Fusion Part 1: Nuts and Bolts

Six weeks ago today, I had my lumbar fusion surgery.  I now have four titanium screws, two pins and some sort of cage residing in my back.  What, you ask, have I been doing with my time besides figuring out if I’ll set off metal detectors?  (They say I won’t.  I’m skeptical.)  I’m not really sure, but it’s gone by a lot faster than I’d ever imagined.   For those who stumbled this way looking for a fusion story, beware, I am a dog training and agility superfreak looking to find the fastest path back to the agility field running my pups.  And for my agility friends, I promise to throw in a gratuitous Merlie picture every now and then just to keep things semi-normal.

Mama, get better soon!

Mama, get better soon!

But for those out there looking for a firsthand experience of the L5-S1 fusion surgery with a person determined to be active again, I hope to…well…give you some hope – all while I’m hoping like mad that my own fusion will be successful.  It seems that 99% of the experiences on the Internet are written to scare the living crap out of you, by those who seem to relish dishing out doom and gloom.   I suspect most folks after surgery heal, recover, and get back to their lives, too busy to visit back pain forums.  While it would be easier for me to skim over these details and go right back to writing about something much more fun, (woof!) I realize sharing my surgery and recovery experience may help others facing the same fate, or any physical setback, for that matter.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition.  Giving up is what makes it permanent.”     -Marilyn vos Savant

Brotherly love at it's finest!

Brotherly love at it’s finest!

My stay in the hospital could have been quite brief.  Shortly after being admitted, hooked up to various machines and started on what the nurse called the “you won’t care” drug, I suddenly and violently cared.  I cared enough to clearly visualize flinging off all the machines and running screaming out of the building, gown flapping in my wake.  Thankfully, clearer heads (and a heavier husband with excellent calming skills) prevailed, and I stayed put until the drugs kicked in, and then yep…I didn’t care.  Thank you, drug provided oblivion!

In what seemed like three seconds after I was wheeled in the OR, I woke in recovery with a friendly nurse hovering overhead talking to me, asking me questions.  But the only voice screaming in my head like a fire alarm was my own:  Do your &^%$-ing toes work??”  Left foot – check.  Right foot…hey right foot, yes, YOU!  Check.  <<Deep breath and silent thanks to a surgeon who paid attention in class>>  But back to that nurse…thanks for the ice chips.  I think you saved my life.

The next three days went by in a blur, more for me than anyone else.  They said I was under for about 3.5 hours, and anesthesia really screws me up.  For a while I was setting personal blood pressure records, some that may have qualified me as an honorary zombie.  BPs like 75 over 57 made the walks I took several times a day quite interesting.  I’d hobble out slower than a turtle with my walker, with my entourage of therapist, nurse and IV on wheels.  I’d make it to the corner, start seeing spots, and come racing back like a Citroen on the last stage of the Dakar rally…usually on two wheels, and sliding to a stop back in bed.  Thankfully, this wasn’t my husband’s first post-surgery rodeo, and he both expected and kept up with my I’m-going-to-faint-turbo-speed. The three nights weren’t bad…except for being awakened every two hours for vital checks by the nurses, (who rocked) and every other hour by a screeching machine that didn’t seem to do anything but wait until I was again asleep to screech.  Then there were the pre-dawn vampires.  Being jolted awake at 5:30 by a woman claiming she was from the lab wielding a needle and sub par vein-locating skills was not my favorite part.

THIS was my favorite part.  Many an ET joke was made...

THIS was my favorite part. Many an ET joke was made…

Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned what the pain was like.  I know what 10 on the pain scale feels like, and I expected something close to that.  And…I didn’t.  Yes, there was a constant pain, yes, it sucked, but it wasn’t impossible to tune out the majority of it most of the time.  Maybe I was lucky and the drugs worked, maybe I had a talented surgeon, (and I believe I did) or maybe the back gods decided that by my third surgery I deserved a break, if not a frequent buyer’s card?  Whatever the reason, I’m thankful.  Sure, it hurt like hell to sit up and move around, I felt like my lower back had been replaced by something made by Cyberdyne waaaay before the T-101, and I wanted to boot every time I stood up, but I could handle it.  Getting through this was my quickest route back to getting my life back.

To remind me of that goal, I brought a little photo album filled with pictures of the pups that would have put any grandmother to shame.  I accosted any nurse who dared to come close enough for me to show them.  One nurse who’d been around the block a time or two happened to be quite a dog lover, so she’d ask to see a new picture every time she came in.  On my last morning, they said I could go home…after a therapist taught me how to climb stairs.  But she’d not be back until afternoon.  Having already been through two more minor back surgeries I was sadly familiar with the stairs routine.  My new nurse friend winked at me,  and before I knew it, I’d been shoveled into a wheelchair and deposited at the curb where my husband waited to take me home.  Never mind that I only made it two minutes in the front seat before crawling into the back for the rest of the ride home.  Never mind I recited a ‘don’t boot in the truck, don’t boot in the truck‘ mantra.  I was home.  With my pups.  With my family.  The worst was behind me, with a lot of healing to come in the weeks ahead.

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Weaves…Contacts…and a Deadline!

When my surgery date was set, I had five loooong weeks to wait.  That day, I set a goal of getting Desmond to full height on his dogwalk and closing Des’s channel weaves completely.  While I didn’t want to rush him, for me, a deadline is unbeatable motivation.  As a serious bonus, it’s provided a welcome distraction full of happy puppy thoughts and given me a reason to get out there Every.  Single.  Day.   As if I could resist this face…

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There’s nothing like knowing I’m going to be a chair jockey for a couple + months to motivate me to get outside and run.  And in the last five weeks, that’s exactly what we’ve done!

Des and I began working weaves in earnest around his first birthday.  I’d happened across the channel method as a part of the online classes I’m taking, and decided to give it a shot.  I worked him a couple times a week for a few months, succeeding at some gnarly entires while gradually closing the channel, yet leaving it open enough not to actually make him weave a lot.  In November, I began to close about an inch a week, and he weaved his first completely closed set right after Thanksgiving.  Since then, he’s blown me away with his ability to hit entries…at speed or with the meanest angles I can dream up.

And his running dogwalk?  Each time I’d raised the height of his dogwalk in the previous month, he never flinched, adjusting quickly to maintain his lovely striding.  That is, until we hit 45″; a mere three inches short of full height.  All of a sudden, things fell apart.  His strides became shorter, and he missed the contact over and over.  I pondered what to do. I promised myself he was *not* broken, no matter how heavy the sinking feeling in my stomach.  He needed to build back up his confidence.  With Duncan, I would have dropped the height and built back up a little less quickly.  But this is Des, who charges at most things like his fur is on fire.  So, I decided to take my cues from Des and do the same.  For several days, I ran alongside the dogwalk like a madwoman, making a heck of a racket, and most likely worrying the neighbors and scaring the wildlife.

But it worked.  Des got his striding back and began to fly.  A week later, we raised it to FULL HEIGHT!  

More than six months.  Learning to see his stride.  Learning to reward a good stride.  Des learning to adjust his own stride.  Dragging myself out before sunrise to beat the heat, rushing home and running in my work clothes to catch the last few minutes of daylight…it’s been a long journey.  One that’s been truly worth it.  What?  Video?  Of course!

We aren’t done yet…we still need to work turns, but getting to full height on the dogwalk and competition weave poles were two large and rewarding hurdles.  Ones that will help carry me through the upcoming months of forced idleness.  While I may be watching Die Hard (hey, it’s a Christmas movie…) or Downton Abbey reruns, I’m sure a small part of my mind will be be doing mental handsprings over what Des has done.  And looking oh, OH so forward to running him the moment I’m able to do so again.

Yippie ki-yay….

MACH Duncan!

MACH Dunkie!
Photo by Randy Gaines

On July 8th, Duncan finished his MACH AKC Agility Champion title in Farmington Utah. It’s taken me a little while to attempt to find the words to describe how special this journey has been with my amazing little boy.

Here is our MACH run…I can remember every step of it.

Duncan is a sweet little soul and was often shy and tentative especially early in our agility career.   If not for the kindness and camaraderie of my agility friends (especially sharing their Trial from Hell stories) I doubt we would have made it past our first out of town AKC trial.  But persevere we did.   Dunc learned to trust that I’d keep him safe, and in turn, he’d put on his Brave Pants and fly around the ring, rocking five states worth of dogwalks along the way.

Running a dog like Dunc is never boring, and is usually comprised of one part foretelling the future, one part randomly changing motivation, and one part rolling with whatever he dishes out.  But that’s the magic of Dunkie…have patience, hang in there, make sure your shoes are tied on, and a brilliant little boy often emerges.   I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and am grateful for all the lessons my Super D has taught me.

With judge Tim Pinneri, Photo By Randy Gaines

When the Canine Partners program allowed us to play in 2010, we were off and running!  He earned his first QQ at our fifth trial, and he finished his MACH 16 months later.  All but six of our 750 speed points were earned without multipliers.  At first, they came a few at a time, but as our confidence grew with each other, we really began to rack them up.

Dunc brought me into the world of agility.  He forgave me while I was learning how to handle, and gamely tried anything new I threw at him.   He grinned at me while I laughed at his antics, and he’d curl up in my lap and sigh as if to say “it’s going to be okay” when the going got tough. We traveled with friends, we traveled alone, he stealthily robbed many pockets of their cookies…but through it all, Duncan has been my unwavering little buddy…my co-pilot and sharer of pillows and ice cream.

Duncan has taught me so much about love and patience, perseverance and trust.  He showed me time and time again that to get to our destination, we needed to enjoy the journey – to find the joy on each and every run.  And so, standing at the gate before our MACH run, I wasn’t going over the course in my head – – I was whispering in Dunc’s ear:  “If you run like I know you can, you get to run the dogwalk again!”  He did, so we did!

This is what Duncan’s MACH means to me:  It’s a written record, a testament of the time and effort, the faith and trust that it took to get us here…and the honor I feel to call this fantastic, smart and funny little boy my teammate.   I treasure memories of each run along the way – from the wavering to the solid, to the speedy and spectacular.

I always believed in you, Duncan.  Thank you for believing in me, too.

And We Have Liftoff…

Summer has arrived.  With it has come the heat and the bugs, the sunscreen and the dorky wide-brimmed hats.  And the glorious long evenings.  Dunc and Des are putting them to good use.

Des doing Des stuff.

Since Desmond was a fall baby, and missed last summer’s heat,  I’ve been slowly introducing him to water.  After an inaugural run through the sprinklers, Des, following puppy tradition, quickly found the nearest towel to dry off with.  Too bad the towel was in the form of my shirt, and I was wearing it at the time.  That was refreshing!

Is there nothing better than a good roll in the wet grass?

The Double D’s love a good game of fetch.  Several months ago, I observed that Desmond, while full of unbridled initiative at trying to catch a thrown ball, lacks a little something in the accuracy department.  While he’s certainly breaking free of the earth’s gravitational field while launching himself into orbit, he’s still not entering the same solar system as the ball he’s aiming at.  Duncan, who just earned his 8th degree black belt in catching is not fooled by the acrobatic insanity of his baby brother.

We have liftoff!

Houston, we have a problem…

In the meantime, Duncan and I have some pretty exciting times in our near future.  Twenty six points now stand between us and our MACH, with our next trial swiftly approaching.  I feel so honored to have this brilliant little boy as my teammate and teacher, who has taught me boatloads along the way.  Thank you, Super D.

Double Q # 20

Over the weekend, Duncan reached a milestone in his AKC agility career, and earned his 20th Double Q.   We finished those 20 QQs about 14 months after moving into Excellent B and becoming eligible to start earning them.

For my non-agility friends, in AKC agility, a Double Q is earned when you qualify on both the Standard and Jumpers With Weaves courses on the same day.  One speed point is earned for every second under standard course time you finish a course.  To earn your Master of Agility Champion (MACH, or AKC Agility Champion) title, you must earn 20 QQs and rack up 750 speed points.  It’s a long road, no matter how you drive it, and daily double perfection on the agility field is an exercise in practice, focus and determination.

Photo by Randy Gaines

We’re not quite done yet.  Dunc has exactly 100 speed points left to go before he earns his MACH title.  But completing the QQ requirement was a huge accomplishment/relief for me.  Now, we’ll step to the line together with speed and fun as our goal (because if Dunc is having fun, he’s pretty darned speedy).  Doesn’t it look like he has a big Dunkie grin on his face in the picture below?

And another fantastic pic from Randy Gaines

To brag on my little boy a bit more, over a three day trial last weekend he earned three QQs (bringing the total to 21) and 2 QQQs, having qualified in the FAST distance class twice.  I am so proud of my Teammate, and best buddy, Duncan.

With three more trials scheduled in the next month, I think the Little Dog that Could is going to become the Little Dog that Did!  Stay tuned…

I hope to cease being the absent blogger soon.  If I were a UPS driver, it would be the holiday shipping season, if I were an accountant, it would be April 15th…my season of training baby firefighters how to throw dirt is a lot longer and busier than you’d think it should be!  But once they go off and do what they are trained to do, I’ll return to my rambling ways.

But in the meantime, we’re celebrating each milestone as it comes!

Thanks for the bubbly, my Big Aussie friend. Now, to find some Peeps to go with…

The Little Dog That Could…Fly.

It has been a long couple weeks in DuncanDes land, as all of us are adjusting to a life without out little Frenchie girl.  But, if Lucy taught us anything, it is to live life to its fullest, to get out of the armchair and into the yard (or even better, the mountains or canyons)…to snork in the flowers and crawl in the new grass, and above all – love your pups and people as much as you can.  Lou, we miss you so much, but you as always, would be right.

Would you like to share your supper?

So on the note of doing things you love, how about an update of Dunc’s Running Contacts?

Image by Great Dane Photos, 2012, used with permission.

Duncan, Desmond, Angus and I spent the weekend at the BARC Spring NADAC trial this past weekend.  I couldn’t think of a better place to be, and NADAC courses are beautifully made for pushing the speed on our running contacts.  That was our goal for the weekend:  Fast.  Happy.  And Confident.  I’d say we were successful.

Duncan and I have been working on his running contacts for about a year now.  I don’t admit to being the most diligent at working these throughout our trialling season last year, so it’s been a long road.  Last fall, I started to see progress, and began to push him in trials, moving from a barely managed run-through-the-contact-please-don’t-jump hope for the best method to the independent contacts in this weekend’s video.   We’re still not done, still have yet to work full height at home, but through trial and error (and a pile of cookies) he’s learning to find his striding on his own.  And as a result, instead of Shy Dunc, we have Super Confident Fly over the Apex Duncan, showing more speed throughout the entire course.

While true running contacts aren’t very common in my area yet, I know the word is out and there are several good agility folks contemplating training them.  While I am in no way an expert, I have whacked away at this project for many moons, and have learned a thing or two along the way.  In my finite wisdom, here is what I have figured out:

1)  Running contacts, true running contacts (with no management) are a lot of time and effort.  Prepare for many months of foundation training, trial and error, and a steep learning curve no matter what method you choose.  Two on/two off is a heck of a lot clearer as a criteria, but if you have good reasons, RCs can be the right choice.

2) If retraining a dog who had stopped contacts, prepare for failure in the ring.  If you are currently trialling, you’ll lose some Qs while you both figure it all out.

3) Running contacts are not just for World Team competitors.  I chose RCs because Duncan found stopping at the bottom of the contacts to be a real bummer, and I wanted to find a better way to keep his motivation high.  We are learning Sylvia Trkman’s method, because she recognizes RCs can be highly motivating for tentative dogs and drivey dogs alike.  I think this may be the case for all the other great RC training methods out there, but Sylvia is highly supportive of all speeds and size of dog, which was important to me.

4) During early training, a pivotal moment was being told we didn’t need RCs because Dunc wasn’t yet confident enough to run the contacts full out.  Nothing digs me in deeper than being told I can’t do something, and I’m even more stubborn when told Dunc can’t do it.  Inspiration can be found in random places…take it, run with it, and believe in your dog.

5) No matter what criteria you choose for your contacts, if you believe it’s right for you and your dog as a team, then go for it.  Deciding to abandon a 2o2o and train a RC was a leap of faith for Dunc and me, and maybe I was just stubborn enough, and Dunc trusting enough to make it work.  We still have a ways to go, but so far, so good.

Photo by Randy Gaines

It’s been a heck of an adventure, full of jumps and leaps and finally, YES finally, feet down a little more often than not. I couldn’t have chosen a better teammate to learn with.  Duncan is truly the Little Dog That Could.

A Full Helping of Nationals with a Side of Awesome

Duncan and I returned from AKC Agility Nationals in Reno early this week.  After working all last year to earn our points to go, I wondered if would be worth it.  In a word – absolutely.  It was most definitely worth the time, the effort and the trip.

We arrived on Thursday to find three identical courses set on the floor of the rodeo arena.  (With a fourth course set in an adjacent arena in another building).  At that moment, gazing across the immense space, I realized what a huge deal this was, and was simply happy to be there, having earned the opportunity to run here with Duncan.

Thanks to Donna for taking this picture when I didn't!

There was a lot to learn the first day…mainly how to get to the gate on time!  With about 170 dogs in our 12″ jump height, we had three walk throughs, with a big crowd in each 8 minute walking group.  That meant that I rarely saw the lines of obstacles, simply because there was always someone in front of me, walking their course.  More than once when actually running, I saw a line of jumps only to wonder if that was the correct direction…because that was the first time I’d seen it clearly!  I was impressed with that many people on the course at once, most were very polite, with no major crashes.  With one small exception…you know who you are Sheltie-lady.  I felt no sadness watching your pup go flying to an off-course jump, while Duncan nailed it.  Listening to an Ipod while walking the course may maintain your zen-like sense of concentration, but it really sucks for the twelve other people trying to walk right behind you…

Meanwhile, Duncan was handling the crowds and the arena with finesse.  I was most impressed with his ability to walk through the dozens of dogs and across the massive arena while squeaking with joy.  He took it all in, shrugged and his look asked me plainly “it’s just another trial…mama, why are you so excited??”

But back to the main event – running!  Friday was Time 2 Beat, basically a practice run.  Duncan ran beautifully, nice, solid and fast, with no issues.  Good thing he had his brain together because I used up all of my energy trying to figure out how to get in the ring.  We were given tags with UPC codes to attach to our leashes.  As the dog before us crossed the start line, they would scan your tag.  Fantastic for knowing which dog was running, terrible for handler focus!  But the cool part was that on my way back to the crating area, I could scan our tag and find out our time and score…immediately.

They also had the run order updating in the crating area, which was a 5-8 minute walk from the rings, and in a separate building.  This was so helpful in knowing when to leave for the rings without having too much time waiting in a crowd ring-side.

Early Saturday, Duncan and I got to meet the other 11 Canine Partners running in the NAC.  They brought us together for a group photo, and I met several amazing teams who we cheered on through the finals.  That day, we ran JWW and Standard (sans table).  Dunc had a lovely JWW, and his Standard was again fast and happy.  I would throw my  support into a campaign to eradicate the boring table from the Standard courses…Dunc loved it!  After two combined runs, Duncan was sitting somewhere around 70th place Saturday night.

Sunday we ran hybrid.  I will admit to doing a crash course in what hybrid was the night before.  Basically, take the table and dogwalk from a Standard course, and there you go…hybrid.  And finally…we got the Nationals course that I’d been training for.   Our three previous courses were great, but not the technical monsters I’d expected to find at the NAC trial.  All three early courses flowed fairly well.  Sunday morning’s hybrid changed that.  At first glance of the course map, I counted three front crosses in the first five obstacles.  A huge smile came across my face.  Now THIS is nationals!!  While Duncan may not have the most speed on course, he is consistent.  When the courses go all twisty, he really shines.

And shine he did.  His speed was steady off the line and built through the run.  He ran beautifully for me all weekend, and that last run just was the icing on the Dunkie cake.  After we crossed the line, I spent a moment on the arena floor with my boy, taking it all in.  We ran 4/4 runs clean.  He ran happy in the most chaotic environment he’d ever been in.  And not only had he earned his way to Nationals, he’d run an amazing four runs there.

When the final standings came in, Duncan finished his three cumulative runs in 36th place, out of 171 dogs.  I am so very proud of how brave, how happy and how amazing this little boy of mine can be.

Even better?  How great everyone from Idaho and Utah did!  Our fantastic traveling partner, Muligan also went 4/4, earning 30th place in the 12″ overall.  And our friends in 12″ P and 20″ really rocked, too.

Watching the challenger and finals rounds was amazing…I witnessed some beautiful handling, and fantastic teams.   Des and I have our work cut out, but I’m definitely inspired!

Challenger's Walk Through

Overall, the experience for me was all about the people and dog friends.  My Team Little Dog partner and I had a great trip, and a great trial.  I cheered for our Idaho/Utah friends, because no matter the standings, simply running there was an achievement.  Once again, I’m simply proud to be part of this crazy dog person world…these are my people, and we are honored to be a part of it.

Duncan and I got to run together…in a National trial.  That’s all.  And that’s amazing!