Helen’s Journey

HelenHelen was a special dog, in more ways than most people imagine.

Not long after birth in 1999 Helen was diagnosed as completely blind. As she grew that evaluation turned out not to be 100% accurate as her vision appeared to improve as she got a little older. In fact, as an adult most people would be completely unaware of her eyesight challenges as she navigated her world with relative ease. Looking into her eyeballs, however, the evidence was most certainly clear: massive cataracts deep inside.

We believe she had some amount of peripheral vision around those growths. As a result she developed a characteristic bobbing of her head as she worked to form a complete picture from the partial, peripheral information. Even when her head was at rest the eyeballs themselves would bobble up and down if she was looking at something (and yes, that took a little getting used to). Naturally we called her our “bobble-head”.

Helen came to us at the age of two, somewhat by accident. Her breeder was heading out to a show, had a car-full of dogs already and was concerned that Helen would be miserable if left behind. We offered to take her for a few days.

“A few days” became eleven and a half years as Helen walked in like she owned the place and promptly became our third Corgi.

Helen joined our first Corgi, Vera, and Guido, and we gave them the collective title of The Woodinville Ground Crew.

As she aged, Helen’s life turned out to have more than its fair share of challenges:

* Mostly blind since birth
* Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
* Age-related Arthritis
* Intervertebral Disk Disease (IVDD)
* Suspected Degnerative Myelopathy (DM) (She tested as “At Risk”.)
* Cushings Disease
* Age-related (and perhaps occasionally selective) Deafness

I’d sometime rattle off parts of that list and joke “that’s why we call her Lucky”.

Helen in MotionWhat’s remarkable is that even with that long list of “adversities”, her spirit didn’t flag. In fact, she was a happy, active and very opinionated dog. When Vera passed it was Helen who assumed the role of Alpha among our dogs. When someone knocked at the door it was Helen’s “armor-piercing bullet-barks” that would alert us to the event (or just let us know that dinner was late).

Her inability to see clearly didn’t stop her from being an active, and vocal, part of the action when in good weather we’d break out the hose and let the dogs chase after the stream. It became apparent that in addition to whatever she could see, she was also following the other dogs and using them as cues. And just as with the other dogs it was one of her most loved activities.

It also didn’t stop her from being downright fearless in her approach to life. Very little got in her way.

It was Helen who caught a Quail in our back yard … in a bush, at night. When you think about it makes sense that daylight might not be as important when poor eyesight has caused other senses to become more attuned. Helen’s also the one that dispatched the neighbor’s elderly rabbit who made an unfortunate choice to visit our backyard. (We’re still not sure if she stumbled across the rabbit, or sniffed it out and tracked it down … both are equally likely.)

And when disability reared its ugly head, it was Helen who showed us what it meant to simply accept your lot and move on.

The video at the right shows some of the characteristic movements of a dog in the early stages of this type of problem (be it IVDD or DM). It also shows Helen taking to the cart with ease. (Additional videos: literally her very first time in the cart, and roughly a year later, showing both the progression of the disease, as well as Helen’s continued, and vocal, passion for the hose … in her cart.)

As her mobility issues increased her two-wheeled cart became a four wheeled, and finally for most of the last year of her life she was completely immobile on her own. She became our carry-around dog, as well as spending time in her red wagon and occasionally the stroller.

In her final couple of months it was Helen’s happiness that increasingly began to elude both her and us, be it from finally becoming frustrated with her lot, some additional undiagnosed ailments or something else. Try as she might, she couldn’t tell us, all we knew is that she had reached a point where she was either sleeping, eating or unhappy about something.

Helen’s journey ended November 3rd, 2012. She was just over 13 and a half.

Helen Snoozing
Helen napping, September 28, 2012 at the Pembroke Welsh Corgi National Specialty

I sometimes try to think about the spirits that enter and leave our lives and the challenges that we’re given, and I ask myself “what is it I’m supposed to learn from this?”.

What was Helen sent here to teach me?

I don’t know the specific answer – perhaps it has yet to become apparent – but I can share a few thoughts…

On the practical, care-giving side of things we’d already learned much about caring for dogs that can’t walk with Guido, but Helen added to our knowledge. We learned that pet-sized air mattresses exist and that they’re a good thing for an immobile animal. Sometime warm water is more palatable than cold if your dog refuses water (and low-sodium broth is often a winner if even warm water doesn’t do it).

Helen in the Snow

Caregivers need to be cared for. During Helen’s last couple of years, and most especially her last few months, she was very high maintenance for a variety of reasons. That was hard, both physically and emotionally. Not only is it important to at least acknowledge that, but also to take steps to, somehow, care for yourself as well. And there can be no doubt, nor should there be any guilt, that this must also factor into any end of life decisions.

But perhaps Helen’s biggest lesson is that it’s not our abilities or lack of abilities that determine our ability to enjoy life. It’s our spirit. What Helen lacked in eyesight she more than made up for in spirit.

Adversities? What adversities?

She had a wonderful life.

(There are many more pictures of Helen here.)

26 thoughts on “Helen’s Journey”

  1. Leo, I cannot imagine going through this with two dogs. I only had the one– and that was enough. You and Kathy are a wonderful set of dog parents…long may you live in love and joy with dogs.

    Walt Boyes

  2. Hi Kathy and leo…

       What a beautiful letter and photos about Helen. I gotta admit,,,I was pretty choked up when I left your house last Thursday. Never a happy time, but it is great you were able to have her in your life and she is free from pain.

    my thoughts are with you all…..hugs to you… Sheila and Ernie too!

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. Your loss is shared by so many of us who share our homes and hearts with Corgis…. My Halley, at 9.10 was diagnosed in February, ’12 with DM. I feel so fortunate she will make it to 10 years on January 17, and hope to have many more months, if not years, to spend with her. I picture your Helen on the wings of eagles, flying toward the bridge and relishing the sights, sounds, smells and wind in her whiskers…

  4. Thanks for sharing brave Helen’s amazing journey with us & for being great examples on caring for these little ones. Reading about Helen reminded us of how much our Miso (blind & IVDD) also inspired us w/her spirit.

  5. Leo and Kathy,

    I am so saddened by your loss and my heart aches for what you two must be going through. Helen is/was such a special soul and although I didn’t get much time around her she taught me a lot too! I wish comfort and peace for you and Kathy!


  6. My heart goes out to the family upon losing such a treasured family member. My she rest in peace and be remembered forever.

  7. I’m so sorry to hear about Helen. I’m so glad I got to meet her. What a remarkable story. You and she were so lucky to have found each other. I know she had a great life with you and that you’ll see her again some day.

  8. Thank you for telling Helen’s story. What a wonderful life she had with you, and how she enriched yours! We are so sorry for your loss–many arrrrooooos for you all!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story about Helen. My memories of her from Corgi parties at your Woodenville home are of a charming and fearless individual. She couldn’t have found a better space and was lucky to have all of you (Leo, Kathy and the crew) to take the journey with.

  10. Leo,
    I read your account of Helen’s life with tears of joy, sorrow and the deep understanding that comes from having shared my life with a DM-challenged Corgi. I know Helen had a truly wonderful life with you and Kathy. Sending hugs and Corgi kisses to help ease your sadness.
    Sue in Raleigh
    Morgan and Elf
    And Forrest on silent paws

  11. Leo, Kathy & the Pack –

    From your tribute, Helen looked to be a wonderful, loving companion and you all, extraordinary (loving) caregivers. Thank you for sharing her story.

    Hang in,

    Karen & the Northern Virginia Pack
    Ginger Snap – the Pem – at 1 yr the Alpha
    Tess – the Sheltie
    Trudi – the Doxie

  12. What a touching tribute. I am so sad for your loss. I know she was so very loved and am grateful I was able to meet Helen.

  13. Kathy and Leo

    I also know first hand about loving a dog with multiple health challenges and share your amazement at the indefatigable spirit these wonderful animals show us.
    I am privileged to have met Helen and to have seen first hand the love you shared.
    Helen, since meeting you I have held you in the light. It is with great sadness that I let you go.

  14. Leo and Kathy,

    What an amazing tribute to a very special corgi. The love you felt for Helen was so evident in your words and in the care you provided for her through the years. Sending hugs your way.

    Cheryl and Griffin

  15. Dear Leo and Kathy:

    I write this with a strange combination of a heavy heart for the unspeakable loss you have suffered, as well as an incredible lift to my spirit, knowing how loved Helen was, and how it was reciprocated. Anyone who has lost a companion who was TRULY part of their family, could not have held back the waves of emotion Helen’s {and yours and Kathy’s} story brought to my eyes….she’s arunnin’ in those steams and jumping fences tonight….at least, that’s the way I prefer to think of her right now, no matter how ridiculous it might sound…

    Go get your treats, Helen; your “girlish figure” worries are all behind you now….

  16. Leo, what a wonderful tribute to a very special corgi! I have not forgotten the first meeting of Helen at Grayland Beach, as she was in her cart and able to navigate around with the other “cart corgis” Last year, her presence was missed as she was unable to be with us as much. I feel privileged to have met your Helen, the love you and Kathy showed for her was evident and will inspire myself and many others.

    Carol, Lucky and Sonny

  17. Helen was sent here to remind us, through your tribute, that DOG is GOD spelled backwards (no such thing as coincidence, right?) … her spirit with unconditional undying love is the lesson and the blessing from which to take comfort. Thank you.

  18. What a beautiful tribute to a very special dog. Thank you, so much, for sharing Helen’s inspiring story and the love that your family was blessed to share with her. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  19. Dear Kathy and Leo,
    My heart breaks for you both with the loss of sweet Helen. What a beautiful tribute to a beloved family member. She had a wonderful life and touched many people. I hope that knowing so many people share your sorrow will help lighten the load. I know all those wonderful memories will soon help heal the hurt you feel now. (((hugs))) to you both!
    Peggy and Sprocket

  20. Leo and Kathy,

    I am so sorry about Helen! I love this page. What a great way to remember her! I love that you shared this with me! Take care!

    Cherie Guidry

  21. dear Leo and Kathy, it’s so hard to loose one of your babies. my heart goes out to you.. Helen was such a sweet girl,we’ll all miss her.. and such a great tribute to her.. hugs,diane,Truman,and Rylee-the cardi’s

  22. What a beautiful life your precious Helen had with you. My sincere condolenses to you & Kathy. What wonderful corgi parents you are..I am so very sorry for your loss. Susan

  23. Kathy and I want to thank everyone for their comments and support. Yes, Helen was a special girl and we’ll miss her dearly. But losing our pets is also part of what we each sign up for when we take them in the first place. The final lesson? Enjoy your time with them, and with others, for some day you know it will end.

    Spammers have found this page and are now attempting to post their garbage here, so I’m going to close comments on this post.

    Again, our deepest thanks for all your support.

    Leo & Kathy

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