Henry Turns Ten

s626359383_580516_7757Today is Henry’s 10th birthday. I read a blog recently that said we can hope a dog    lives to ten, then every year afterward is a gift.

Henry is a special dog. In a way that makes me think in Henry’s case, the blogger could be right. Henry had a tough ninth year. A few months before that birthday, he was struck with SARDS (Sudden Acute Retinal Degenerative Syndrome). It’s an auto immune condition that caused his immune system to attack and kill his retinas. In the span of about three weeks. (I guess that’s the SUDDEN part.) Then he was completely and totally blind. The Llewellyn setter whose favorite things were to watch birds and run like the wind. Over.

I realize that in the summer of 2015, a blind dog getting to live out his days with us is not big or tragic news. I realized it then, too, and still cried a little almost every day for months. Each day was a new day for Henry—in that every morning surprised him with darkness instead of light. I would hear him wake up and draw in his breath with fear. He was scared, anxious and depressed. We hurt for him so much.

There are only experimental treatments for SARDS. (You can Google it if you’re curious.) We did give big doses of steroids and krill oil a shot. Nothing. SARDS strikes any breed, usually between the ages of six and eight. We knew a lot about dogs and had never heard of it. It’s not as rare as you would like it to be. We were sent to the doggie ophthalmologist to confirm SARDS and rule out a tumor. It was a cruel irony to be pulling for “only” blindness. Still, we cried at the diagnosis, and if I had known how hard it would be for all of us for the weeks to come, I would have cried harder.

Liana (our other, younger rescued setter) caught on pretty fast and helped Henry (and us) so much. Still does. When he got confused in the backyard and called for help, she went running to him, guiding him back to the patio. I saw her once walking behind him with her chin on his rear, guiding him around the car in the carport. I don’t know what anyone of us would do without her. She is living up to her the meaning of her name, “Youthful Guardian.” We can still say, “Go get Bubba” and she does it like it’s her job. Because it is.

In the fall, I was spending the majority of my time working out of town, and at the suggestion of our trainer, Andy Bunn at Star Dogs Charlotte, Chuck took Henry back through Canine Good Citizen and Therapy Dog training. From the onset, Andy had given us the good advice to make sure Henry still knew he was a valued member of the pack and that he would be safe. Taking Henry back through training—giving him a physical and cognitive outlet—was exactly on target. Henry came out of his depression and got happier. He had already learned blind commands, “step up,” “step down,” “watch out,” and “be careful.” Therapy dog re-certification just took what he already had been trained in and gave him a new application. Today, Henry and Chuck go to the Ronald McDonald House in Charlotte and visit with the children and families there. It’s a good place for both of them.

From the onset, Henry did well on the leash, and he would occasionally break into a running stride with us. But whether from a change in gait (a blind dog has to walk carefully) or getting older, or both, he just doesn’t do that much any more. He will trot, and loves his daily walks (or two when the weather cooperates). I did see him a couple weeks ago break into a run for a few strides in the backyard after an invigorating bath. We see a lot of Hopeful Henry in Blind Henry. We went back to the beach this May and he still LOVED it. On our last day, on our last walk, he turned to face the water, and stood for a few minutes just breathing it in. He is still our sweet boy.

There are some new things. Separation anxiety reared its ugly head. And who could blame him? Luckily, as long as Liana is willing to babysit, he’s fine. (And let me take this opportunity to say our next dogs will be crate trained. A crate would have been very helpful in helping Henry.) He tires easily and causes us to wince several times a day when he hits his head or knocks his paw particularly hard. I know it has to hurt even though he just keeps on going. He’s put on weight and his Handsome Henry face is really gray.

I wondered if he would become snippy, like an old, blind dog can do, but no. I think he’s even more mellow. He greets other dogs with complete calm, isn’t startled when someone touches him, and has even tolerated my accidentally stepping or tripping over him in the middle of the night without even a grunt. He loves children, Boz the cat and even our current foster dog, Maisey, who insists on showering him with kisses several times a day. He pretty much takes everything in stride. I guess he figures after what he’s already been through …

So as Henry turns ten, even though it’s not the future we had envisioned, I am grateful he’s made it this far. His courage, resilience, and determination have inspired me to see each day, each year with him as a gift. Because it is.

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