Dog Life

In early August, my dog Bella had surgery to fix a cruciate-ligament tear in her left knee. The previous year, she had the right knee operated on for the same injury, which is similar to ACL tears in humans. The difference for dogs is that this is a degenerative disease, meaning that there’s a high possibility that the other leg will go lame as well, which unfortunately it did.  

Our first experience going through with the surgery was overall positive. She was extremely fragile at first and recovery was painfully slow at times, but she eventually regained full, unimpeded use of her leg. We followed the same rehabilitation protocol for the second leg and after eight weeks everything was going to plan. The vet cleared her for a return to regular activity. She still had to proceed with a slow build-up, but had no signs of infections or any other complications.

On a late October evening, I was out walking Bella for her third short outing of the day. It was dark out and snowing lightly. I was watching her move fluidly in the beam of my headlamp a few steps ahead of me.

Just as I was thinking how pleased I was to see her continued progress, she lifted her back left paw and started yelping uncontrollably. I dropped to my knees and began clearing the snow from her paws, but to my despair her cries only intensified. I held her for several minutes stroking her head, helplessly whispering to her to calm down.

Eventually she did, allowing me to inspect her leg. I thought that perhaps she had broken the metal plate fused to her shin put in place during the surgery to help it track correctly. Yet, she expressed no pain as I palpated the area. I carefully felt around her paw, between her pads, but she only whimpered, showing nothing close to the visceral agony exhibited just moments before. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the incident.        

Bella has a tendency toward drama, often exaggerating benign incidents into something much greater. However, this was by far the most vocalized discomfort I had ever seen her express in our eight years together. She walked back home slowly without a limp, had dinner, and went to sleep. In the morning, she acted normally as if nothing had happened the previous night.

I wish I could ask her what was causing her so much pain. The obvious challenge when caring for an animal is that we cannot have a verbal exchange to understand exactly what they are experiencing. Typically, an acute injury isn’t this cryptic and the cause of suffering is pretty obvious. But, this incident got me thinking that much like in humans, recovery and healing are more complex than simply following a physical-therapy protocol.

There are intangible nuances to the process of recovery that require careful observation to read and understand. It is often difficult to make these assessments even on ourselves.

Having endured many ankle injuries in the past, I always felt that the hardest part of the recovery wasn’t building back strength and mobility, but rather regaining full confidence in the use of that ankle.

Bella has gradually eased back into running and is getting more and more freedom off leash. Just recently, we were out for our regular three-mile loop. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, their dog Bullitt ran out to join us. I was nervous at first because I had been trying to control her rehab as meticulously as possible and was worried that having another dog there might create too much extra stimulation. Bella, though, had no such concerns, and instinctively bolted up the hill in full stride chasing after Bullitt. They ran laps around me as I laboured up the hill. They rolled in the snow, playfully nipping at each other, tails wagging. Bella showed no signs of limping or struggle, bounding around just like always.

Our four-legged friends have much to teach us. Too often, we create our own barriers and obstacles to healing by being over-analytical. What I realized watching them play is that the key to regaining that confidence is less process driven and much more instinctual. Maybe then, instead of trying to have animals be more like more their humans, we should try to be more like them.     

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What have you learned or could you learn from your canine companion?
  • Have you ever suffered the issue of not being able to communicate with your dog? Alternately, have there been times when you did communicate despite not having a shared language?


Joe Grant

frequently adventures in wild places, both close to home (a frequently changing location) and very far afield. He inspires others by sharing his words and images that beautifully capture the intersection of the wilds, movement, and the individual at Alpine Works.

There are 18 comments

  1. Johnny Justice

    Thanks for the post Joe! My german shepherd is turning 8 in a couple months. He’s a big guy, over 100 lbs, but the most athletic dog I’ve ever had. He’s my 3rd shepherd and I can see the signs of him deteriorating. We’ve played frisbee since he was a puppy, which we can’t do anymore. He sometimes yelps when he jumps now. I know his back legs are hurting him, but he has no governor. Everything he does is 100%. I know this will be his downfall, but there is nothing I can do about it. He takes his joint meds, we play fetch and go for shorter runs to keep his muscles strong. Hopefully that adds to the time we have left. He was a puppy when I almost died my first time from a pulmonary embolism. He was also with me a couple years later when I almost died from a blood clot in my heart. Since then we’ve run thousands of miles together. He’s my best friend and I try not to think about life without him… when I do I end up crying. Like I am now… time to go enjoy another run together. Cheers

  2. Camas

    Unsolicited amrchair VetMD (and CSU grad!) advice here:

    No reason why she couldn’t have stepped on something sharp underneath the snow. Medically, this could be related to nerve pain (a ‘stinger’), or something in the way the TPLO plate moved with the knee throughout that particular stride on that particular day. Ideally it would be stable! Could’ve stepped in a hole even, tweaking some soft tissue or ligamentous/tendon structures, kind of like rolling the ankle. Whatever happened, if it were due to the surgery or with a failure of the repair, the signs and pain would likely be repeatable and ongoing, so it sounds like the pup is doing well.

    I agree, dogs can tell us a whole lot. As a veterinarian, your assessment of us being able to be or think more like them would actually prevent a lot of problems and help a lot of dogs with behavior problems. Dogs can teach us many fine points about the art of non-verbal communication, which can have positive implications with people too. I feel like people who take really good care of their animals tend to be good listeners also.

    1. Joe Grant

      Absolutely, Camas. I think a little thorn or something was most likely the issue. She sure let me know! No complications since and she’s getting stronger by the day so I’m very optimistic. Thanks for the input.

    2. Dr. Sierra

      Unsolicited DMV (OSU grad!) number 2:

      I agree with my colleague in Dr. Camas’s assessment. Lots of reasons for a yelp, even big ones as your described, and you did a good job of calming the nerves and assessing. And indeed it would be reproducible if something was really wrong.

      I think we all can agree sometimes it would be nice for our pets/patients to give us precise information! “My elbow hurts”. But often, if we the humans pay enough attention, they are already clearly telling us. WE just need to pay attention to the subtle clues they are giving. WE just need to slow down and pay attention to their communication.

      I was luckily enough to have provided a home to The.Greatest.Dog.Ever. Casey. AKA, “The long-nosed licker”, “Licker-dog” or “The Great American Black & White Compost Weasle”. [Ok, really he was a McNab Border Collie, whose temperaments are: Obedient, Hard-working, Protective, Friendly, Sociable, Well-mannered.] What he taught me, was to bound out the door, weather “immaterial and irrelevant”, first thing in the morning and go for it! For him it was catching the frisbee (prefectly) mid-flight, in all conditions, all times, day-or-night. He was always game for a long run (till age began to inhibit that) and crushed many of the peaks in Oregon (home), WA, MT, WY, and California.

      Casey and his man buddy, Sadie, also taught me to listen to oneself. How often on those crazy hot summer days here in Central Oregon, that they would go ‘shade-to-shade’ monitoring their own temps, while we runners baked! They paced themselves on the runs; walking, stopping, or running amok or body slamming each other with shear joy in only a way dogs can.

      Glad Bella is doing well, and may you both have many more years of great adventures together.

  3. James

    Joe, what a great piece, I am constantly in awe my dog, Stetson, his commitment and persistence in the mountains but also his ability to relax,recover and be kind to my children. He also blew his knee out and has made a great recovery, no longer a certified ultra hound but a still a solid mountain climber. We had the good fortune to run with my friends and their dogs last weekend, it was a good time indeed

  4. Caninepacer

    Nice piece Joe and I’m glad to hear your dog is back out enjoying the trails. After running over 30,000 miles with client dogs over the past 11 years through my “job” as a dog runner, I’m still learning from these amazing animals. Their enthusiasm and joy for getting out on a run never seems to wane. Cheers, David.

  5. Rick

    i’ve noticed while out hiking / running with my dogs they take time to sit and soak in the day. they’ll sit, close their eyes and put their nose up in the air. just to take a minute or two to feel the sun and sniff whatever is blowing by on the wind. this always seems to bring a smile to their face and mine.

  6. Andrew

    This was beautiful. So relatable. My wife and I have a male boxer and female Pit, to watch them run wild in the woods when we’re out there brings a smile to my face that’s hard to put into words. When I come home from work, as they’re jumping around all excited, I’ll ask, “who wants to go train, wanna go in the woods?!” Man, they loose their damn minds haha. It’s such a precious gift to have this kind of bond with K9’s. Wish you and Bella all the best!

  7. nedbarrett

    Thanks for this, Joe. My greatest training partner, Bristol the Enduro-Dog, has had the same injuries–tore one cruciate, then in recovering from that, tore the other. We have not done the surgery on the second. He had already retired from running, and at age nine has recovered enough to run around in the yard, go for walks, lie around on the porch of his dog house. These days, he watches as I leave with his little “sister” Hope, who does not have the endurance bug, for our runs, much shorter than B-dog in his prime; he seems to understand his retirement.

    Running with my dogs gives me such joy–their instinctual play while running reminds me how important fun is.

  8. Casey

    My Ginger is eight weeks out from her second TPLO. Her surgeries have been about two years apart. The surgeon told us that there was a high certainty that she would need the second leg done in the future. My heart sank when she began to limp on that second leg and I think this second time around has been more stressful. Her follow up x-ray showed the healing was going well.

    One thing that Ginger has taught me over the years is to live in the moment and to cherish those times.

    Well wishes to Bella!

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