I can’t deny it. I am hopelessly devoted to Australian Shepherd dogs. Loyal, energetic, fun-loving and drop-dead gorgeous, I can’t imagine life without our two, Aby and Max. The pair of them share the same papa, but their personalities couldn’t be more different.
Max, the little bro by a handful of months, spent his puppyhood giving meaning to the term accident-prone. If there were a ditch nearby, he’d fall in it. Put him on a horizontal surface, and he’d fall off, and water? That’s another story altogether.
Max loves water. With a supreme absence of finesse, Max hurls himself with gay abandon at anything wet, regardless of obstructions, known, or otherwise. Puddles, lakes and plain old mud, he’s right in there.
This carefree attitude to life has inevitably got Max into lots of fixes. I can’t even remember the number of times I took him to be patched up at the vet during his first year.
Adult life hasn’t matured Max much, and you know what? Aside from the self-harming incidents, I’m glad. Oh, and he’s also a smiler, I love that cheesy grin.
What her brother lacks in subtlety, Aby makes up for in a multitude of ways. Fleet-footed, observant and a proper twinkle toes when it comes to water, Aby is elegant in posture and demeanour. She is sensitive, deadly earnest and always dying to please.
Aby is the pack pioneer. She is the one who runs ahead, making sure all’s well. Max, well, think Velcro, and that’s my boy. His preference is to stick close to me, just making sure I’m alright. It’s an endearing characteristic, which is apt to be forgotten in an instant.
The whiff of a wild boar, the velvet footfall of a deer, perhaps a bounding hare. These are among the temptations which cause Max to abandon his station. Never for long, though. One of the great things about a shepherding dog is that they always come back. I’m very grateful for this herding ism.
Lockdown has been punishing for so many folks, but we can’t complain. The privilege of owning a domaine here in France with a sizable lump of land has meant our walks are not compromised.
It was about a month ago when I took the dogs on one of our favourite treks. We were walking through the forest, heading towards a stream bordered by a big meadow. The dogs love to wallow and then dry off with a strenuous game of tag in the long grass afterwards.
Aby was way ahead, as usual, bounding gracefully over fallen trees, deftly negotiating uneven ground. I soon lost sight of her. My attention was grabbed by the awful sounds of Max feasting on a pile of poo close-by. It’s an unsavoury and enduring habit.
I was halfway through my regular lecture when I spotted Aby threading through the trees in the distance. She was coming towards us but looked different. Something was wrong. Breaking onto open ground she stumbled, faltering badly. Suddenly it became clear. Aby was staggering on three legs, dragging her fourth behind.
Horrified, I called to slow her down, but she was trying her best, determined to reach us as quickly as possible. She stopped, sides heaving with effort, her offside rear leg tucked up. I checked for visible injuries, but there were no apparent swellings or thorns in her pads. I couldn’t find anything wrong.
Non-plussed, I wondered whether it had been a superficial knock. Aby tried to walk. There was no whine or yelp, but she immediately lifted the leg, which looked wobbly. It was evident she could not weight-bear.
We were a fair distance from home. There was no possibility I was going to risk further injury by attempting to walk back. Thank goodness for mobile phones. I called Jack, who came to our rescue in the truck.
Over the next few days, Aby rested. No gallops, no walks. Frustrating though it was for her, we were hoping she had twisted the knee, and it would repair itself. After ten days, there was a positive change.
Aby walked without limping but still couldn’t run. Sadly, this was as good as it got. Every time she trotted, up came that leg. We had tried everything. Lockdown or not, I had to call the vet.
Like so many businesses around the world, lockdown has taken its toll on French veterinary practices. Our vets continue to dispense medications, but appointments are limited to serious or emergency cases only. It’s understandable, and it’s due to the present circumstances.
I called the clinic and was put on hold for ten minutes. When the veterinary nurse replied, I could hear at least three other phones ringing. I would soon find out why. I described Aby’s symptoms and was put on hold again while she spoke to the bone specialist. She came back on the phone.
“Madame ‘aslam, you must bring Aby to see Docteur Puiffe on Friday. She will need X-rays, so do not feed her before the appointment.”
“Lovely, thank you very much.”
“When you come, do not get out of your car. You must call us to say you have arrived.”
“Oh, I see.”
“You must not park your car close to another client.”
“Okay, I understand.”
The day of our appointment was hot. The shade is scant at our vet, so I opened the car doors while we waited. Aby and I watched as two other cars drove up, everyone wearing masks and gloves, all parking a respectful distance away.
Veterinary nurses collected pets, leaving their owner behind. After examination, the vet returned with the family loved one. Dog leads passed via outstretched arms and cat boxes placed in a safe zone. Diagnoses were delivered and medicines dispensed along with the bill.
As money flew in the general direction of the vet, I saw several coins roll across the car park. These were awkward transactions; card payments were more manageable. A solitary credit card machine sat on a chair in the clinic doorway. After the number was punched in, the plastic keypad cover was immediately sprayed.
Out came the veterinary nurse again, this time with armfuls of tablets for owner number one. She pointed at me. It seemed we were next. Docteur Puiffe re-appeared with such a broad smile even his surgical mask couldn’t hide it. Our dogs love him.
“Bonjour Madame ‘aslam, please walk Aby up and down so I can watch her gait.”
I did so. She tried to run.
“Ah, I see. Yes, she has a knee injury. Thank you. Leave her with us and come back in two hours.”
I returned early evening and paced up and down in the car park while I waited for the verdict. Docteur Puiffe brought Aby and bad news.
“I am afraid Aby has ruptured her posterior ligament. There is instability in her knee cap, which is dislocating, you may have heard a clicking sound?
“It is internal damage. I think she also has a tear to her anterior cruciate ligament.”
Shocked at the severity of the injuries, I listened as Docteur Puiffe explained the recommended prosthetic surgery. All conducted in French; he was very patient as I asked a multitude of questions to make sure I understood correctly. It was a big decision to take.
“Don’t worry; take time to decide. Two days, two weeks, it will not make much difference to the joint, but if you leave it much longer, Aby risks damaging the knee further.”
It had been a surreal experience.
I returned home feeling wretched for our poor lass. She had never been ill, never had an injury before and then this. Had she crashed into a fallen tree trunk? Had a wild boar charged her? I had no idea what could have caused such a severe accident.
Jack and I discussed the options, dithering, trying to make the right choice. They were limited. Do nothing and hope it might repair? If it didn’t, the joint would deteriorate and become arthritic. Or we could go ahead with major surgery, which may be life-altering for such an athletic dog.
I chatted to doggy pals, and we listened to advice from others. It was always the same conclusion. There wasn’t a realistic option at all. Reluctantly, I called the vet to make the appointment. Still incredibly busy, they told me the first surgery opportunity was not for two weeks but would try to fit her in earlier. At 8 pm that evening my phone rang.
“Madame ‘aslam, it is Celine from the vet. We know you are worried about Aby. We have managed to fit her in tomorrow morning. She will be the first patient.”
It’s just as well I wasn’t there. I might have hugged her.
Animal lovers who have been in a similar situation will know all about that agonising wait while their loved family member is undergoing treatment. I spent the whole day faffing around, worrity, trying to find useful things to do. A little early, because I couldn’t stand it any longer, I rushed back to the vet and hung around watching patients come and go.
The nurse came out with reassurances, pills, potions and strict instructions.
“Until we see her again, Aby is only allowed outside on the lead for wees and poos. Then she must rest. Do not allow the bandage to get wet. If there are any problems, let us know immediately. She comes back here to have her stitches out in 12 days when Docteur Puiffe will discuss her rehabilitation with you.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“And now I will get Aby.”
I was still trying to imagine how our agile lass was going to deal with the first period of confinement when the door opened. Out came a snoozy Aby and the biggest bandage in France.
Aby spotted me and towed the cooing nurse across the car park in a mixture of excited whines and confused yelps. Somehow forgetting our confinement protocol, the nurse and I gently gathered Aby up and put her in the car.
And so Aby’s ligament lockdown began.
The first couple of days were tricky. Max bounced around, wanting to play, not understanding why Aby was woozy. The cats took a different view. One look at that fat bandage caused all three of them to inflate in hairy horror. They decided we’d brought a UFO into the house and fled.
We have settled into a routine now. On good weather days, Aby lies outside in the shade where she can watch outdoor activities. Rainy days have posed challenges. I pop her microfleece on and use a plastic bin bag with clothes peg buttons to cover her dressing. It’s not a great look.
The practicalities were working reasonably well until Max decided Aby’s covered leg was a lamp post. Don’t ask me why I have no idea. It was another telling off for Max for an illegal pee, and a toothy apology in return. I bought a new stock of bin bags.
We’re now into week two. Aby is much stronger, perfected the hop, and coping brilliantly with her appendage. She may be miserable at not being allowed to go for walks but is typically grateful for the extra cuddles she gets for being such a brave girl.
Looking back on it now, I’ll admit it’s been a bit of a nightmare, and mostly for Aby. We don’t know whether she will ever regain full mobility, but we’ll do everything we can to ensure she does.
And we’re certainly not going to feel sorry for ourselves. How could we in the current climate? The fact is, countless others are struggling with problems far, far more severe than ours. One thing is clear, though, we couldn’t be more grateful to our vets. They are working incredibly long hours to care for our animals. To us, they are true superstars.