Trial and Triumph, a Service Dog Fights for His Life... and Wins

Galen, the 7-month-old Shiloh Shepherd lies prostrate in an exam room at the vet hospital during visiting hours

This is the ongoing account of living with disability and raising and training a service dog. In time, this account will cover not only my own experiences, but those of others I've met who also have found independence and safety, and a good measure of joy through their service dog partners. You may follow Galen's path to becoming a service dog on Facebook HERE.

I realize it has been a while since I posted. I've begun writing new blog entries a number of times, only to come to a block. While I've never had problems writing fantasy, or scientific material, I always have a difficult time writing about myself. However, so much has happened over the last couple of weeks that I felt the need... partly because what I have to say may save lives. It already saved Galen's. However, I'll backtrack a little first, as the rare disasters are only one aspect of his life and training.

Galen is now 7-months-old. His training as a service dog has, for the most part, gone smoothly. There have been a few training hiccups, but all have been minor. For instance, I began using a halter on Galen, for he is now 75 lbs and very strong. He has been relatively easy to train, given he's exceptionally intelligent and willing (there are many dogs that are intelligent but difficult to train because they are stubborn). His one flaw is when he sees other dogs around... especially those he considers to be his friends. His pulling got to the point where I couldn't handle him in those situations. The halter prevents the pulling.

He hates it. I doubt he'll ever fully accept the halter, but he's slowly learning to at least tolerate it. He simply dislikes having something on his face all the time. The one I use doesn't tighten over his muzzle. The Newtrix halter instead uses a pulley system to apply an oppositional force to his pulling. As anyone who has watched the Iditarod would understand, pressure from the front is a signal to pull. It makes sense that pressure counter to that would signal a dog NOT to pull. And so, until he learns to ignore other dogs when he's dressed, he will wear the halter in their presence. He is slowly improving.

My broken foot has healed, and we have been back to our normal routine since early May. During the week, Galen goes to work with me. Saturday is his rest day, and he has his training class on Sundays. He is thus far at the top of the class among all dogs under a year old. He has learned to respect cats and to behave in restaurants. I expect I could now take him to the theater without misbehavior (except for perhaps trying to eat popcorn off the floor). He is loved by everyone at work, where he charms everyone... especially the ladies.

In reference to that last statement, Galen has a subscription to BarkBox, a monthly box containing random toys and treats for dogs. In one BarkBox, Galen received a bouquet of toy flowers. He soon discovered that bringing a rose from the bouquet to people he wants attention from is rewarded with hugs and ear scritches, especially when he brings those "flowers" to women. Had he been adopted by a bachelor, they would probably be using Galen's antics to win over women they want to meet... just saying.

I brought Galen one of his toy flowers to have during a recent hospital stay.

At the park, Galen loves playing ball, and he trains for surfaces, foot placement, and balance on the jungle gym. He is very close to being able to walk the 7" diameter tightrope it has without assistance. There are a number of dogs that have become his friends at the park, and he loves wrestling with them during playtime. He is also beginning to show some agility talent, leaping and pirouetting as his friends approach.

It hasn't all been good, though.

I am a reviewer in Amazon's Vine reviewer program, where I am sent items I choose from a queue to test out and review. This occasionally includes pet foods. Galen recently tried a food made by Wellness. Fortunately he didn't care for it and ate very little, for the next day he had an upset stomach. I reviewed the ingredients of the food, only to discover it contained green tea extract- a substance research has shown to cause liver toxicity in dogs. Approximately 10% of the Vine reviews indicated that their dogs had become ill, seriously ill in two cases. What is good for people isn't necessarily good for dogs (another good example is chocolate). I contacted Wellness about it, only to encounter defensiveness. Apparently, their parent company, WellPet, is now putting green tea extract into ALL of their dog kibbles. This includes Wellness, Eagle Pack, Holistic Select, and Old Mother Hubbard. While the amount in it is probably not toxic enough to harm most dogs, I refuse to take any chances. I've avoided all of those brands ever since.

The next disaster took place June 18th. I was driving home after getting some repairs done on my car when a teenage driver failed to yield the right of way at a stop sign. I had no stop sign and was traveling at approximately 50MPH, posted speed limit of 45 MPH. When she pulled in front of me, there was nothing I could do. My vehicle ricocheted off the teenager's, left the road, went down a 40-50 ft. embankment, through a fence and into a house. I was battered and bruised, and my spine injuries severely aggravated, and had a concussion, but otherwise not injured too seriously. As I forced the door open on my totaled vehicle, my only thought was Galen. Fortunately, I always make him wear a seatbelt harness in the car, and Galen came through unharmed. Had he not been wearing a seat belt, he likely would have been thrown through the windshield. Some of my friends thought me a bit paranoid to make my dog wear a seat belt. If anything positive came out of this accident, it is that most of my friends with dogs are now doing the same for theirs. Galen's life was saved, and now others may be as well.

As if that weren't enough of a disaster, on June 29th, Galen began to get sick. He first developed diarrhea and a little vomiting. He told me every time he got nauseated or had to relieve himself, and had no accidents. On June 29th, he began to get worse, with me having to take him outside every ten to twenty minutes. He would grunt and whimper in pain as he would relive his bowels, and was thoroughly miserable. I made an appointment for him to see the head veterinarian at Alameda East Veterinary Hospital (it's the same clinic where "Emergency Vets" was filmed at years ago... until a clinic opened up in my neighborhood last year, it was the closest hospital to where I currently live). However, we never made it to that appointment.

Galen lays in an exam room at the veterinary hospital

Around mid-morning, Galen began passing profuse blood and water from his lower gastrointestinal tract. I didn't ask, but immediately told my boss I was taking Galen to the ER. I was terrified, and I'm certain my boss could tell. He didn't object. Even if he had objected, I still would have left. I rushed Galen to the ER at Alameda East as fast as I could safely get there.

Galen's temperature was normal, and his initial blood work showed no anomalies. The next step was an abdominal ultrasound. No foreign objects were found, nor a torsion of the stomach, which causes the deadly condition of bloat. However, both his small and large intestines were distended with fluid and blood. Immediately after the ultrasound, Galen had an accident. Upon the release of such profuse blood and fluid, Galen was admitted with a diagnosis of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (HGE).

No one knows the cause of HGE. There is high mortality and morbidity when untreated or not treated promptly. Usually seen in small and toy breed dogs, the condition results in massive fluid and blood losses in the GI tract. Dogs with the condition require massive IV (subcutaneous cannot keep up with the losses) fluid replacement. In severe cases, plasma and blood transfusions may be required, as well as electrolyte replacement. Galen's case was severe.

It is fortunate that Alameda East has a fully staffed ER and ICU that is open 24/7, for he could not have received better care. He deteriorated enough to require a plasma transfusion in addition to the fluids, and also required IV potassium... which can be agonizingly painful going in. I know this because I required IV potassium myself many years ago. It burns the veins going in, causing excruciating pain. I can only imagine how he must have screamed and cried, without understanding that it was being done to help him.

Fortunately, the treatments worked. After 30 hours in ICU, Galen was able to come home. Upon seeing me, Galen jumped into my lap and licked my face all over. Nothing could have been more gratifying. Two days later, he exhibited virtually no sign he had ever been ill.

His vet bill came to $2000, a little more than $1600 with the 20% service dog discount. I don't have that kind of money, but fortunately I have Galen on a veterinary insurance plan. I put the bill on credit and hopefully will be reimbursed for most of it. Like seatbelts, insurance is something you hope you'll never need to use, but are grateful you have it when the need arises.

At this point, Galen has recovered far more than I have. It will take some time for my shock and fear over the situation to subside. We have had classes on grief and loss at service dog training, but one never anticipates coming so close to losing a dog as young and healthy as Galen. My previous Shiloh Shepherd, Rigel, lived to the ripe age of 18, and never seriously ill. I wouldn't expect much in the way of accidents with Galen, as he is always in my presence and never without supervision. I do everything in my power to keep him safe and healthy. We even stopped going to the dog park, after he was attacked by a pit-bull (illegal here, but people have them anyway). Too many people go to the parks who can't control their dogs. It's detrimental to Galen's training, and not worth the physical and emotional risk. However, if last week reminded me of anything, it is that you can do everything right, and protect your dog in every way available, but tragedy can still happen. There is no way to prevent everything, especially something like HGE, where the cause remains a mystery.

I'm glad to have my Galen back, alive and healthy.

Galen's illness also brought back another reminder. I have previously mentioned my dream of training a Shiloh Shepherd to scent cancer, and my hopes that Galen will be that dog. I've had many other dreams and ambitions involving dogs and medicine, though. I've never achieved any of them due to my own medical catastrophes. However, that doesn't mean I've given them up.

As a youth, I had an adult friend who was blind. She had a guide dog, a black lab named Holly. Her husband was blind and had a guide dog as well, Beau. There came a time when Beau became quite ill, and my friend, being blind, had no immediate way to take him to the vet. They managed to get there and save the dog, but it got me thinking. I already had my interest in medicine, but also had a love for animals, and always intended to include them in my practice. The illness of Beau, however, showed me that there is also a need for an ambulance service for animals, especially service animals, whose handlers often are unable to drive. I would train human EMT's and paramedics animal first aid, so they could respond to veterinary emergencies, but in cases where a person also needs help, could render aid to them as well if they arrived prior to other first responders. I would want my ambulance service to have the same rights as the services for humans, and I felt the best way to do that would be to have my responders trained and equipped for both.

Decades after those initial thoughts, the need is no less. I still hope to get to a point where I can resume and complete my medical studies. I still hope to have a chance to succeed. I won't let go of those dreams until they become unattainable to me, and even then I will pass those dreams to others in hope that they still may become a reality.

For now, though, I'm simply glad to have Galen back, whole and healthy.