Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cotton Dog's Story

Tallulah has a nearly perfect recall. She sits and lies down on command, and can hold a "stay" for ten minutes, even when I leave the room. She can - and used to regularly - go for 30 blocks down a busy public street, while maintaining a perfect heel. She'll stay still while she's groomed, she's willing to share her food and she has never once in her life shown inappropriate aggression towards a human being or animal. (OK - she growled at a cow once... I'm OK with that.)

She's a great dog. While there's no doubt that a lot of that comes from her breeding (She comes from a long line of champions), I'd like to think that the training I've given her and her life experiences have helped her become the dog that she is today.

Cotton, while a great pet, can't claim many of those attributes. He's got zero recall. He'll sit or reluctantly lie down when told, but his ability to stay on command is pretty much non-existent. He can't won't heel, ever. And, while he's happy to share his food, he's dog, cat and stranger aggressive.

But. He's the best lap warmer there ever was. You haven't lived until he's settled into your lap, assumed his boneless position and let out a little sigh of contentment. That alone is reason enough to keep him around.

Oh, and he's cute.

Damn, he's cute.

Cotton came from a back yard breeder, before I knew better; so genetics were working against him from the start. However, the real reason why he's a great pet and not a great dog is because of an attack, and my reaction to it.

Warning... the next bit of this story is quite graphic, and may be disturbing.

When Cotton was almost a year old, I took him with me to my parents' house for Christmas. He was always a bit of a shy dog, and I knew he was overwhelmed with all the kids and people running around. So, after dinner I scooped him up and brought him up to my old bedroom for some peace and quiet.

What I didn't know was that my parents' big farm cat had already gone into the room to find some quiet himself. Cotton saw the cat before I did; and ran up to him, where he lay under a chair. The cat lashed out without any warning, and swiped at him with his claws out. One of the claws pierced Cotton's eyeball, right into the center of his pupil.

I called every single vet in the phone book, and not one returned my call. So, I got into my car and drove him the two hours to the Emergency Vet in Edmonton. There, he was deemed to have been lucky. I was told to keep him calm for a few days and that he should recover just fine.

That didn't seem right to me. The next day, he seemed uncomfortable and upset, so I brought him to a regular vet. There, he decided that he didn't want to be examined, and he struggled with the vet. The blood clot that had developed after the attack was dislodged by his struggles, and his eyeball started to bleed. Except, the blood didn't trickle or pour down his face. It stayed inside of the eyeball, which filled up like a balloon.

He cried. And he cried. And he cried.
I can still hear him now, as I type this out.

Cotton was rushed to a canine optometrist. There, he was given something to help clot his blood and to deal with the pain. He remained on a cocktail of blood medications, pain killers, and sedatives for the next six weeks. My mom came up to stay with me for a week to help deal with him, and then he came to work with me for the next two weeks so that I could give him all of his meds. With all the various eye drops and pills that he needed, I medicated him 14 times throughout each day and night.

The canine optometrist told me on the first day that he would lose his eye. I'm not sure why they didn't remove it right away, but we began a routine of regular vet visits to monitor his progress. First, every day. Then twice a week...once a week... biweekly and eventually - six months later - he was deemed to have recovered as much as possible. And he kept his eye.

Cotton's blind in his left eye. He's terrified of (and therefor aggressive towards) all cats except for Winter. He also learned that I would (and still do) jump at the slightest hint of his discomfort. He learned that it would take very little to make me to accommodate him. I doubt that he ever thinks deeply enough to realize that I couldn't get past the memories of what he went through to move on; but he knows that I am there to do his bidding.

I molly-coddled him after that. I walked him regularly, but not out of his comfort zone. I picked him up at the sight of a cat, and I never let him be approached by a strange dog. I rarely asked anything from him, including basic obedience. Before I knew it, my dog was a shivering bundle of nerves who rarely left our block.

Finally, after about a year of this, I took Cotton with me when I went to hear Stanley Coren speak. This man knows a lot about dogs. He's one of Canada's leading dog trainers, who uses psychology to get to the root of problems. After the presentation, I approached Dr Coren and asked him how I could help Cotton. He told me that he'd observed me throughout his entire speech, holding Cotton tightly in my arms and trying to reassure him. Dr Coren told me that I'd have to stop that, and that I should treat Cotton as though everything is right in the world. If it isn't right, I should expect Cotton to suck it up.

I tried. I really did; but I couldn't not be protective of the little guy. When he was shivering in apparent fear, I couldn't bring myself to ignore him and carry on. And, so, I ignored the advice.

When I got Tallulah, I set out from day one to do the opposite of what I'd done with Cotton. I took her everywhere I could, and introduced her to all sorts of new experiences. Tallulah was in 3 obedience classes and an agility class before she turned one.

In one of those classes - run by her breeder, and almost exclusively for Standard Poodles - I mentioned Cotton and his issues; and he was invited to join as a spectator. The hope was that if he sat through enough classes unharmed, he'd learn that at least part of the world isn't such a bad place. He made such a fuss that I had to start attending separate classes for each dog. Tula would go to her class, and the next night I would sit with Cotton and shovel hot dogs in his face. After he hyperventilated through three of those classes, I decided it wasn't worth the struggle.

Cotton was happy at home. In his own little world, where he knew what to expect and didn't have to fear the unknown, he was OK. As long as I didn't ask him to do anything new, life was good.

Then we moved.

He has adjusted to the new house for the most part. He's OK most days; but he also deals with a lot of irrational fears. Some days are filled with terror, and I can't figure out why. He's afraid of the vacuum, the stove and the phone. He leaves the room any time I turn on a small kitchen appliance, like the toaster or a wok.

He hates to be hot, and somehow believes -deep in his heart- that I should be able to cool things down in the summer. When I can't, he has panic attacks.

After I went on vacation last year, he became afraid of my favorite blue chair. Something happened, I think; but neither the pet sitter nor Cotton would tell me about it. Either way, he wouldn't go near that chair - or me, if I was sitting in it - for months after I came back home.

This week, he has developed a fear of parked cars after dark; and I can barely get him to walk past them on the sidewalk.

Unexplained terrors are setting in again for him at home. It's not quite as bad or as frequent as the panic attacks that he had this summer; but I'm worried that it's a sign of things to come.

We'll be starting the trial and error of finding the right drug and dose for him again. I really hope we figure it out faster for him this time than we did over the summer.

There are moments, again, when I question his quality of life. I started writing this after a couple of particularly difficult days, and I was wondering if the humane thing to do would be to have him put down. I don't think it's time yet, though. As I was writing last night, Cotton started running circles around the kitchen island and the nearby sofa at top speed. He egged the poodle into chasing him - got her good and worked up - and then skidded into my office where he hid under my legs and out of her reach... happy as a clam. This morning, after the alarm went off, he climbed out from under the covers, stepped on my nose and started to wrestle with me until I had to get up and defend myself in true UFC Smackdown style.

What changed between yesterday afternoon and last night? I don't know, but I wish I did. It would help me find a way to give him more of these fun times, and less of the terror.


  1. Oh poor traumatized Cotton! My first cat got psycho after I got Tulip and started doing horrible disgusting things all over the house and was really really miserable. The vet ended up putting her on freakin' anti-depressants and I swear her quality of life (and mine!) improved!

  2. Ah, better living through chemical assistance...

    Cotton embraced that idea this summer. He was on mood-mellowers for a few months, but did so well that I eventually weened him off. After the last week, I think that he's going to need to go back on.

  3. The boxer has ups and downs but not like Cotton. Prior to Red's downs he chews his feet a lot I think it's allergies.

  4. Janice as I read this I became sad and then more sad for Cotton BUT then I read in comments that you had weaned him off his happy pills and then I got happy 'cause won't it mean that when you give him his happy pills he will be happy again? I mean if Cotton has to stay on mood-mellowers the rest of his life, isn't that a workable solution? I learned some new things about Cotton this morning. And, DAMN, he is cute. I love that little face.

  5. First of all, Aah!Aah!Aah!Aah!Aah! Poor dog! Poor Dog! Poor dog! Poor dog! Poor dog!

    Second of all, howdy fellow Albertan!

    Thirdly, that's exactly the sort of pair I have. Older, smaller bundle of neuroses and a younger, larger bundle of sanity. I know I definitely made a lot of mistakes with the little one, my first dog, and I credit her with putting up with me through them all.

  6. A fellow Albertan! How cool is that?

    We learn a lot from our starter dogs, don't we? I often refer to Cotton as my practice dog - he taught me what not to do. And, yet, he's still a great companion... he's just got a few issues.