In the past year or so, I’ve written about food insecurity, gun violence, women candidates and elections, and legalizing recreational marijuana. Right now though? I don’t want to say anything profound about big issues. I just need to talk about my crazy dog. And his poop. Just to share, mind you. I don’t need advice or help or a recommendation. I’m fine, all good. I just need to get a few things off my chest.
You may be aware that we have not one, but two, Bernese Mountain Dogs. My older dog is named Gryffin, and he is 125 pounds of pure love. He worships me, and is often content to love me with his eyes as he gazes at me. He once laid his giant furry head on my shoulder and waited patiently while I cried giant boogers into his fur. Gryffin is perfect in every way. When Gryffin and I went to obedience classes together, he passed with flying colors, and the trainers asked me to consider doing therapy dog work with him, as he was so kind and loving?—?a true gentle giant. And then my brothers-in-law, who are both doctors, told me that bringing a giant furry dog to a hospital or nursing home might bring back a little souvenir like MRSA, and that made me sad that we can’t do nice things. But that’s a different story.
So what could be better than the most perfect and wonderful Bernese Mountain Dog ever? A second Bernese Mountain Dog, right? Doesn’t that seem like a great plan?
It was not a good plan. I can see that now. But at the time, when I was advocating to my husband that I thought Gryffin needed his own pet dog, I thought it was going to help create a more harmonious universe. Obviously, we needed not one, but two, fabulous fluffy dogs with adorable doggy eyebrows that make their faces seem soulful. Two kids and two dogs seemed to make sense. And that’s what we did.
Nicky, the second Bernese Mountain Dog, is from Belgium. Our first breeder from our home state of New Jersey wasn’t in the business anymore because of her own health issues, so we sought out a new breeder. One referred us to another to another, and somehow our breeder in Pennsylvania hooked us up with a breeder from Belgium, and a few months later we had a puppy, complete with his own European Union Puppy Passport. He was cute, adorable, fluffy, and hilarious. Gryffin (short for Godric Gryffindor) would lie on the floor to nap, and Puppy Nicky (short for Sir Nicolas Flamel) would pounce all over him, trying to wake him up and make him play. He was a typical puppy, doing lots of puppy things that were exhausting, like trying to eat electrical cords. “No no, not for puppies!” we would say, and chase him off. We sprayed bitter apple spray, we hid things, we kept things off the floor. He found everything. Socks, underwear, orthodontic rubber bands, anything dangerous. I admonished my kids and husband about the leaving of laundry and nonsense. Nicky was relentless. We made it through the puppy phase and he started to grow into normal dog behavior.
And then he grew out of normal dog behavior and started showing some serious anxiety. I’m not talking a little sad whimper when I left the house. We tried crating him. He pushed through the metal bars until he bloodied his snout, escaped like Houdini, and trailed blood throughout the house, creating his own crime scene. We stopped crating him. At the height of his anxiety he started eating the window molding, floor molding, and actual walls. Every window along the front of our house, where he might look out to see if I was coming home, he ate. Ate his way through the sheetrock wall until there was a crevice between the studs. I read articles. Books. Tried more obedience classes. Talked to the vet. We’d already done aromatherapy calming-scented whatnots. When the holistic vet recommended we medicate him with anti-anxiety meds, we did that. It helped a little. And then I started calling for more help.
Let’s just do a quick review of “what I tried”, because I am sure you are curious if I exhausted all avenues. Trust me. There was much exhaustion. I called a trainer. I explained to the trainer the weird stuff and she said, yea, that’s weird, and I can’t help you. I called a different trainer, who also said, yea that’s weird, and a little advanced for what I usually do, but I know an expert (who also lectures on dog behavior in the US and Europe) so I’ll bring her with me. Excellent. This dog is from Europe, so let’s just bring this full circle. I filled out forms. Yes, he eats walls and window molding. Yes he runs in circles and barks at the air until he shakes his head and entire body to try to calm himself down. Yes, he used to eat poop, his own and the poop of others, so both he and Gryffin had to eat some Nasty Habit pills for awhile until we worked that out. Apparently dogs who eat poop is not as uncommon as one might think. It even has a medical name?—?coprophagia. I wonder who the scientist is that created that word. I would have gone with PoopPhagia. Or StopItPhagia. But someone smarter than me apparently knew the Greek word for feces (copro) and managed to make this disgusting ‘don’t lick me with that mouth’ habit sound fancy.
The world expert came in and evaluated Nicky. She nodded, she watched, she asked a million questions, which I happily answered, because lord knows I needed to tell someone all of the chaos that my dog has done. She made some helpful changes in some simple things in our lives, shifting the invisible fence in the yard to give Nicky less room about which to feel territorial, and suggested that I walk the dogs separately, so that Nicky wouldn’t feel so pack-oriented. Let’s remember that each of these dogs is over a hundred pounds, so the two of them together pulling in one direction to investigate and bark at another annoying dog is, according to physics, not going to work out well, since combined they weigh more than me. For awhile during one of my skinny phases I almost weighed less than Gryffin, but then life happened and I had to let that dream go. But that’s another story. The world expert suggested we talk to the vet about maxing out the anxiety med dosing, and that these things might work for awhile, but if they got worse, we needed to go see the Top Dog Doctor. The top of the pyramid. Someone who is not only a vet, but has done additional schooling to be a behavioral expert, and can write prescriptions for psychotropic medications. For the dog. It’s sort of the human equivalent of going to a counselor or therapist for talk therapy (behavior training) and going to a psychiatrist for medical therapy (here’s your Prozac, Lithium, Lexapro, Attavan, etc.)
So we maxed Nicky’s meds. We moved the fence. Things were actually fine, for awhile. I wouldn’t say he ever seemed normal, especially compared to my perfect favorite dog Gryffin. But Nicky was tolerable. And that was all I needed.
And that worked until it didn’t. He was fine all summer, and then last fall Nicky started acting like a rabid bear on walks in the neighborhood. I’d like to tell you there was a pattern, like it only happened towards other aggressive dogs or dogs who were still “intact”. And I get where the intact dog thing really can be confusing for my neutered neurotic dog. Truly, this is the doggie equivalent of Joey Tribbiani crooning “How you doin?” Some people (or puppies) will love it. Others (Nicky) will have a visceral and profound reaction. But it wasn’t just a few things like that. Sometimes it was joggers. Or bikers. Or adults or men or yes, even cars. It was when Nicky started jumping at cars passing us on the road, pulling me on the leash towards traffic, that I realized we were in serious trouble. Instead of my dog bringing me joy and emotional fulfillment, every interaction was making me also have anxiety. So I called the super vet, and patiently waited for her first available appointment, three months away.
Want to know what we did during those three months? Oh, please, allow me to tell you.
In addition to trying some CBD oils (which didn’t make him any calmer, but did give him the munchies, and he ate an entire case of my daughter’s gluten-free granola bars that had been delivered in an Amazon box), we developed a Nicky (non) interaction plan. We would only walk him during “non-peak hours”?—?i.e. not when any school children might be present, and not after 5 p.m. when all the working people were home and walking their dogs. We walked him in pairs of humans, so that no one would be left alone in case Nicky acted up. And act up he did. It was as if he’d gone from being anxious to being downright dangerous and suicidal. Jumping at cars became more frequent. Also, note to drivers, guess what doesn’t help? You stopping in the middle of the road, honking your horn, and yelling at us from your car. We are well aware we are a mess. Thank you for pointing it out. Your patience is much appreciated.
In the house with Nicky wasn’t all that great either. He ate everything he could find (even after we stopped the munch-inducing CBD oils). Counter surfing, food hidden (and forgotten) in backpacks and tote bags, every forgotten snack was suddenly found like an archaeologist discovering fossils. I sighed. I was exhausted by Nicky, but I also sort of understand Nicky on a molecular level. When I get wrapped up in my own anxiety I also yell and snap at those around me, and have on occasion been known to emotionally eat in response to stress. Even the weird chocolate no one else wants, like finding Easter bunny leftovers in August. I’ll eat that along with these other feelings that are overwhelming me. But when things truly fell apart with Nicky? Yes. Of course. December. Because nothing else is happening in December.
At first, we weren’t sure what Nicky had eaten. We just knew he’d “gotten into something”. He had a case of the runs. Which is annoying, when he made it outside, and painful and aggravating when he didn’t make it. I ran out of paper towels. I called the vet after 24 hours and we picked up probiotics and a doggie version of Imodium and started a rice diet. And then on the third day, Nicky vomited up what he had eaten that had started his tummy feeling so crummy. It wasn’t food. Oh no. What he ate? Poop bags. Plastic Poop Bags. Still rolled tightly together, attached to each other. As best as I could tell, 200 plastic poop bags.
So, firstly, I’m not exaggerating. You know those plastic poop bags that responsible dog owners bring with them on walks? They come in a little roll so they fit in a variety of adorable dog poop bag holders?—?fire hydrants, little flowery pouches and what nots? Yup. Those. And nope, they are not biodegradable. I know that now. I did not know that then. And no, they weren’t scented and no they weren’t covered in beef broth or something that would make them seem appealing in some way to eat. Plain, plastic, poop bags. Ingested. And then, vomited back up. Excellent.
Well once Nicky urped so many bags up, I figured we were good. I called the vet, chatted about how weird it was that he ate plastic bags, agreed it was good news that he got them up, and talked about how long to continue the rice diet until he was back on the mend. People get the runs and can get it back under control relatively well. Dogs, they tend to take a while. Nicky continued to poop liquid fire for a few days, but he was making it outside, so my mental health was starting to improve. Cleaning up poop inside a house is never something high on my list of things to do. Cleaning up poop inside a house in December while trying to organize Christmas, and my lovely heated floors are baking poop like cookies on the floor is just a tad over the top.
We thought things were improving. Until they weren’t. And of course, when did things go south? The Saturday before Christmas. When my regular vet was closed for the holidays, and we instead needed to go to the Emergency Clinic. And why did we need to go there, you ask? What was it that prompted us to drop everything and head to Emergency care? Well, allow me to tell you.
Picture a quiet winter Saturday morning, the smell of fresh cut Christmas trees wafting through a warm and cozy house. Now picture me, in my not so sexy but oh so cozy pajamagram lounge wear, fuzzy slippers shuffling down the stairs to find Nicky, in a half squat, spraying shit all over the carpet. Spraying. Like a windex bottle. As I shooed him out to the yard to finish, I realized that hanging out of his ass, was a plastic poop bag. Actually, several plastic poop bags, as they were still attached to one another, just like the roll he had ingested on the other end. I gazed at him through the glass of my slider door, my hands on my head, as my dog strained and squatted and changed positions in the yard, trying to find a way to get rid of the rest of the plastic bags hanging from his rectum.
He was not successful.
When he finished straining and squatting and shifting himself across the yard, he came back to the door and sat in front of me. We looked at each other on either side of the glass for a moment. And then I spoke to him in a quiet voice.
“I’m gonna be right back.”
I was going to need help.
I woke the husband. Early on a Saturday. For emergency dog poop assistance. He was thrilled.
His first instinct was that we should pull the remaining bags out of the dog’s butt. I immediately vetoed that plan.
“I definitely read an article once that said you should never pull something out of a dog’s butt. We have no idea if his entire intestines are wrapped up in all of those bags and all of his internal organs will come out and land on the floor,” I told him.
“You read the weirdest things.” That is not untrue. But reading things, and being aware of every worst-case scenario, means that I had the knowledge in the back of my head that meant we were not going to inadvertently kill the dog. I might want to kill the dog on purpose, because his anxiety and my sanity are wrapped up very tightly together, like a roll of poop bags, but that would be a crime of passion. Not inadvertent.
In the end we trimmed the bags. I brought the dog to the ER, with just a little bag peeking out, a promise of more to come. We sat in the waiting room, a general malaise of despair and sadness and worry from the other people waiting with dogs, cats, and a random bird, permeating the air. I waited to be called to a room, but first enjoyed the fact that HIPPA privacy is not a thing for animals. A tech came right over to me in the waiting room and asked me all about Nicky’s symptoms, in front of a room full of people I’d never met, and I got to retell this story to all of them. I think most people were trying to pretend they were not hanging on every word. But when the tech asked me about the consistency of Nicky’s poop, and I explained my spray bottle reference, a woman put her hand over her mouth and looked away. The staff, however, was not surprised. I think they’ve seen this before.
Nicky had x-rays, IV bags of fluids, blood work, and a surgical consult. He didn’t need surgery. He just needed to pass the bags. He stayed a while for observation, and then came home. My snarky teenagers sang the 99 bottles of beer on the wall song with new lyrics. 99 plastic poop bags to come out, 99 plastic poop bags….
By the time our appointment with the Super Dog Therapy Meds doctor came around in January, we were still waiting on the bags. I sat in a large exam room, suitable for a training class, and explained all of this to the new doctor, who I was hoping was wearing a super hero outfit under her white coat. She nodded. She oohed. She ahhed. She examined Nicky. She asked many questions, including how I was feeling and coping, and what I wanted to have happen for Nicky.
“Right now I feel like Nicky is a Grade F dog. I’d like to get him to a C-,” I explained. “I’m not setting the bar real high here.”
“I think we can get to a solid B,” she answered, and she started drawing medication classes and groupings on a piece of paper. She explained that Nicky had the doggie equivalent of separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, ADHD, as well as some pain management issues from scar tissue build up around his back knee, like an old football injury making an old man cranky about life and his glory days. “Is it ok if we start with meds?” she asked. “I really don’t think you can do anything else with behavior training until we get the meds sorted out.”
“Honestly,” I told her, “If you tried sending me home today without meds, I might stage a protest.” I was not kidding.
A month later, we had eased Nicky onto a new medication schedule. We increased his Clomicalm by 50%, so he was taking 120mg twice a day. We started a new med called Gabapentin, starting with 1 capsule, then increasing to 2, then 3, three times a day, building him up to 900 mg per dose. The last of the trifecta was Trazodone. We’re still working on adjusting the dosing on that one?—?but it’s the last key to the puzzle so Nicky can go on a walk around the block without losing his mind, and without me losing mine as well
The other good news was that Nicky calmed down enough to be able to pass (what I think) was the last of the plastic poop bags. A string of nine bags, still attached to each other, covered in poop, about six feet in length, graced my grassy, muddy, dog toy-littered yard. I stood next to Nicky and rubbed his cute furry head.
“Yes,” I said to him out loud. “This is amazing. This is progress. Nicky, my furry friend, you are a C+ dog.”
A few more med adjustments and we may be on our way to B-. His recent grades after he ate (yet another Amazon delivery) case of granola bars aren’t quite the uptrend I was looking for. And no, I am not a fast learner as I did leave the box unattended, and yes, it was a lot of calories (12,500 in one sitting. I may or may not have done that myself with boxes of Girl Scout Samoa cookies). I’m hopeful, most of the time. I’m patient, more so when things are going well. I’m extremely aware of how lucky we are that we have the financial ability to withstand the hurricane of chaos that is my dog. We’re also not alone in the world of people who medicate their pets, despite the stigmas around a happier life through chemistry. Maybe universal health care coverage for humans should extend to our furry friends too, so that when a mental health issue arises everyone has the access they need to find support for their dogs and themselves. I bet the animal shelters wouldn’t be as full if we all had the support we needed when the pets need a little more help. Pets make us happy, until they need a little boost. We’re all worth a little boost.
Colleen Markley is a freelance writer who authors a blog entitled www.YesItReallyHappened.com. Because life is nutty enough without needing to make anything up.