One bitterly cold and snowy morning a few years ago, I returned from
a walk with my dog, a one and a half year-old English Springer Spaniel
named George. My wife Chris was at work and, having dropped off my two
sons at school, the day lay spread out before me, open and welcoming.
There was writing to do, but it could wait. I grabbed a book and
hunkered down in my favorite chair, and considered building a fire.
George circled his bed next to me, laid down, crossed his paws, yawned,
and fell asleep.
About ten minutes later, George rose awkwardly from his bed and lurched
sideways. My first response was to laugh. I thought the dope was having
a bad dream. But within seconds I recognized he was instead having a
seizure. Eyes wild, George fell on his side and began to run in place,
his normally floppy muzzle instead constricted in an insane rictus. Ten,
maybe fifteen seconds had passed since he’d first risen from his bed.
Not knowing what else to do, I leapt up and ran into the other room
until the seizure passed, my heart hammering in my chest, my mouth dry.
After another minute, I approached him as one might approach a wild
animal. He appeared not to recognize me.
At the vet’s office, I told the doctor what had happened, and
included what I considered an essential detail: George had sniffed an
empty solvent can in the alley that morning during our walk.
“Someone on some dog forum said certain chemicals cause seizures,” I
told the vet. “So maybe that’s it. The solvent can.”
The vet looked at me with a vague, slightly sad or empty look that I
later understood to be sympathy.
“Describe the seizure again, if you would,” the vet asked, placing the
earpiece of his eyeglasses between his teeth, as if he suddenly doubted
the whole story.
“Well, I’m not sure what else you want to know,” I said. “He was lying
on his side and foaming at the mouth. He peed and …shat …too. When
he finished, he barked at me as if I’d done something bad to him, then
stumbled around like he was blind.”
“That’s called the post-ictal phase,” he said, almost to himself.
“Anyhow, apologies for prying. I have to ask.”
He went on to say that the main treatment for canine epilepsy is an
anticonvulsant called phenobarbitol, a barbiturate that can serve
equally well as a doggy downer or a people downer. “We’ve had some
trouble with people faking canine seizures so they can get a
prescription,” he told me.
When he’d determined that I did not intend to either eat or sell my
dog’s anti-seizure pills, the doctor sighed.
“Probability allows me to say that he’s got idiopathic epilepsy,” he
said. “But we need to run some tests, to make sure it’s not a few other
things, liver disease, a brain tumor.” Canine epilepsy typically showed
up in dogs exactly George’s age, he told me, and also that English
Springers were more prone to epilepsy than other breeds.
His disappointment could not have been more apparent.
“Listen, having a dog that experiences these sorts of grand mal seizures
is difficult. I’ve been asked to put otherwise perfectly healthy dogs
asleep because their owners couldn’t take it. I think you should know
that up front.”
“Right,” I said. “Thanks, Doc.”
I was convinced this was the first and last seizure my dog would ever
I was wrong.
Aside from his epilepsy, his bad breath, and his annoying ability to
root out any foodstuff that is not stored five feet above the floor,
George could not be a more perfect dog. Funny and inquisitive, naturally
charming, a bit of a wuss, frankly, he’s never chewed on anything, even
as a puppy. Some English Springers are known to be uptight, nervous
dogs. Not George, who couldn’t be more laid back, and who loves human
and canine company with an innocent, blithe and often child-like
openness. He doesn’t bark at guests and instead welcomes them with an
absurd- ass-wiggling dance. A lover, not a fighter, I’ve never heard
George growl, except when he’s trying to rip Duck, his little stuffed
friend, in two. Unbeknownst to him, his lip often gets stuck on his
upper tooth, giving him a dopy, absent-minded mien. Other times, he
adopts a pose that is nothing short of regal. He possesses the masculine
ideal of dog beauty. The squared-off muzzle, the tri-color coat, the
flowing locks: Striking.
Whenever anyone asks about George’s intelligence, the first phrase that
usually pops into my head is, for whatever reasons, “box of rocks”. He
is the kind of dog who often forgets that his dog bed is a rectangle and
not a square. I can’t count how many times I’ve watched him approach the
bed, circling it warily, appearing to inspect it, and then flopping down
on the bed not lengthwise but crosswise, his head and back legs on the
floor, his midbody on the cushion of the bed. A look will often appear
in his eyes as he’s lying akimbo, his head on the hardwood floor, as if
to say, “This should be more comfortable. Hm. Well, I’ll figure it out
eventually, but first a nap.” While falling asleep, a sibilant sound not
unlike the yogi’s Ujjayi breath will come from his throat, which has
earned him the nickname Whistlers. I’ve awakened too many times to count
to my wife’s elbowing me in the ribs, telling me to quit snoring, at
which time we both realize it’s not me, but George, sawing away there in
his crate like Popeye. Tennis balls? George appears to genuinely enjoy
lying on the ground in the sun and watching you throw them. His breath
often smells of old pumpkins or, alternately, blue cheese. Every morning
when unloosed from his crate George will stretch and greet you with a
yarling cry that sounds not unlike Chewbacca. When out for one of his
daily rambles, George will often walk proudly down the trail, head held
high, a stick hanging out of his mouth like a giant cigar.
Finally, he will often approach you as you’re seated, carefully place a
single paw on your knee, raise his muzzle and look into the middle
The look is quite regal and meaningful but, knowing George as well as we
do, it probably means, “Hey, man, ain’t it about supper time?”
One morning while at my office grading papers, I received a text
from our friend Kevin. Kevin still picks George up twice a week with a
few other dogs, and piles them into his Ford Escort station wagon for
the trip out to a state park for a day of hiking. Kevin’s text explained
that George appeared spaced out when Kevin had arrived at our house that
morning, and he was pretty sure George had had a seizure before he,
Since the first seizure on that winter’s day, George’s epilepsy had
gotten worse. Almost monthly, George had begun experience at least one
cluster of seizures, with each cluster consisting of anywhere from five
to twenty grand mal seizures, usually spread out over a couple days.
They often happened in the middle of the night, and if you’ve never been
awakened at 3 a.m. by a 70 pound dog having a grand mal seizure,
consider yourself blessed. There was always someone at home to help
him—Chris and I noted the weirdly regular clusters would often happen
on weekends— but then our elder son went off to college at Sewanee and
our younger son became that much busier with high school and then a
summer job. As if we had a sick child, Chris and I found ourselves
avoiding certain plans that might keep both of us away from the house
for more than a couple of hours. Still, there were days when it was
unavoidable that George be alone. This was one of those days.
I arrived home from work in the afternoon while Kevin and George were
still out, and upon opening our front door I walked into what appeared
to be a crime scene. As he’d gone into one of his numerous seizures,
George had knocked over a large corner display case in our pantry, one
which held every large bowl in our house—glass serving bowls, ceramic
salad bowls, mixing bowls, a few of them wedding gifts from our marriage
in the mid 90s, many more made by my mother, a skilled ceramicist. On
the floor in front of me were pounds of smashed glass and crockery. Our
house smelled of a kennel.
After a grand mal seizure, in what’s called the post-ictal phase, it’s
not uncommon for a dog to become effectively blind. A human with
epilepsy might be disoriented in the post-ictal phase, but a human has
the sense to lie still until the phase passes. Not so George, who,
rather than recognizing his blindness and staying in one place until his
sight was regained, had wandered in this blind and panicked state
helplessly, running into walls, chairs, cabinets, doors and display
cases like a bumper car. For hours.
Our house was in complete disarray. Somehow George wandered into the
upstairs guest room, which, like much of the downstairs, looked as if it
had been rifled by one of those crews of criminals looking for secret
documents in an old movie about spies and the cold war. A heavy dresser
had been moved away from the wall. A table lamp lay on the floor, the
shade cracked, bulb broken. Books were scattered, the spines split.
Little gold human bodies were spread at my feet; a bunch of our boys’
old soccer and lacrosse trophies had been knocked off a shelf and
shattered when they hit the ground.
Being a dog owner, like being a parent, allows one to become
familiarized with certain functions of the body that have to do with
waste, and another thing that happens when George has a seizure is that
everything is, for lack of a better term, evacuated. Over the next half
hour, I learned that as a result of George’s post-ictal peregrinations,
there was evidence of said evacuation smeared in every room in our
house. There was evidence on the living room club chairs, both white
upholstered; there it was in the upstairs guest room, in our bedroom, in
my wife’s office, in my own office. If I’d ever wondered just how much
evidence could be stored in a dog’s body, I found out that afternoon.
It took me hours to clean it all up.
After a few months’ worth of consistent and awful seizures that had
us all, George included, about at the end of our collective rope, I told
the vet a story that had slipped my mind throughout the first months of
George’s diagnosis. During yet another fruitless hour spent on the
internet trying to research canine epilepsy, I’d read that brain trauma
might result in seizures. In fact, George had had an experience as an
eight-month-old puppy that might’ve been traumatic to his then avocado
It was Thanksgiving at my parents’ house on Monument Avenue in Richmond.
We’d only had George a few months and had not yet learned that our
gangly, cute puppy had epilepsy. Our family had a tradition of walking
to the nearby Virginia Museum in the afternoon while the turkey cooked,
so we left the four dogs—George, plus my parents’ two corgis and my
sister’s terrier mix—in the house and walked through the chilly
afternoon to the museum.
Arriving home afterwards, the four grandkids a little cranky having been
forced, yet again, to walk the few blocks to the boring museum, all of
us starved, we discovered that George had eaten all of the raw Parker
rolls my mom had left on the counter to rise. How did we know it was
George? He was the only dog tall enough to reach up to the counter on
which the rising rolls sat.
I plucked his belly with my finger; it was as tight as a drum. He
yelped. Before long, little pigtails of undigested raw dough began to
grow out of George’s hind-parts, so I put him in the backyard, thinking
he’d get the dough out of his system and be okay.
After Thanksgiving supper, Chris checked on George, still banished to
the backyard, and noticed that he was a little unsteady on his feet.
“Sniff him,” she said. “He smells like a brewery.”
It was true. He had that stale, yeasty smell of a hungover college
student. His eyes were red, his muzzle curved into a goofy smile. George
was drunk. And not just drunk, but smashed out of his mind. So pounded
that once we’d gotten him inside and settled onto his dog bed, he
couldn’t lift his head. When I picked him up to try to force him to
stand on his feet he couldn’t. He had the spins.
I Googled dog eat raw dough or something and of course the first hits
allowed us to know that we had a serious problem on our hands. First of
all, it’s the number one hit on Thanksgiving, or at least it was that
year, and second of all, the hits were typically extreme their
prediction of our dog’s imminent death. I was reminded that I’d once
used Dr. Google to research a calf problem I was having, only to learn
that my symptoms matched some circulatory condition that would, of
course, result in my having a fatal embolism within the hour.
But in this case the results about dogs eating raw dough appeared legit:
The yeast in the rolls were continuing to consume the sugar in the dough
inside of George’s stomach and doing what yeast and sugar do, make
alcohol. George was in danger of dying from ethanol poisoning.
My dad, who before he died in 2015 was as much a dog lover as ever
lived, bundled him up and we took him to the emergency animal hospital
in Richmond, where George spent the night. The following day we picked
him up, George looking sheepish but none the worse for wear.
After telling our vet in Baltimore this story about George’s alcohol
poisoning from his consumption of raw dough, I hoped he’d slap his
forehead and cry out, “Why on earth didn’t you tell me this from the
get-go? There’s a pill for alcohol-induced brain damage! A simple
procedure! There will be no more seizures. George will be cured anon!”
“Nope,” said the vet. “The alcohol didn’t cause the seizures. Or, maybe
it did. Who knows.”
As of this writing, we’re in a wonderful span of time when George’s
seizures have occurred less frequently, and his last cluster was mild.
Much of this is due to having not just a fantastic veterinarian, helped
by a team of tireless assistants and fellow vets who occupy a small,
humble office in the heart of east Baltimore. Additionally, we have the
magic of medical science to thank: in addition to his phenobarbitol,
George now gets 1.5 milliliters of potassium bromide every morning,
which has mitigated the seizures and, as far as we can tell, hasn’t
altered George’s demeanor in the least. He’s still up to his old
mischief—woe betide the man who leaves a bag of fresh bagels on the
counter within snout’s reach, or who happens to leave a bag of peanut
M&M’s in a duffel bag on the floor.
I’ve heard tell of a perfect pooch, one that exists solely as a boon
companion, a source of nothing but happiness, a reminder that throughout
toil and strife, of the base qualities of human struggle, there exists a
higher plane that we can only aspire to.
Personally, I’ve never met this perfect dog, and George sure ain’t it.
Still, our relationship with George has allowed us to arrive at a
slightly elevated state of being, based on some highfalutin’
philosophical thoughts. Daily, we’re reminded of the Buddhist concept of
chod, or accepting willingly what is undesirable. Because George’s
condition is disruptive, he’s become a symbol that life is full of joy,
but also pain and suffering. We love him all the better for his ability
to remind us of life’s perfect imperfections.
Before his nap this morning, while in the yard, I had to castigate him
yet again for eating the rabbit turds he finds so toothsome and which
give him the marthambles something awful, and he gave me that annoyed
look out of the corner of his eyes, like a teenager caught with a tin of
Skoal. He’ll have more seizures, this we know, and waiting for them is
nothing short of awful. But George is more a part of our family all the
more as a result of his epilepsy, a constant reminder that one’s idea of
perfection is subjective, the most important lesson one can learn.
Jack Carneal is the author of "Destroy Your Safe and Happy Lives," a memoir about his time as a musician. He teaches writing at Towson University.