Category Archives: Dogs Model Human Behavior

Dog Lessons On Living- Part 2

In my previous post I dealt with how two dogs modeled how to deal with serious illness and impending death. The two examples were from our current Border collie, Buddy, and our long deceased Shetland sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy. Their love of life and passion for their favorite activities persisted despite their physical challenges.

If we abandon the arrogant notion that humans are somehow completely different from other animals and instead recognize our common genetics, anatomy, physiology, needs, and behaviors, then animal behavior can become a potential assist for our lives.

I am reminded of a story from my recent book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales about Mary from Minnesota. This story, like many others in the concluding chapter of my book, took place aboard a fictitious cruise ship and demonstrated great perseverance of some physically handicapped folks in the face of adversity. The very real members of a group that Trudy and I accompanied had been organized by a national Parkinson’s Disease organization. Despite Mary’s advanced disease requiring  her to have a feeding tube, tracheostomy, urinary catheter, wheelchair, and and full-time attendant, she had demanded to go on the cruise.

Unfortunately Mary didn’t make it and passed away during the cruise. When speaking that evening by phone to her daughter in far away Minnesota, I learned to my surprise that the family had  expected Mary to die on the cruise. After recovering from my shock, I further learned that Mary had a lifelong habit of taking on great challenges. Despite her failing health Mary in recent years had undertaken skydiving, ridden a burro down into the Grand Canyon, and been strapped to a dogsled in Alaska. Mary refused to give in to her illness nor would she be prevented from trying new, exciting, and life changing thrills.

From Sailaway Chapter of Carrying The Black Bag

While Mary was only one of our passengers with Parkinson’s disease, all of them despite their balance issues dealt with the swaying of the deck and with the many challenges of shore excursions and beach activities. They also managed the dietary differences that at times limited the effectiveness of their medicines. None of these brave people shied away from the challenging experience, showing their zest for life and denying their illnesses control over their lives.

Now I know not all people with PD would make such a challenging journey. Indeed life is like a marathon and all of us hit the wall at times. Some persist and break through the wall while others are unable to do so.

Health and vibrant aging can be such a gift but persistence is also demanded

Both Buddy our Border collie, Taffy our Sheltie, and Mary refused to give in. All lived their lives to the greatest extent possible. I don’t know where Mary derived her zest for life, but she might have witnessed it in her pet. For whatever reason, Mary had learned to live her life as fully as she possibly could, believing that the quality of her life was more important than the number of days she lived.

Therein may lie a lesson for us all. Our challenge may be to garner as rich and full a life as possible. We all will likely be faced with challenges. Some of us will continue to strive and others will find an easier but less fulfilling way to live. Nothing is wrong with either approach, but our pets may have at least modeled the more courageous approach to life. Without it would we have even considered such a course of action?

Dog Lessons on Living

Forty years of practicing medicine and having lived long enough to acquire some gray hair have allowed me to observe people dealing with illness and impending death. These challenging periods prove difficult for sure , but I believe our pets can help to cope with and even model helpful behaviors that benefit their owners. The mindfulness of the pet owner becomes necessary in order to learn these pet-assisted lessons.

At our house we’ve had two experiences that I wish to share that have brought me to this conclusion. Our Border collie, Buddy, unfortunately injured himself many years ago while leaping over a cattle guard. I found him shortly after the accident, dragging his paralyzed hind limbs. We were to learn that Buddy had ruptured a disc that had extruded into the spinal canal and traumatized his spinal cord. After evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation Buddy slowly recovered. He now has the reasonable use of his hind legs and moves about without any assistance. For this we are incredibly grateful.

Buddy had always loved to run and herd cattle. His racing around the ranch with his tongue flapping deliriously and with a goofy look plastered across his muzzle has for me defined unbridled enjoyment. With time he has regained the ability to both run and herd, although not with quite the same proficiency as prior to his injury. Nevertheless, Buddy still loves to ride in the pickup, watch the cattle, and when needed to jump out of the bed of the pickup and do a stint of herding.

It strikes me that Buddy during his convalescence never gave up on himself, nor did he permanently abandon his valuable role as chief herder on the ranch. Despite lingering weakness, he continues to carry out his job with typical Border collie passion and enthusiasm. A job for a Border collie is vital. As the old saying goes, “If a Border collie doesn’t have a job, he’s liable to become self-employed.” Trust me, when this happens it’s never a good thing!

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Our second pet-assisted experience resulted with our Shetland Sheep dog (Sheltie), Taffy, and occurred years ago when we lived in Lubbock. Taffy’s favorite activity and what she most anticipated was her evening walk. She would become so excited when we presented her leash for our walk. Unfortunately Taffy eventually fell ill and was diagnosed as having cancer. While we knew the cancer would eventually take her, we were given the encouraging, if incorrect, prognosis by her vet that she had at least weeks if not months to live.  Despite Taffy not feeling well, she still agitated quite demonstrably at the end of each day for her walk.

Taffy during her healthier days

I distinctly remember her recruiting us that last night. Trudy and I dutifully leashed up Taffy and began a slow trek around our block. Taffy seemingly sniffed  every tree we encountered and observed the goings-on in the neighborhood with her eyes glistening with excitement. Unfortunately despite her wanting to, her energy gave out a third of the way around the block. She simply was unable to muster the strength necessary to walk any further.

On recognizing this I reached down to gather our sweet dog in my arms and then continued our walk around the block. Taffy gazed out from the crook of my arm and noted the happenings of her final trip around the neighborhood. Later that night she died peacefully in her bed. I like to think Taffy died  happy having made one more glorious trip around her block.

The thing is, Taffy continued to do what she most enjoyed despite her serious illness. Her willpower and determination continued despite her substantial depletion of energy. It seems to me that a broader and more personal message exists for pet owners much like the messages both Buddy and Taffy have given us.

I will continue discussing this topic in a subsequent post and plan to give a few human examples. These people-related corollaries will come from my book, Carrying The Black Bag.

Please share your thoughts as to what you may have learned from your pet regarding illness or impending death.

TO BE CONTINUED