Let me tell you a little story, about life, love, saving, trauma, and recovery. It’s not going to look like most stories you see about the topic. It won’t appeal to everyone. It won’t touch everyone. I’m sharing it, though, because it changed me, and it taught me. It’s a story about parenting and children in the realm of Mom as a human, child as a dog, and the lessons it taught me that transcend species.
Shortly after Thanksgiving this beautiful blue Great Dane came into our life. Her journey to us wasn’t marred by the usual rescue stories you hear about puppy mills, malnutrition, or abuse. She had a loving Mama before me and a good life full of sunshine and adventure. She got a new canine sister, though, and it became apparent to her previous owners that she needed a different living situation, that both of their canine children needed something different for them to be happy, and healthy, and safe. So Toula came to live with us. The ‘adoption’ was one of compassion and love. Here enters my first lesson. Sometimes being a parent involves making hard choices about what is best for your child, and it hurts your heart, and it isn’t always what is in YOUR best interest.
Toula certainly had to go through an adjustment period as she acclimated to our home, but she didn’t destroy any blinds or carpet (*ahem* Sol) so we were off to a better start than the last adoption! She was clingy, latched on to Douglas pretty quickly, and a little bossy about who her new Dad was, hogging up as much attention as she could. I can’t blame her though, he’s a really good dude and I like his attention too. My husband, ever a lover of animals more than people, was patient, and kind, and fair. He made sure she felt safe and secure in her new environment, but he was also certain to spread his attentions out among the boys with special car rides and walks and loves. Lesson two.
We wanted to surprise Toula’s original human Mama with a male puppy of her blood lines. You see Toula is a sweet girl, mild, and loving, and kind. It’s a Dane thing. So we bred her successfully (which is another miraculous story for another day!) and nursed her through what turned out to be a high risk pregnancy. My mother the animal saint, supporting and guiding us each step of the way, heavily involved as the point of contact with the vet and making sure our canine Mama got the best care possible. Lesson three. You don’t just go into these big decisions in life without commitment and follow through. Be aware of that, no matter what you’re facing. Toula relied heavily on us for those 60 days (and many after that, which are still to come), and had we been a less dedicated trio of dog lovers, it wouldn’t have been fair to her or the puppies fighting for life inside her. So commit, and follow through, even when the rosy glasses you saw the situation through come off and things get hard as you hit unexpected road blocks.
As we prepared for labor and delivery, we had to completely rearrange our life. We had to identify a room in the house that would become hers for the next several weeks that had access to heat, to food, to water, and to laundry. It had to be bleached, sanitized, and secure. It needed to feel safe for her. Many people would tell you this wasn’t necessary. They would say that nature has been taking its course for years. I won’t deny that, but what I will say is this: If you are capable – through modern technology or just additional knowledge – of avoiding tragedy and complications, why wouldn’t you make every effort you could to do so? Lesson four. Use what this world has available to you to ensure better success rates. I thought a little bit of those preparations were exaggerated and unnecessary (sorry, Mom!). They were not.
Toula went into labor late on a Wednesday evening. One of the sure signs is the panting a female dog exhibits. It is funny now because as my Mom coached me on what to look for, asking questions, seeking clarifications, I kept saying, “Mom, I think she’s just hot.” I took a video of her breathing and sent it to her (thank you modern technology) and her response was, “Ayzlynn, she is in active labor. I am changing and coming over right now!” The timing wasn’t great, our back up plans for getting the boys out of the house weren’t available at that time, and we all had work the next day. Lesson five. Life doesn’t happen on your time.
Around 11 that evening we all went to bed. Me in the bedroom with the boys, Mom and Douglas in the living room resting with our sweet Toula as she labored. My compassionate Douggie never fell asleep, walking Tou, taking her out for potty breaks, getting her fresh water, petting her head through the chatters. Commitment and follow through. Shortly after midnight, he looked over and in his tiredness though she was trying to relieve herself on her dog bed. He shot up and shouted, “Mary!” She immediately woke up and snapped into action, got Toula onto her whelping pad, and helped this first time Mama deliver her first baby.
We had a precious little girl, a dark grey merle weighing in at just over a pound, and I woke up to Douglas coming in the bedroom shouting excitedly, “Get up and come witness this miracle of birth!” I had slept through the actual birth but got in on time to help with clean up, old pad off, new pad in, hot towels down, and Mama cleaning the baby who instinctively just knew to nuzzle her way into nursing. This was lesson six for me. My goodness, nature, Mama’s, babies, that miracle, that instinct, it’s incredible. It is not by chance. It is divine.
This is getting long, and although I have finally reached a point where I feel like I can talk about it, I am going to summarize the next 48 hours of our life. You’ll get the idea, but the reader’s digest version. We thought we were home free. She labored very quickly for a first time Mama and delivered that first baby like a champ. We were wrong. Baby 2 was a still born boy, and it was the most heart wrenching experience of my life thus far. My mom did everything to revive that baby, and I mean everything and as she worked on that baby, Tou was right there on top of her, anxious, distraught, and beyond upset. She was mourning. She laid down defeated. The hours crept on. There were emergency calls to the vet, and in the wee hours of the morning baby 3 arrived. Another girl, solid blue like her Mama, just under a pound. We breathed a sigh of relief.
Baby 4 and 5 weren’t coming though, and by the time the vet opened in the morning, we were the first ones in the door.
They separated her from us, which sent her into panic. Two brand new babies, still laboring but not making progress, and they took her from her Dad, to whom she is most attached. When they finally brought us back in, she laid her head on our lap and cried. You may not think a dog can cry, but they can, and she did. An x ray revealed she had two puppies left to deliver, and the vet gave her some medication to help get them here. She labored, hard, and she was in pain and miserable, but nothing was happening. The vet checked her and couldn’t even feel babies on their way. She was starting to fade and the life of the babies inside became questionable. My mom asked the vet if he thought the babies were still “viable” (viable? Seriously?) and he said yes. The decision was made to do an emergency cesarean in hopes of saving those two babies and the mama. Her 4th and 5th puppies were delivered, a one and a half pound harlequin and a one and a quarter pound light grey merle
As we sat in that room rubbing those babies with towels and praying their Mama would make it, I realized I didn’t have the stamina for this. We were on 36 hours of solid awake at that time minus my one hour nap, and the exhaustion was kicking in.
Lessons seven and eight. Things can always take a turn for the worse, then the better, and back and forth over and over again in a moment’s notice. Also, when running on adrenaline, emotion, and prayer, you can survive a lot more than you’d think.
The vet finally returned to our holding room and told us that Toula was ok. An emergency spay was necessary, but we didn’t care. We just wanted to bring our girl home. I was a little relieved that I wouldn’t have to bottle feed 4 babies, too! We also learned the still born boy had passed in the womb mostly likely about a week before she delivered, and there was a 6th placenta with a baby who never reached viability.
After 48 hours awake, we brought our fur family home. To her safe place. To her room that was so sterilized there was no concern of infection for her incisions. They were warm and dry. It was a traumatizing experience, and Toula had no interest in her babies. We were worried, but the vet told us to be patient. He advised she had been through a lot and was on a lot of medication. She would allow them to nurse, but only if we sat in the whelping crate with her. Eventually, she did take to them, and now she really is the best Mama.
We prayed. We cried. We kept silent on social media. It was such an intensely personal and emotional experience for us. It felt like we’d been through something violent and terrifying. It was traumatizing. I hesitate to use that word so openly, but defined, it means, “subject to lasting shock as a result of an emotionally disturbing experience of physical injury.” It fits. We were in shock for days. Every squeak from the babies had us worried she had rolled onto one of them or they were struggling to breathe. Sleepless nights doesn’t even begin to cover the way we spent those first few weeks.
Lesson nine. If we felt this way over our pet’s birth story, what must human mothers feel like? From now on, I’ll be leaving dinner on the door step for new mothers. No need to even say hello to me after delivery.
I wish I could tell you it’s been smooth sailing, but it hasn’t. She was on antibiotics and probiotics and sick and then babies were sick, and then she was sick again, and then every other animal we had caught the bacterial infection. It has been trying. It has been a time in my life where I have been reminded how good my mother is in a crisis. Mostly though, it has been rewarding and fulfilling.
Lesson 10, all things worth doing – especially the most gratifying things – are hard. We are in the beginning of their 4th week of life and we have a new normal, a new harmony. Babies are destined for safe, fabulous homes with purchase clauses for spaying each baby girl when she is of age. We fought to bring them into this world, the 4 of us: 3 humans and a very special dog. Five of us really, because without our incredible vet, this would be a different story I am telling you. Those 4 little girls have fought hard to stay in this world. We need to be sure they’ll never have to fight like that again.
So mock me if you must, but this experience changed me. It taught me. It fortified me. And you know what? This Mama and I have a new relationship with each other. I wouldn’t say she loves me quite as much as ol’ Dad, but we have been rocking this mothering thing together like champs, recovering together, loving together. And now? Well, now I will tell you with zero shame that I stood and wept as that first baby squeaked, when they stumbled over their first steps, when their eyes peeped open...that the miracle of new life in any species reinforces the faith of our Creator’s overwhelming plan. And I still weep as I touch these little bundles of fur and I will weep again when they go on to change a different family’s life. We did good things here even if it turned out entirely different than our original plan.