Slipping and Sliding

Golden retriever Cali with a tennis ballCali’s has an ongoing issue with her back legs slipping out from under her. I’ve seen some posts on the Facebook group (ick, I know) for her Morris Foundation Golden Retriever Lifetime Study mentioning the same thing … but not always with the same results. So I decided to share Cali’s story in hopes that it might help another dog.

She’s had an odd gait for a while, especially running. Her back legs seemed kind of floppy. One friend said it looked like her whole back end was going to just fly off of her body.

She never seemed to be in any pain, though, and loved to run, hike, and jump off the deck to chase tennis balls.

When I noticed that she was swinging her back legs out to the sides while walking, though, I decided to try to figure out what was happening. It was more noticeable on her right side, but both legs were arcing outward when she walked or ran — more noticeably when she was tired. She was also slipping a lot on our hardwood floors and sometimes on the sidewalk.

We went to her Morris study vet, who took some X-rays and decided that Cali had a partial ACL tear. She prescribed Adequan.

I did the Adequan injections for a while, but I did not think it was helping. And I did not think that Cali had a problem with her knee or ACL. She did not seem to be in any pain and still loved running and jumping.

I took her to see another vet in town, whom I have known for years and who is an excellent diagnostician. He examined Cali and watched her walk inside (slippery floor) and outside, and run. He agreed with me that her knees look fine and she did not seem to be in pain. He thought there might be a spinal or neurological issue, and he recommended consulting with a neurologist.

It turns out that veterinary neurologists are few and far between. None are in Montana, but there is one in Pullman, Washington, at the vet school hospital. With a months-long wait for an appointment.

We made an appointment, and waited. In the next couple of blog posts, I will continue Cali’s story.

Creatures of Habit

Golden retriever Cali rests her head on my knee to tell me it is time to stop workingDogs love routines. Anyone who says dogs have no sense of time have clearly never lived with a dog.

Dogs know when good things are supposed to happen for them. Some dogs serve as highly accurate alarm clocks, which is why it’s possible to train service dogs to remind their humans to take their meds on time.

Cali is a wonderful alarm clock. She even has a snooze setting, and she understands that, on weekends, we get up an hour or so later. If she’s desperate to go out, she’ll deviate from the routine, but otherwise, right on schedule, she lets me know that it’s time to get up.

She also knows when I am supposed to stop working (and prepare her dinner). About 10 minutes before 5 each workday, she comes over and, very gently, pokes me with her nose. Again 10 minutes later if I haven’t gotten up from my chair. At this point, she sits right at my feet and gives me that look. Anyone who has met Cali knows what I mean.

She knows the morning routine, too, and when I am almost at “put Cali’s leash on for her walk,” she bounds off to grab a toy and do her morning dance of joy, racing from living room to dining room to living room several times — a distance of about 6 feet — with the chosen toy. She then lets me put her leash on, and we’re off.

She has a set route for her morning walk, though she allows occasional changes. When we get back, we feed the birds before I start work upstairs, and she keeps watch over the front yard and sidewalk, warning me if other dogs approach. After an hour or two of that, she lets me know it’s time for a break, and we go outside and toss the ball a few times.

Our evening routine is no less set. Dogs get some yogurt or kefir — Koala’s dietician recommends it for the probiotics — go outside, brush their teeth, get a cookie, and go to bed.

How is it, then, that Cali “forgets” the teeth-brushing step, heading straight to bed, every single evening? I have to call her in or follow her to her bed to get at those teeth. The brushing jogs her memory, though, and she promptly appears to collect her cookie. This happens whether Koala is here or not.

Koala is very good about brushing her teeth, even reminding me if it looks like I may have forgotten (I’m not sure what that looks like, but Koala knows). So, while it makes sense that the sound and scent of Koala eating her cookie might jog Cali’s memory, I’m not sure what does that in Koala’s absence. I personally do not eat a cookie after brushing my teeth, so no reminder there.

Koala, a black Lab, noses an orange treat ball in her downstairs play roomAnother routine that Koala is more strict about than Cali is the timing (and existence) of puppy lunch and snufflematting. Cali is delighted when these occur, and she occasionally does ask for the snufflemat, but she’s willing to let the matter drop if I am busy. Not Koala; her routines are very important to her, particularly if they revolve around food.

 

 

No Quick Fixes

a medium-sized whit and tan dog chases a bird
Photo from Honest Kitchen

When dealing with a dog behavior issues, the options usually include training, often including some sort of equipment or tools; and, for some problems,  medication.

No matter which combination you choose, thought, there’s also time. There are no quick fixes. A single consultation with a dog trainer is not going to transform your dog.

I have recently talked with dog owners dealing with significant issues: Severe anxiety in one case and high prey drive in two other cases. All of the humans are deeply committed to their relationships with their dogs and willing to work toward a solution.

Though I don’t love the idea of medicating a dog to address a behavior issue, in the case of severe anxiety, I think that might be needed. If a dog is so anxious and quick to respond to whatever is triggering her anxiety, the right medication might be able to take the edge off of that anxiety and get the dog into a state where training is possible. I suggested that this person talk with her dog’s vet about options.

Tools or equipment for controlling a dog or getting her attention won’t help if the dog is not able to focus on anything but the trigger. And aversive equipment like a slip collar (or worse, a shock collar) would simply make things worse by adding a painful negative association to the already terrifying trigger.

I do not think that medication alone is a solution; the dog can learn new ways to respond to a trigger. The medication is a crutch to help get her there, allow her to focus on training. Depending on the dog, the trigger, and the level of anxiety, it’s possible that the dog won’t need the medication after training.

Prey drive is a tougher issue. I’m not aware of any medications that would help here. I think this is a question of a lot of behavior modification work, along with lifelong management of the dog’s environment to avoid letting the dog chase and catch a prey animal.

In these two cases, I suggested that the humans find trainers with experience dealing with high prey-drive dogs and who use tools and training approaches that they, the owners, are comfortable using on their dogs.

The training process can take a long time — weeks to months — and you’re never going to eradicate the dog’s prey drive. You might get to a point where the dog behaves in a way that you can live with, but you’ll always need to be aware of the triggers, whether it’s squirrels, cats, cars, or (worst case) “anything that moves” and be prepared to manage the dog’s response.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for these dog owners who each really want to do the right thing for their dog — and who are investing time, effort, and significant money in working on significant problems. They are all examples of the best of the dog-human relationship.

 

Clean Up Your Own Mess!

Koala and I had a little argument recently because I expected her to clean up after herself and she … resented that.

No, I haven’t figured out how to get dogs to pick up their own poop. They can pick up their own toys, though.

Koala chose an S-shaped blue tug toyToward the end of their time here, Deni was out, and Koala and I were in the basement, where there’s a well-stocked toy basket. (There are overly full toy baskets on each floor … and dog beds … it’s kind of a dogs-first household.)

Koala wanted a specific toy. It’s a great toy from West Paw, a Montana company. Anyhow, the toy happened to be at the very bottom of the toy box. Of course.

Koala methodically removed every toy in the box, distributing them around the rapidly emptying box. She finally reached her toy and happily pulled it out.

She brought it to me, asking for a tug game. I played with her for a minute, then took the toy. “We’ll play more once you’ve cleaned up your mess,” I told her. She looked at me, turned her back, and lay down.

I asked her to “get a toy” and “put it away,” things she routinely does. She ignored me.

I repeated the requests in a firmer voice. She got up, picked up a toy, and dropped it near the box. Looking at me and sighing. It was soooo hard.

I did not relent. No longer asking, I said in my best “I mean it!” voice, Get the toy and put it IN the box.

She did, then lay back down.

“Nope,” I told her. “You need to put all of the toys away.”

One by one, she got the toys and put them into the box.

When she finished, I offered her the toy and suggested a tug game.

“Nope,” she said, bu turning her back to me and lying down with an annoyed sigh.

Normally, when Cali and Koala put their toys away, they get rewards for their efforts. But since she had so deliberately taken all of the toys out of the box, a behavior I did not want to encourage, I did not give her any reward other than the offer of playing with the chosen toy.

Koala was annoyed at having to do it — and annoyed by the lack of rewards.

She got over it pretty quickly, though, and decided that she was willing to forgive me if that meant she’d get a belly rub …

Peer Pressure

Black poodle Maisy and golden retriever Cali wait for a bagel shaped dog treat
Cali and Maisy share a doggy-bagel snack after playing outside.

One of the first things I learned in dog-training school was the ways that dogs synchronize with their humans. That’s why using an upbeat, energetic voice can get dogs amped up for a training class — and a low, calm voice can help them settle down.

But I’m increasingly finding examples of how dogs synchronize with their doggy friends as well. I first saw it with Maisy, Cali’s BFF, who clearly takes her cues from Cali when we’re on walks.

Maisy often gets very excited or anxious around unfamiliar dogs, and she used to get that way around unfamiliar people, too. But when we all went walking together, Maisy saw how much Cali loves meeting new people.

Instead of being nervous when a stranger approaches, Cali strains toward them, entire body wagging an eager hello. Cali has not figured out that not all humans want to pet the dog.

At first, Maisy would watch, uncertain and ready to bark, while Cali greeted people and made new friends. Cali convinced her to try it though, and Maisy has decided that saying hello and getting pats and compliments is fun. She’s not quite sure about other dogs yet, but then again, neither is Cali.

The next example of peer pressure and inter-dog dynamics came during playtime. When there are two dogs, they play together well; when there’s a third dog, two tend to gang up on one.

Unfortunately, Cali is often the gang-ee.

She and Koala often play well together, though sometimes Koala can be a little … pushy. Cali’s pretty confident about telling her to back off, and, if that doesn’t work, Cali literally takes her ball and goes home. Well to her little hideout in the back corner of her yard.

Maisy and Cali play very well together. They are BFFs.

BUT.

When the three of them are together, Koala and Maisy become like the mean girls in middle school. They grab Cali’s tail and play tug. They each grab an ear. They behave like brats.

When all three are together, I have learned to organize separate play pairs. Cali and Koala each get a chance to play with Maisy — without each other. And Maisy goes home very tired and happy.

 

Paralympics Give Service Dogs a Podium

Israeli athletes march in the Paralympics opening ceremony with a yellow Lab guide dog at the front of the image
Photo from Huffington Post / Buda Mendes via Getty Images

The 2020 Paralympics wrapped up recently; a year delayed but worth the wait.

Accompanying some of the athletes were assistants with four paws and furry coats: Several athletes brought their service dogs along! Two even marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Israeli team. Belgian and Canadian athletes were also photographed with their guide / service dogs during the Paralympics. However, other athletes, including an American runner, were not permitted to bring their guide or service dogs into Japan for the Paralympics.

Japan has a mixed record on accommodating service and guide dogs, and many disability rights advocates hope that the Paralympics focused enough attention on the problem to lead to change.

Dog Play

When your dog plays with another dog, do you worry that they’re fighting? Or that the apparently very rough play could turn into a fight?

Most of the time, there’s no need to worry. Normal dog play often looks scary, but it’s fine.

Some of my favorite dogs agreed to let me share video of their play so you can see …

Cali, Maisy, and I were on a nice walk. The sun was out, the grass was freshly mowed … and, suddenly, Cali simply had to play. She bowed to Maisy, and they were off. I dropped their leashes to let them move more easily. I don’t recommend letting dogs roughhouse with their leashes on, but I let them do it this time, just for a minute.

They often go for each other’s necks. They’ll flip over and wrestle. Maisy occasionally leaps right over Cali. If Maisy gets too enthusiastic, Cali lets her know by walking away or giving her a look.

Stella and Luna (gold star to anyone who gets the literary reference) are sisters. Sometimes, it looks like Luna (gray) is about to rip Stella’s head off. Often, it looks like Stella is chowing down on Luna’s neck. They’re not.

The most important signs that the dog play is fun and fine with both are:

  • They take turns; sometimes it looks like one is killing the other; sometimes the reverse. They both get to be chaser and chasee in turn.
  • They take little breaks or pauses — a few seconds maybe — and both re-engage.
  • When one does ask for a break, the other respects the request and they take a longer break.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s play, watch for the above positive signs and intervene if it looks like one dog is trying to call a pause and the other’s not listening. Or someone cries in pain. Or multiple dogs seem to be piling onto or chasing one — always the same — dog.

Cover of Doggie Language book

But most of the time, your dog’s just having fun in a very doggy way. And, though it looks like the other dog’s ripping her ears off or tearing a hole in her neck, she’ll walk away with nothing more than a bunch of slobber on her coat.

Learn more about dog body language and communication from this adorable book: Doggie Language

How Do I Find a Good Dog Trainer?

A prong collar
When choosing a trainer, ask what equipment they recommend.

New dog, adolescent dog, older dog who has suddenly started doing something you cannot live with … when people need a trainer, where should they turn?

First, a caveat: If an adult dog’s behavior changes suddenly — uncharacteristic aggression, for example, see your vet to rule out any underlying health issues before deciding it’s a training issue.

I can make specific recommendations locally, where I know several excellent trainers. But more generally, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Look at the trainer’s credentials. Anyone can advertise as a dog trainer. In a recent review of trainers in one area, nearly all of the websites I looked at gushed about the “trainer’s” love for animals and how they had dogs their whole lives. So what? That doesn’t make you a qualified trainer. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has widely recognized certifications that check knowledge or (much better but far less common) check knowledge and skills. A number of small or locally focused programs teach people training skills and knowledge; the APDT website has a helpful matrix comparing these.
  • Look at professional memberships. Organizations like APDT (Association of Professional Dog trainers) and PPG (Pet Professionals Guild) require that people meet specific criteria to become professional members. While membership alone does not guarantee that the trainer has specific knowledge or skills, it does show that they care enough to learn and to jump through a few hoops more stringent than setting up a website or getting a business license.
  • Trainers who also have some education on animal behavior and psychology get bonus points, especially for complex issues like aggression or anxiety.

When you’ve identified one or more possible trainers, interview them. Ask what their training approach is and what, if any, equipment they recommend. Avoid anyone who talks about “being the alpha” or showing the dog who’s boss. If a trainer tells you to put a prong collar on your puppy, run the other way. If you’re having a specific issue, such as high prey drive or excessive anxiety, ask about their experience with that problem. If they offer classes, ask if you can watch one.

Other resources to consider:

  • Local dog training clubs — these can be wonderful or very disappointing. You might find a great selection of classes from trainers with broad-ranging experience. If there’s one where you live, it’s worth a visit.
  • Recommendations from your local humane society or pet rescue — there might even be classes onsite, and shelter trainers are likely to have experience with dogs with a wide range of issues.
  • Recommendations from friends with well-trained dogs — be careful here; your dog’s needs may be very different and your friend’s trainer might not be a good fit. But it’s certainly a place to start.

Notice that I am not suggesting that your vet is a great resource. She might be. She might not. As with nutrition, behavior and training are not areas where vets tend to get a lot of education — unless they specifically seek it out. Some do; many do not. If your vet is also a certified animal behavior expert then by all means, consult with her. Otherwise, she might not know any more about the local trainers or what would help your dog (behaviorally) than you do.

When you choose a trainer, pay close attention to your dog’s reaction as well as your gut feelings about how the first lesson(s) unfold. If your dog seems scared, don’t go back. I remember a friend telling me once that her dog ran and hid whenever the trainer came over. Clear sign that that was not the right trainer! And, obviously, if you don’t feel like you are making progress after several meetings, you might need to look for someone else. There are lots of great trainers out there, but it might take a few tries to get the right match for you, your dog, and the specific issues you need to resolve.

Is It My Fault if My Dog Is Overweight?

Golden retriever Cali eats an ice-cream cone.Yes.

That may be a little harsh. A recent Whole Dog Journal article on dog obesity is a little kinder to the dog owners, apportioning blame between the dog and the human. But … the humans control access to the dog’s food, so I lean toward blaming the humans. And, since multiple studies have reported that half or more of the pet dogs in the US are overweight, we need to address this problem.

Obesity can reduce your dog’s already-too-short lifespan by as much as three years.

The WDJ article describes a study of pet owners who are involved with feeding their pets. Nearly 80% of the respondents were women aged 50 or older. Hmm. Many said they determined the amount to feed their dogs “based on perceptions of their dogs’ body weight” and most of the rest by following the feeding guidelines on the dog food packaging or their vet’s recommendations.

Those are not reliable methods. Most dog foods recommend giving more food than a dog needs. It’s a vicious cycle, too. If your dog weighs 60 lbs. and you feed the amount recommended for a 60-lb. dog, you think you’re doing the right thing. But… maybe your dog should weigh 50 or 55 lbs. See the problem? And, many people’s perceptions of what their dogs should weigh are skewed.

For instance, Cali, who is a svelte and very fit 56 lbs, looks thin to many people who are accustomed to seeing fat golden retrievers. Because most golden retrievers in the US are fat. Very fat.

I’ve checked in with my vet on Cali’s diet and weight. She once gave me calorie-based guidelines for feeding Cali and, when I looked at the amount of food I’d need to give Cali to meet them, I was horrified. I would have had to almost double what I was feeding Cali. But at the same time she was recommending this enormous amount of food, the vet also agreed that Cali’s weight was fine.

Piling on …

Dogs aren’t much help in this. It’s hard enough to figure out what and how much regular old dog food to give your dog. But the dog then starts asking for other food … your food. And treats.

Dogs are excellent at manipulating humans, as you may have noticed. They are especially adept at convincing us to feed them. They use gaze, nudges, sometimes even whining or barking … The study took note of this: “The data suggest that dogs may have significant influence in overriding their owners’ self-discipline,” it says, with great understatement.

What’s a dog parent to do?

That is the key question.

Start with knowing what your dog’s healthy weight looks and feels like. This chart can help:

Chart shows range of dogs and cats from too thin to obese

When you pet your dog, you should be able to feel her ribs, but there should be a little fat on them. And her hip bones should not stick out. But if your dog feels like an upholstered sofa … well.

Then, watch her diet. And her treat intake. What you’re feeding matters as much as the quantity. I’m pretty fussy about dog treats (not to mention dog food). I don’t buy anything at the supermarket for Cali other than eggs, Greek yogurt, sardines, and occasional bags of wonderful local / homemade dog cookies … large cookies that I break into 4 or 5 small pieces.

A treat for Cali is about the size of a quarter. She rarely gets an entire large biscuit. And no, she does not feel deprived (yeah, right …). She loves getting a jackpot of 5 or 6 little, high quality treats, which happens when she does something really great (like put all of her toys back into their basket). She gets a handful of very small treats in her snuffle mat almost every day. She gets several more when I brush her or tackle her nails or ears. And of course on special occasions, she gets a doggy cone or even (birthdays only) a small dish of ice cream!

Does she want more treats? Of course she does! So do I!

Cali makes frequent, persuasive pitches for her “fair share” of whatever I happen to be eating, for example. She’s convinced me that I should share my eggs and yogurt, and she’s a helpful and efficient dish-washer. We frequently negotiate over small bites of pizza crust. But overall, her treat intake is moderate.

Take a hike

The other piece of the equation is, of course, exercise.

Cali and I walk two or three times a day. We play ball. She swims. We go for a long hike at least once a week. When she was an adolescent, she ran and played a lot more — and got more food and treats. A very active dog could have more food or treats, while a dog whose exercise consists of walking to the back yard a few times a day, taking care of business, and walking back to the house … may need to be a little more careful.

I’m sure none of this is a huge surprise. The hardest piece of watching your dog’s weight is being honest about what she weighs vs. what she should. That and facing down that stare every time you’re eating something yummy.

image of golden retriever with the message "every snack you make, every bite you take, I'll be watching you"

 

Don’t Get Ripped Off!

Many years ago, when I started giving Jana glucosamine supplements, I carefully reviewed all of the special products formulated for dogs, finally choosing one that my vet recommended. Over the years, I have given my dogs many dietary supplements, such as (not all at once):

  • Glucosamine / joint support
  • Fish oil
  • Green-lipped mussel
  • Probiotics
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Vitamin E
  • CBD
  • Pumpkin
  • Yogurt / kefir
  • Sardines

All of these are things that some people use for similar reasons — to enhance their digestion, reduce inflammation or aches, improve overall health. But do you need to get special products for dogs? Not always, though the line can be fuzzy.

Glucosamine, CBD, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and vitamin E are not things that I would generally eat for dinner. I might use them if I thought they’d help resolve an issue, like painful joints or an upset stomach. Can Cali share mine?

I’m not an expert in canine digestion, but I suspect that the doggy digestive tract and microbiome are quite different from their human equivalents. So when I have selected digestive enzymes and probiotics for my dogs, I have used canine-formulated products. I use a canine joint support powder, too, though that is primarily because it’s easy and inexpensive. I mix together a joint supplement, a digestive enhancer, and extra turmeric and scoop a little onto each meal.

But for many dietary supplements, and especially things like fish oil, sardines, or pumpkin — there is absolutely no difference between the “canine” and human products; the human product might even meet higher production or safety standards — and cost a lot less.

Buying 100% pumpkin puree “for dogs” is just silly, for example. As long as you get the puree, not the pumpkin pie filling, there’s no difference. Same with fish oil or sardines, though those dried ones are handy as treats (if you can stand the smell).

If you watch the dosage, you can use green-lipped mussel (powdered) and vitamin E sold for humans; I do, and have safely done so for years. I’ve used generic Immodium and Pepto Bismol and Prilosec for dogs (& humans) as well. And I know many people who do the same with CBD oil, though for edibles … I stick with the doggy ones; no CBD gummy bears for Cali

A lot of foods that are healthful and beneficial for humans are also great treats for dogs: Eggs, fish, fish oil, pumpkin, Greek yogurt (plain) or kefir, peanut butter, many raw vegetables and fruits. As long as there’s no added sugar and absolutely no xylitol, your dog can safely enjoy small amounts of these foods. Cali would add ice cream and pizza crust to this list.

Don’t fall for the marketing and reach for the puppy pumpkin! Instead, share a healthful treat that you and your dogs can all enjoy together.

Cali plucks ripe berries from a mixed cluster, leaving green ones behind
Some fresh-picked raspberries perhaps?