Storytime: Peaceful Warrior

Upon noticing a Facebook post from Boston Terrier Rescue of East Tennessee (one of our partner organizations) that they just took in a dog whom they believe to have Sundowner Syndrome, we decided to post this story about Barley, who suffered from the same, in order to support them in their rehabilitation efforts. Hope this helps!

Peaceful Warrior 

We adopted Barley through Great Lakes Golden Retriever Rescue (GLGRR) about 4½ years ago. He is a beautiful Golden/Labrador-mix with lion-colored hair that feels like the silky pile of a thick, expensive rug. The white on his face belies his otherwise youthful appearance and provides character. It’s the kind of face that makes you smile. Speaking of smiles, Barley has many. There’s his “riding in the car, looking from side to side” smile, his “mealtime” smile, and his extra-happy “tongue hanging out” smile, which he shows us when he knows he’s about to get a ride in the car (at which point we go back to the first smile-type).

 My husband, Denny, and I started looking to adopt when we believed our Wheaten Terrier, Biskit, needed a companion of the four-legged variety. A few months earlier, she had lost her sister and fought cancer, which involved surgery and radiation treatments. Since she was well on her way to full recovery, it was time for her to get a new friend. After an extensive search, Biskit had a new big brother named Barley.

It’s easy to remember the date that Barley became a part of our lives – April 24th – because it was also Denny’s birthday. We had found Barley on the GLGRR adoption website after he had been in foster care near Grand Rapids for about eight months. Following several conversations with his foster parents and a successful meet-and-greet with Biskit, we decided that he was the one. Denny made the drive from New Buffalo to Grand Rapids to pick up Barley, while Biskit and I waited at home.

The round trip took more than four hours, and maintaining patience as I waited for Denny and Barley to return was not easy. Biskit knew it. I have always been amazed at the way dogs so readily pick up on our emotions, and, as usual, Biskit wasn’t missing a thing. She was watching intently, focused on me with a look of anticipation. She was waiting right along with me.

Although Biskit and Barley seemed to like each other during their meet-and-greet, we had no idea how they would do living together. As we waited for Barley to arrive, I bounced ideas off Biskit, my attentive listener, as to the best way to introduce Barley to his new home. In the end, we decided on greeting Denny and Barley outside and then taking a walk together to downtown New Buffalo.

Walking with Barley that day was more like a run. He was fast, full of energy, and clearly excited about being in a strange place after the long ride. He stopped and sniffed a lot, and Biskit followed his lead. To this day, we still walk that same route together every morning, and Biskit still likes to play follow-the-leader with Barley.

Once home, Barley was curious, as expected, taking plenty of time to sniff around and investigate. He especially loved his new fenced-in yard, where he could walk and wander all he wanted. He loved being outside.

Inside, Barley immediately recognized his special blanket on the floor of the den, which came with him from his foster home. It did not take long to find out that Barley loves blankets, pillows, and dog beds. Today he has soft items on which he can lounge in every room, but that special blanket still remains in the den.

From the beginning, as we saw how he actually observed his new environment, we could see that Barley was unique. He never intruded. He was tolerant, accepting, and patient, and he had an uncanny air of peacefulness, unlike anything we had ever seen in either dogs or humans. He picked up on patterns and fit right in. Barley showed us wisdom, a trait rarely attributed to a dog. We saw this in his humble demeanor. He just knew how to adapt. He exhibited good manners. If both dogs wanted a drink, he would step back, allowing Biskit to drink first. The same thing applied to going outside and coming back in. We’ve come to realize that these are Barley’s ways. After 4½ years, he is still the same.

Initially, Barley slept in the den on his blanket. It took him a few weeks to move into the hall outside our bedroom door, and then, after a month or so, he came into our room and made his bed in the closet, which we quickly dubbed his “man cave.” Soon he began following Denny everywhere. We’ll never know if the attachment developed because of the trip home together or something else, but it was the beginning of a relationship that can only be described as inseparable. When Denny moves, Barley moves. If Barley doesn’t have Denny in his sight, he searches every room until he finds him.

Barley’s attachment to Denny, combined with his loving, sweet demeanor, has had a significant effect on us, causing us to change the way we do things. These days we take Biskit and Barley virtually everywhere with us, and we go out of our way to help our dogs live good lives. We would do anything for Barley, and if Biskit could talk, she would surely say that she feels the same way.

 Barley began testing this claim two years ago when he started experiencing anxiety. He had always been afraid of thunderstorms, but this was different. Even with no storm approaching, Barley would begin to breathe heavily and pace. It was as if he was either searching for something or trying to get away from something; we couldn’t tell which. Watching him struggle was heartbreaking and frustrating. We felt helpless until we observed a pattern in these “battles”: they almost always occurred late in the day.

 I remembered hearing about a condition of confusion after sundown, but no details came to mind. We began to wonder if this could be what Barley was experiencing, and with a bit of online research and a discussion with our veterinarian, we determined that we were indeed dealing with “sundowner syndrome,” which is associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease in humans. For canines, it is referred to as cognitive dysfunction syndrome or doggie Alzheimer’s. The evening hours worsen symptoms of memory loss, confusion, and agitation, and in dogs, the symptoms may manifest as running in circles, barking for no reason, and pacing, as well as confusion in familiar surroundings and interrupted, restless sleep during the night. Barley was exhibiting many of these symptoms.

Now that we have a diagnosis and medication to give Barley, things are better. Occasionally we have perfect days, but on some days, we just have to love him through his battles, which can last anywhere from 15 minutes to four hours. There are nights when that connection between Denny and Barley is the only answer, so Denny goes into the den to comfort Barley, while Biskit and I stay in the bedroom. Sometimes Denny does what he calls “cocooning”: He puts Barley up on the couch, surrounds him with pillows and blankets, and waits for the anxiety to subside. On nights like these, none of us sleeps much, if at all. Sometimes Biskit and I come out in the morning to find Denny and Barley lying head-to-head on the couch. It’s precious, and we know our peaceful warrior got through another battle with his anxiety.

Our greatest wish for Barley would be that he could win the war, but that isn’t likely with this age-related condition, so we’re thankful for every battle he comes through, and we look to each morning as a brand new day with him. -Cathy Fryman