Updated: Nov 21
“Aside from basic life signs...there is no way to know how much, if any of her, will come back."
On the night of the final big snowfall last winter my dog Nana desperately wanted to go out and play...at midnight. Half past midnight if I'm being accurate.
I had already been asleep for an hour or so and I thought she was down for the night too. But here she was whining and wagging her tail and scratching at the door. I knew that she didn't have to potty - we had just been out before we went to bed. But she knew it was snowing and if there is one thing she truly LOVES it is playing in the snow.
My first response was annoyance. Here I was trying to sleep, it's after midnight, and my dog wants to go play in it. Not the time. Right? After all we could always go play in the morning. I told her, maybe a bit too firmly, to lay back down and go to sleep. She did as I asked but pouted noticeably.
Then I remembered something that I try to keep in mind as much as possible: the average lifespan for a dog with her severity of epilepsy is just 2.5 and we were coming up on her third birthday at the time. I can't see the future but there was a very real possibility that this was not only the last snowfall of the season but the last that she might ever see.
So at 12:30am we went out on to the big lawn in front of our building and I took her leash off. She was so happy. She danced around, ran back and forth, and then we chased each other for a while. I made snowballs and threw them for her to run after and chomp up. She loved it!
Watching her play and just "be a dog" in the intense snowfall was majestic. She seemed to be aware in these moments that life itself was a miracle. She was in awe of a simple pleasure that we take for granted all the time.
After about twenty minutes or so she told me that she was tired and wanted to go back in. We got inside and she ran and hopped into my bed and curled into a happy ball before I could even towel off her paws. Oh well. Worse has happened. By the time I got ready for bed (again) she was snoring. I love that sound.
I love that sound because when her epilepsy or brain trauma is acting up she can't sleep deeply enough to snore.
A deep snore means she isn't feeling sick.
Severe Idiopathic Epilepsy
The first time a severe seizure cluster almost killed my dog was just months after her first seizures emerged. She wasn't even a year and a half old. By the time we made it to the hospital, an hour from where we lived, she was having intense seizures every 5-10 minutes. It was horrific.
“Aside from basic life signs she is neurologically unresponsive. There is no way to know how much if any of her will come back. We can keep her under heavy sedation to stop the seizures, watch her for 24 hours, and hope for the best.” She then stated the cost of the hospitalization which was heavy. “If you can’t do that we can discuss kind last options.”
The vet went over the drugs and procedures they were going to use and we talked about my wishes for resuscitation attempts. I asked the vet what my dogs chances were.
“There's no real way to know but I would say less than 5%.” she said without hesitation.
Nana (named after the dog from Peter Pan) was born in the early months of the pandemic, around the time that I decided to go to school for dog training. I needed a dog to train and a new puppy would allow me to apply everything I was learning right at home.
Nana was going to be my "VSA Dog" and I looked forward to the bond going through school together was going to build.
The first time the breeder sent me a picture of her I teared up as soon as I saw her. Love at first sight. She owned my heart right from that moment. And like any fool in love I knew that I would fight for her regardless of the odds.
Despite my dedication I wasn’t able to speak when the vet paused for my answer. My head was spinning and my mouth wouldn’t open. Luckily my sister Kristina was with me – and she isn’t known for backing down from a tough fight. If anything telling her the odds will just piss her off. She made a dismissive gesture with her hand and in a tone that made her high expectations clear directed the doctor to try and save Nana’s life.
Then we went home to wait and hope. It’s all we could do.
Nana, like many mastiffs, loves sleeping in. In fact sometimes if I had to get up early just getting her to get up to go potty was a chore! But one morning I woke up to find her already up and whining. She looked scared. I jumped out of bed to take her out but as I was putting on my shoes she suddenly made a strange noise and ran over to me.
I started to reassure her but she fell over at my feet and started convulsing.
She came to after a minute or so. I hastily initiated a virtual consult with a vet and within a few hours my sister came to take us into London to see her own vet there.
The seizures ramped up quickly and were soon happening every few days. Medicine levels have to be built up slowly and for a while it seemed as if the progression of her condition was going to outpace our race to control.
The next few months were a blur of vet appointments, neurologist appointments, and so many tests. So very many tests. You would be shocked at how many conditions can cause seizures and we tested for them all.
Every organ you can think of had blood and or urine tests for it, there were toxicology tests, and specialized vitamin tests. There were biopsies. Her spinal fluid was tested. Dozens of physical and neurological examinations.
Every test came back the same. "Not only do we not see anything wrong all of her numbers are great. You must be taking good care of her!"
Thanks. But it did not feel like I was doing a good job.
The official diagnosis was severe idiopathic epilepsy with predisposition to cluster seizures. Idiopathic just means they can't find the cause. A cluster seizure is when many generalized seizures happen in relatively frequent succession. It is an incredibly dangerous state as each seizure makes the next one more likely. If the brain is caught in a spiral of seizures trauma from the increased temperature can easily kill or cause permanent damage.
...Where Was I?
Right. The hospital released Nana the next day. She was heavily sedated. When she came to she was unresponsive and didn't seem to recognize me or anything else for that matter. She would pace, drink and eat, and toilet when I took her outside. But other than that she "wasn't there". She did not respond to my voice; she just paced or stared off into the distance blankly. It took three days for her to "come back". But she did. My baby came back to me.
Looking back with what I know now it is clear that she always had trouble learning and had mild ataxia in her rear legs. Both issues were way more pronounced after the incident. She was suddenly a very anxious dog and even started to display some aggressive behaviors.
"She may not be able to learn new things."
"You can't train dogs that are like this."
"Behavior issues like these cannot be modified with training."
"She is going to quickly become dangerous - I can tell. I've seen it many times."
Obviously hearing these things broke my heart. But as an educated dog trainer I knew that I could maximize how I could help my dog with research - what does the science actually say?
Unfortunately it said very little and what it did say was disheartening. I probably should not have been surprised to find that the data supported everything that the neurologist said.
I only found one little glimmer, one ray of hope, in the starkly depressing research. A single line otherwise undiscussed in the rest of the paper:
"Some participants in this research indicated that their dogs were able to acquire new skills naturally outside of training but this is beyond the scope of..."
Wait. What does that mean? Naturally? Weren't the training techniques we used taking advantage of nature? What defines "in training"?
That's it. Just one little note probably added as an afterthought in the summary of a paper.
But that's how it always starts.
With something small.
...to be continued.
Robin Wong is a certified dog trainer, a graduate of the prestigious Victoria Stilwell Academy, and a Certified Behavior Adjustment Training Instructor (Knowledge Assessed). He founded Holy Sit to provide trauma-informed behavior work and positive dog training in London Ont.