Toivo


Yellow taxi birdhouse

Today something remarkable happened on Toivo’s morning dog-walk: my mind wandered. We’re still limited to short and slow walks in deference to Toivo’s injured leg, so by “walk” I mean a leisurely stroll past two neighboring houses, where the mouth of a woodsy trail gives Toivo a place to pee and poop on pine needles before turning around and walking back home. It’s the shortest outing you can take while still using the word “walk.”

Columbine

This morning after we’d walked two doors down to the mouth of the woodsy trail, as Toivo was nosing and sniffing through the drizzle-dampened undergrowth, my mind wandered. After months of spending every minute of every walk fretting over Toivio’s feet–is she putting weight on her injured leg, is she limping, is she panting or showing other signs of discomfort or distress?–I let my thoughts fall away while listening to the umbrella-patter of raindrops sifted through leaves. For the first time in months, my dog-walking consciousness was as free and unfettered as an unleashed hound wandering wherever she pleased.

Abundance

This is how Toivo and I used to walk, before her impairment. Toivo would sniff and wander on her end of the leash, and I would dally and daydream on mine. This is how Toivo and I used to walk before early March, when she first showed signs of lameness: back when we blithely took for granted the luxury of an able body.

Reading companion

Today Toivo is having an ouchy day. There probably is a more clinical term for days when Toivo is slow and stiff-moving–often, these are the days after we’ve taken a longer-than-usual walk, so perhaps I should call them recovery days–but the word I hear in my head is “ouchy.” There are days when Toivo is chipper and energetic and fairly mobile–popping up and eager to walk–and then there are ouchy days.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

One of the benefits of the month-long physical rehabilitation package we signed up for is a weekly appointment with a vet who knows far more about the rehab process than we do. Today Toivo and I will meet with Dr. P, and I’ll pepper her with questions. I’ll ask about pain management: should we be giving Toivo pain meds regularly, only when she’s ouchy, or not at all? How much exercise is too much: am I overdoing it by trying to take daily walks? And should we be giving Toivio supplements for the achiness she seems to feel in her other joints, not just the injured leg we’re rehabbing?

Lots of questions arise on ouchy days, and plenty of doubts. Am I doing enough to encourage Toivo’s recovery: should I be doing her passive range of motion exercises more often or differently, or should I be supplementing, medicating, and/or meditating more, more often, or more diligently? Or, on the flipside, am I doing too much, moving and massaging Toivo’s leg when she should be resting it, or walking her too much, too fast, or too far? Would Toivo be better off, in other words, if I just left her alone to sleep and heal and be as active or inactive as she wants without all this fussing?

Toivo relaxes before rehab

All of these questions, of course, are different permutations of a central set of coupled questions: am I to blame, and is there something (anything!) I can control? Nobody wants to be the one to blame, but everyone wants to feel they can control their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. If Dr. P. were to tell me that standing on my head and singing the Alphabet Song backwards would help Toivo recover more quickly, I’d drop right then to the floor and start singing, regardless of how silly it might seem. Ever since Toivo first started having mobility issues in March, I’ve been struggling with an unspoken existential question: if I somehow do things differently, can I unlock a magical formula where she will get instantly and entirely better and, better yet, live forever?

Before Toivo's physical rehab appointment

This, after all, is what I want for Toivo, myself, and all my loves: for us all to be forever young, forever able-bodied, and forever happy. And this, I know, is a guarantee I can never deliver, no matter how many rehab session I schedule. This stark realization–the undeniable fact that we are mortal souls in fragile bodies–is more painful than any physical injury: an ouchy no known opioid can cure.

As I write this, Toivo nestles her head on my lapdesk. On ouchy days in particular, I quit my desk and work as much as possible on the bed where Toivo is resting, encouraging her to snuggle up against me. Throughout the rehab appointments, the painfully slow walks, and all the enthusiastic exhortations to “Use your leg,” I cling desperately to the belief–the hope–that love, companionship, and lots of petting can work miracles–or at least provide some comfort in the meantime.

Lap dog

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday, and I’ve spent most of my time since then doting on the dog. On Tuesday, Toivo had her stitches removed from the surgery she had earlier this month to drain a massive abscess in one of her hind legs, and tomorrow we have a physical therapy appointment to figure out how to encourage her to use her injured leg again.

Toivo in the sun

I’ve never been to a doggy rehab appointment before, so today I filled out the necessary paperwork, read the rehab center’s frequently asked questions, and started doing some passive range of motion exercises I found on YouTube. When Toivo first came home from her hospitalization, I was afraid to touch her leg, not wanting to disturb any of her stitches, but at Tuesday’s appointment, our vet said her incisions are fully healed, so massage and manual manipulation of the leg would be okay.

Toivo with her new harness

The entire process of Toivo’s injury, treatment, and recovery has been a learning experience. J and I have nursed other dogs back to health after surgery, but Toivo is the first pet we’ve had who was hospitalized for a full week. Whereas our other dogs spontaneously started using their injured legs after surgery, it’s been a full three weeks since Toivo put weight on her leg: one week in the hospital, and now two weeks recovering at home. It’s not surprising that her muscles have atrophied during that time, so now we have to build those muscles back up.

Toivo!

When we first got Toivo, I bought a pair of grooming gloves I use to brush her fur, a process J immediately dubbed “mama-ssage.” Today, I brushed Toivo in advance of tomorrow’s rehab appointment, and as I massaged, flexed, and extended her injured leg, I hoped the power of TLC and some “mama-medicine” will move Toivo further down the road to recovery.

Crazy legs

A few days ago, Toivo started limping after our morning walk, and for the past few days she hasn’t been her usual energetic self. We have a vet appointment next week to determine whether she has a passing injury or a more pervasive problem, and in the meantime I’ve been taking her on short, slow walks, just as I did when Reggie was old and increasingly unsteady on his feet.

Hello!

Normally, Toivo is an active and energetic dog, jumping and spinning when I grab her leash for a W-A-L-K, so it’s been heartbreaking to see her relative lack of enthusiasm for even a slow stroll. Most dogs relish any excuse to be a couch potato, but Toivo loves to be outside in any weather, and she normally doesn’t have a “slow” setting: she’s either asleep or ready to run, and if left to her own devices, she will play to the point of exhaustion. But like an athlete benched by injury, Toivo will remain on restricted minutes until she is back to her bouncy self. Whatever is bothering her, we don’t want her to exacerbate the problem through overexertion.

Lounging with my fur-shadow

Our house doesn’t have central air, so during heat waves J and I hunker down in the rooms that have window AC units. Our bedroom, which doubles as my office, has an air conditioner, so Toivo and I have been spending a lot of time this week inside: me with my books, notebooks, and laptop, and Toivo with her chew bone and dreams of rabbits.

Late afternoon at the place of pines

Today after running errands and attending a meeting on campus, I came home and walked Toivo to the place of pines and back. You won’t find the place of pines on any map: it’s my name for a segment of the Cochituate Aqueduct that snakes behind suburban backyards, with a trail that follows a shady ravine carpeted with pine needles.

I started calling this particular segment of footpath “the place of pines” when I used to walk Reggie there on hot summer days. We’d walk to a place where the trail climbs up the ravine, then we’d return on a path that skirts its upper ledge.

It’s a short walk there and back; the whole time, you can see houses, garages, and treehouses in neighboring yards, and you can hear passing cars and planes overhead. The appeal of the place of pines isn’t that it’s wild and remote, but that it’s near and handy. During a spare half hour, you can walk to a place with tall trees, indulging in a brief break on a day without much time for breaking.

Ready to go outside

As Reggie grew older, our trips to the place of pines changed. First, he struggled to climb the ravine, so we’d walk the level part of the trail and then retrace our steps when the way got steep. Eventually, Reggie couldn’t walk even that far: our walks got shorter and slower, and eventually he couldn’t walk at all.

Walking Toivo to the place of pines today, there was a thought at the corner of my mind: someday, this spunky girl who tugs at her leash, eager to sniff and chase after squirrels, will be too old to make it this far. But today the way is smooth and easy, and it would be a shame to stay inside.

Just chilling

This past weekend, just over a month after we’d put our white German shepherd, Cassie, to sleep, J and I brought home a three-year-old black Belgian Malinois named Toivo.

Neighborhood watch

When we put Cassie to sleep on New Year’s Day, I was ready to spend a good long time grieving, but J believes in quickly moving on. It’s impossible to replace one pet with another, but welcoming a new pet provides a welcome distraction from the empty feeling you experience when you still expect your old pet to be there, but they aren’t: a phenomenon J and I call “phantom dog.”

Waiting to walk

Toivo wasted no time settling into her new home, hopping right onto our bed and lounging at full length. When we open the door to her crate, she walks in without any prompting, and when I ask her to sit while I put on my coat before our morning walks, she duly complies while looking at me with an intent stare: “Hurry up.” Best of all, Toivo has quickly befriended Djaro, our other dog, racing around with him in our fenced dog pen, each of them intent on their favorite toy.

Djaro and Toivo

Toivo is not a replacement for Cassie: their personalities are completely different. Cassie was affectionate with people but anxious around other dogs, barking and lunging and making it nearly impossible to walk her in a neighborhood full of dog-walkers. Toivo, on the other hand, is hyper but stable. She is completely unfazed by Djaro, and she is eager to DO SOMETHING the moment either J or I show any indication of moving. But the moment I sit at my desk, she calms and quiets, as if turning a switch.

Enthroned

You don’t get a new dog to replace the old one. You get a new dog to fill the emptiness the old one left behind. Our phantom dog isn’t entirely gone: both J and I occasionally call Toivo “Cassie” by accident, and she doesn’t seem to mind. One testament to how much you loved your old dog is your willingness to open your heart to a new one, despite the empty hole you know they’ll eventually leave behind.