Tuesday, June 16, 2009


On June 5-7, we made a road trip to Greenfield, MA with the three Border Collies in tow, in order to compete in the CPE Agility Nationals competition. All in all, it was a successful weekend and great vacation, with all of us achieving some goals, making new friends, and having a good time.

The highlight of the weekend, however, was Tristan placing in two standard runs at Nationals, and receiving the High in Standard Veteran award for his level. It was a proud and poignant moment when they read his name off at the late-night awards ceremony Sunday. Tristan has had quite a road to this point – he is a dog with the drive, determination and work ethic of a champion, but sadly with a body that has often limited him. I’ve frequently been moved and inspired by what this dog has taught me about strength and courage, and this weekend felt like the reward for all that he has been through.

When Tristan was about a year and a half old, he started to become intermittently lame on his right rear leg during exercise. He would often come up non-weight-bearing after running with us or playing flyball. We rested him, tried various therapies, and consulted with various vets and specialists. In April 2003, he was diagnosed with a partially torn cranial cruciate ligament in his right knee, and underwent a Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy Surgery. We were told he would have six weeks of strict crate rest, and then could slowly begin normal activity again. We were also told that a TPLO would give him the best chance for returning to performance eventually.

The six week recovery went fine, and he appeared to have healed beautifully. Unfortunately, as we started trying to take him for short leash walks again, we found he could not tolerate even a 5-10 minute stroll up the block without coming up lame. Thus began a year-long struggle to figure out what was going on with him. To make matters worse, he was not only coming up lame on his surgery leg, but would at times limp on his left rear leg or his front legs.

For months we sought out second opinions from other orthopedic specialists. We had complete spinal and hip x-rays taken and reviewed by surgeons and radiologists. We took him for a neurological evaluation. We had a second surgery performed to remove the hardware in the knee. Unfortunately, all this was before there was much interest or knowledge in veterinary physical therapy and rehabilitation. We only really had veterinarians at our disposal, and they eventually were stumped.

Finally one day I learned of a clinic that had opened a new physical therapy center at their facility, complete with an underwater treadmill. We took Tristan for an evaluation by the PT there, who immediately pointed out that Tristan had lost 40% of his muscle mass on his right leg during his recovery period, and consequently was very weak and was having his whole body thrown off balance.

For three months, we would drop him off at the rehab facility three times a week to spend the day working with their therapists. This meant 4+ hours of driving each day, but the clinic was wonderful about letting me drop him off before they were technically open, and picking him up late after work. We also had several exercises to do with him at home, and Lowell especially was very faithful about making sure T did his “homework.”

Finally the happy day came when the PT noted that his leg had regained its normal muscle mass. Tristan was once again able to go for walks and exercise without lameness. We continued to ease him into higher-impact activities, and in March 2005, almost two years since his surgery, Tristan competed in a flyball tournament again. Eventually we got him back into agility, and had to do a lot of “catch up” work, as he was pretty novice at the time of his initial injury. There were some wild runs at his first few agility trials after his long hiatus, but we ironed out the rough spots, and he has proven to be a very nice-running agility dog.

Tristan only competes in CPE agility, as they have lower jump heights and allow him to run as a Veteran since he turned six years old, meaning he can jump 16” instead of 20”. I have been very grateful that this organization exists, as otherwise I wouldn’t be comfortable asking Tristan to do the heights that would be required of him in other organizations.

Flyball continued to be difficult for T’s body, and he slowed down quite a bit after his surgery so we limited how much we ran him. But in agility, our bionic dog continued to amaze us. He frequently places in competition, and several times has been the fastest dog across all levels to complete a course. He is extremely willing and attentive, and a blast to handle. For a few years, Tristan continued to compete soundly, without injury or lameness.

In June 2008, he and Django competed at CPE Nationals in Mason, MI, and Tristan surprised us by earning Reserve High in Standard Veterans (basically runner-up) in his level. As we made plans to attend 2009 Nationals, we assumed that I would bring Django and Lowell would bring his up-and-coming dog, Maebe. We were proud of Tristan and would continue to run him, but thought Maebe would be the one most likely to shine at a national competition.

Luckily for T, Maebe decided to take about a 6-month break from coming anywhere near the yellow zone on the contact obstacles, and consequently was not eligible for entry in Nationals. Tristan was still holding up well, so we decided in the winter that he could come instead, while we focused on fixing Maebe’s contact issues for next year.

In late winter, after the entries had been sent in, Tristan started limping on his front right leg. We assumed he slipped in our yard, which was an ice field at the time. It took a while to resolve, and we were increasingly worried about him being healed in time to be ready for Nationals. We couldn’t do too much high impact training with him for several months, so Lowell focused intensely on flatwork with him.

By this April, Tristan was moving OK, but seemed a little “off” still. We had been hoping to get him to his flyball ONYX title, but sadly decided to retire him about 4,000 points shy of that milestone. Still, he had earned about 12,000 points since his surgeries, which made us proud as we once thought he would never run again. Flyball just proved too hard on his body though, and he has always been a much better agility dog, so we decided to work on preserving him for that.

In May, Lowell took Tristan for a structural evaluation by Debbie Gross-Saunders, a leading expert in veterinary physical therapy. She noted that he has very limited mobility in his lumbar-sacral area, which may be due to a genetic spinal condition. Though painful to hear, it also explained a lot of Tristan’s ongoing problems over the years. Lowell asked if Tristan should be retired. Debbie responded by asking if Tristan loved agility and lived for it. The answer was an obvious “yes,” so she recommended we keep at it. She gave us some home exercises for strengthening and stretching, and suggested acupuncture to keep him running strong for a couple more years.

Though I admit to being a bit of a skeptic initially, we took him to his first acupuncture appointment a week before Nationals. Right away we thought he was moving much better – was no longer “crabbing” when he ran and seemed quite smooth and balanced.

Feeling optimistic, we headed to Nationals. On the first day, Lowell and Tristan ran the nicest standard course I have ever seen them run. Tristan had barely been on obstacles for months, and hadn’t competed since December, but he did everything perfectly. I don’t think I took a breath the entire time I watched the run – which ended up earning Tristan a third place ribbon.

Tristan continued to do excellent the rest of the weekend. He only had three NQ’s, but two of them were due to Lowell forgetting the courses! In his final run of the weekend – another standard course – I waited anxiously to see how he would finish. We realized that this could be his last time running at a national event, and really wanted to go out on a good note. This run again was virtually flawless – Tristan turned a little wide on one corner, but overall was perfect and earned a fourth place ribbon for that performance.

Do to computer glitches, the awards ceremony was delayed for several hours as results were calculated. We were still camping on site though, so wandered down for the ceremony to cheer for the successful teams. Lowell was stunned to hear Tristan’s name called when they got to the Veterans’ awards (I admit I was less surprised – I knew how great they performed all weekend and thought it might pay off).

Tristan had another acupressure treatment while at the event, and continues to look good. We are optimistic that we are on a good path now to maintaining him physically, and hope to have many more runs with him to come. Still, we know that his body may eventually tell us one day that it is time to ease up, at which point we may try his paw at Rally Obedience. Ironically, the new worry is not so much his knees or back, but rather his eyes. He was diagnosed with juvenile cataracts years ago, and last year our vet noted that they were worsening a bit. She stated that she was “pretty sure he can’t read” as his fine detail vision is probably pretty impaired at this point. In recent months, as I watch Tristan jump I worry that he is not judging his timing as well as he should be, which can indicate vision problems. Then again, yesterday he was tracking a bug moving along the upper part of our living room wall, so he may be doing OK.

It has been a long journey for Tristan, and he has continued to amaze and inspire me over the years. Today his two plaques sit on our mantle as proud reminders every day of his tenacity and heart. I’m grateful that we got to experience this Nationals event with him, and will always be proud of our little dog that doesn’t give up.

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