April 4, 1993 to October 8, 2007


I lost Fagin in the early hours of October 8th, 2007 to bloat, aka Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus. For most of his adult life, he coped with severe bilateral hip dysplasia. For the last two+ years of his life, degenerative myelopathy gradually sapped his strength. DM is often described as the canine equivalent of multiple sclerosis. Fagin was a wonderful, sweet boy and I miss him. It's important to me that I tell his life story. I hope you'll bear with me and read on. I would also like to invite you to check out Fagin's and Portia's photo album and video clips of Fagin on YouTube.

After re-reading the following description of Fagin's life, I realize there's a lot that doesn't quite come through. So before I tell you about his life, I'd like to share some of the things I'll miss about him. I'll miss just how huggable he was. I'll miss what a good snuggle bunny he was. I'll miss seeing how many of the cats that lived with Fagin over the years trusted him and liked to nuzzle him. They also knew just how "huggable" he was. I'll miss playing fetch and keep away with him. I'll miss seeing how much joy he had and gave when he played fetch with the neighborhood children. Despite his failing body, his will to live was strong to the end. Even on that last day, he enjoyed patrolling the yard, dragging me along as I supported his rear end. I believe he is now healthy and whole at the Rainbow Bridge and can now play fetch to his heart's content. When the time comes, I'll join him and he and I can play fetch once more. I love you, my sweet baby boy.

Fagin was born in San Bernardino, California, in early April, 1993. He was descended from strays that my Aunt Phyllis encouraged to live on her property. She gave them food and shelter and they gave her security in a neighborhood that had declined over the years. I'm pretty sure Fagin's grandfather was a brindle pit bull mix that I had met years earlier named Fagin and his grandmother was a German Shepherd named Lady. Sadly, Aunt Phyllis died suddenly of a massive heart attack some time in early May and it was a couple of days until her passing was discovered. It was another three days before Fagin, his mom and littermate were discovered in one of the small apartments on my aunt's property. In other words, they had gone 5 days without food & water and nearly starved to death. Fagin's mom and the other adult dogs were essentially feral and we didn't dare try to adopt them, nor could we find an organization that felt they could find the dogs appropriate homes. My mom and I weren't so sure we wanted to take on the two puppies, but my sister won us over. The puppies would belong to my sister, and my mom and I would help care for them as needed. We named them Phyllis (for my aunt) and Fagin (for their grandfather). During the time we were in San Bernardino my sister bonded most closely to Phyllis, while Fagin won my heart over. While settling my aunt's estate, we stayed with a woman who rented out rooms in her home. She, very kindly, allowed us to keep the puppies at her home. I remember being out in her backyard with the puppies when Fagin decided it would be fun to attack my shoelaces. I pulled my foot away and said a firm NO. Fagin just sat down and looked totally crushed. It turned out that this would be typical of him. He was always a softie, despite his tough guy looks.

When we returned to Michigan, the puppies came with us. They were so small that they both fit in one cat carrier. I returned home to New Jersey and the puppies stayed with my sister and mom. The following images were captured from video that was taken a few weeks later.

Fagin, approx 12 weeks

Phyllis, Joanna and Fagin, same day

A few months later, when the puppies were about 4 months old, my sister asked me to take care of them. I was the one with the most experience raising puppies, having gone through it with my beagle, Joanna. So I brought the puppies to New Jersey. Over the next few months, I dealt with the house breaking, the puppy destructiveness and took them to their first obedience class. I enlisted a friend to work with one dog in class while I worked with the other. Phyllis was the more outgoing of the two, plus Fagin was the one I was most attached to. So my friend worked with Phyllis while I worked with Fagin. At home, I practiced what we learned in class with both of them. I also taught them how to play fetch. Little did I know this would lead to Fagin being a tennis ball fanatic! I really didn't know much about dog training, although I thought I did. As the puppies grew into large dogs and given the fact that it was just me, working full time, I reached a point where I was overwhelmed by them. This led me to the worst decision I ever made for Phyllis and Fagin. I sent them off to a dog trainer for a couple of weeks. I didn't realize it at the time, but that trainer used coercive methods. When the puppies came home, they were better behaved, but their self confidence and exuberance for life had been diminished by the experience.

When the puppies were about a year old, we became concerned that maybe they were too closely bonded with each other and not bonded enough with us. So we decided to split them up. Phyllis went back to Michigan and Fagin stayed with me. A few months later, in August, 1994, I brought Fagin back to Michigan to stay. Sadly, he was never reunited with Phyllis. She became ill shortly before Fagin and I began the drive from NJ to MI, and was hospitalized as the vets treated what they thought was some kind of virus. After I arrived at my mom's home, the vets called to say that Phyllis had died. I remember my mom was so shocked that she screamed. We just couldn't believe that such a young healthy dog could be gone, just like that. We decided to have a necropsy done, which told us that Phyllis had somehow found and ingested D-Con rat poison. My sister had only recently moved into her new home. Phyllis had been back and forth between my sister's home and my mom's home and we really had no idea where she had ingested the poison, whether it was something left behind by the former owners of my sister's home, or something one of my mom's neighbors had used to deal with a rodent problem, or something more malevolent. So we feared for Fagin a long time. Fortunately, he escaped Phyllis' fate.

Fagin settled in with my sister in her new home. But she missed Phyllis and felt that Fagin would be happier with another dog. So she adopted a 3 year old Lab mix named Bailey. The boys seemed to get along at first. But that was just the honeymoon period. After a couple of months, things became increasingly tense between Fagin and Bailey. Fortunately, friends of my sister's adopted Bailey, with whom he lived a happy and full life. But my sister still grieved for Phyllis. When I came home for Thanksgiving, 1995, my sister found Portia at the Michigan Humane Society. This was a much better match and Fagin and Portia were soon good friends. It didn't take long to realize that Portia was smarter than Fagin. She soon learned that she could get him to give up his favorite spot on the couch by barking at the dining room window. And, she would get him to chase her by stealing his tennis ball.

Portia and Fagin

In late spring, 1996, I lost my beloved cat, Tigger, to chronic renal failure at age 16. He was a large, orange striped cat who was equally comfortable indoors and out and unusually outgoing and social. The kids in the neighborhood once told me that of all the cats in the neighborhood, they liked Tigger best because he let them pet him. He loved to be held like a baby and liked to tuck his face into my shoulder. When I was at work, he often spent the day outside. When I would come home, he would come up to greet me, not because he wanted to come indoors to eat, but just because he wanted to say HI to me. Then he would go back into the woods for a while until he felt like coming in. Losing Tigger really hit me hard. I had lost Joanna, my beagle, a year earlier at age 15 to liver cancer and when Tigger passed, I was pet-less. My sister realized just how alone I felt and, knowing how close I felt to Fagin, offered him to me. I accepted, knowing that having Fagin to care for would distract me from my grief for Tigger. So, Fagin came to live with me in NJ when he was 3 years old, and Portia stayed with my sister. He helped me get over Tigger's loss by needing me. He was always happy to see me when I came home. After pottying and eating, we would spend time playing fetch. He slept with me on my bed, becoming every bit as good of a snuggle bunny as Tigger.

Fagin was never the most confident of dogs. His littermate, Phyllis, had been the boss, even though Fagin was 10% bigger than Phyllis. And he was nervous around strangers, particularly men. So I decided to enroll him in a CGC style obedience class in the hopes that it would improve his self confidence. The instructor, Donna Blagdan Kuchta, pointed out to me that Fagin had a tendency to fear aggression and suggested some desensitization techniques. She also felt that agility might be good for his self confidence. So we enrolled in her agility class. Thus began my real education about dogs.

Fagin and I enjoyed agility class and his self confidence improved. We probably would have just attended classes forever, except that, after our first couple of classes, Donna hired a trainer to handle the agility classes, Elicia Calhoun, a well known agility competitor who has also represented the USA in international competitions. Elicia seemed to think we had some potential. So we began to prepare to enter our first agility trial. I found myself getting more and more serious about agility and dog training in general. I learned about clicker training. My reading material was all dog related: "Don't Shoot the Dog," "Excel-Erated Learning," "The Culture Clash," "Jumping from A to Z" and "Clean Run" magazine to name a few.

Although Elicia was a big fan of USDAA, I opted to start out in NADAC. In USDAA, Fagin would have had to jump 30" and handle a 6'3" A-frame. In NADAC, he only had to jump 24" and the A-frame was only 5'6". Our first trial was the Long Island Agility club's trial on October 4-5, 1997, at Cathedral Pines, Long Island, NY. We only earned one Q that weekend, but by our fourth trial in April, 1998. Fagin had earned all his Novice titles and we made the move to Open later that month.

Camp Gone to the Dogs, June, 1998

Fagin and I stalled out in NADAC Open. We just could not make time. Fagin would trot around the course and sometimes refused jumps while I was getting stressed and frustrated. Elicia, our agility trainer, noticed that Fagin was pacing and suggested we see an alternative vet in Southern NJ. Dr. Weintrub thought Fagin might have hip dysplasia and recommended having his hips X-rayed. I decided to have him X-rayed at my local vets in June, 1998, after we spent a week at Camp Gone to the Dogs with my sister and Portia. Sure enough, he had bad hips. Our regular vet, Dr. Cianci, told me that, on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, Fagin's right hip was a 7 and his left hip was a 9. She also told me she was surprised at just how bad Fagin's hips were, because he seemed so normal, and before she X-rayed him, she manipulated his hips and could not detect any laxity.

After Fagin's HD diagnosis, we began seeing Dr. Sue Ann Lesser for monthly chiropractic and, of course, I started Fagin on glucosamine and chondroitin supplements. There was consensus among Fagin's vets that agility seemed to be beneficial rather than harmful. Dr. Lesser also recommended I get Fagin trotting to help keep Fagin in shape and showed me how to stretch him. She also advised me to pay attention to Fagin's body language, that he would let me know when I was asking too much from him. I started to have Fagin jump lower at agility classes, and we continued to enjoy our times there. We also discovered flyball in the summer of 1998 and began to practice with a team. But agility trials became more and more of a struggle for us, and in February, 1999, I decided to quit agility and switch to flyball.

Fagin absolutely loved flyball. I do think he liked agility, but it was nothing compared to flyball. Flyball released the happy, goofy Fagin. He tended to be a rather timid and reserved dog, unless he was playing fetch. He loved kids because they loved playing fetch with him as much as he loved playing fetch with them. And flyball brought out the same joyfulness. When at flyball practice or at a tournament, Fagin felt relaxed enough to bark like a silly fool, something he never did in agility class or at trials. Fagin and I did have to work on one big problem in flyball. Since Fagin was such a tennis ball fanatic, he was fast going to the flyball box to get the ball. But he tended to loaf on the return. So he and I worked very hard (and had a lot of fun) improving his return speed. I had to learn to abandon my usual reserve and make myself more interesting. I could never quite compete with a tennis ball, but I got pretty close. Our efforts paid off and Fagin managed to achieve split times around 5.5 seconds. By the time we dropped out of flyball, after two years of competing, he had earned over 1300 points.


Unfortunately, Fagin's hip dysplasia began taking its toll on him and he slowed down to the point where he could no longer "pull his weight" for the flyball team. And I had finally realized that Portia was never going to be a flyball dog because she was sound sensitive and had begun training her for agility. So, when Fagin and I dropped out of flyball, I decided to see how he would feel about a return to agility. It turned out that he was happy to just have a chance to do something, anything, with me. I was thrilled to discover that the happy, goofy, Fagin that flyball had unlocked, carried over to agility. I started Fagin slowly, with really low jumps and simple sequences. But, as Portia progressed in her training, I found that Fagin was eager to show that he still had it. So, when Portia was ready to enter her first trial in November, 2002, I also entered Fagin in a couple of gamblers classes. Since he was now 9 years old, he could compete as a NADAC veteran and only had to jump 16". He easily got enough points in the openings, despite the fact that I avoided the dog walk (his least favorite obstacle) and came close to getting the gambles. I continued to enter him in a couple of classes per day at every trial. We only competed 5 to 6 times a year, and only in the spring and fall. I decided to keep him at the Novice level and to keep it fun. I remember just how happy he was to get the chance to approach the start line and take his turn. One drawback (if you can call it that) of his flyball training was that he would get so excited about the chance to get out and play with mom that he would bark with excitement. Not all of our fellow competitors appreciated that, but once in a while, someone would make a comment like, "Now there's a dog that's happy to be here!" As time went on, I found it necessary to make adjustments on his behalf. If Fagin seemed too tired to run in the afternoon, for example, I scratched him. A-frames became more difficult, so I excluded them from his openings in gamblers. Despite these adjustments, when he felt good, he could still turn on the speed. He completed his S-NJC-V by running the course in over 4.7 yards per second, not bad for an 11.5 year old with severe hip dysplasia! By the time he retired, he had earned his S-NJC-V, S-NGC-V and TN-N.

Completing his S-NJC-V title at Kruisin' Kanines, Doylestown, PA, October 2, 2004

It wasn't hip dysplasia that forced Fagin to retire from agility. It was degenerative myelopathy. DM is often described as the canine equivalent of multiple sclerosis. For more information, see Degenerative Myelopathy of German Shepherd Dogs. He had been tentatively diagnosed with DM right around his 12th birthday and about a month before his last trial. But it wasn't until that trial that I fully appreciated what DM was doing to him. When he knocked the bar of the third jump of the jumpers course, I knew he just couldn't do it any more and made my excuses to the judge. Of course I told Fagin he was wonderful and we went and played our usual celebratory game of fetch.

I think Fagin had begun showing the symptoms of DM when he was 11.5. He seemed to be more and more clumsy, and stumbled occasionally going up or down stairs, but I assumed the clumsiness was caused by his bad hips. His last agility trial also coincided with our last days in NJ. He had been diagnosed in MI while I was there house hunting. I timed the closings on our old and new houses so that we could attend one last trial in NJ and would have a chance to say good bye to everyone we had known through agility. The next few months were busy with getting settled in our new house. It wasn't until late August, 2005 that it occurred to me to ask the vet if maybe there was something more I could be doing for Fagin. He referred me to a neurologist. After an MRI and spinal tap in September, 2005, ruled out any other causes for Fagin's symptoms, the neurologist made a differential diagnosis of DM. The report also gave the typical gloom & doom scenario, leading me to believe that Fagin would soon be a paraplegic and would be gone in a few months.

For nearly a year, I watched as Fagin ever so slowly declined. I assumed if he couldn't do something one day, that he would never be able to do it again. He also was having more trouble with his hips and began taking Rimadyl on a daily basis. In August, 2006, I was beginning to think that Fagin was on the verge of becoming a paraplegic and I finally I decided to do some research on DM. That's when I found the degenerative myelopathy list on Yahoo. I found out that DM dogs wax and wane. That just because they can't do something one day, doesn't mean they won't be able to do it the next day. I also learned just how valuable exercise is in slowing the progression of the disease. That led me to discover the Animal Rehabilitation Center in Waterford, MI and Fagin and I started to go there twice a week. Our visits to the ARC consisted of hydrotherapy in a water treadmill followed by stretches and massage. Fagin was such a good boy about the hydrotherapy, but I think it was the massages that he most enjoyed. I do know he liked going to ARC, because he always got excited when he knew we were almost there and he was always eager to go into the building.

Hydrotherapy at Animal Rehabilitation Center

Enjoying a well deserved massage

Around the time we started to go to hydrotherapy, Fagin was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. Within a couple of weeks of starting thyroid medication, his neurological symptoms improved dramatically. This made me realize I must not assume every time he was having problems, that it was because of his HD or his DM. Even though Fagin's coordination improved, his hips were really getting crunchy and causing him more pain. So he began taking Tramadol on a daily basis, in addition to Rimadyl. I even toyed briefly with the idea of hip surgery, but only because I was beginning to think that maybe he really didn't have DM, that maybe the neurological problems had been hypothyroidism all along. I abandoned all thoughts of hip surgery after a visit to Fagin's neurologist convinced me that Fagin really did have DM. And then he had a bout with vestibular disease. It took a few weeks, but he did get over it, although he had a head tilt for months after. I was still concerned about his hips and got my vets to start him on Adequan injections. Fortunately, Fagin started to feel much better after the second injection. After the loading interval, we gradually reduced the frequency of injections. When we tried the injections at every other week, Fagin became more uncomfortable. He did much better with weekly injections.

Through the fall of 2006 and most of the winter, we had a routine. Once a week, we went to the vets for an Adequan injection, which also gave me an excuse to discuss all the little and not so little things that seem to come up with an elderly dog. Twice a week, we went to ARC for hydrotherapy. At home, Fagin and I took frequent short walks around our property, about 5 minutes in duration every couple of hours. Fagin was doing well. But then it got icy in February, 2007. Fortunately, I had bought a Hartman harness for him in the fall. The Hartman harness has two parts. The front is much like any other dog harness, except it has a clip on the back. This clip can be used to attach the rear half, which has padded straps that wrap around each hind leg and a handle that goes across the dog's hips. Since I'm tall, I got the D ring option on the handle, which allows you to attach a leash to the rear handle. I chose to replace the front half of the Hartman harness with a Premier Sure Fit harness. I really like the Sure Fit. It's got 5 points of adjustment and you don't need to pull a front leg through it to put it on your dog. I took a clip and webbing from a cheap harness and used it to make the connection to the rear half of the Hartman harness. Fagin didn't really like the harness at first, but when he started having trouble on the ice, the harness gave him the confidence to walk and go potty.

We made it through the winter, and on Fagin's 14th birthday, April 4, 2007; he was still walking on his own. I put together a video tribute in his honor and posted it on YouTube. As summer approached, and the time came to open our pool, I decided it would be worthwhile to see if Fagin could use it. Fortunately he could. Going down the steps was not easy, but with help from my mom, we did it and I was able to save a little money on hydrotherapy by swimming him in our pool once or twice a week. We still went to hydrotherapy once a week, though. I'm not so sure he liked swimming, but he did it because I asked him to. Plus, it gave him a chance to play fetch for the first time in months. And he definitely liked it when my mom was there to cheer him on.

Swimming at home, June 17, 2007

At the beginning of the summer, I wasn't sure just how much longer he would be able to walk. You just can't tell with this DaMn disease. Fortunately, I was able to borrow an Eddie's Wheels cart that fit Fagin. He never really got used to it, I think because he was just a little bit too strong to need it. I tried to get him in it every so often, and when I did, he seemed to enjoy playing keep away with his big red ball.

Getting used to Eddie's Wheels cart

Over the summer, Fagin was having more and more trouble walking on his own. I started putting on the Hartman harness first thing in the morning and late at night when we went for our walks. If I didn't, he just didn't want to walk very far. But with me supporting him, he genuinely seemed to enjoy his regular constitutionals. As the heat of summer built up, Fagin wanted to wear the harness more and more. By September, he was completely dependent on it when he went outside. If I didn't put it on, he wouldn't move. If I did, he was happy to go traipsing about the yard. There were problems, mostly poop incontinence, occasionally a poor appetite, but we had a routine that was working. Most important, Fagin was enjoying life.

Fagin wearing his Premier Sure Fit - Hartman harness combo

Fagin started to bloat around 11:30pm, Sunday night, October 7, 2007, when I took him out for a potty break. It just seemed to happen right in front of my eyes. One moment, he seemed OK, standing there, sniffing the air, then he was pacing with his back hunched up, dragging me along as I supported his rear end with the Hartman harness. He was retching with nothing coming up and his belly expanded in front of my eyes. I took him to the emergency clinic, knowing what they would say, but hoping it might be something else. An X-ray confirmed it was bloat. They relieved the gas in his stomach and then gave me the bad news. The vet told me that dogs Fagin's age have maybe a 10% chance of surviving the surgery and that she wouldn't do it if Fagin were her dog. Although this was what I expected, I still couldn't believe this was happening. Before that night, I was sure we would have a few more months and that I would have to make the big decision, looking for signs that Fagin was ready to go. So I agreed to have him PTS. I massaged his back while talking with the vet and the technicians. I called my sister so she could tell him good bye. As they were preparing to give him the shot, I hugged and held him as best I could, telling him how much I loved him, what a wonderful boy he was and how brave he had been, coping with the medical conditions that had slowly robbed him of his strength in the last two years. He slipped away quietly. Although there were tears, they didn't flow freely that night.  I was concerned that Portia, my other dog, would be confused about what became of Fagin, so I went home, picked her up and took her back to the clinic so she could see Fagin and say good bye in her way. She sniffed him for a few seconds and was then ready to go. I petted Fagin for a few moments, gave him one last hug and kiss and then we went home. It wasn't until later the next day that the tears really began to flow as the reality slowly began to sink in.