Just over a year ago Ahwatukee Foothills resident Stephanie Bird was told her then 10-year-old Boxer, Sasha, had degenerative myelopathy, a disease which would cause the dog to slowly become paralyzed. The vet told her that Sasha had maybe a year to live.
Now a year later Sasha is partially paralyzed, she has trouble using her two back legs, but she has spent the last year teaching her owner an important lesson about becoming stronger physically, mentally, and within her community.
Each day Bird wakes up early, before it gets too hot, and loads Sasha and her wheelchair into her truck. Together they drive to a point in the neighborhood and get out and Bird walks Sasha back home.
“She needs to have a goal in mind of where she is going,” Bird explained. “She doesn’t like to just walk like she used to.”
When Sasha takes a break during their walk, her owner does push-ups or sit-ups. Once they get back home Bird takes off Sasha’s wheelchair and runs back to where she parked her car, fitting in a little more exercise.
“I reached a point three to four months ago where I had to decide what to do,” Bird said. “Taking care of her is hard on my body. She’s 60 pounds. I decided I was going to keep going. I got more serious about my own health. I ordered her the wheelchair. That was a rough decision for me. There were several moments where I took her to the vet thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this.’ I wish she could talk to me and tell me if she still wants to be here. Every time I talked to her and looked into her eyes it was clear to me that she still wants to be here, with me.”
The Boxer was a tough one from the beginning. She had a lot of energy as a puppy and Bird said she had to train herself to ride a bike with Sasha on a leash, so that she could get her energy out. She learned from her dog then that even when the situation seems difficult, it’s possible to make adjustments. Now, years later, the wheelchair is just another adjustment not only for Bird but for her neighbors.
Sasha has received some attention since she started her regular walks strapped into the contraption.
“I’ve gotten to know my neighbors a lot better than I would have,” Bird said. “Usually dog owners walk by each other and might say hello but there’s not really a lot of conversation. Definitely a question I get a lot is what happened to her, or what’s wrong with her. Other neighbors that I’ve already talked to will even stop driving and cheer her on. It’s a cool part of the process. It’s encouraging on my part. Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy. It’s nice to have the support.”
Bird takes Sasha to the vet regularly for steroid shots. She also listens carefully for Sasha’s light barks throughout the house that alert her to when the dog has a need. Usually she just wants help moving to be in the same room her owner is in.
There is no sure-fire treatment for degenerative myelopathy, but it’s not a painful disease. It is genetic and is most common in German Shepherds and Welsh Corgis. The nerves in the spine slowly shut down from the hind legs up to the neck.
Bird has tried different holistic vets or pet chiropractors to help her dog but without a definite cure, for now she’s just focusing on helping Sasha get up and move — for as long as she wants to.
“When I look in her eyes I know she still wants to be here so I choose what she wants, not what’s convenient,” she said. “She’s taught me a lot about life and about living in the moment. I don’t know if I would be who I am if it weren’t for having a dog. I want to honor what she has taught me about life. Certainly I hope some day when I get as old as she is that someone will take care of me the same way. I think it’s about giving what you hope to receive sometimes.”
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