Do You Brush Your Dog’s Teeth?

Golden retriever Orly sits as her teeth are brushed with a pink toothbrush

Brushing dog teeth is part of our nightly routine … but I know that that’s not the case for most dogs and their people. (But if your dog gives you dog kisses … you might want to start!)

I’ve known several dogs who lost many teeth as they aged, due to gingivitis or decay. And many more dog families that spent several hundred dollars annually on professional dental cleanings for their dogs.

I’ve brushed my goldens’ teeth, starting when each was a young puppy. When she was little, Cali would walk over to the shelf where her toothbrush was kept and ask to have her teeth brushed. She later decided that she didn’t enjoy it, but she was always cooperative. Orly is still in the asking-for-it stage.

I sweeten the deal with a crunchy treat, and I suspect that that has a lot to do with their cooperation. Whatever works! Jana, Cali, and now Orly all had / have beautiful white teeth!

I use kids’ toothbrushes — soft ones — from the dollar store and dog toothpaste. There are several brands, but I mostly use Petrodex because everyone likes the taste and it’s easy to find.

Orly sits patiently while I brush — top, bottom, inside, outside — then she likes to lick the brush clean. Finally, she gets a cookie and heads off to bed.

Your vet might say that it’s fine to brush a couple times a week, but I found that if I didn’t make it part of a daily routine, I wouldn’t remember to do it at all. So we do it every night.

Golden Orly licks the toothbrush clean after brushing her teethThere are other ways to keep dogs’ teeth clean. Dogs who chew a lot of fresh bones or antlers tend to have little plaque buildup. There are also products you can add to the dog’s water to kill bacteria and reduce buildup, but I have never used them so I don’t know how palatable or effective they are.

Brushing only takes a minute and, once you’re in the habit, it’s not a big deal for most dogs. Imagine life with no more “dog breath”! And … think of all the money you’ll save — not to mention the worry of sedation — by avoiding veterinary cleanings!



Dog Kisses

Orly, a golden retriever, sits for her photoI’ve never been a fan of licky dogs, but I do pay attention to how and when a dog offers kisses and other licks — because, just as all tail wags do not signify a happy dog, not all dog licks signify affection. A recent Whole Dog Journal article on puppy socialization described it really well:

When dogs lick humans with affection, it’s typically one quick flick, or a sustained activity of leisurely soft licks. But the lick that’s worrisome – the one that trainers call the “kiss to dismiss” – looks different. It’s intense, sometimes fast, hard, even frantic. Parents often misinterpret this, thinking the dog is finally learning to love the toddler, but that licking is designed to get the advancing human to stop!

Orly is a very affectionate girl, and her trademark kiss is a tiny tongue flick that just grazes the tip of the nose of her target. It’s usually combined with a sweet snuggle, and the whole package lasts only a few seconds. It’s adorable. (Orly specializes in “adorable.”)

She frequently greets her hike leader with a sweet kiss and cuddle, and pretty much  anyone who leans over her is in danger of getting a tiny nose kiss.

Orly will occasionally do the “leisurely soft licks,” but I tend to discourage that.

I’ve seen the “fast, hard, even frantic” lick too. Cali would do that sometimes when I was grooming her. She was not a huge fan of the nail routine, for example.

This intensive, insistent licking is a clear stop sign from any dog, whether you’re grooming her, holding her too tightly, or — where it often shows up — if a child is overwhelming her with attention or simply too much presence.

When people say a dog bite “came out of nowhere” it’s often the case that they missed this — and other — warning signs that the dog was reaching her limit. A stressed dog who can’t escape may well escalate from these clear but harmless signals to snapping or biting.

Check out the WDJ article for more canine stress signals that are easy to miss or misinterpret; though the article focuses on puppies, the stress behaviors hold true for dogs of all ages.

Is the Early Cancer Detection Blood Test Worthwhile?

OncoK9 recommends screening for giant and high-risk breeds at younger ages.
OncoK9’s recommended ages to start cancer screening

If you’ve been in a vet office lately, you might have seen a brochure advertising the OncoK9 blood test, an early-detection cancer screening test.

I first heard of it when I took Cali to a specialist who ended up diagnosing her hemangiosarcoma. By then, we had done the ultrasounds and were on our way to the splenectomy, so I didn’t “need” the test; I knew she had cancer.

The blood test “uses a simple blood draw to detect abnormal DNA released into circulation by cancer cells,” and claims to be able to pick up on these markers before the dog would be likely to have any symptoms. Dogs with some cancers, like hemangiosarcoma, rarely show any symptoms. OncoK9 is said to be able to detect 30 different types of cancer, including several very common canine cancers.

The company recommends it annually for dogs aged 7 and older, with different guidelines for cancer-prone breeds. They suggest starting screening at age 6 for goldens, for example, and age 4 for boxers (see illustration above).

Should you do it?

I can’t answer that, but I can share the pros and cons I see.

An argument for doing the test is that early detection gives you the best chance to treat some cancers.

Now for the “cons.” The test detects cancer markers, or claims to, but it does not give any indication of the type or location of the cancer.

A friend who works for a vet in another state reports that her clinic looked into the test, and her vet worries about the high potential for false negatives — not catching the presence of cancer markers — as well as the smaller, but still present, chance of false positives. Paired with the lack of indication of what type of cancer the dog has, a false positive could send a family on a very costly, stressful wild goose chase to try to identify the nonexistent cancer.

This vet says the test “might be helpful” for a dog with unexplained weight loss and no other evidence of disease; that’s far from a blanket recommendation for an annual check!

Finally, the cost: The test costs $500 at my specialty clinic. Cost will vary by location, but it’s not an inexpensive test. A few hundred dollars (or more) is a hefty addition to your dog’s annual checkup, and it’s unlikely that pet insurance would cover it.

My specialist vet’s office told me that, following a positive test, the next steps would be tests to figure out the type and stage of the cancer. And that anyone with a positive test gets a $1,000 credit toward that testing. I assume that this is because the company that does the OncoK9 test uses the follow-up and test data to refine the test and/or to work on treatments. Either way, the hefty sum tells me that a) the follow-up testing is pricey and b) they don’t expect a huge proportion of positives.

What do you DO with a positive result?

That raises the next obvious question, which is: If I were to get a positive test result, what would I do?

  • If you are not prepared to go down the expensive route of testing to identify and stage the cancer, then treat it … I’m not sure what you gain by doing the test.
  • If you are, and you have a dog of a breed that is likely to get cancer, then early detection and treatment could give you more time with your dog and/or lead you to an early treatment that spares your dog some suffering, depending of course on what additional testing you did, how quickly you identified the dog’s cancer, and whether it was a treatable cancer — all significant questions.

Whether to do the test (and what to do afterward) is, of course is a very individual decision.

Orly is only 1. I am certainly hoping that we have more reliable, less costly ways to detect (early) and effectively treat canine cancer before she’s of an age where I’d face the question of whether to do this type of test. Cali spent her life helping to make that happen; and the many researchers working on canine cancer detection and treatment offer hope for future pups.

Can a Dog Really Be ‘Hypoallergenic’?

Maisy, a black standard poodle, sits
Why get a cross when you can have an actual Poodle?

Dr. Stanley Coren, a noted psychologist and dog expert, recently wrote a column about the doodle craze. His take on the popularity of these “designer mutts” that are all some other breed crossed with a poodle, is that people believe all poodle-cross pups to be “hypoallergenic,” or “having little likelihood of causing an allergic response.” His focus is that not all poodle mixes are low- or non-shedding dogs, and therefore there’s really no guarantee that they will be hypoallergenic.

I want to take that argument a step farther and argue that, for many individuals with dog allergies, no dog will be hypoallergenic.

People may be allergic to dog fur or dander; they may also be allergic to components of dog saliva or dog urine. Even a bald dog still has those so … for some people, shedding or not, furry or hairy, any dog will induce an allergic reaction.

Of course there is a huge range in the symptoms and severity of allergic reactions, and a dog with much-reduced shedding, and who is groomed and bathed often and lives in a home that is vacuumed and dusted very frequently, may cause few or no symptoms in many allergic individuals. So there are good reasons for people with mild dander / fur allergies who love dogs to look to non- or low-shedding breeds.

But poodle crosses are not the only or most reliable option. To Dr. Coren’s point, without testing your individual pup against your individual allergy, you won’t know. And several breeds do not shed or shed minimally, starting with actual poodles and including large and small dogs of all temperaments.

When choosing a dog, it’s important to do your homework, whether you’re buying a puppy or adopting a shelter dog, and whether your concern is allergies, temperament, health, or all of these.

The ‘Leave It!’ Cue Is More Important Than Ever!

Yellow triangle with skull and crossbones to indicate toxic substanceAs more states legalize recreational marijuana, vets are reporting enormous numbers of visit from dogs who are stoned.

The symptoms, which include wobbliness and disorientation, can look like the dog is having a stroke. The dog might lose bladder control or vomit and will likely be lethargic.

Depending on the size of the dog and how much THC the dog ingested, the dog could recover without veterinary assistance — or become very ill.

Dogs obtain their “fix” in a number of ways. As people who had illicit marijuana — in whatever form, whether a plant, a joint, an edible, or something else — may know, dogs’ noses are drawn to the scent, and they will ingest what they find, whether live plant, dried bud, or edible.

However, as more places allow recreational marijuana, dogs are more likely to happen upon it on a walk or hike — a discarded butt, a dropped gummy, a bit of a pot brownie found in the trash.

A “leave it!” command is useful for more than errant drug-detection drugs, of course. All dogs should know to respond immediately to a stern “Leave it!” to keep them away from danger or simply stop them from enthusiastically greeting a non-dog-loving stranger.

But the stronger the Leave it!, the more likely it is to become an automatic default (like a magic sit!) — an ingrained behavior of not looking for and eating random stuff off the ground. This is also more likely with dogs of some breeds and temperaments — and nearly impossible with others.

Alas, golden retrievers tend to be in the latter category. But there’s plenty of individual variation, and Orly seems far less inclined than other goldens I have known to vacuum the ground. Unless the birds drop bird seed, her current addiction, that is. Fortunately, the only side effect so far has been copious, interestingly textured droppings.


Listen to Your Dog

8 month old golden retriever Orly smiles for the cameraA Washington Post columnist, having failed a a dog-training class with a golden-doodle puppy (and with several previous dogs) notes that it’s actually the human’s failure, not the dog’s.

This should be obvious, but I know that it isn’t.

“Training” class is really just how a human and a dog learn some new ways to communicate — and, to be really honest, it’s mostly about the human learning to understand the very clear and consistent communication the dog is and has always been using. And about the human learning to (try to) be more consistent and clear in how they communicate things to the dog.

As my first dog training instructor loves to say, when there’s a training failure, it’s always the human; never the dog.

As a Washington Post journalist, this writer did not stop with their own epiphany; no, they interviewed several top-notch dog trainers to find out what makes for a successful trainer.

The upshot is what the Thinking Dogs have used this blog to tell you over several years — pay attention to your dog’s communication, collaborate with your dog, and have a relationship.

Old-style obedience training, still sadly common, instead demands instant obedience to random (as far as the dog is concerned) and arbitrary rules and commands. No relationship there; just human ego.

The other point the writer raises is about “pet-parenting style.” Describing three styles, the writer encourages developing an “authoritative” style. Authoritarian is too rigid; permissive parents don’t set clear expectations. Authoritative parents are clear about what they expect, warm and loving, firm but adaptable.

Unsurprisingly, dogs (and children and students and employees and …) do well in this authoritative environment; they have strong connections with their people, are persistent problem-solvers, and are “more resistant to stress and recover from stress more quickly.”

Who doesn’t want that for their dog?

Of course, what the writer doesn’t share is the magic formula to enable all of us regular humans to become those authoritative, clear-communicating, warm, adaptable, and consistentdream dog moms and dads.

I’m doing the best I can, Orly!


Fancy Vets’ Offerings Go Far Beyond Health Care

Golden retriever puppy Orly stares attentively at the TV.
Does Orly need her own TV?

For pet owners, the healthcare options seem to be feast or famine, determined by where you live.

Missoula offers a large choice of vet clinics, including two emergency vets, and I have been fortunate to have excellent vet care, especially as I hear tales of long waits for even emergency services in other cities. But our clinics are still pretty basic. Modern imaging and other technology is available, yes, as is specialty care. But what I’ve seen, heard about, and now read about in other cities looks like fancier clinic surroundings than even Missoula’s human hospitals.

The Washington Post article linked above describes what are essentially luxury spas and resorts for pets which also offer state-of-the-art medical care.

Some of the changes described, such as the movement toward Fear Free veterinary care, are wonderful news for pets. The Fear Free initiative is a pet- (mainly dog- and cat-) focused movement to raise awareness of the ways that going to the vet or to training centers can be frightening or anxiety-inducing — and offering strategies and training for vet-clinic and training-center workers in ways to eliminate or alleviate stressors.

Other expansion areas fill needed gaps: Underwater treadmills and other rehab equipment is a boon to anyone whose dog has had a sports injury or other condition requiring, essentially, physical and occupational therapy. Cali’s therapeutic swimming was enormously helpful with her mobility and balance, for example.

The addition of five-star pet boarding resorts to many vet hospitals may well be a way to keep the dollars flowing in, and some of the offerings definitely seem more geared toward enticing the humans than pleasing the guests —flat-screen TVs in the doggy ‘bedrooms, for example — and some are simply over the top. Though I doubt that Orly would turn down a peanut-butter sundae at bedtime, I don’t think she needs that from her dog sitters.

If or when private doggy bedrooms with TVs get to Missoula, though, I am likely to give them a pass. For me, the bottom line is my dog’s comfort, and I prefer to have her stay home with a trustworthy sitter or spend time with someone she knows and loves. Either of those familiar options will be less stressful than even the most luxurious pet spa and resort.

Very Different Energy

15-month-old golden puppy Orly curls up on a large bed, with her head on the pillow
Orly loves to curl up on my bed

Life with (only) Orly has settled into a new routine. Her energy is very different from Cali’s — or Cali-and-Orly’s together.

Cali was the world’s best alarm clock. She was extremely accurate, for one thing. And her way of greeting the morning was to grab a toy and do a happy morning dance.

Not Orly. Orly sleeps on my bed (whether I want her to or not … she’ll just wait until I am asleep and jump on up). When I decide it’s time to get up, I have to nudge her awake and encourage her to get off the bed to go outside. She then frequently greets the morning, and the neighbors, by barking. I promptly bring her back inside. Where she often goes back to bed.

The rest of our morning routine isn’t so different from life with Cali: Exercises, breakfast/coffee, walk.

The walks are different, though. Cali had several spots where we all stopped each day so she could sniff and catch up on the news. Orly is not a newshound, I guess. She hardly ever stops to sniff or even do her own business. And her pace is a lot faster than Cali’s. Like Cali though, Orly has definite opinions on where we should walk.

She’s less inclined to hang out in my office while I’m working, unless I am in a meeting. She seems to really like Zoom meetings, especially if she can find one of her two favorite toys (the ones with the loudest squeakers).

Some days, she heads out mid-morning for a hike with her dog friends; other days, we take a walk together at lunchtime. Most workdays are rounded out with treat toys, snuffle mat, chewing on an antler, or sighing noisily to indicate how boring she finds me. Or all of the above.

She often paces and nudges me to let her out, only to want to come back in a few minutes later. Or she’ll go out and start barking at any movement — a car in the alley, neighbors doing what neighbors do, a squirrel taunting her. The restlessness and pent-up energy are typical of any young golden retriever, but the barking is a relatively new, and very unwelcome, development.

Two golden retrievers rest, their heads nestled against one another.Weekends we try to get out for a longer walk, often picking up Spirit so the girls can play as they hike. The girls are always delighted to see one another.

Orly is definitely more social (with dogs) than Cali ever was. Cali had her few close friends, but as she aged, she pretty much would play actively only with Orly.

Orly wants, and seems to need, frequent high-energy play. With the dogs in her hiking group, with Spirit, with neighbors’ dogs. (Fortunately, we are surrounded by puppies and adolescent dogs of all sizes and types.) I’m trying to get her together with her buddies often, but she’s at that age where there are simply never enough playmates and activities to truly tire her out.

Like Cali, Orly loves human visitors, though she seems to have forgotten Cali’s trick of always greeting people with a toy in her mouth. Rather than the squeal and dance Cali greeted loved humans with, Orly is more likely to try to give visitors a little kiss on the cheek … which means she sometimes forgets to keep all four paws on the floor. She might instead gently take the visitor’s hand in her mouth.

Despite her boundless energy, she does have an ‘off’ switch, and she’s able to keep herself occupied in between adventures. She rarely indulges in destructive behavior, though she’s destroyed a few toys, and she is a menace to anything growing in the back yard — a trait she shares with her littermates. She seems (thankfully) to lack her siblings’ genetic tp addiction, though.

Having a young, energetic dog is getting me out for more frequent, longer, and faster-paced walks, all very beneficial. I’m thinking ahead to spring and summer, and wondering whether agility would appeal to Orly. I bet she’d excel at nosework, too. Obedience … not so much.

The Dogs on the Bus

Golden retriever Orly runs through a snowy meadow
Orly loves to run and play in the snow!

If you haven’t seen this story yet, you’re definitely missing out.

I thought Orly’s dog hiker was doing well to manage her minivan filled with dogs of all sizes and shapes (though some days a disproportionate number seem to be golden-retriever-sized and -shaped…). But this Alaska dog hiker is impressive. (Check out the TikTok video.)

The dogs have assigned seats! And wear seatbelts!!

I love the ones who are all dressed in their coats, waiting for the bus …

Dog hiking is a much bigger Thing than I ever guessed.

Orly goes two or three times a week, depending on everyone’s schedules. I stay home and work to pay for her expensive hobby.

She gets picked up, greets her friends, and settles into the van. After all the dogs are on board, the pack goes for a nice long hike out in the woods. In the spring and fall, there was often the opportunity for a mud bath (and Orly is not one to pass up such a stellar opportunity). Winter seems a little cleaner.

Many, many treats are involved.

Golden retriever Orly rests her head on a small pillow whose pillowcase has drawings of cartoon dogsThe dogs hike off leash, with frequent check-ins (snack breaks). They race around chasing each other through the woods. It’s a pretty good life for a dog.

She shows up back home a few hours later and often heads to the bedroom for a nap. (Her newest trick? She likes to nap on my pillow.)

Orly’s pack includes some of the other dogs of the neighborhood, so their hiking friendships extend to occasional play dates.

Very much unlike Jana or Cali, Orly is a dog who really loves and needs to play with other dogs. Often. And very much like both of them at the same age, she has boundless energy. I alone cannot offer her enough exercise and stimulation to tire her out. I am not sure that any human can do that for an adolescent golden retriever. Hiking gives her what she needs. Well, some of what she needs. Two hikes per day, seven days per week might come close to tiring her out … maybe.


The Sad Life of an Only Dog

Orly and Spirit, similar-looking golden retrievers, nap together
Who’s who?

Early January is always a little sad. Holidays, and time off from work, are over; Missoula is gray and cold.

This year, January is sadder than ever. After a wonderful visit, Deni and Koala returned to Florida on Jan. 3. Spirit went home a few days later. Orly does not know what to do with a silent, almost-empty house. We’ve finally had to face the enormous hole that losing Cali has left. And Orly has never been the only dog.

Golden retriever Orly grabs her cousin Spirit's neck in play.Orly loved having a live-in playmate, one with a similar(ly obnoxious and physical) play style, all paws and mouths and teeth and leaps and jumps. After an energetic bout of wrestling and racing each other around the yard, Orly and Spirit would collapse into a fuzzy golden pile.

Since discovering that they are cousins, I’ve taken to calling them “identical cousins.” It was often hard to tell where one ended and the other began or even who was who.

But now Orly is alone. And mopey and sad, except when she’s outside. Then she’s alert and barky.

She is snuggly and overly affectionate sometimes. I wonder whether she’s worried that I am going to make her disappear as I have caused Cali, Koala, and Spirit to vanish, and she’s trying to ensure that she doesn’t annoy me … The primary reason I do not believe that she’s exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome, though, is that the (brief) cooperative, attentive, sweet, or affectionate periods soon give way to her more common defiant, moody teenager behavior.

She’s mostly just bored. I am boring. Spirit was fun. Koala, too. And with Cali, at least Orly had someone to torment. Now? Boring old human staring at a boring old computer. Humph.

She is going hiking a couple of days a week with a group of her dog pals, and I need to get busy arranging play dates for her on other days. She’ll get me out on lots of walks, too. And of course we have a large selection of treat toys, interactive puzzles, and other things to play with.

Even so, Orly’s life has changed significantly. And she does not see the changes as an improvement.