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Ode to Kai – Life in the Old Dog Yet

This article is for all of us who have had babies or dogs and have come face to face with the transitions into and out life. I speak from my heart. Kai, came to us as a rescue dog from Spain, aged roughly 8-10 years old. Here we are, 8 years on….

I teach new mothers and fathers to hear our shared inner story.  We all have that story, of coming into being, of our birthing journey, of our early infancy, when as human babies, we are completely dependent on (m)other, for our food, for our comfort and survival.  After 20 years research and clinical findings in the fields of trauma therapy and pre- and perinatal psychology, it is widely accepted by many that our shared inner story is held in our own tissues, in our body.  Cf. The Body Remembers (Rothschild) The Body Keeps the Score (Van der Kolk) The Body Says No (Maté), In an Unspoken Voice (Levine) to name a few of my favourites.

          I work with young families to restore balance in their new dynamics.  I help babies sleep, recover from “colic” and the aches, pains and strains incurred by the conditions of their birth and thereafter.  I help parents to see that they do not have to be perfect, but as pioneer psychoanalyst & paediatrician in this field, Donald Winnicott said only “good enough”.  I would add to that ‘good enough without the guilt’.

          And suddenly I find myself in this realm on a personal level once again – trying to work out what my non-verbal, wholly dependent at-the-other-end-of-life pet dog wants and needs.  But this time, I have the greater wisdom of having trained in craniosacral biodynamics and a sadness that I did not know this when my own children were born.  However, we must all learn to “forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it” (Angelou).

          I find I am sitting many hours, as a mother with her baby, holding both head and feet, holding space, allowing for whatever needs to, to arise.

          And then the repetitive cycles begin;  just as with a baby or small child, there are minutes when my dog is unable to ‘find’ his care-givers who are no longer within range of sight, unable to see or recognise where he is.  Every room he is moved to is as if a new experience, to re-learn where the furniture is, wandering around the room confused, stumbling, becoming exhausted by many previously forgotten stimuli.

          As with a baby, there is the inability to regulate his body temperature.  Wrap him up in a blanket and hold him tight. Let him feel the cool evening dew under his overheated paws and radiating pelvis.

          Food – it feels like endless weeks now of boiled egg, morning, noon and night. It is less than 10 days. Nothing else is acceptable.  What a small price to pay.  Boiled egg keeps him alive and until he stops eating, there is still life in the old dog yet.  I remember the days I worried about getting the varied diet that I understood to be correct, into my own babies.  Need I have worried at such a young age, when perhaps all they wanted were a few mouthfuls followed by a gentle wipe of the face and hands and to be returned to my lap for a lovely long cuddle? I learn that now, with my dog.

Safe in the crook of an arm

          The time for independence is limited at this stage, before the overwhelm of new experiences takes over – or rather old experiences, long forgotten as the brain can no longer react as before. The go-to resource, is a safe and reassuring touch, a soft and non-threatening voice, skin-to-skin, swaddled in a tight blanket. 

          No matter what time of night he wakes, and bumps around in the dark, becoming stressed at his helplessness.  No matter how often he wakes, he needs someone to be there – to be good enough.  I remember that little dance we played so often with my eldest, being carried over one’s shoulder until she fell asleep, and the instant awakening as one lowered her into her cot. And so this, and possibly a myriad other trans-generational behaviours, is reflected in my life today – with my dog.

We start all over again.  Sleep. Wake. Fuss. Toilet? Food? Temperature? Comfort? Company?

And again. Sleep. Wake. Fuss. Toilet? Food? Temperature? Comfort? Company? Memory?

And again, whilst being pestered by his doggy-sibling, who does not understand the preferential treatment given to someone else, who also has needs that have to be met, who also has an innate knowing of what is to come.

          Dying dogs, like human babies – well all mammals in fact, according to The Polyvagal Theory (Porges) need someone to be there, in order to co-regulate and learn to self-regulate their stress response.  Of course, one’s closest humans are preferable, but anyone is ‘good enough’. So long as one’s needs are tended to and one’s story is heard and received, without judgement.  

Ultimately it is the same with human beings. 

          Following Porges’ research, this use of social interaction is now known as the third arm to our autonomic nervous system; the Social Engagement System and intimately involves the Cranial Nerve X, The Vagus Nerve aka The Wandering Nerve. So apt given Kai’s propensities when awake. 

          On a side note, I see him “implanting” into everything he bumps up against – the walls, behind sofas and furniture, deep into the folds of the curtains.  The rest of the family see it just as him keeping going until he meets a solid surface and then forgetting how to get out of the tight spot.  He also walks in circles.  Spiralling out of life, just as he spiralled in?

          This stage, the negotiation of death, seems similar to that of coming into life.  Approaching and withdrawing until reassured that it is safe to transition.  How can one reassure the safety of where you are going to, the ok-ness of being here, now, in this moment?  Reflecting on where you have come from?

         And like at the start of life, our Western culture wants us to hurry along, to ease the passage, to get it done to suit others’ timetables (vets, doctors, maternity wards, employers, family commitments). Western culture prefers us to knock the participant(s) out, physically and metaphorically.  Remove our presence.  Remove the protagonist’s power to say when it is time. How hard it is to have the courage to allow it to unfold at his own pace.

The online advice haunts me with its inept choice of words

          “If the animal is suffering so much that it cannot derive any pleasure from life and its quality of life has degraded beyond recovery, euthanasia may be the most humane option.” (dogs.lovetoknow.com)

Humane?

          Whose discomfort are we trying to ease, anyway?  And what right do I have to end it before he says he is ready to do so?  Yes, he is fragile and weak and yes, he sleeps most of the time, probably beyond recovery.  He is 17 years old after all.

         Yet there is still pleasure to be had from life.  ’YES’, he says to boiled egg & chopped ham, ‘YES’ to a around the garden, ‘YES’ to cuddles. ‘Yes’ to just being.

          And so, as I sit for hours at a time, with Kai on my lap, cradling head and feet, staying present to our shared rhythms,  I find comfort in the words of Craniosacral Therapist, Don Ash:

          “It really is an amazing grace. If you can help a person [dog] witness their own grace with softness and relaxation and acceptance, it’s a beautiful thing….[Craniosacral Therapy] can help] discharge a great deal of apprehension and anxiety, so the patient can take a deep breath and relax into the experience.” (https://www.massagetoday.com/articles/14330/Practice-Dying)

Rest. Respite. Recovery

Rest. Respite.

Rest.

In memorandum. Kai. (d. 27 April, 2019)

If you are interested to know more about how Craniosacral Therapy can help you through the various transitions of life, then please feel free to join the mailing list.  I intermittently send out notifications of events, news and offers and you may unsubscribe at any time.

Shirley