GOODBYE BUNKER

Originally posted March 2012

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Bunker as I best remember him

Call Corey.  There has been an incident, but no one was hurt.

Words you don’t want to hear, but words you know will someday come.  I would like to share the story behind this case, in the hope that someone will benefit from hearing it.  For the past eight years, I have had the honour and privilege of working with a very special and very well loved English Bulldog, Bunker.  Today I was with him, when he passed on.

When I first met Bunker, he was anxious and jumped on people, and had some pretty significant oddities, but he was still able to come to classes and participate in activities.  Over time, his behaviour problems became more entrenched and more dangerous.  Luckily, Bunker lived with some very special people, Corey and her family.  Corey recognized that her special friend needed extra protection from the ghosts that haunted his world.

Bunker had a great deal of difficulty with impulse control, and self modulation.  He would fixate on the other dogs in class or on a particular person.  He would bark and lunge at people and dogs he didn’t know.  And over time, his world became smaller and smaller and smaller.  Corey worked hard with Bunker, setting up situations where she could work on classical conditioning with him in order to slowly expose him to triggering stimulus.  She and her husband taught him to relax on cue, but his arousal levels were so intense that he would assume a relaxed pose while staying completely tense.  As Bunker’s world became smaller, Corey sought help from a local veterinarian who has a strong background in behaviour.  For awhile, Bunker came to class as the Clomicalm Kid.  Although Clomicalm helped, it didn’t make the difference he needed to live calmly.

Bunker’s veterinarian arranged for him to be seen by a Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist at a conference, and she had some thoughts, but they weren’t able to tease apart the issues.  Bunker was also seen by several big name well known behaviour specialists of various flavours.  Seizures were ruled out.  His thyroid was normal.  He had a few issues with his liver function, but generally apart from some skin issues, he was pretty healthy.

As a young bulldog, he had been through a number of surgeries to correct a congenital eye issue, to be neutered and to decreased the amount of wrinkling in his skin.  We speculated that perhaps the number of times that he had been anesthetized might have contributed to his issues, but we really didn’t know what caused Bunker’s issues.  Maybe he just got the short end of the genetic stick.  If anything Bunker was a tutorial in learning that the cause of the behaviour just doesn’t matter.  Sometimes you just can’t and just won’t know why, and in the long run, with a case like this, it just doesn’t matter.  You still have to deal with the dog in front of you.

After several prescription attempts, Bunker was prescribed fluoxitine, and he became known as the Prozac Pup.  As the Prozac Pup, he settled into an existence that if not ideal, met his needs, both behaviourally and physically.  He had dog friends he lived with and a limited number of people friends.  He had a loving family and walks in the neighbourhood.  When guests came over, precautions were taken to ensure that he didn’t get over stimulated and aroused.  At about this time, I started referring to him as a “bowling ball on legs” in reference to the way he would throw himself at me when he saw me.  I think he liked me, but after a moment of greeting he would become so excited he would launch himself at my lower legs.  30 odd kilos of dog launching themselves at you is a bit daunting and certainly not the way most dogs will express their love of people, but that was Bunker’s special way to greeting me.  It was about this time that Bunker stopped coming to class.  He was no longer making progress behaviourally and Corey had built a universe for Bunker that worked for him and their family.

And then Corey got pregnant.  Almost every dog finds the addition of a baby to the home stressful, and we were certainly aware of the needs of the other two dogs in the home, but Bunker really caused us some serious concerns.  We really worried that he would not accept the baby, and that he might get excited and launch himself at either Corey or the baby.  There are a lot of things that we can do to help families to get ready for babies, and we pulled out all the stops on our pre-baby planning.  We got all the baby equipment, and Corey and her husband got a doll that they could carry around to prepare Bunker for the upcoming addition.  To say that Bunker objected to carrying babies would be an understatement.  Bunker really struggled.  We had many very long and very serious and very difficult conversations around the subject of Bunker and babies, and in the end, the solution we chose for Bunker was management.

It is here that Bunker and Corey’s story begins to get much more interesting.  The watchword in behaviour is that eventually, management fails.  Corey’s home became a series of gates and half doors and full doors and containment areas.  Bunker had a safe zone, a comfortable place where he could retreat within, where no one but Corey and her husband went.  The other dogs adjusted to the family addition and Bunker was never ever in the same room as the baby.  Not on a leash, not by accident and not with the baby in someone’s arms.  Being a bulldog, this worked.  Bunker was thankfully a very low energy dog.  And he was happiest when he had very little stimulation.  Bunker liked his adult family members, and after the baby was put to bed would join them in the living room to relax.  Bunker and his family made management work for six years.

In the eight years that I worked with Bunker, there were several oops moments.  Bunker developed some issues with the other dogs in the house.  More management.  Bunker had an unfortunate incident while boarding at a kennel where someone didn’t follow the agreed upon protocols and he was placed in a run where he was over stimulated.  Never more did he board at that facility.  There was an incident with a vet who was not aware of his issues and who pushed him over his threshold for coping.  In all those years, there was only one bite, to a professional who was handling him without taking care to follow the “Bunker Rules”.

In eight years, Corey and her husband kept Bunker and the people who lived around him and loved him safe.  Bunker was a Bulldog I deeply loved but only rarely could touch, when he was relaxed and coping well.  I saw Bunker and Corey about once every six months and each time, we discussed euthanasia.  We discussed quality of life.  We discussed the merits of baby socks in preventing paw licking, and the hobbies of bulldogs who mostly liked to be quiet and alone.  We laughed and we shared and we sometimes got frustrated.  We kept the welfare of Bunker in front of us all the time.

This morning management failed.  Bunker has been more agitated than usual lately; and sometimes seemed a bit confused.  Not entirely unknown in a nine year old bulldog.  Maybe cognitive dysfunction was starting to kick in.  Maybe the environment with a six year old child in it was becoming overwhelming.  Maybe he had some metabolic issue that manifested as anxiety.  We cannot ask him.  This morning, when someone arrived at home unexpectedly, Bunker broke through his gate, and when that person escaped behind the next level of security, he threw himself on the door, attempting to get in.

Call me.  There has been an incident.  No one was hurt.

Corey emailed me this today, and when I called, we agreed, that it was time to let Bunker go.  The three sentences that a behaviour consultant really would rather not hear.  I went to Corey’s and we sat and waited together until the appointment time came.  We drove to the vet and we sat together, and together, with as much love as we can find for a very special needs dog, we helped him to die, before he progressed to a point where he did hurt someone.  Today we shared a lot of tears over the bulldog that Corey has always referred to as “my special friend”.  I will miss him a lot.  He has taught me more about behaviour consulting and what is possible with impossible dogs than I could ever have imagined.  And in the end, Corey’s strongest hope was that we could learn something from his life and his death, which is why I am sharing this story.  There is more possible in families with dogs than I can write in a blog or a book or teach in a seminar, and I have learned so much of it at the feet of a giant dog in a white body, who canoodled around the neighbourhood, in spite of the great odds against him.

Thank you Bunker.  It has been an honour to be a part of your life.  I am sad that we have come to the end.  Rest in Peace, my special Bulldog Friend.

UPDATE:  This is really not actually an update, because it happened many years ago now, however I was asked by a colleague to include the information.  After Bunker died, my friend Corey, in a truly selfless act chose to have a postmortem done.  This was one of the most enlightening actions that she could have done.

As it turned out, the cerebrospinal  fluid in Bunker’s head was not able to exit his brain cavity to his spinal chord normally due to an anatomical abnormality.  This meant that although he could and did go for months with normal behaviour, some of the time he must have been living with a monstrous head ache.  This is a good explanation for why he would be normal for months at a time and then have erratic, explosive episodes for days or weeks and then it would clear up again.

Although in the end we found out “why” Bunker remains for me a profound lesson in treating the behaviour you see instead of looking for ghosts.  He was a dearly loved member of the family, and he taught us all so much about compassion and care, about perseverance and persistence and love, and about behaviour in general.  I could write a book just about Bunker.

GOODBYE BUNKER

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