9 min read

Caring For My Sick Dog Has Made Me A Better Parent

It's a tribute to his species that I can't discern whether Vector is typical or extraordinary.

Vector, my 6-year-old rescue dog, was suddenly acting twice his age.

He was wincing, doddering, balking at easy jumps on and off the couch. His back was hunched, his gait narrow and tepid. He wasn't even greeting his favorite human at the front door upon my return from work.

"Not again," I thought, kneeling over to caress Vector on the living room floor.

I'd barely crouched down when a rolling blur rounded the corner from the dining room. At a speed seemingly impossible for a 13-month-old to reach, my human son, Nicholas, was bearing down on Vector in his walker - an infant Fred Flintstone about to mess up Dino's day.

I managed to scoop up Vector a split second before his baby brother's attempted fratricide. Instead of Vector's head, the walker slammed into my knees. Nicholas shrieked with laughter while I groaned in pain.

Christopher Dale

"Nicholas!" I yelled, suddenly in touch with my famous temper.

I looked at my pathetic pooch, then back at my son. That's all it took.

"Next time crash into your mother," I joked, placing my adorable dog safely on the couch before hoisting my equally adorable son.

Sudden Rescue, Ongoing Recovery

I've written before about the rough life Vector endured before joining my family. As a stray in Puerto Rico for about three years, his survival is at least an unlikelihood, at most a miracle.

Christopher Dale

All of 23 pounds, Vector competed for scant resources on an island with a notorious stray problem - some 300,000 desperate dogs. His tail was bitten off, and a sizable scar blemishes his snout. He's missing a toe and a chunk of ear. And in a hot, humid environment with year-round insects, Vector contracted heartworm and tick-borne ehrlichia common to Caribbean canines.

Before those treacherous conditions finished him off, the heroes at The Sato Project - who've rescued countless strays over six years scouring Puerto Rico's aptly named Dead Dog Beach - swooped in and spared him. But of course, though rescues are rags to riches stories, Vector's maladies weren't magically healed upon his deliverance from that godforsaken place.

The list is expansive. Stitches to his ear and the painkillers, ointments and inevitable self-inflicted re-wounding that came with it. Heartworm treatment - a series of painful injections of an arsenical compound whose side effects can be fatal. Ongoing treatment for ehrlichia, which attacks white blood cells and poses risks ranging from neurological ailments to kidney disease.

Luckily, his latest affliction was comparably banal: the vet diagnosed a pulled back muscle - a pretty severe sprain, but nothing a little R&R and some anti-inflammatories wouldn't fix. Another bullet dodged.

Still, the totality of Vector's ailments is gut-wrenching. This little guy has seen a lifetime's worth of injuries, diseases and misery, and he's not even 7.

But as of last March, Vector's pain has an unforeseen beneficiary: his reckless driver of a baby brother, Nicholas Li Dale.

Christopher Dale

Pain & Gain

In a perfect world, Vector's remaining years would be irrepressibly happy and unfailingly healthy. In reality, Vector is happy much of the time, and healthy some of it. Some days his nub is wagging with vitality, others it's stilled by pain.

At first glance, his difficult days seem wasted. After all, Vector's pain isn't building his character or fortitude. It isn't helping shape who he is, forging his will to achieve bigger and better things.

Christopher Dale

My solace is this: If Vector understood the ripples of love, patience and compassion that permeate his family as a result of our caring for him - unconditionally through sickness and in health - he'd gladly put up with a backache or two. Or 20.

It hurts to even type this, but his pain has been our gain, starting with my role as a father.

Christopher Dale

Part of this is common sense: How can I show unwavering patience and compassion to an ailing animal but lose my temper, for example, when my baby flings food from his highchair? Simply put, the former action makes the latter look stupid. For me, nursing Vector has provided a much-needed attitude adjustment that shines through in my day-to-day parenting responsibilities.

Then there's the macro view - the forest for the (marked) trees. It's about what Vector is, what he represents, and the positives he evokes from his family.

Vector's durability, persistence and amnesiac optimism are amazing. The severity and sheer number of ailments he has shaken off like so much bathwater is certainly superhuman, and perhaps super-canine; it's a tribute to his species that I can't discern whether Vector is typical or extraordinary.

Vector keeps going strong no matter what life throws at him. It's something to remember when Nicholas throws a restaurant temper-tantrum, or decides that 3 a.m. isn't a convenient time for his parents to sleep.

My experience with Vector has made my first thought one of compassion and understanding rather than annoyance and resentment. His pain has helped shape my parental perspective - a newfound glass-is-half-fulledness that, I hope, grows richer as my son grows taller.

Christopher Dale

When he joined my wife and I three-plus years ago, Vector made us a family. Through everything - licks and laughs, pain and hardship - he continues to make us a better one.