The following is a story from VHS’s current newsletter. Sadly, as the newsletter went to print, Robbie’s condition began to deteriorate. In a final act of kindness, his life was ended peacefully and painlessly.
Leanne McConnachie has arms even Michelle Obama would kill for. Slim, strong and tight as coiled steel. At age 47 she is a picture of athletic grace.
Yet she never goes near a gym. Or a track. The reason McConnachie, the Vancouver Humane Society’s director of farm animal programs, looks so good is love and the sacrifice that goes with it. McConnachie is the “mom” of a ten-year-old boxer dog named Robbie with degenerative myelopathy. Robbie can’t use his hind legs anymore, which means if he wants to go anywhere — and he does, constantly — he has to be carried there.
Never mind that he weighs 33 kilos, or 10 kilos more than the largest suitcase Air Canada will allow you to take free from Vancouver to Toronto. Never mind that McConnachie only weighs 20 kilos more. Robbie still has to be carried, so McConnachie carries him. It’s what love is about.
Robbie wasn’t always this way. When McConnachie, and her husband, Rob, adopted him from Boxer Rescue five years ago, he was fine. As lively, playful and spirited as most boxers are. But three years later he started to drag one of his hind paws. Then he had trouble moving his legs. Eventually when he was diagnosed with myelopathy, a disease in which his immune system literally attacks his nerves and spinal cord, Robbie became paralyzed.
But not immobile. The McConnachies saw to that. Three times a day they hauled him out for walks. They picked up his hind end using a specially designed harness that let him “run” using his front legs only. The catch was that they had to run too. When that got to be too much, they bought a special doggie wheelchair for him. Now they use it to “walk” him to the beach, where he digs in the sand.
Because the remarkable thing about Robbie, says McConnachie, is that he doesn’t appear to know he’s sick. “I see him trying to stand up all the time,” she says. “Another dog will come by and he’ll want to chase him. Or he’ll want to chase a ball. He’s completely oblivious to the disease. So we joke ‘He’s okay as long as someone’s got his bum’.”
Except it can’t go on forever. One day the disease will reach Robbie’s front legs, and he’ll have to be euthanized before they too become paralyzed. McConnachie knows that day is coming very soon and she will have to summon the courage to do what he needs her to do.
The only thing she is certain of is that when Robbie goes, she’ll never get another boxer. Because like so many other owners of so-called purebred dogs, she’s learned they’re too fragile, too delicate, too prone to illness to lead strong healthy lives. Selective breeding has seen to that. Toys and miniatures suffer from dislocated kneecaps. Large dogs succumb to heat prostration because they can’t cool their bodies properly. Bulldogs’ large heads and narrow hips mean they now can only be born by Caesarian section.
There’s now a genetic test for degenerative myelopathy, so Dr. Andrew Forsyth of Como Lake Veterinary Hospital advises anyone hoping to adopt a dog that’s prone to it — German shepherds, corgis and boxers are among 43 breeds that are — should adopt that dog from a “responsible” breeder who’s tested their breeding pairs.
That’s no longer enough for McConnachie. “So many of these terrible diseases and skeletal problems are the result of us selfishly breeding in genetic traits to achieve an arbitrary look. Maybe if we expanded the genetic pool and allowed them to revert back to a more natural look, they’ve have fewer problems and their owners would suffer less heartbreak.”
In the meantime, however, love is going to see her and Robbie through. It’s what being a good mom — even a good dog mom — is all about.
Nicholas Read is a journalism instructor at Langara College, an author and a former Vancouver Sun reporter. He is a long time supporter of VHS and a great friend to animals.