• jess

Lessons from 1 week as a Cerebellar Hypoplasia single dogmom

For over a year I’ve been trying to get a dog.

Yes, I know, there are millions of needy dogs to choose from - what is the “trying” I speak of? How does this take a year? Well, I’m an emotional motherfucker with a heavy shame complex, back the fuck off.

Believe me when I say that it took this long to:

1) let go of my last dog (best fucking friend) who was ripped from me during a breakup

2) get over my conviction that no one or no thing deserves my intermittent shittery

3) be able to look at adoptable dogs without sobbing {actually, this hasn’t stopped}

Then, one day I got brave enough to download PetFinder and cry all night while I looked at potential friends. Almost immediately, I saw Archie. And I fucking fell in love.

This cute little fucker was everything. Such a sweet face, such an incredible story, such a touch little dude with a strong spirit. He’s the right size, partially the right breed, the right colors… and he even has the adorable white eyebrows that my last dude had, too.

Plus, he was the classic “underdog” that absolutely tears my heart in two. I’ve never wanted to just go out and adopt an adorable puppy - I’ve always wanted to give a home to the dog that no one else wants.

Ya see, Archie has Cerebellar Hypoplasia. He uses a wheelchair to get around and the prognosis for improvement is unknown. I started doing research. Recovery with CH is highly individual and depends on an assortment of factors; genetics, nutrition, age, and physical therapy attempts, to name a few.

As I considered whether or not these special needs would fit into my busy daily schedule and penchant for hiking a million times a week… I cried some more, saved all his pictures, and then chickened out. How could I ever think that I could offer this pup everything he needed? Lord knows, I love animals and have taken care of ALL of them… but I also get overwhelmed and don’t take care of MY DAMN SELF sometimes. How could I?

But I didn’t stop thinking about Archie.

And then, well, a month later a desperate plea hit my email inbox. Archie’s shelter needed to find him a new foster, and it needed to happen weeks ago. You fucking KNOW I flew over to that foster application and filled it out with reckless abandon. Sorry references, telling you retroactively that you’re going to be getting some calls. I was going to foster this fucking dog and find out how we did together, you just watch me.

Not to say “of course,” but... of course I was approved for fostering. If you want someone with animal experience, you’re looking at her. I followed up and hounded them about this little guy, and about a week later, I met Archie. Three days after that, I picked him up and brought him home to see how we got along at my mom’s little horse farm.

Instructions? Next to none. Medical records? Nope. Equipment or professional resources to aid in his physical therapy? Nothing but a broken wheelchair. They were ready to get the fuck rid of him, and there was no time for pesky preparations.

And so, the experiment began.

Lessons from 1 week as a Cerebellar Hypoplasia single dogmom

What I’ve learned so far about caring for a Cerebellar Hypoplasia dog. Week One.

Big surprise, there isn't very much information about CH dogs out there on the internet. Besides finding out what it is, you're hard-pressed for many answers about how to deal with it and give them a good life.

Plus, I think a lot of folks see cute buddies in wheelchairs and have an "awww" response that doesn't include realistic expectations. This is how Archie has already been adopted, fostered, and returned several times in the past 6 months.

So fuckit - writing time.

Here's what I know so far, for anyone considering a cerebellar hypoplasia dog or cat. Bitch, it ain't a walk in the park, but it is rewarding when things are going right.

They move like drunken toddlers.

DO NOT ever think that a CH dog is going to be akin to a stuffed animal that just needs wheels to get around. You will be bringing that dog back to the shelter in 2 hours if you assume that being handicapped means they don’t try to get around. They do not have two speeds; 0 to wheelchair. They want to do everything in between.

Is Archie fucking adorable? YES. Is he a constant handful? YES, Motherfucker, YES.

I am not kidding, I literally can’t take my eyes off of him unless he’s in a toddler’s playpen. If I do, we’re running the risk of him falling down and violently thrashing across the floor as he tries to regain his footing. Which, he dramatically fails at. Trust me when I say, you don’t want to see it. It is mortifying. It is dangerous. It will make you sob.

Because of his CH, Archie has terrible muscle coordination and balance. His wheelchair helps him to get around happily, but he can’t live in the thing. Even if it wasn’t falling apart, he’s prone to getting sores, disfigurement, and bad habits from relying entirely on the mobility cart.

This dude cannot stand up, sit up, or walk on his own at this point. Fuck, he can barely lay on the floor sometimes. But that seriously does not stop him from trying with a vengeance. He gets his ass up off the floor and flings himself in whatever direction his uncoordinated limbs take him. When he loses his balance (immediately) he can’t regain it. He throws himself across the floor like a fish out of water, smacking into the ground and anything around him. Even in his heavily padded areas, he runs the risk of smashing his little mouth on something or tangling up his legs. It’s awful.

Even in his chair and playpen, Archie needs to be watched. Sometimes his muscles just seize up and he fucking rolls away. Sometimes he hits a bump and his cart starts to flip over (again, that shit is breaking). Sometimes he manages to do somersaults in his crib and he appears trapped with his head in a corner.

Believe me when I say… IT IS LIKE HAVING A TODDLER. You WILL find yourself obsessively staring at them. You WILL feel unable to take care of your own basic needs. You WILL watch in horror, over and over again, as they nearly kill themselves like it's their MF job. They are like toddlers.

They need help with almost everything

Sweet Archie… he tries so hard. He wants to be a normal dog. But he can’t do most of the things that other animals do yet. As if the flailing and suicide attempts aren’t enough… there’s everything else.

I mean, at 7-8 months old, we’re still working on getting food and water into his mouth without help. Sure, he can eat solid foods and lap up water, but his instability and lack of muscle coordination means 1) he can’t get food INTO his mouth without slamming his nose all over the ground/bowl and 2) he almost drowns himself in a water bowl when he’s bobbing (intention tremors) his head and tipping forward with his incredible lack of balance.

To make matters more difficult, Archie spent a LOT of time in his wheelchair at a prior foster home. This means, he almost-exclusively ate and drank in the chair. THIS means, he doesn’t realize that he can’t lean forward and let a harness support his entire weight while he bops his food and water dish. Without the chair, he leans forward with no counterbalance, his whole head goes in the dish, and he drowns.

So, I’m trying to break him of the chair-eating habit by teaching him to lay down for stability and self-control. When he sees his food or water coming, though... he tries to stand up every single time. Which means we have to go through the wild flailing before he’ll settle down and eat. Even then, he needs to be supervised to keep things kosher. Working on it.

Going potty? Still needs improvement and special accomodation. He’s definitely a puppy, so it’s a challenging work-in-progress. Sticking him in a wheelchair every time I suspect he has to go? A bigger challenge.

At night, we’re still relying on diapers to get through 7-8 hours without a peepee break. At least we’ve gotten to the point of sleeping soundly, rather than waking up and rocking the crib at 1am. In the morning, I have to leap out of bed, carry him up a flight of stairs, and run him outside before he starts leaking. Picking him up to get to our destination doesn’t help with the bladder pressure. Fiddling with a support harness or wheelchair while he waits is also a no-go. It’s wakeup and fucking GO - I’ve been peed on too many times already.

In all moving scenarios, Archie needs a lot of help. He can’t even scoot himself across the floor without causing a ruckus and nearly hurting himself. He literally flings himself around just to switch the way he’s laying down or to get closer to a toy on the floor, rather than knowing how to crawl. We have padding everywhere and try to build in traction-lending surfaces so he does less wild thrashing around when his legs go in different directions. But it’s still heart-stopping.

The car? Oh, it’s also challenging. Even with 3 tethers, he was managing to lose his balance and stick his legs in unsafe places. You can’t blame the guy; he has no balance normally, let alone in the back of a vehicle. The solution? Ordered a sweet backseat dog-hammock-cover that has zip up sides to keep his legs from falling into the crevices between the seat and the doors. Between the three seat tethers (one on each headrest, one from the seatbelt on the bottom) and the fabric “basket,” he seems to be doing a lot better.

There are many complications in just teaching him to be a dog. And it requires a lot of attention to keep him in good physical condition.

But they are mentally "all there."

Don’t get me wrong, Archie is perfectly fine mentally. He’s truly such a smart, attentive, focused boy. He is part cattle dog, afterall!

Archie does normal dog shit, outside of his mobility. He talks when he needs something. He chases you and gets the zoomies. He likes nomming on soft things and toys. He interacts normally with our other dog. He responds to words and commands. He watches other animals and wants to catch cars on the street.

He also knows how to be a master manipulator like other dogs. Archie will feign being helpless to get an easy way out. He will stand in front of a garden hose and cry until you scoot his chair over the tiny obstacle, even though you've seen him do it himself 100 times. He will pretend he can't push himself up the tiny incline to get back on the patio. He will over-rely on you for leaning and support, instead of standing on his own feet. He will refuse to walk in his wheelchair if you raise it up to make it more challenging for his front leg muscles.

Archie is present and he is wily. Seems to me that there's nothing wrong with his brain box, other than his cerebellar region. He's a remarkable boy.

They need special environments

So, since they're always trying to kill themselves... CH dogs need some special conditions.

I've already mentioned Archie's playpens that keep him alive. These are the pop-up vinyal and mesh playpens that are meant for infants and toddlers. The playpens give him support so he can flop around without banging his head on anything hard. He can also use the walls to practice standing and sitting on his own, which he seems to enjoy.

We have extra padding on the top and bottom of the playpen to keep him even safer. I put something grippy on the bottom so his feet aren't sliding across the slick vinyl fabric. I'm using rugs with floor grips, then covered with a thick dog bed for more comfort. Around the top of the playpen, I've affixed strips of foam and fabric padding for horse leg wraps so he can't whack his face against the metal support bars.

Besides the playpens, he needs large areas to practice being a dog. For this, it's recommended to use baby playpen panels to create an enclosure. Set up the panels with bracing on the outside so when they inevitably (and they WILL) go flying into the panel, the entire playpen doesn't collapse. Also cover the panels with blankets and pillows for thrashing comfort.

Lastly, invest in some foam mattress toppers. Put them EVERYWHERE. Archie gets up and moves when you least expect it; the best case scenario is having something soft to break his fall. Even when he's in your arms, he's a split second away from eating shit (and taking you down with him).

I can also recommend yoga mats for extra grip and cushion. Wood and tile floors are not going to work for these special friends. They need somewhere to put their feet with stable traction - rugs are great, but also can be too slick for their toes to get grip. Yoga mats seem to help a lot, I put them where foam mattress pads don't fit.

There is a ton of physical therapy you can do at home

Vet bills are expensive. Physical therapy is even more costly. What can you do to help these cerebellar pets learn how to walk? Luckily, a ton of stuff.

Archie is lucky to have his wheelchair - it really has helped with his walking motion and ability to semi-coordinate his muscles. He knows how to walk, but he needs to practice doing it. The next challenge for him is balance and properly walking.

By that, I mean, he needs to build strength in his front legs so he's not "knuckling" all the time. This is a dog's ability to turn their feet the wrong way, so they're walking on the curled tops of their toes rather than the pads of their feet. He also tends to "wrist slap," as I've been calling it. Instead of walking with his legs totally straight, his lower leg joints bend down and outwards so he's making ground contact with his "wrists" rather than the tips of his toes. He gets around GREAT like this, but it isn't building all the fine muscle coordination he needs through his legs to walk without his cart one day.

The solution? There are leg braces... but they fall the fuck off, as you might imagine. We're trying Ace bandage wraps to keep his legs straight and teach him proper form, instead.

Additionally, when his chair is raised up appropriately {when it's not broken and falling over} I can force him to walk on his tip-toes rather than doing the wrist-slap. He hates it because it's much harder for him, but it's necessary to get the right muscles built up. The next process is to hang a weight off the back of his chair so the front can safely be raised. Then he can practice using those straight legs while getting some additional resistance training at the same time.

Hydrotherapy is another big one. We haven't gotten there yet, but getting into a pool is supposed to be huge. I've even been told that you can set up a regular kiddie pool and just make them walk through water in their chairs to build muscle. We will be trying this as soon as the weather cooperates again.

Walking in a support harness to build balance and strength is another huge step. Archie loves trying to tool around on his own, so I have to be ready to give him support at any point. We're working on walking without the wheelchair, with my hands and legs loosely keeping him balanced when he starts to toddle. I like to put him in between my legs so I can use both arms to support his front harness, while my legs keep his back end moving in the right direction in case of flopping. It's an awkward sight to behold.

If dogs don't know the correct motion for walking yet, you may have to manually move their legs to create the muscle memory for the movement. This can be done while they're laying down or sleeping, even. However, it's helpful to do it in an actual walking capacity. I've heard one account of using velcro to strap their back legs to yours, forcing them to take steps, while at the same time supporting them in the front with a harness or sling.

If you can afford it, there are professional therapy measures you can take. I've heard over and over again about acupuncture being a huge help, as well as ultrasonic therapy. Personally, I don't have the cash for such spa treatments at this point, but I would really like to try them out when the funds are available.

They have CH quirks

There’s more to CH than continual falling down and flailing. Commonly, there’s the bobbing, the intention tremors, and the shakes.

Let me be clear, Archie isn’t a “severe” case of CH. Some dogs and cats weave and bob their heads nonstop. Some continually shake like they’re vibrating across the floor. Some haven’t learned the proper motion for walking and can’t stand up on their own at all.

On the other hand, Archie is generally a pretty normal looking dog when he’s stably standing or laying down. He has some mild head bobs when he’s especially focused or excited. His eyes “flicker” sometimes when he’s particularly stoked. Otherwise, he’s just a doofy puppy.

But his biggest quirk is the shake-stiffen-blastoff.

Every so often Archie seems to get overstimulated by his intention to move or something exciting, at which point he suddenly shakes his head and body like a normal dog would when shaking off water… but the subsequent behavior is not normal. The next move is for his body and legs to stiffen. His legs stick straight out like arrows and he’s momentarily paralyzed, essentially. He looks around when it’s happening and he appears to be fine, but he can’t move his body for a few seconds. After that? He fucking explodes with action potential! He’ll go shooting off in one direction or another like a rocket… and then, the flailing starts.

I’ve learned to grab him as soon as he gets a certain look on his face - the pre-shake. I hold him still and make sure he’s going to be safely grounded whenever he stiffens up (he will fall flat on his face) and subsequently goes flying. It’s almost an instinct already. And somehow, the shakes seem to be decreasing in frequency and intensity.

They are so fucking happy and grateful.

Archie is a goddamn happy boy. All the time. He has a goofy, tongue-lolling look on his face 90% of the day. The other 10% he’s staring at things in amazement or giving you the loving puppy dog eyes.

Something about him feels special and soulful. Other CH moms have said the same thing to me about their dudes. It seems to be universal - maybe they know that they’re getting a special shot at life, when otherwise they would be easily euthanized.

Apparently some people feel as though CH animals should just be put down. I want them to know, despite the hard times, these resilient friends are SO happy to be alive. They don't realize anything is wrong with them. They don't pity themselves. They don't know any different.

If they can be mobile with the help of a human or wheelchair, they should be given the life they deserve.

The CH community is incredibly supportive

You know how much community support matters to me? Well, there is an online community for CH parents. Facebook and social media are bustling with new and experienced owners, looking for tips on physical therapy and offering help to ameteur care-takers.

In the past few days I’ve joined pet-specific CH Facebook groups, spoken for over an hour on the phone with a “famous CH mom,” and gotten new follows to his social media profiles thanks to the new connections. Everyone is so kind and loving; truly just desperate to share the information they have and help every pet possible. I may have given up by now without the connecting words and advice.

{Weird connection - that “famous CH mom” is also a writer who works with trauma-informed topics! What. Even.}

... And that's a good thing, because shelters are NOT.

What have I learned about animal shelters in the past week? They... don't really give a fuck.

Unfortunately, my experience has been paralleled by many other CH fosters and moms. It seems as though moving them out the door is priority #1, rather than providing the care and resources they need.

In my experience, I haven't been able to get any help with Archie - literally, they haven't given me even basic information or resources to help with his condition. With his broken wheelchair, for example, they have not stepped in to offer any sort of assistance to repair or replace it. They haven't even answered my emails requesting the $70 necessary to get him replacement parts and a new harness. The kicker is, they didn't even provide the wheelchair in the first place; his first foster figured out how to fund the purchase.

Additionally, they don't offer Archie extra medical care through their facility or partners. They haven't set him up with one of their animal behaviorists to help learn basic dog commands. They didn't even bother to have him neutered before sending him out the door, and I had to fight the for flea, tick, and heart worm treatments. When it comes to getting him help or resources, they can't even be bothered to publicize his needs through their social media.

In essence... they are out to make another "success" story out of rapid-fire adopting him, regardless of where he ends up or for how long. In hindsight, this makes sense based on the number of animal adoptions they complete each day. Also, the number of fosters and adopters that Archie, himself, has already experienced at 7mo.

Thank god, good people exist out there who ARE willing to help. I've had FAR longer conversations with them than the 5 minutes I've been able to speak to anyone at his shelter. They report that they've had the same experience; CH dogs just get dumped by the shelters who promise to help them.

They really can make progress.

Motherfuckers, I’m not kidding. This dog is already making enormous strides with his learning.

Since he arrived one week ago, he’s been taking steps on his own when least expected (up to 4-5!). He’s learned how to sit with minimal support. He’s scooting around in his cart, across the entire farm, like a fucking pro. He’s been figuring out how to make positional changes while laying down without flailing everywhere. He’s learned how to use the sides of his playpen to sit and stand up. He’s been much happier and calmer in the car. He’s happily accepting water without projecting himself backwards like I’m trying to waterboard him. He’s developed an appetite unlike what his prior foster described. He’s sleeping through the night and doing his best to hold his pee until we’re outside.

And this motherfucker has definitely gained weight, somehow. I’ve been carrying him all over the fucking place - there’s definitely a difference between 40lbs and 45lbs when you’re my dimensions. I have to guess that it’s muscle weighing him down, because he hasn’t grown larger... Hopefully he’s just getting slowly but surely stronger with all our trips outside and laps around the property.

Seeing him make any progress is worth all the effort. The sleepless nights. The pee-soaked pants. The stress, heartbreak, and frustration. The showerless days (it’s me, what’s the difference, anyways).

Fuck, ya'll, I just hope I continue getting the opportunity to work with him. The shelter is breathing down my neck to send him on his way and I'm not sure what's going to happen next. I disagree with their MO to keep relocating him at this tender age, but I'm not able to do anything about it.

I want to see where this experiment goes - whether he becomes MY forever fur friend or I can get him to the point where he fits into another family’s lifestyle. Either way, I’m going to keep doing the best I can do. Trying not to let it get me down, so I can be there with a happy face to match this dude's.

Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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