On His Terms

I met with Benny again a couple of weeks ago. Benny is the 15-year old Border Collie/Springer Spaniel mix who is quadriparetic. You might remember that he and his mom Karen helped Kathy and me come to grips with our decision to start Travis on medication that would certainly increase his quality of life but shorten his time with us.

Benny in his Christmas sweater, looking chipper and enjoying the view.

Benny is close to death and his mom Karen believes in supporting his journey to the Rainbow Bridge through the principles of hospice care, neither encouraging nor discouraging his life’s course to its end. She asked me to visit and massage Benny tonight and having met with Karen and Benny a few weeks ago, I knew he was tired and waiting for his mom to be more ready for him to move on. She’s ready, now it’s up to him.

I went into the session expecting to provide as much energy as Benny requested, prepared to give a little more than I normally would to a client. To my surprise, Benny had no interest in my energy. He was literally reflecting it back, so much so that my forearms tingled with a cold chill. He seemed disappointed that I had assumed I knew what he wanted—and I was disappointed in myself. Cardinal rule: Ask the dog what he’d like before you give it. Never assume you know what’s best. In my haste to provide comfort, I’d rushed in with my idea of care, blinded to his.

Ashamed, I let a tear slide down my face, apologized and waited for Benny to take the lead. As I worked my fingers down his back, I asked Benny quietly, “Where do you want to go?” That was the magic question. He swept me along to a complicated place where I could see what he saw and feel what he felt. He wanted to run. I felt very small, small enough to be riding on his back, holding on to his neck as we made our way to an open meadow. I felt his joy, his playful spirit as we loped through the grass. We were the only beings in sight. In my mind this was the meadow by The Rainbow Bridge.

I began to cry a little more now, tears trickling more readily down my cheeks. While we ran, we talked about the meadow and what it meant. He knew where he was. He let me ask many questions including, “Why not just keep running?” but he happily declined to answer them. By this point in our massage, Benny was panting heavily, chest heaving, tongue hanging out one side. Breathing like he’d been chasing and playing with his pack mates Gus and Krystal. As I worked my way back up to his forelimbs, he made movements to stretch his legs in front of him. His rear limbs made small extending movements, as well, like a dog stretching in the middle of a good nap.

That’s when I finally got it. I was there to prepare him for his first great run. It was not my job to tell him that he could let go, that he was free to run to The Bridge. He already knew that and would go when he was damn good and ready (his words, not mine). It was my job to help him prepare for that sprint. “Stretch me. Help me get those once useless legs ready for the big run.” I changed my technique in midstream, from soothing, calming strokes to more sports performance strokes. He wanted me to treat him like an athlete. “Rev my engine, don’t polish it.”

Confident that after removing my ego from the equation I had finally discovered what Benny really wanted from me, I worked through a short sports massage sequence and ended by stretching all four limbs. He was ready for an agility course or a meadow—his choice. As I completed the final strokes, I made an effort to move into his line of sight, not just so he could see me, but so I could look into his eyes. “I understand. You don’t want my energy, my pity, my sympathy. You want my hands, my skills. You want this to be about you and your journey, not about me and what I want to give.”

By the end of our session, he was trying to sit up in a sphinx position. I wedged a pillow behind his shoulder and held his head up with my palm. He was staring intently at a point about six feet up on the patio door. “What do you see? Can you see the meadow? Are you ready to run?” He continued to stare until I gently laid his head back on the table. As Karen maneuvered him into a carrying position, he looked at me. It was a determined stare. There were no soft words, no thank you’s. It was the look of an athlete staring out from the tunnel, preparing to run out on the field. He was focused. He’s ready.

Benny being measured for his quad cart. Notice he is being supported fully by helping hands at each end.

(Note: On December 23, I measured Benny for a custom quad cart that will allow him to be in an upright, more dog-like position during walks and short periods in the house. Benny is a fighter. Stay tuned for more on this doggedly determined fella.)

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