Little Legs and Big Heartbreak
The story of a dachshund against the odds.
Everyone thinks their pet is the best dog/cat/goat in the entire world, and that’s because they are. They are a beacon of love and innocence in the tumultuous landscape of life. Many people claim that they didn’t rescue their pet; their pet rescued them. Neither of those are true of my sweet dog, Mister Richmond.
I didn’t rescue him, I was bought him as a gift — retrospectively an irresponsible one — by my ex. A few months later, it was just me and the dog. My new love. In the years since, he has dragged me from the depths of depression, waking me up with licks to the face when I was fighting to ignore daylight. He’s been there looking at me with big loving eyes when I’ve been sad. He was the catalyst for first conversations with people who became some of my best friends. We’ve traveled to five countries, and lived in three. But the biggest thing my dog has taught me is the feeling of real heartbreak.
I didn’t really know anything about owning a pet, and nothing really prepared me for quite how much I would love him. The first time I left him, a couple of days after I got back he had a big swelling on his neck. He was only six months old and I was terrified. I navigated french vets to discover he had an abscess. They drained it, and he was fine. This happened a couple of times over the first couple of years of his life, but once he was out of puppydom, he was fine. A chipper little chap who LOVED people, loved other dogs, and especially loved kids.
We swapped sandy beaches for dewy grass, moving back to England for a couple of years, and he took to that like a duck to water. My sister got a dachshund too, and although they had a little rivalry at first, they eventually cosied up in the same bed. When we took a flight across the Atlantic he was so good that when we deplaned at the other end, people were astounded to see there had been a dog on their flight.
Living in the US has been a huge adjustment for both of us. Attitudes to dogs are different here. Whereas in England and France people keep their dogs on a lead when they need to, to protect the dog from danger, in the US dogs are expected to be on a lead unless in a designated off leash area. I’m not sure whether it’s because of different training, or fear of litigation, but this results in a lot less time frolicking freely for little Richie. On the plus side, we now have a backyard and his domain is fiercely protected.
About a year into living here, he seemed sad. I started to worry that he was lonely. He didn’t seem to like seeing other dogs on our walks anymore. He would pace a lot. We took him to the vet and they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They took x rays, ultrasounds, blood tests. The pacing got worse. He started to cry at night one night, and after I saw him standing with his head pressed against a wall, we raced to the emergency room.
What ensued was the longest, most agonising experience I’ve ever had. He was admitted to neurology and stabilised but we’d have to wait until the morning for him to be examined by the Neurologist. The next few days blurred into one without sleep. I spent countless hours laying on the seats in the hospital staring up at the ceiling fan, numb and helpless.
Finally, after he was strong enough for an MRI and a spinal tap, we could eliminate meningitis, and other scary sounding diseases, only to land on autoimmune encephalopathy. In non-medical speak: his immune system attacked itself and his brain swelled up. It was pushing on his optical stem and he was slowly losing vision.
We had answers to all of the weird behavior: he was startled and threatened by other dogs because he couldn’t see them properly; he was pacing and head pressing because he was in pain. Were those abscesses early in life something to do with this too?
We had answers, but that wasn’t the end. They put him on steroids and pain meds, and immunosuppressants, and he seemed to improve. He came home for a couple of days somewhere in the midst of all of it, but had to be taken back in after some results. He had to gain a little more strength to get treatment that works like low-grade chemo. They discovered he also has a small liver. More meds to mediate that.
Throughout this, my husband Alex and I were fraught with anxiety but holding each other up and staying positive in case Richie could tell. One day, a vet tech said that we really should prepare ourselves for the worst. I broke down.
There are people who have pets in their family, and people whose pets are family. And the former probably think I sound hysterical. I was.
Within my first couple of months of dog ownership I thought my ex had taught me about heartbreak. Now I know that he didn’t teach me a thing. But six years later, the little long dog he left me with did.
However, this is a story of heartbreak, but not grief. It turned out that vet tech was entirely inappropriate, and wrong. My heart broke for the pain he was in, and the fear he might not make it, and the guilt that we hadn’t brought him in sooner. But in the next couple of days, Richie made a ‘miraculous’ recovery, and pulled through.
He’s on seven meds a day, and I still thank Dr Lane every time I look at him. My mended doggy and my broken heart went home.