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The journey back to fitness...

Jackie Bromwich remembers that bitterly cold afternoon at the end of December 2011 well. She was standing on the start line, looking down at her collie Fern who was sitting there, eagerness etched into every line of her muscular little body. Every ounce of her saying 'Okay, let's go. I can do this.' As Fern sailed over the last jump, she grabbed her lead and danced about, her eyes alight, but Jackie was crying. She couldn't stop the tears. She knew that this was going to be their last run together for many months, possibly forever. It could be the end of a glittering agility career that was only just beginning and possibly of life itself.

 Click here for an update on Fern the Bionic Dog

When I first saw Fern she was eight weeks old and living on a North Wales farm. She positively sparkled with energy, running around the barn, playing tug with tremendous enthusiasm and utterly refusing to sit still and be cuddled. She grew into an absolute dynamo of a dog - never still, full of energy, still refusing flatly to accept any form of petting, but she was so quick to learn.

Now I've had many dogs over the years, but never in my life have I had anything with such a brain. Fern adored clicker training and just soaked up everything I tried to teach her. She produced challenges as well. She was incredibly independent, assertive and manipulative, and once she was older, had absolutely no hesitation in imposing her will on all the other dogs in the household, and using her teeth to enforce her authority if she thought it was necessary. This did not always make her the easiest dog in the world to live with, especially in a multi-dog household. However we worked hard on the training, and Fern gradually began to settle and to prove her worth in agility.

She won out of Grade 3 in her first season of competition, and the following year 2011, she qualified at UKA for the CSJ final, the Tug-e-nuff final and the Split Pairs final, and had her first Grade 4 win. The future was looking very rosy, but fate had something nasty waiting round the corner for us.

In June 2011, I noticed that Fern was a bit stiff when she got up in the evenings so I rested her. When it didn't improve, I took her in to the veterinary practice where I work. She was put on painkillers and rest. When she still didn't improve, she was x-rayed. I was fairly shattered to discover that she had hip dysplasia with secondary arthritic changes. There followed a few months of conventional treatment and keeping her active to maintain mobility and muscle and keep her weight as low as possible to reduce any impact on her joints. She also got joint protective supplements and a course of Cartrophen injections (another joint supplement) and the occasional pain control medication when she was uncomfortable.

Fern, however, did not improve
Gradually she began to show more and more lameness after exercise. Her hind gait changed to a choppy short striding action instead of the fluid drive and extension that she previously showed. By September, Fern was becoming bored with the periods of inactivity - and bad tempered as a consequence of constant pain - so she was referred to Noel Fitzpatrick, known to television viewers as the Bionic Vet, at Fitzpatrick Referrals in Surrey.

There Fern was x-rayed and had an MRI scan, and the diagnosis of hip dysplasia was further complicated by the possibility of spinal pain due to a degenerated disc, and by a degree of stifle instability. She had a course of shockwave treatment to reduce pain and inflammation in her hips, along with physiotherapy and hydrotherapy to help build muscle. However, while Fern remained sound during her eight weeks of rest, as soon as her exercise began to increase, so did the lameness. By the end of November, she could barely manage 20 minutes walking without being severely lame and her quality of life was deteriorating, along with her temper.

We returned again to Fitzpatrick Referrals, and this time she was given a steroid injection into the hip joint, mainly by way of a diagnostic procedure, the idea being that if the problem was the hip, the injection should give a temporary cure, although it was not a treatment that could be continued long term. If she showed improvement, then I was to return to the practice to discuss the possibility of a total hip replacement. Within 10 days, the difference in her was remarkable. She was totally sound, went back to doing a full walk with the other dogs, enjoyed some agility training and even managed to compete for the last time at the UKA December show - carefully I might add and only when I was certain that the smooth flowing steeplechase course was not going to set her a challenge beyond her capabilities.

However, her improvement was short-lived, and by January she was once again showing considerable lameness. Money was becoming an issue, as her available insurance had been considerably depleted. I was coming under a great deal of pressure from various sources to put her to sleep, and not to spend money that I did not have on major surgery, that may not be successful on a dog whose temperament had become unreliable. On the 4 January, I returned very reluctantly to Fitzpatrick Referrals, knowing that if hip replacement surgery was going to be necessary, then there was a very strong possibility that Fern would face euthanasia.

When Noel examined Fern again, she screamed with pain everywhere he touched on her hindquarters. He told me that he felt that the problem was the hip, and she was therefore a candidate for hip replacement surgery, but this was complicated by the previous diagnosis of spinal and stifle problems. He also said that he could not guarantee that surgery would cure her problems. However, when discussed, his emphatic and absolute rejection of the idea of euthanasia, and his offer to allow me to pay by instalments the extra cost that would not be covered by insurance gave me the lever to agree to the surgery. I will always be truly grateful to him for this, as I came so close to giving in to the critics and making the decision to put her to sleep.

Fern had her surgery a week later
When Noel spoke to me afterwards, he said that during the operation, it was obvious that the hip joint was very damaged. He felt we had made the right decision to go ahead with the surgery. I collected her four days later, and she was obviously very pleased to be home, although rather subdued, and she settled into her crate rest without any problems. Initially she could only go out for toilet duties, and I had to walk her with a sling round her hindquarters as the risk of dislocation of the implant was high in the first few weeks, so it was imperative that she did not slip.

At her two week check up, she was given the all clear to begin slow walking exercise, no trotting, and no more than 10 minutes each time, but four times a day. This was to increase by five minutes a week until 12 weeks post-op. It was obvious that Fern was not going to be the only one building muscle. She also started physiotherapy exercises, to be performed three times a day. Over the next few weeks, we seemed to do nothing but walk, walk, walk, but it was paying off as at her six week check up, the vet that examined her could not believe how well she was doing, and how much muscle she had already built up. She started twice weekly hydrotherapy with Linda Nicholls at Poppy's Pool, and we continued on the never ending round of walking and physio.

In April, Fitzpatrick Referrals were hosting a 3-day Canine Sports Medicine Seminar with Chris Zink from the USA. I had been asked to provide demonstration dogs for the practical part of the seminar, and I took Fern along with the others. She was used as a mystery 'is there anything wrong with this dog' case, demonstrating a method of detecting very subtle lameness. This method showed that she was not quite placing her full weight on her right hind, although to the eye, she appeared to trot up perfectly soundly. The delegates were all utterly amazed when it was revealed that she was less than 14 weeks post hip replacement surgery, since she looked so good. Noel examined her again after the day's lectures and said that he was very pleased with her progress.

Fern continued to make brilliant improvement and, by the end of May, she was allowed back to normal off lead exercise. This was a huge milestone my little dog who had been crippled with pain after 20 minutes walking six months previously was able to run again and it was so fantastic to see. By the end of June, she was well muscled again and back on her normal exercise regime, so tentatively, and with a great deal of help from Bridgette Wyre who had previously rehabilitated her own dog, Della, back to agility after major surgery, Fern began agility training again. At first we concentrated on proprioceptive exercises, gridwork and building her jumping muscles back up again, and once she proved she was capable, began working on her re-training with competition in mind.

Fern competed again for the first time in August, and was placed 2nd in her class. I continued her training and she competed a couple more times during the autumn. Then at the end of December she was entered in the same show that had been her last show prior to surgery. For me, standing on the start line at this show was a very emotive moment. Fern had made such a long journey and had been through so much since we stood in the same place a year previously, and had come so close to the edge. Yet here we were, and once again she waited, eager anticipation in every line of her body as she glanced to the jump, to me, and back to the jump again. I led out, she ran, we danced the dance together, and she won the class, less than a year after total hip replacement.

The future?
Hopefully 2013 will be a good year and Fern will be competing regularly again. However, I will always be selective in the courses she runs and the condition of the ground. Watching her run free on walks, racing the other dogs, playing ball, in pain-free glorious health gives me so much pleasure and I would not want to jeopardise this for any amount of agility rosettes. But it's good to have her back!

Post note: Jackie has posted a video of Fern's journey back to health following a total hip replacement, showing clips from her re-training, and then from some of the shows that she did last year. Click here to see it

Update...
To date, Fern has been competing really well this year. She started off at UKA so that we could really build our working partnership again with plenty of training in the ring, and I was thrilled when she won novice agility in May at Mapledurham, and felt that we were really getting it together again. She won G4 jumping at PADS at the end of May a weekend of real highs and lows, as I lost a dog very unexpectedly that weekend and then followed this with a G4 agility win in June. She has her first G5 runs this coming weekend. 

I am so thrilled that, not only has she recovered so well that she leads a normal life, but that she is able to compete and win again at the level she has which is amazing, considering that she is now part dog, part metal. She is a real credit to both the surgery and the rehabilitation.

She is taking part in the display of agility by the Fitzpatrick Bionic Heroes at Dog Fest in July, and we are both really looking forward to demonstrating how well she is to the team that operated on her last year. (10 July 2013)

About the author...
Jackie Bromwich
first became involved in agility in 1984, and has been breeding Border Collies under the Foxtwist affix since 1987. She has competed and judged at all levels in agility up to and including Grade 7, and has qualified with several different dogs for most of the major finals over the years, with the exception of Olympia, where she has always failed at the semi-finals due to terror and poor handling! She is also a Championship show judge of Border Collies in the breed ring.

Jackie worked for many years in a veterinary practice as a qualified Behaviour Counsellor, but had a change of direction four months ago and currently works for the raw feeding company, Honey's Real Dog Food.

She currently has eight dogs, seven border collies and a Japanese Spitz, and has always enjoyed the challenge of running multiple dogs in agility. She currently competes with six, the other two being retired, but now she is getting older, feels that she would be doing much better if she could run as fast as she could twenty years ago!

Pre and post-op x-rays provided by Fitzpatrick Referrals. For more information about their services, go to www.fitzpatrickreferrals.co.uk

First published 12 February 2013