Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Flora Nightengale

When Nelly came to us at 10 months old, her behavior suggested that she'd been physically mistreated by someone in her previous life. (Surely there's a special circle of hell for people who abuse baby animals.) The vet recommended a routine to accustom her to being physically handled by us, because her health and safety would require that we be able to handle any part of her body in any way we felt necessary. So every day for weeks, I would get down on the floor with her at a time when she was relaxed and resting, and while petting her gently I would handle every part of her body. I'd touch all four feet, getting my fingers in between her pads and nails; I'd rub her whole belly, allowing her to stay in a less threatening position on her side; I'd gently work her joints and spine; and I'd check her teeth, nose, eyes and ears.

And it worked. Whatever happened to her as a puppy, she'll never fully forget it, and she is cautious about her body. I see her stiffen when other people touch her in an overly familiar way, and she will never be the kind of dog who flips over for a belly-rub at the drop of a hat. But she has always stood patiently while we touch and handle her, whether to simply towel her off or to deal with an injury or ailment. After she was hit by a car, we had to put hot compresses on a head wound, three times a day for 10 minutes. She sat in the bathroom, calm as can be, with a hot, dripping washcloth on her head, and a look on her face that said, "you know, this is really, really, odd, what we're doing here, but - you're the leader!"

When we got Toby, he was such a happy, loving dog, we didn't bother to go through this training routine. Big, BIG mistake. He loves being petted, loved, roughhoused - but he hates being handled, and he knows the difference. And since he has seasonal allergies, we've had to do a great deal of remedial work, getting him to allow me to check him all over, every day, for emerging hot spots, and then trim the fur, wash the wounds. Every year when I first bring out the scissors, he flails and snarls as if they're a branding iron. But slowly, carefully, we get to that place where he trusts me, and we sit quietly together while I gently trim back the fur to create a dry, healing space around his burning, itching wounds. It's actually very sweet and intimate, like when I used to sit with Nelly every night and gently go over her whole warm, furry body with my hands.

Toby especially hates having his feet or ears touched. I have always said - if this dog ever has an injury to his foot (as Nelly has twice), we will be in big trouble. Well, that day has arrived. I don't know what started it - if something lodged there or if it's just his allergies - but he's licked a big oozing spot between the pads of one foot, a place nearly impossible to keep dry.

I have informally become the household specialist in veterinary nursing, and if I do say so myself, I've become pretty adept and creative at it. But I've trimmed the fur between his pads, and cleaned and dried repeatedly, and applied various ointments, and put a sock on him, but alas: I've had to resort to the big guns. He just wouldn't leave that foot alone, so he's in the cone. He looks at me like he's being punished, and I try to explain that he isn't, and that in fact, he had a choice in this matter. But I don't think he believes me.

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