The Last Cookie Dance
By Brunonia Barry
A few weeks ago, we hosted a sweet sixteen party for our Golden Retriever, Byzantium. The cake was made of hamburger and Charlie Bears (tiny dog biscuits), and the guests included his first girlfriend, a Portuguese Water Dog named Roberta, who looks incredibly youthful for her thirteen years, though we suspect she may have had a bit of work done.
Byzy, of course, has never had any plastic surgery whatsoever and doesn’t look a day over ten. The last time we took him in for a checkup, our regular vet was on vacation, and we saw someone new. At the end of the examination, the new vet declared Byzy “quite a specimen.”
In addition to being a specimen, our dog is a local celebrity. Byzy was the inspiration for the dog of the same name in The Lace Reader, a canine who hails from a line of feral Golden Retriever cave-dwelling warriors that protect the inhabitants of Yellow Dog Island. The idea of Golden Retrievers as warriors seems to greatly amuse most of my readers who always ask about the real Byzy. When I tell them he’s sixteen, they look amazed. Their next question is usually “What do you feed him?”
“Far too much,” I answer. But hey, our puppy loves food. And he is sixteen, for God’s sake, and still here, so keep your judgments to yourselves. I don’t say that last part aloud, of course. I love my readers too much to be so rude.
Byzy has had only one severe health problem in his long life. One morning a few years back, he was acting lethargic and dazed. Since we were scheduled to leave for Italy on a book tour three days later, we took him to the vet to have him checked, something we might not have done so quickly if we hadn’t been leaving town. It was a good thing we did. He had a tumor in his spleen that required immediate surgery. While we sat in the waiting room stunned and worried, Byzy had his spleen removed. Two days later, he was dancing for cookies.
Byzy’s cookie dance is a carefully choreographed little number that begins with a bouncy hop as both of his front feet leave the ground. That step is followed by rapid head shaking, some additional hopping, and a bit of subtle growling. The end of his routine is punctuated by one sharp, quick bark followed by thirty seconds of quiet but intense staring. If, after thirty seconds, a cookie has not been proffered, the dance routine is repeated until the desired results are achieved.
Though we know we spoil him, we can’t help it. We love the cookie dance. It is hilarious. And so, two weeks ago, when it suddenly stopped, we were concerned. He didn’t get up with us that morning. When we were in the kitchen making breakfast, he didn’t join us.
Worried, we went to the front hallway where he always sleeps. He stood up to greet us and promptly fell down. We helped him up. He fell again. We weren’t too concerned at first because Byzy has a bit of hip dysplasia which is common to aging Golden Retrievers, and he sometimes has difficulty getting up in the morning. When things didn’t improve as the day went on, we scheduled an appointment with the vet. Byzy’s back legs didn’t seem to be working. We lifted him with a towel-sling and carried him to the car. By the time we arrived at the vet’s office, both Byzy and I were shaking.
The vet stood him up, then curled Byzy’s back paws under, one at a time, watching to see how long it took for him to straighten them. He passed the test easily with his left hind foot, giving the vet a haughty WTF look, but when his right paw was curled under, Byzy just stood there. He didn’t seem to know that there was anything wrong until he lost his balance and began to collapse. The vet eased him down to the floor.
The diagnosis was neurological. Byzy’s brain was no longer sending signals to his right hind leg. He wasn’t in pain, he was simply surprised every time he fell.
“What can we do?” We asked.
“There isn’t much you can do. He’s comfortable, he’s happy, . . . and he’s a fighter,” the vet told us. “Enjoy your time with him.”
Determined to do just that, we took him home.
The next day, we discovered Handicapped Pets in Nashua, New Hampshire. What a great company! We bought Byzy a “wheelchair” that supports his back legs while at the same time keeping them moving.
The brochure said that it was possible for the chair to have a restorative power and that it could help improve the functioning of injured legs. My husband read that part aloud and looked at me hopefully. “Maybe it’s just an injury,” he said. “Maybe he will spontaneously heal.”
“Maybe he will,” I said, but my voice lacked conviction.
Whether restorative or not, the wheelchair has worked wonders. It took a few days of adjustment, both for Byzy and for us (you try lifting a 90 lb. dog and holding him up while struggling to adjust a web of snaps and clips). Once we got the routine down (it required cookies) and installed a ramp, Byzy began bombing around our back yard, tearing through flower beds, shredding tulips and peonies and anything else in his path. We were delighted.
We have now established a new ritual: Byzy rolls through the house, down the ramp, and into the back yard. When we come back inside, we disconnect him from the wheelchair. He stands for a few minutes, then collapses. He sleeps for most of the day, which is nothing new. Byzy’s favorite activity has always been sleeping, unless there was something more interesting to do like walking, swimming, or eating. Eating beats sleeping every time.
It was eating that inspired what I am now referring to as the Memorial Day Miracle. Byzy was sleeping in the front hall. We were grilling steaks. All of a sudden, Byzy, sans wheelchair, came jogging though the doorway and onto the porch as if nothing had ever been wrong with him. He demanded our steaks. He had attitude. He did his cookie dance.
A minute later, he collapsed. We cut up some steak and hand fed it to him. I cried with joy to have shared that inspirational “last dance.” It’s imprinted on my heart.
We knew it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But it was great!
We understand that this neurological damage will progress in the same way that these things invariably do. But for now, we are taking our vet’s advice. We are enjoying our sweet sixteen year old for a while longer. Our fighter. Our specimen. Who dances for cookies…and steaks.
Do you have a beloved pet who inspires you?