Shotz: Surgery #2

Shotz' leg

As I’m sure we’ve all experienced, waiting for test results or the final outcome of a surgery (for ourselves or our giants) can often be more stressful than the surgery itself, and this certainly proved to be true for Shotz’s operation. Would she walk again? Of course, we wanted her to—for her. For us, we would love her whether she had four functioning legs or three.

On the morning of December 14, 2000, I woke with an acute case of trepidation, which worsened as I neared the clinic to pick her up. I brushed aside negative thoughts and tried to concentrate on the positive. The procedure had gone well, but according to Dr. Barstad, how well she would recover was up to Shotz and us. Some dogs, the doctor informed me, shut down and it’s not humanly possible to motivate them to get better. However, he didn’t believe this would be the case with her. She was fearless and tenacious, a fighter, but once again he cautioned me about expecting her to gain 100 percent use of the injured leg.

I tried but couldn’t hold back the tears when she came limping down the hall toward me, her right rear leg wrapped in a white padded bandage from her ankle to her upper thigh. The vet on duty said something about Shotz’s posterior cruciate being completely torn, and that the remnants of the PCL . . . Remnants? Not much else registered after that word until the vet said, “Straight-line walking for five minutes, two to three times daily, and swimming may begin in twenty-one days. Restricted exercise for eight weeks. No licking or chewing at the incision or sutures, use the E-collar at all times, and do not crate her. Allow her to fully extend the leg.” What resonated in all of this was a repeat of what Dr. Barstad had said after her first procedure: “Hopefully consistent usage of the leg by nine weeks.” These guarded comments buzzed through my tired brain as we drove home.

Within an hour of arriving at our house, Shotz destroyed her E-collar just as she had at the clinic, so I decided the best course of action was to stay glued to her until she recovered—a tall order. And since she was on steroids, she consumed large amounts of water, which meant potty breaks every two hours or so. Each trip outdoors required that I wrap her bandaged leg with plastic wrap, secure it with masking tape, then assist her in her endeavors to relieve herself. By the end of the day, we were both ready to collapse, but these potty breaks carried on throughout the night, and by daybreak we were exhausted. We kept to this regimen for three weeks.

As Shotz regained her footing and appeared to be healing well, we were able to relax and face her future with optimism—until March 7, 2001, when she (we) suffered a major setback.

In documenting Shotz’s ordeal, I wrote: “She stood up last night and began to quiver in her rear legs to the point where she was having trouble standing. She also appeared to be in pain. At this point in her recovery, as instructed, I had been walking her out and back for a mile and she had been doing well with this routine. No signs of fatigue or pain, and I never pushed her to go farther.”

On March 8, 2001, Dr. Barstad examined Shotz. The knee was stable and showed no signs of apparent damage. She was walking with a slight limp, so the prognosis was a possible strain or sprain to the repaired cruciate rupture. He prescribed Rimadyl for a week, then to take her off the medication and watch her to see if the lameness returned.

A week later we stopped the Rimadyl. Almost immediately, she started to exhibit pain, yelping every time she tried to stand. All day she vacillated between being fine one moment and in pain and stiff the next, until later that night when she began to quiver uncontrollably in her hindquarters and to whine. An hour later, if she attempted to stand, she fell over, her rear legs incapable of holding her upright.

Since her pain episodes and stilted gait were clinically suggestive of a lumbosacral problem, Dr. Barstad ordered an MRI to confirm or disprove his diagnosis. In lay terms, Shotz had a spinal infection, most likely a side effect from the leg surgery.

On March 21, 2001, Shotz underwent surgery for a bulging annulus. A dorsal laminectomy was performed. This meant Dr. Barstad delaminated and removed approximately three inches of the top section of her lower spine, “erring to the left side of the canal” to protect the spinal cord. The disk was on the verge of herniating. With the sciatic nerve retracted to the midline, the bulge was cut and evacuated with suction. He noted bruising of the left sciatic nerve. After lavage and complete hemostasis were achieved, the wound was closed.

As Shotz had undergone two major surgeries within a six-month period, we felt blessed to still have her, and finally on the road to recovery too. But Dr. Barstad warned us that after he delaminated her lower spine, then fused the vertebrae, any serious injury to her back or legs might require us to put her down. Therefore, her activities were strictly limited to horizontal movement only. No jumping, running, or climbing, just straight-line walking and only mild exercise—a really tall order for a giant.

So, we devised our own low weight-bearing program to help her strengthen her hind legs. Dave would place his hand under her abdomen to restrain her, while I swam ahead and encouraged her to swim toward me. She would kick furiously, hind legs pumping hard, trying her best to reach me, but Dave’s grip restricted her. We carried out this routine of resistance training every day for months until we noticed she was becoming steady on her feet and her gait was leveling out, with only a slight limp.

In the weeks and months of recuperation, then rehabilitation, we spent many hours together walking and swimming. To keep myself occupied on these leisurely walks, I started to carry a handheld recorder to dictate ideas for books. I wasn’t sold on a cell phone back then.

A month into these long walks along the trails at Bear Creek in Keller, Texas, the shell of a new Darcy McClain novel began to take shape, but my first chapter lacked punch—until Shotz gave me a hook. Stay tuned to future blogs to learn what that hook turned out to be.


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Shotz: Surgery #1

Shotz at the Veterinarian

Saturday, December 2, 2000: The day dawned cold and gray. Shotz loved winter; the cool weather invigorated her. She ripped around the backyard at top speed, happy to have so much room to run free. All morning we had asked her, “Well, what do you want for your sixth birthday?” If she could have answered, I’m sure she would’ve included a swim, even though the thermometer read barely twenty degrees.

Bundled up, my husband and I set to work to clean gutters, the channels overflowing with autumn leaves, cedar debris, and hickory nuts, some ready to sprout. After the morning cleanup, we had plans to take Shotz on a long walk along the trails at Bear Creek in Keller.

In the meantime, she was having a blast tearing through piles of leaves, scattering them everywhere, dragging logs off our woodpile, and dumping them on our back porch.

Years ago, we had terraced our side yard with railroad ties, and there I had planted my vegetable garden. But the only crop thriving in the rows that day was weeds. Once the gutters had been cleaned, weeding was next on our to-do list—but after we three celebrated Shotz’s birthday.

As she had numerous times, Shotz came flying around the corner of the house at record speed, made a U-turn at the pedestrian gate, and started back across this narrow section of lawn. As she reached the halfway point, she jumped onto the first tier of railroad ties, and from there onto the next until she reached the top tier. She leaped across the walkway that separated these two sections. When she landed, she let out an earsplitting cry that cut to my soul, then crumpled into a heap onto the grass.

My husband raced over to help her up, but she stood almost immediately, limped a few feet, then trotted off at a slow but deliberate pace, whining as she disappeared among the shrubs. He ran after her while I checked the area, trying to figure out why she had fallen, but saw nothing except a patch of ice atop one railroad tie. My main concern was to find her and see why she was limping.

I found Dave sitting next to her on the ground. She tried to stand but sat again, all the time whimpering softly. We hoped she had suffered only a bad sprain but later admitted we thought she might’ve broken the leg. However, neither one of us wanted to face that truth.

Dave was covered in mud and dirt from cleaning the gutters, so I agreed to take Shotz to the emergency clinic, less than a ten-minute drive from our house. She could walk, but as soon as we saw her dragging her right leg, Dave picked her up and carried her to our SUV while I went for my keys and wallet.

After waiting for what seemed like hours, the vet at the emergency clinic informed me that Shotz had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and needed surgery. I could hardly believe what he was saying. He mentioned we’d need a referral from our personal veterinarian, since an orthopedic surgeon would have to do the procedure. I felt terrible for her.

Our vet referred us to Dr. Robert Barstad at the Dallas Veterinarian Surgical Center (DVSC) in McKinney. The center also had a satellite office in Southlake, which was right on the border with Keller and in the same building as the emergency clinic. The center, emergency clinic, and our veterinarian’s office were located next door to each other, which made the office visits convenient.

Then the wait began. We made an appointment for a consultation with Dr. Barstad (through our vet), but he couldn’t see Shotz until December 8. In the meantime, our vet prescribed a painkiller for her. The wait seemed worse for us than her; she managed to keep moving on three legs, occasionally hopping using the fourth, but she tired easily and wasn’t interested in play.

After the December 8 orthopedic examination, we did receive some positive news: Shotz had no signs of hip dysplasia and her overall health was excellent.

On December 13 I dropped her off at the surgical center in Southlake and cried all the way home, praying all would go well with the operation and her recuperation. A half hour or so into the surgery, Dr. Barstad called with unfortunate news: Shotz had not torn her ACL but had a “complete tear of her posterior cruciate ligament.”

Because of the PCL injury, Dr. Barstad suggested a modification of your typical tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO), an experimental procedure he felt would benefit her in the long term. However, he cautioned that the De Angelis repair had a poorer prognosis than a TPLO repair or an ACL procedure. I trusted him, so I gave him the okay to perform a reverse De Angelis repair.

In his December 14 notes to our vet, Dr. Barstad wrote: “80 # test monofilament nylon was placed through a tunnel in the fibular head, wound through the straight patellar tendon just distal to the patella, then down to a tunnel on the caudal/medial edge of the proximal tibial plateau. The simple loop configuration was tied in a taut position, advancing the tibia in an anterior direction. The gracilis muscle was freed and advanced forward onto the patella with tension pulling the tibia anterior. It was sutured at the patella with a reverse fascial band that we dissected free from the lateral retinaculum. These two dynamic advancement flaps provided additional cranial thrust when sutured to the straight patellar tendon. A routine closure was performed, and the leg was placed in a padded wrap.”

He also wrote: “I have seen fewer than 20 of these injuries in my career, and the majority of them [the patients] were hit by cars with the blow of the bumper being focused right on the kneecap. ‘Shotz’ evidently self-inflicted that type of force hitting the railroad tie. The reverse De Angelis repair will improve her function and stabilize the knee, but these dogs never do as well as ACL repairs. If we take it slow and start to swim at the 21-day point, hopefully we will achieve satisfactory function of the leg and hopefully consistent usage by 8-9 weeks.”

After the surgery, we followed Dr. Barstad’s recommendations for Shotz’s recovery to the letter, and all went well until February 24, 2001.



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Shotz: Her First Road Trip – Part 2

Shotz in Taos

With dusk upon us, our fear bordered on panic as we searched frantically for Shotz. We pondered our next move. No way we’d leave the park, even if we were required to. We would suffer the consequences. I wasn’t about to leave her behind.

“What about coyotes?” I said, just as we heard a short bark. We both jumped off my 4Runner and hurried to the back hatch where the sound had come from. There sat Shotz, looking up at us as if to say, “Well, are we going to be here all night?” Relieved and weary, we drove back to Farmington, grabbed takeout at a nearby restaurant, and called it a day.

Up early, we motored out of Farmington along Highway 64 to Chama, storm clouds chasing us all the way. We lunched in Chama at a restaurant near the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad station, which was built 113 years ago. The sixty-four-mile steam railroad is jointly owned by New Mexico and Colorado and operates passenger trains between May 24 and October 19. Over the years, I’ve taken the train trip several times and highly recommend it. From Chama, we continued on to Taos, our destination for the next four days.

Everywhere we went in Taos, Shotz turned heads or created a traffic jam. “What is she? Some kind of schnauzer, right?” At least they knew she was a schnauzer and not a Doberman or a Bouvier, or as someone once asked, “Big Scottie, right?” People honked and gave us a thumbs-up or pulled to the curb for a closer look. Even in the parking lot of the grocery store, cars would draw alongside us for a glimpse of her. In return, we received plenty of unsolicited recommendations on the best restaurants in town and some great places to stay, but we already had room reservations.

We rented from a Houston couple who had moved to Taos years prior. They had purchased a two hundred-year-old adobe and converted the garage into a twelve hundred-square-foot guesthouse. The spacious accommodations were ideal for our needs and for Shotz, as the fenced property allowed her to run free and bark at the passersby on busy Ranchitos Road. The side yard was terraced with railroad ties, and she loved her high lookout post. And conveniently, the guesthouse was an easy two-block walk to the main plaza, shops, and some of the best restaurants.

Four days later we left Taos and cruised onto Highway 68, headed south for Santa Fe, where we planned to stay for three days. We rented a house a few blocks from town. When we arrived, we discovered “the house” was actually a duplex and the backyard was a “shared” yard, which Shotz certainly didn’t mind, but we did.

The adjacent owners had two small dogs and a dog door. Gregarious Shotz loved the idea of romping with her own kind, but the two chihuahuas were very territorial and not the least bit happy about this large black dog invading their property. They barked, snarled, and growled while Shotz sat there and looked at them as if to say, “Hey, don’t you want to play?” But when they started nipping at her hind legs, we questioned whether she would see her new friends as prey.

Tired of the nipping, Shotz chased after the chihuahuas and nipped back. When they ran for the cover of their dog door, she followed, barely making it into the house through the tight opening. I stuck my head through the pet door to coax her out. Thank goodness the owners worked and weren’t home. After a lot of encouragement, she came bounding to me, leaving the two chihuahuas perched on the back of the sofa, snarling and growling.

On our last day, we crated Shotz in the rental and went to breakfast. On the way back, we strolled through the farmers’ market in Sambusco. As we turned the corner into the driveway of our rental house, the first thing we noticed was the missing blinds from the front windows. Apprehensive, we opened the door to find an exhausted-looking Shotz stretched out on the flagstone floor. How she had managed to break out of her crate, I had no idea, as I swore I’d latched her in.

Four of the blinds hung cockeyed on the windows, and the flimsy sheer on the door had been shredded. We assessed the damage and decided it could have been worse. She hadn’t chewed the legs on any of the tables or the furniture, nor had she destroyed anything else, so we counted our blessings, forfeited our pet deposit, paid for the blinds, and left Santa Fe for the return trip to Texas.

As we tooled along 285, one of my favorite highways in New Mexico for its beautiful scenery, I wondered how Shotz had broken out of her crate. Then I recalled a similar event a month ago when I’d left the house to grocery shop. I put her in the crate and latched the door but came home to find her waiting in the kitchen.

Weeks later, I finally solved the puzzle. I put her in the crate, latched it, and pretended to leave. I crept into the backyard and onto the porch to spy on her. Through the blinds, which were slanted downward so I had a good view of her crate, I saw her stand, then settle down for what looked like a nap. Wonderful. But I remained patient.

After a long five-minute wait, she stood up, stretched her legs out, and arched her back, pressing it to the top of her wire carrier. Then she rocked the crate back and forth until the latches sprung open and she broke free. It was just like a giant: intelligent, persistent, and ingenious—not the breed for everyone, and certainly not the breed for a first-time dog owner.


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