he said he'd had enough that was it (though I may have begged him for another year together). Honestly, I didn't think he'd be with us beyond this time last year.
With Bruce's stubborn independence and dislike of too much physical contact, I was certain that his journey with Degenerative Myelopathy would be a short one. There was surely no way he would put up with all the necessary handling, needing help to do things, etc. but, we found a wonderfully patient and understanding animal physio who has helped us all the way and Bruce, being Bruce, has proved me wrong.
His passion & spirit amazes me every day and he still loves nothing more than hitting that next adventure or trip out somewhere special.
He's not fussed about us lifting him around when needed and if feeling lazy, or just plain cheeky, will even demand we do it in only a way that Bruce can, usually making us laugh.
He’s now completely down in the back, reliant on his wheels for walks (and the odd short run which he still loves) though happily drags his back end around at home, and we have now learnt to express his bladder & bowels to minimise any accidents due to his increasing incontinence.
Even now Bruce is still teaching me life skills and sincerely I hope he stays his happy self for a while yet to guide me through further learning. As they say, don’t give up on the hard ones, they really do give you so much more in return.