Dealing Hope, Disability

May 7, 2021

Our dog has a huge “paw” in my daughter’s recovery

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My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. Now it's my favourite place to be.

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“Pets understand humans better than humans do.”

Ruchi Prabhu

When I was growing up I was obsessed with dogs and asked my parents constantly if we could get one of our own. My father had grown up with dogs and was quite amenable to the idea, but my mother had been bitten by a dog as a small child and had never got over the fear. I was always thrilled when we were invited to dinner at friends who had a dog. My parents’ photographs often featured me and someone else’s dog playing together. For years I continued to ask for a dog, but with no success. Sometime around my 11th birthday, my mother saw that the SPCA was looking for junior volunteers. Little did I know at the time, but my mother thought if I saw how much work was involved with caring for dogs, that I might not want one anymore. Her plan failed miserably! After only a few weeks of volunteering I found the perfect dog. When my dad came to pick me up, I asked him to come back to take a look. He took one look at her deep brown eyes and the way she came right to front of her cage for pats and he was a goner. Shortly thereafter, we adopted Ginger who was roughly one year old and was some kind of retriever/spaniel cross. She was the best family dog. She loved camping and swimming and just hanging out with the family. And my mother adored her as well. We were very lucky to have her for 12 wonderful years.

When I met my future husband, we both still had our childhood dogs. He had George, an aging collie/shepherd cross and I still had my aging Ginger. Rich and both adored dogs and knew we would have one of our own one day. After we purchased our first house in late 2001, we set about finding the perfect dog. We settled on a lesser-known breed called a flat-coated retriever. They were known for both their fun-loving spirit well into adulthood and their gentleness with children. Monty was a lovely dog and lived up to the breed’s reputation for being a lovable goof. Unfortunately he also lived up to the breed’s most negative trait – a propensity for developing cancer. When Monty was just 4 and half years old, he suddenly became weak and stopped eating. It was determined that he had incurable leukemia and we had to say goodbye to our sweet friend. At the time my son Alex was 2 and I was 4 months pregnant with my second child. As much as we missed Monty, we knew it was not the best timing to get into training a new puppy. Many years went by and we really didn’t consider getting another dog at all because we were so busy working and raising our two kids. Alex had adored Monty as a toddler, but he never showed a strong interest in dogs when we were out or with family who had their own dogs, so we didn’t feel any compulsion to add a furry friend to our family dynamic. But when my younger child Katie got older, it became apparent that she loved dogs the way I had as a child. She adored my brother’s big black lab and basically any dog we happened to meet when we were out and about. When she was about 5 she started asking if we could get our own dog. At that point in our lives we had just bought a new house and were having it renovated. We didn’t love the idea of bringing a little chewing machine into our perfect new home who might destroy it. So, we just humoured Katie whenever she asked by saying, “maybe some day, but now isn’t the right time”.

As it turned out, the right time didn’t come until after the worst times we would experience as a family.  In January of 2017 when she was just days away from her 10th birthday, Katie suffered a sudden brain bleed that nearly killed her and caused a hemorrhagic stroke. Katie ended up spending the first 8 months of 2017 in hospital. During that time, she had some very special dog visits. The first happened when she was still unconscious and in the ICU. We were asked if it would be ok if a big friendly poodle named Henry came in to visit her – he and his owner were involved in a research project looking at how children in the ICU responded to a visit from a therapy dog. At that time, Katie’s body was completely out of sorts and she frequently had both soaring blood pressure and a high heart rate. When we placed her hand on Henry’s soft curly head, we noticed right away that her heart rate came down and she even looked calmer. It was a very special experience. Later when she was more alert, we got clearance for my brother’s lovely new dog to come for a visit. Katie was very aware of Phoebe’s visit and this time she was able to pat the dog herself and we even saw the hint of a smile. Again, it was an incredibly special moment. When Katie was transferred to the paediatric rehab hospital in Toronto in April, we learned that a weekly event was “pet night”. Once a week, volunteers who lived in the neighbourhood would bring their pets (mostly dogs but also 1 cat and 1 rabbit) for the patients to cuddle with. It was an event that we rarely missed during her 5-month stay. She became particularly fond of Willis, a small curly haired sweetheart who loved to sit on Katie’s lap. When we were finally able to bring Katie home in late August that year, she was still actively recovering from the stroke and relearning to do basic things. This was an incredibly difficult time for our family and none of us, not even Katie, was thinking about adding a dog to the mix.

One evening just before Christmas when I was wrapping gifts, Katie joined me in the basement and grabbed a few old toys off of the toy shelf. This was a common occurrence at the time as she was constantly rediscovering something in the house that she had forgotten about — 8 months away from home for a 10 year old would feel like several years to an adult I imagine. So I barely even noticed what she pulled down and also didn’t pay much attention when she requested some wrapping paper and tape. She sloppily wrapped up the toy she had grabbed and wrote something on an old card that she then taped to the top of the package. She told me the gift was “for dad” and I wasn’t to touch it. Fast forward a week or so and Christmas morning arrived. Katie presented her dad with his special package. He tore off the card, read it to himself and made a funny sort of face. He then tore off the paper to reveal a toy dog crate from a veterinarian play kit we had and inside a stuffed dog pulled from Katie’s vast stuffy collection. Rich sat back and laughed and then gave Katie a huge hug. It turns out that on the card, in Katie’s very no nonsense fashion, she had written, “Get me a puppy”. That was when we started to seriously consider that it was finally time.

In February 2018, we welcomed an 8 week old golden retriever puppy into our family and after much deliberation and disagreement, finally arrived at the name Jasper. Jasper has been the greatest addition to our family. She is a sweet, well-behaved dog and without any training, she is most definitely an emotional support dog for Katie. Not long after we got Jasper, Katie and I were going through some papers in her room and we came across some artwork Katie had made when she was maybe 6 or 7. Each picture featured a dog and a cute caption. In one, the dog was at the “spo” (spa) and in another at the dog “bootik” (boutique). I really loved the one entitled “mi dog is hom with me”. These heart-melting drawings were further proof that Katie had so deeply wanted a dog of her own.

Jasper settled into life in our house right away. When she was still a tiny puppy, Katie would ask for us to put Jasper next to her in the red chair she liked to sit on. Jasper would happily snuggle in and just snooze beside Katie as she played on her iPad. When the puppy grew and the two of them no longer could fit side by side in the chair, I bought a foot stool for Jasper. A few months later, she couldn’t sit comfortably on the foot stool any more, so we picked up a chaise longue for a great price and this remains a favourite resting place for both girl and dog.

Suffering a brain injury is a truly traumatic event that causes physical, cognitive and emotional damage. Jasper has helped Katie progress in all of those areas. She has provided the motivation for Katie to recover physically at first, just by getting down on the floor to play and cuddle but then later by swimming and walking with her. Cognitively Jasper has helped Katie as well because Katie is constantly thinking of creative projects that she can involve the dog in. She has created both Instagram and Tiktok accounts for the dog, Jasper has been the muse for many school writing assignments and last spring Katie even took a series of green screen photos featuring “Jasper’s world travels”. The most dramatic progress that Jasper has had a “paw” in has been Katie’s emotional development. Although she has come a long way, Katie can still become very angry and her moods are volatile. Jasper is always in tune with Katie’s moods and when she is upset, Jasper follows her upstairs to her room and just sits with her and is a calming force. Even when Jasper can’t be with us, she can help Katie calm down. Over the 3 years that we’ve had the dog, I have pulled out my phone to scroll though pictures to show Katie on occasions that Katie has become upset at school or at medical appointments.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll let some pictures do the rest of the talking and you’ll see just how special the bond is between our girl Katie and her sweet friend, Jasper.

Allie G.

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Hi, I'm Stacey.
Welcome to the
Willowjak Blog 

My blog started as a way to document my journey to wellness, but turned into a place to be inspired by others through our collective messy & authentic stories. We chat about themes that are often ignored and voices that aren't often given a chance at the mic. Now it's my favourite place to be. 

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