All dogs are unique and possess qualities endearing them to the people that care for them and whose paths they cross in their lifetimes. Reilly was one of those rare dogs that had the ability to smile. This was not a facial expression that looked like it could be a smile, but rather a curl-your-lips-back grin that could only be interpreted as a smile. This, along with the wagging big tail, was what greeted me every day when I woke up in the morning and every night when I returned from work, for most of his life. Reilly’s smile was not reserved for only me. He shared it with everyone he met, canine or human, friend or stranger, wherever we went. I believe that smiles are contagious, and Reilly’s smiles invariably brought smiles to the faces of the people we encountered on our daily walks, visits to the park or trips to the vet.
His second most endearing quality was his love of others. He greeted everyone he met with the same level of enthusiasm, as if he was being reunited with a long lost friend. I can’t count the times I said to strangers we encountered out in the world, “Do you mind if my dog says hi?” It’s not like they had a choice; he would be tugging at his leash, smiling, and dragging me towards the person or the person’s dog with a single-minded purpose that could not be ignored. There were no strangers in Reilly’s life, just people and dogs he had not yet met.
As a young dog, Reilly needed only three things: food, water, and exercise. I tried jogging with him when he was very young but as his legs grew and his stamina increased it became clear to me that this was not a viable option. When Reilly was two years old, my friend Vavi suggested that I consider Roller-Blading with him around Green Lake, which is a small lake here in Seattle with a wheels and jogging path around the perimeter. Vavi had a brown and white Springer Spaniel, Bean, and the four of us would meet at Green Lake, early in the mornings, and race around the lake. The path was three miles around, and for many years we would circle the lake twice and I would return home with an exhausted, but happy, dog. As Reilly aged, we reduced our routine to a single lap around the lake. Later, this changed to simple walks around the lake. In the last couple years of Reilly’s life, we took twice daily walks around our neighborhood, morning and night, rain or shine.
Throughout most of his life, Reilly went to doggie day care twice a week. On these days, an amazing woman named Rhonda Jensen that runs a daycare business called Canine Connection, would pick Reilly up at 7:00 am, load him into her van with a dozen or so other dogs, and take them to various dog parks around Seattle. She would run them, take them swimming in Lake Washington, and generally let them do what dogs love to do for five hours and then return them all safely home. Reilly knew when it was a Tuesday or Thursday and would be waiting for her, inside our front door, tail wagging and that trademark smile of his when she put the key in the lock. These were good years for Reilly and years in which he was able to learn how to behave around other dogs, and to bond and make friends with his Canine Connection pals. Toward the end of March 2011, I got a call at work from Rhonda and she told me Reilly had collapsed at a dog park and was unable to walk. She met me and my wife Kathi at our vet’s office and Dr. Michel Jolivet, Reilly’s long time vet, told us that he thought Reilly’s problem was neurological and that he really needed to see a specialist. He called the VCA Hospital, north of Seattle, and arranged for a neurologist to examine Reilly as soon as we could get him there. That afternoon while we awaited the results of the tests, we feared the worst and worried that Reilly might not ever walk again. Through the course of an exam, X-rays and an MRI, it was confirmed that Reilly had nerve-root compression in his lower spine. The exam and testing also showed that for an almost 12-year-old dog, he was in excellent health and would be a good candidate for surgery. We had renewed hope. A week later he underwent an L4-S1 dorsal laminectomy performed by Dr. Karen Kline at VCA. The surgery went well and after five days at VCA, we were able to bring Reilly home.
We had to keep Reilly confined for two months while he recovered from his surgery. This was no easy task; he was an Irish Setter after all. But we did as suggested and kept him isolated in our den, except when he needed to go outside. Once I was able to begin taking him on short leash walks, I noticed that Reilly was dragging his right hind leg and putting his paw down “toes first” instead of placing his paw “pads down”. This, I later learned, is what is commonly known as “knuckling.” At Dr. Kline’s suggestion, we started a rehab program and began weekly therapy appointments for ten weeks that included 20-minute sessions in an underwater treadmill. Unfortunately, Reilly’s knuckling problem became more pronounced while he was in the underwater treadmill. In a first attempt to remedy Reilly’s knuckling, we tried using a therapy device called the Biko Brace. The Biko Brace is comprised of a plastic strap with springs and a hook on one end, for affixing to a harness, and a cloth and Velcro strap for attaching to the metatarsal bones above the paw of the afflicted limb. The device was successful at promoting the forward movement of Reilly’s paw but did not keep his toes elevated in a manner that would prevent him from knuckling. It seemed clear to me at the time that what we needed was something that would connect to his toes, rather than his leg, in a way that would keep his paw elevated and facing forward when he walked. I searched high and low – in local pet stores and on the Internet – for such a device. My efforts, however, were all to no avail. Since there was nothing like this available on the market, I set out to make a custom paw strap and elastic shock cord apparatus for Reilly that would connect at one end to his harness and to a paw strap at the other. The first version of the device had an immediate and positive effect on Reilly’s ability to walk normally. Many improvements and refinements followed over the course of the next several months. Throughout this process, Reilly was the perfect partner in my quest for a solution as we experimented with different materials and configurations for the paw strap and shock cord. The result of these efforts is what is now known as the Canine Mobility Anti-Knuckling Device™(AKD).
For the next two years, we used the AKD whenever we went on walks or to the park and Reilly’s knuckling problems virtually ceased. The shock cord effectively rehabilitated the atrophied muscles in his right hind limb and he was able to enjoy going on walks again as he had before his surgery. I had hoped that, eventually, Reilly would not need the device so from time to time I would check to see if he could walk normally without it. Each time, within a couple of blocks, the knuckling would return. He tolerated the AKD so well that it seemed clear that using the device indefinitely was a small sacrifice that we could live with, especially since it relieved him of a condition that caused him pain and allowed him to continue doing what he loved, which was going on walks with me.
In December 2012, Reilly began to struggle with getting up and he started to fall occasionally when we were out walking. On these occasions, I would help him up, give him a hug and tell him he was okay, and we would continue our walks. We took him to see Dr. Kline, who diagnosed Reilly with generalized muscle atrophy and mild lumbar pain that were likely age-related. He also underwent a senior comprehensive blood panel which revealed that he had slightly elevated liver enzymes and increased urine protein to creatinine ratio. Dr. Kline prescribed Gabapentin for his pain and recommended that he have an abdominal ultrasound and an internal medicine consultation to evaluate his liver and kidneys. We did this the following week and although no masses or other abnormalities were found, there were subtle changes in his liver that were also thought to be age-related. Dr. Kline prescribed a two-week course of Amoxicillin and a retest of his liver enzymes and bile acids in two months.
In January of this year we began weekly acupuncture treatments which we hoped would help with Reilly’s lumbar pain. He tolerated these well and they seemed to help with both his pain and mobility issues. We continued the weekly acupuncture treatments throughout February but Reilly’s lumbar pain began to worsen and he started having more problems walking and getting up. We started him on Prednisone, which had an almost immediate and positive effect and we were able to continue our twice-daily walks without any falling incidents.
In March we did a retest of his urine, stool and blood work which again showed elevated liver enzymes, increased urine protein to creatinine ratio and possible gastrointestinal ulceration, the latter of which was suspected as being caused by the Prednisone. Reilly had also become restless at night and began having trouble controlling his bladder and bowels and having accidents in the house. I began walking him before bedtime and setting my alarm for 1:00, 3:00 and 5:00 am so that I could take him outside with the hope that we could avoid the night-time accidents in the house. This was largely unsuccessful. Dr. Kline prescribed a drug called Anipryl for possible canine cognitive dysfunction and we discontinued the Prednisone. The Anipryl worked amazingly well. In addition to reducing the frequency of the night-time accidents in the house, we noticed that Reilly was much more alert and he became more animated.
Unfortunately, Reilly slowed down significantly within a couple weeks of being off the Prednisone and his pain seemed to get worse. We resumed the Prednisone and added Prilosec to his daily regimen. We also continued with the Gabapentin for the pain and Reilly did well for the next couple months although the length of our daily walks gradually became shorter.
In May we celebrated Reilly’s 14th Birthday and Kathi made him the annual peanut butter-carrot cake for the occasion. As usual, he ate the first piece in one bite. It was such a Reilly thing to do and we laughed as we did every year. It was a good day in the life of Reilly. Unfortunately his stumbling and falling gradually increased in frequency throughout May and I started to think about the harsh reality that he might not be with us much longer. I also worried about whether I would know when it was time to let him go, and also whether I would be able to actually do that when the time came.
On Saturday, June 1st, we got up and went on our daily morning walk. We had walked only four blocks when Reilly fell. I helped him up and he seemed to want to continue on our walk but we turned around and headed back toward home. In the next two blocks Reilly fell three more times and after the last fall he was unable to walk on his own. At that moment, I knew that our time together was coming to an end.
With great sadness, I contacted Dr. Kline and made arrangements to bring Reilly up to VCA one last time. He barked the whole way there but when I lifted him out of my car, he immediately became silent. A half hour later, he died with his head in my lap, big brown eyes staring off into the great beyond. Intellectually I know that ending his life was the right thing to do but that knowledge does little to ease the pain of my loss or fill the hole in my heart. Reilly was so much more than a dog to me; he was my friend, my companion, and at times during the past 14 years my reason for getting out of bed in the morning. He got me through some difficult times, was always there for me and he never judged me. His love for and faith in me never wavered.