Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Big Sandy's Big Life

I thought I would write a little (actually a lot) more about my friend Big Sandy who passed away last week. Since Big Sandy was the reason Jenn discovered the TTouch Method, got involved in Animal Assisted Therapy, joined the Dog Drill Team, and became an anti-electric fencing advocate. And, she was a big part of how Jenn became a gentle, reward based dog trainer. BS had such an interesting life, afterall, and she really helped people and other dogs.

Big Sandy came from a small shelter in Western Maryland. We don't really know much about her life before she was found wandering along a highway, looking very hungry. Jenn's mom saw a picture of her in the newspaper as a dog available for adoption in January 2000 and went to the shelter to visit the dog. She thought this dog was definitely for Jenn. The caption of the picture stated "Red merle Australian Shepherd mix is five-seven years old and will need a very large yard". Hmmm, that generally means a dog with LOTS of energy. But there was truly something special about the dog's expression that set Jenn into action. She called the shelter and asked if they would keep the dog until Jenn could drive up that weekend. They couldn't. The dog was going to be euthanized the next day. As crazy as it sounds, Jenn basically left work early, grabbed a handful of clothes and drove 8 hours up to Maryland to rescue a dog she had never met. Jenn was waiting when the shelter opened up the morning and Big Sandy was ready for her new life.
But not until an unprecidented snowstorm hit that very day, dumping 20 inches of snow and shutting down all the roads in North Carolina. Jenn and her new pup were trapped in Maryland for four days until the roads were clear. Jenn had plenty of time to think about what to call her new friend.

So why the name Big Sandy? Jenn thought that if she named the dog something that her boyfriend Eric (now husband) would really like, he would be more inclined to like her. The human Big Sandy is a larger than life, super cool, charismatic rock-a-billy singer, and one of Eric's favorites. The name just seemed to fit.Once they got back to North Carolina, Jenn says that Big Sandy was definitely a challenge those first few months. She didn't really know how to do anything, cause she probably lived outside chained up most of the life and she had TONS of energy. More energy than Jenn thought she could handle. Jenn discovered if Big Sandy got a chance to run (really run) each and every day, that she was quite lovely to live with. If she didn't get a chance to run, she was hyper and erratic and jumpy. Getting her energy out was key.

The other very important turning point, was Jenn discovering BS's love of food and harnessing that love into training and better behavior. If Big Sandy did something naughty, Jenn tried to correct her by verbally saying "NO!". Big Sandy just crumpled when people yelled at her. Jenn knew that she couldn't get BS to understand her unless she made a connection of trust. Jenn read lots of reward based training books that suggested handfeeding the dog while working on simple commands during meals, instead of just putting the food in a bowl. Getting to dog to realize that their nourishment came directly from their person. And by concentrating on rewarding the dog for good behavior instead of correcting them for bad behavior. Boy, with vigorous exercise and routines, BS really started to blossom from a ferile, kind of crazy dog into a calmer, focused, responsive family dog.

Soon Big Sandy was housetrained, attending training classes, learning complex commands, going to the park, and becoming a super great companion. She excelled at training and loved to earn rewards. She would do anything for a treat or affection!

Big Sandy graduated from Family Dog 1 and 2, Canine Good Citizen, and soon she and Jenn were assisting in training classes at the Animal Protection Society in Orange County. This was also the beginning of Jenn's career as a dog trainer. They were helping out in a Pre-Agility class with Big Sandy learning how to be a demo dog in July 2001 when the accident happened.

Jenn and Eric had moved to a very nice little house that had a covenant in the neighborhood that restricted fencing. The only fencing allowed was the type you couldn't see, the kind that shocks the dog. Jenn and Eric didn't like it, but didn't really have a choice. One day, January 3rd, Big Sandy decided to chase another dog through the neighborhood that was chasing a van. She ran right through the fence to go after the dog and the van ran over her! Jenn saw it happen and felt helpless. It was the worst thing to see ever. Jenn ran over to help BS, who was screaming and trapped under the van. She asked the man driving the van to slowly back up. It was bad. BS's back leg was crushed and her beautiful long tail was hanging on by the skin. And she was bleeding. Jenn scooped her up, ran to the car, and Jenn's neighbor Meghan drove them to their vet, Triangle Veterinary Hospital. It was 5pm, but luckily, BS's vet, Chuck Miller hadn't left for the day. After examining BS, Chuck told Jenn that they could make courageous efforts to save the crushed back leg, but it would never be fully functional and would probably be a hinderance. They rushed her into surgery, amputating BS's leg and her tail. Jenn and Eric got to visit her and all she did was wimper. BS spent the night at the emergency hospital so she could be monitored round the clock. Things got a little dicey and her body wouldn't stabilize, but she made it though the night. The next day, Jenn visited BS and she and the technicians offered her some food. BS woofed down everything in sight! That was a good sign.

Jenn reached out to her dog training friends and asked if they knew of any type of holistic therapy or technique to help an injured dog. Someone suggested that Jenn try TTouch, a gentle form of bodywork, wraps, and balanced movement exercises. Intrigued, Jenn called local TTouch Practitioner Joe Strain. He talked her through a series of touches and exercises to help animals that have amputations and injuries.The next day BS went home with Jenn and Eric, bebopping on her three legs. But how could she go to the bathroom, how would be go up and down stairs? Well, no one needed to worry. BS just did everything like it was just the way they needed to be. Jenn did the TTouch techniques with her everyday. BS never fell, she never faltered. Her body and brain were strong and determined. Within a week, BS was back at training classes as the demo dog. She was running soon after that, almost as fast as she did before. She was quick and spry. Jenn and Eric were simply amazed. TTouch was definitely something that would become more a part of Jenn's life.

The local paper did a story on Big Sandy and how TTouch helped her recover.
And it wasn't long before she was doing some pretty amazing herding sheep on three legs:

Jenn's friend Sandi thought that BS's social and engaging personality would make a pretty terrific therapy dog. And that her recovery might show people that injuries don't have to slow you down or change who you are. Jenn and BS worked for many months to get ready for the animal assisted therapy certification process. They passed with flying colors and BS started volunteering at assisted living facilities, within the Orange County Exceptional Child Program, and at Learning Services, a group home for people with severe brain and spinal injuries. Jenn was always impressed with BS's ability to make people smile. She didn't care if the person was in bed, hooked up to tubes or machines, or couldn't speak clearly. She wanted every person to pet her and wanted to be near them. She had a great time going to APS Care Cadets camp and visiting with kids of every age.

BS had a great career as a therapy dog until she retired in 2008. If it weren't for her accident, she may never have been able to do all that.
BS's other claim to fame was joining the dog Drill Team. Jenn wanted an acitivity that was a little lower key than agility, but would get BS engaged and learning new things. Jenn's friend Barbara suggested Drill Team. And it was a perfect fit. The Drill Team is a group of people and dogs that do freestyle routines to music. They march in parades and perform every year at different dog related events.Big Sandy loved marching in the holiday parades.People would often yell "Wow! That dog only has three legs!" as Big Sandy passed by.
...Here's BS's favorite performance, "I Will Survive".

Big Sandy retired from her active life in 2008. Her spine developed spondylosis, where the vertibrea fuse together, due to the stress of her accident. Jenn helped her manage the pain, with monthly accupuncture, and chiropractic sessions a few times a year. Her kidneys began to fail, so Jenn gave her subcutaneous fluids every other day and made her a special homemade species appropriate diet. BS continued to love food and snuggling with people. And Jenn continued to do TTouch bodywork on Big Sandy every day.Big Sandy did other cool stuff. She was painted by local artist Shannon Bueker in a watercolor depicting her in one of her favorite places, Topsail Beach.And Big Sandy got to meet her idol, Linda Tellington-Jones.She saw oceans...
and mountains...
As time passed, Big Sandy decided to spend more of the days sleeping and lounging on her orthopedic pad. In 2010, life became more of a struggle for BS. As the year passed, Jenn and Eric knew that at 17 years old, BS was deteriorating.

Jenn visited her friend and vet Chuck and discussed the options for putting BS to sleep at our house when the time came. We all wanted to say a peaceful goodbye at home. Jenn also wanted to have BS cremated. She made arrangements with Faithful Friends Pet Crematory, so that she could bring BS directly to them. And that's what we did.

Big Sandy led a wonderful life with many ups and downs. She marched in parades, made people smile, showed other dogs how to do things, proved that you can do anything on three legs, and ate lots and lots of good food. She lived her best dog life to the fullest and died surrounded by people that loved her.


Jim said...

I don't usually read "longer" blogs, as they usually bore me. This posting did anything but! This is a beautiful testament and recap of an incredible dog's story. Jenn, you are one in a million, and Big Sandy's life story is a tribute to both of you. I wish I had had the oppurtunity to know BS better, but after reading the post, I feel like I now do.
I also have to acknowledge how wonderful Dr. Miller is. He worked with us and gave our previous dog Spencer five extra good years of life, after most vets would have given up.
I am definitely going to read this post again. It is truly heartwarming.

Anonymous said...

Big Sandy was one of the finest living beings on the face of the earth. It was an honor to know her and enjoy her amazing personality. She will live on in my heart.

Sue Anna said...

I am so sorry Jenn. I know even though Big Sandy led a good life it is still such a loss.
These dogs are so dear to us that they really leave a void.
Please know that i am thinking of you all!
Sue Anna