The strange behavior started subtly at first. I thought Frank was just making a few extra trips to the water bowl (which is not out of character for a Newfoundland), but then I started to notice that instead of drinking he was just standing in the kitchen staring into space, and after several minutes he would turn around, come back and lie down. Since his appetite and energy levels were normal, I began to wonder if this apparent forgetfulness was age-related and that these were merely canine senior moments.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. This behavior not only continued, it also began to become more strange and frequent. He would pace about the house mindlessly, with the pacing at times taking on a more urgent tone followed by his jumping up onto the backs of chairs or the couch or onto the bed, and then finding these locations unsatisfactory, would stand headfirst in corners or between pieces of furniture. Alternately, he would lie on the floor as if in a trance, clapping his tongue against the roof of his mouth endlessly. During what I began to call "his episodes," Frank was unable to respond to my commands or the calling of his name.
I suspected epilepsy, although he experienced no convulsions, and began to keep a journal noting the date, duration and behaviors exhibited during each episode.
I discussed his odd behavior with his veterinarian during his regular check-up, and we decided to run a complete body panel to check for infections or anything abnormal that might be causing it. When the tests came back showing him in perfect health, I felt a strange combination of relief and disappointment, but continued to keep his journal.
The next couple of months proved frustrating as not only did these episodes continue, but they also grew worse in nature. Frank's behavior had now progressed from methodical back and forth pacing to episodes of rushing through the house in almost fearful desperation, acting as though he was being pursued by unseen aliens. And the episodes were no longer just spontaneous and without a pattern. They could also now be triggered by certain noises that would send this 100-plus-pounds of dog into fits of glassy-eyed fear during which he would crash into doors or jump up onto sinks trying to break through windows.
We started him on seizure medicine, but when it produced no noticeable change after a period of several weeks, the decision was made for him to see a neurologist.
The results of Frank's brain MRI showed no tumors or infections, with the neurologist concluding that he is suffering from psycho-motor seizures, possibly caused by a chemical imbalance. So although it's good news that he doesn't have a brain tumor, he continues to have these seizures and as I write this we await the results of yet another blood test to see if an adjustment to his medication or the addition of another will aid in their control.
Other adjustments have been made as well. Any device that has been shown to trigger a seizure has been taken out of use, so the smoke alarms have come down, and although the gardener's mower is no problem, Frank has to be crated and covered when he uses the leaf blower, and I can't use my toaster oven because the timer bell sends him, literally, up the wall. Because of the unpredictability of the seizures, and never knowing what else might trigger one, I've had to suspend Frank from his work as a therapy and disaster stress relief dog. (His last visit was to Taft Union High School on the one-year anniversary of last year's shooting.)
Although this gentle giant has touched the hearts of thousands of people during his years of service, first and foremost he has been my most stalwart confidant and protector, and as some readers may remember, was awarded the NCA Hero of the Year Award for saving my life.
But times have changed and our roles have switched; the dog who has always been fiercely independent now stays constantly by my side, perhaps instinctively seeking my protection from these horrific feelings that torment him.
And as I tighten the belt of an already delicate budget to meet the cost of medicating a giant breed dog and adjust my lifestyle to make his more comfortable, I realize I will never be able to do enough to equal what he has given me or the comfort he's provided those who've ever hugged that shaggy ruff.
Sherry Davis is a dog trainer/owner of CSI 4 K9s. Email her at email@example.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily The Californian's.