When symptoms don’t make sense

I’ve discovered I have difficulty the non-linear manifestation of Earl’s dementia symptoms. Some days pass as if he has no cognitive decline whatsoever. Other days, he begins pacing in the early afternoon, his anxiety continuing through the evening. And still other days, I notice a new symptom that has never appeared before, and has yet to return.

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“The fall into illness, the difficulty of the illness itself, the realisation that something is wrong: these things can be accounted for, if not always easily, but everything that happens after we realize we are ill and seek out help can’t be tied up so neatly.” – Fiona Wright, Small Acts of Disappearance

It’s funny how an Australian writer’s collection of essays on disordered eating has inspired  several of my blog posts on dog training. But, as the cliche goes, inspiration comes from unusual places.

I’ve discovered I have difficulty the non-linear manifestation of Earl’s dementia symptoms. Some days pass as if he has no cognitive decline whatsoever. Other days, he begins pacing in the early afternoon, his anxiety continuing through the evening. And still other days, I notice a new symptom that has never appeared before, and has yet to return.

About a week ago, I decided to take Earl for a walk in a new location. After all, mental stimulation and cognitive challenges are supposed to be helpful for senior dogs like Earl. Unfortunately, my idea backfired; he became anxious and confused. He kept wanting to walk in one direction, and one direction only (which happened to be the direction that led away from our home.) I ended up having to carry him back. Heartbreakingly, he was trembling until we reached our familiar walking path. “Great job, dog trainer,” I remember thinking to myself.

It’s so easy to feel a failure when it comes to managing the symptoms of canine cognitive decline.

Of course, Earl quickly resumed his normal behavior once we returned to familiar ground. We’ve even had a few long walks since then without those symptoms. But I find myself remembering how anxious Earl was during that walk, trying to understand why he began feeling that way, and finding myself at a loss at the inconsistency of his symptoms.

Wright’s above quote in Small Acts of Disappearance beautifully summarizes the difficulty of managing a disease after the diagnosis. In the flurry of detecting the problem, educating oneself on the disease, and developing a treatment plan, it’s easy to feel progress. Things appear to move in a linear fashion. It’s only after the diagnosis is given, treatment has started, and the day-by-day life with the disease has begun that the feeling of linear progress disappears. Or, as Wright terms it, “the mundane nature of the process of getting better.”

I still don’t know with certainty why Earl became anxious on our walk last week. And I don’t know whether it will happen again. The same can be said for a myriad of other symptoms that have occurred and might occur in the future. These things can’t be tied up neatly. And it’s a great exercise in mindfulness to be ok with that.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

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