I am ecstatic to report that Alec has not used his doggie wheelchair since June!! He is walking without assistance for up to 1/2 hour walks a few times a day. He has a pronounced limp and needs to wear a shoe to keep him from damaging his paw when we walk outside (his right hind leg will probably never be completely “normal,” but his left leg is pretty much 100%) and because he drags his back toes, the fabric of the shoe wears through really quickly. The shoe is not cheap ($60 for one!), but duct tape can do wonders to keep things from falling apart, so each day I put a new layer of tape over the toes and it seems to be working pretty well. Luckily, a client of his physical therapist donated a couple of these shoes to the rehab center and she in turn donated them to me and Alec, so I am trying to make them last as long as possible. He has not had any toe scrapes or paw issues in some time (knocking furiously on wood!!); that was a recurring problem for awhile and a source of constant worry and stress. But the shoe seems to be working really well to protect his foot and he gets around so well it is just incredible. Recently when I was walking Ali back to the car after one of our river swims (sans shoe – he doesn’t need to wear it on the grass or sand), a gentleman remarked with concern, “I think your dog might have a rock stuck in her paw. She seems to be limping.” I replied, “Actually he was paralyzed not long ago, and is learning to walk again” and I realized, wow – if he can be mistaken for a dog that has nothing wrong with him other than a rock stuck in his paw, he is walking pretty well!!
He is still not allowed to run or get rambunctious on land (it is a balance with which I continually struggle – letting him be a dog and not being overprotective, yet remaining cautious and mindful to prevent further injury), but he loves to chase the ball in the water and this summer has been a blessing. I have taken him swimming in the rivers around Portland at least once, and often multiple times, a week. This is the #1 reason I am sad to see this summer slip away. I took him swimming once per week last winter but it was so cold he could only swim for about 20 minutes, whereas this summer he has been able to swim for unlimited amounts of time. There is an indoor warm water swimming facility in Vancouver, Wash., about 30 miles from Portland, called Unsinkable Dogs that I am going to look into for when the weather turns cold. The tanks look pretty small in the photos on their website, so I’m not sure if he will have room to chase the ball, but I will give it a try. I hate to see his happy days in the water come to an end. Maybe we need to move somewhere with an all-year-around warm climate – just so he can swim everyday! In all seriousness, I probably would move us somewhere warmer if I could - preferably near a pristine river or lake with a flat sandy bank - but alas, my job is here. And I suppose there are colder places than Portland, though it didn't feel that way last winter!
A word about serendipity… back in June, Alec developed pressure sores from the cart that became infected. It happened really quickly, like overnight. At this point he was still using his wheelchair for longer walks and I was also taking him for short round-the-blocks about once per day. But due to this skin infection the vet told me I should keep him out of the cart for a couple weeks to allow his skin to heal. When I heard this, I was crestfallen. Would he get enough exercise without being able to use the cart? He was barely walking around the block at that point. Well, those weeks were a turning point, and the infection was a blessing in disguise, because by the end of those weeks, I realized he didn’t really need the cart anymore! He was able to walk longer and longer and seemed to be getting sufficient exercise from walking on his own, and he has only used it once since then. While it was always my goal for him to make the transition to exclusively walking on his own, and this is what we were working toward, being forced to keep him out of the cart for a period of time certainly expedited the revelation that it was possible and he was ready.
I have mentioned the steady barrage of comments (some nice, some rude, most harmless but annoying) I have gotten since being out in public with a big dog in a wheelchair, but I must say there is one comment I never get tired of hearing, and that’s when people see us walking in the neighborhood now and stop to ask (usually after studying us inquisitively for a moment), “Is that the dog that used to have the wheels?” And I happily reply, "Yes, it is! He is walking now." How I beam when I say that. The words feel so good in my mouth and I can hardly contain my joy. Yes, he’s the dog who used to have the wheels… the dog who doesn’t need them anymore.
*** Some people have left comments here about their own dogs having similar issues with paralysis, or grappling with canine physical therapy, and I would be happy to talk you about anything related to my experience with Alec. Please feel free to email me at nrpallotta at gmail dot com. I realize that Alec and I are extremely fortunate, but I also know that time and regular physical therapy can do amazing things, so don’t give up!