The silver lining to pain

December 10, 2019

Today I want to talk about something that touches us all: Pain. Specifically, I want to talk about how pain relates to our life with dogs. It’s an important topic, and one we rarely talk about.

For the past few weeks, I seem to be bumping up against the topic of pain everywhere I turn. Either one of of my favourite podcasts is talking about it, or someone I know is dealing with it. And, lately, my perfect little princess—Desirée—is experiencing it.

Let me start with Des, because dealing with her pain is possibly the hardest. Especially since I can’t actually tell if she’s in pain, and if yes, how much.

Backstory: Des gets hurt

A few weeks ago, Des jumped the fence into my sheep field, landed badly, and came back to me on three legs (flock of sheep in tow). Initially thought to be a bad sprain, the swelling has gone down and left a worrisome lump. Worrying enough that I am going to have it x-rayed. Des lost an aunt to osteoscarcoma a couple of years ago and, despite her tiny stature and being intact and 100% naturally reared since conception, she’s at risk. And while the lump may be the result of an overlooked fracture, it might be something worse.

Getting proper diagnostics, however, is not going to be easy. Earlier this year, Des jumped another fence and hurt a different leg, that time a muscle pull. I had her examined and the examination caused her pain. Ever since, she has been extremely clear when she doesn’t want to be touched, giving quiet growl followed by a startling face-directed air snap. As such, when she gives that initial growl, I’m quick to take hands off.

Des is also sensitive to drugs, so anesthetics are not an option for elective procedures. So, suddenly I’m faced with an injured dog who is possibly in pain, and who might (or might not) be seriously ill, and who I can’t safely have examined. Oye vey! What to do?

Problem Solving for Des

The answer is a crash course in voluntary husbandry behaviour and happy muzzle training.

The good news is that I a) have several awesome FDSA trainings in my library to help me go through the training step by step, and b) the x-ray position we need to train for is a simple sphinx down, which Des can already do. So, as soon as she’s happy wearing a muzzle, we can get some diagnostics on her wrist.

Meanwhile, I have plenty of time to contemplate a different kind of pain: my own.

I mean, what if it actually is osteosarcoma? Hopefully it isn’t, but it could be. Then what? I know what that diagnosis means. I’ve already lost a dog (my wonderful first guardian dog, Sophie) to it. I’ve done my research. I know the prognosis, and the options. And none of it is good.

Desirée is only six and so full of life it makes my heart ache just to watch her prance about with her favourite sock. She’s my dancing queen, my best friend, my heart. Might I really loose her so soon? The thought rips my chest wide open.

Yes, I might. But even if I don’t. Even if she’s healthy, unless something terrible happens, she’s still going to die before me. I am still going to have to say goodbye to her. And that day, no matter when it arrives, is going to come far too soon.

The Truth About Dogs

Because this is the truth about dogs: They will never be with us long enough. And they will break our hearts. Every. Single. One of them.

So, why do we invite them into our lives? Why do we have dogs, despite knowing this pain and loss that comes built in?

We have dogs because they bring us joy. Joy and love and friendship and so many other wonderful emotions. They make us laugh, and never judge us for bad clicker timing or wearing the same yoga pants three days in a row (shhhh). They bring out emotions that might be harder to experience in other aspects of our life. Like around other humans.

The thing is, joy and love and laughter are the other side of the coin to sadness and pain and loss. To feel one, we must feel the other. To know joy, we must experience pain.

There’s no avoiding it. Pain, that is. Except, we try.

We try so very hard to avoid pain at all costs. We spend so much of our energy trying to prevent it, avoid it, detour around it. Pain and other negative emotions.

When Else Do We Avoid Pain?

We avoid pain not only around death, but also with other aspects of our life. Like competing! Instead of putting ourselves out there, instead of facing the possibility of failure or humiliation, we find ways to avoid. We overtrain and over-prepare. And by we, I mean me. Just a little more tweaking! Just one more foundation hole to fill! Just one more class to finish!

Except… if I don’t compete, if I don’t put my training to the test, how will I improve?

If I don’t risk the embarrassment or humiliation of failing, how will I know the joy of success? If I’m not willing to experience the low of bombing out, how can I achieve the high of climbing onto a podium? The pride of hanging that ribbon on the wall?

If I’m not willing to take chances and risk it all, how can I develop the intensity of partnership that comes from competing with my dog? (which is something so totally different and special)?

Or what about that dog we love so much who gets injured, or develops extreme behaviour problems that prevent us from reaching our goals and dreams with them? Has that ever happened to you? Devastating, I know. Often in such cases there’s no avoiding the pain. Rather, we have to choose between multiple, difficult options. But, when I look back on those situations, I can see how much I have grown as a result.

Someday I’ll share the story of Mira, the tiny border collie with the giant heart, who taught me how to love her not despite her (oh so many) issues, but because of them. A lesson that fundamentally changed me as a human being.

Here’s another (dog-related) way I avoid pain: by holding off breeding. It’s been two years since I bred my last litter, and, much as I want to do it again, I am so very hesitant. I find excuse after excuse to hold off. I mean, what if a puppy ends up with a problem? People will be upset! Fingers will point! Tongues will wag! (All of this has already happened, and I am still feeling pretty beaten and bruised as a result)

Or, what if I lose my bitch? That does happen. And, if it did, how could I ever live with the decision I made to put her at risk? It’s just so much easier to play it safe, to skip the whole business, and buy in puppies instead.

Except… if I don’t breed, I lose that little spark that gets passed on to the next generation. That part of my dog that lives on once she’s gone.

And if I don’t breed another litter, I don’t get to experience that incredible feeling of trust and, oh, I can’t even put it into words… that feeling when a whole litter of puppies falls asleep in my lap, and I fall asleep with them in the whelping box. Night after night, watching them grow and develop. Wondering who they will become, and where they will go in life.

That joy of handing each precious puppy to their new human forever home and watching them take on the world together. The hope and excitement.

I will miss out on the possibility of all of that. Just to avoid pain.

Dealing With the Pain

I have come to realize that, in order to experience the best of life, we have to not only accept pain, but embrace it. For, without feeling pain, we can’t feel the rest.

I spent years detaching myself emotionally, avoiding discomfort and unwanted feelings. The result? I stopped feeling joy. I stopped being happy. I emotionally flatlined. Became numb. Disconnected.

I’m not sure exactly when I switched off, but this past year I’ve begun opening up again. Feeling the pain, and letting it out (because it wasn’t really gone, just buried under a mountain of work and other avoidance techniques). The result? I’m laughing more often, and feeling happy again. Not all the time. It will never be all the time. But let’s say 50% at least.

And when Desirée’s time comes? Be it soon or in a decade? I will embrace the pain because that is what allows me to experience the intensity of joy and love she has given, and continues to give me.

I believe dogs are meant to cause us pain to help us to feel. To help us grow and love and laugh and experience all the good that life has to offer. They aren’t the only conduit for this learning, but if you have welcomed a dog into your life (which, as a reader of my newsletter, you no doubt have), then your dog is your emotional teacher.

So, the next time you find yourself avoiding the potential for pain, be it deciding not to take an advanced class, or enter a trial, or breed a litter, or adopt a new / old dog, or however else you might try to sidestep the discomfort, ask yourself at what cost you may be doing so. What joy might you end up missing? What high may you never experience, in exchange for avoiding that low? And is it worth the cost?

When I look at the lump on Desi’s leg, and wonder if we soon will be parted, do I wish she hadn’t chosen me, all those years ago? Do I regret our time together, knowing that it will end in pain and heartache?

No. Of course not. Not for one fraction of a heart-exploding second. And if pain is the price I have to pay for the joy and love and highs and happiness I experience throughout life?

Bring it on.

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