The Final Lesson

Run free, my friend. Thank you for everything.

“Risa” Veteran MF-GrCH Dancing Cavy’s Pain in the Butte W-FDM/MF MF-M Vet InS/E R-FE/N PCD BN RAE RL1 (AoE) RNX CA TKP CGC WCX3
January 10, 2004 (?) – October 9, 2018

It’s hard to believe over 12 years ago I brought you home from the shelter. Twelve years together and it still wasn’t enough. You’ve left a huge hole in my heart that will never be filled. I cannot believe you are gone.

When I started looking for my first dog, I wanted a dog who could go anywhere and do anything. I wanted a dog to get involved in dog sports with (specifically agility). Your listing on Petfinder sounded like a perfect match. Like you were exactly what I’d been dreaming about. My disappointment was immense when I was told you were no longer available. . .only to be replaced by sheer joy when they realized you were there at the shelter instead of in your home. I drove 3 hours just to meet you. My mom told me she knew the only way you weren’t coming home with me was if you bit me. You had perfect half prick ears and the most wonderful smile. I knew it was meant to be. You were mine. You were always supposed to be mine.

I took you home and you were not the dog I had dreamed of. I knew you were afraid. I knew you were going to be some work. You were a challenge. You were always a challenge. I was completely in over my head. I thought I knew dogs. You showed me how little I knew. I was frustrated. I didn’t know how to help you. But I wanted you. I wanted you to be happy. I wanted to figure out how to help you. So I did. I reached out to friends. I signed you up for training classes. I have no idea how I ended up in the clicker class but I know our journey would have taken a different path if I hadn’t. It was the way I was supposed to go.

Training classes were always a blast!

Despite your fears, you excelled at training. You loved it! I wanted to do more so I signed you up for freestyle despite my reservations about the sport. I didn’t want to do it. You were a rock star in the class and changed my mind. Freestyle was always your sport. You loved to perform. You were a ham. You lit up the stage. Our bond together was showcased every time we walked out into the performance space. So many times we danced together. As a team. As one unit. Demos. Competitions. It didn’t matter. We were one out there on the dance floor.

You dabbled in other sports as well. Rally, Rally-FrEe, obedience, agility, barn hunt, nosework, herding, and lure coursing. Lure coursing was your natural love. Running was your favorite activity and this was a great outlet for my beast. You’d drag me out onto the field barking and acting all crazy. I loved watching your pure speed after that plastic bag bunny. The absolute joy on your face. Lure coursing was for you. Rally was for me. And freestyle was for us both.

Together, we overcame a lot. You grew more confident and less fearful. You beat the odds and became a success in dog sports despite your dog reactivity and fears. You survived cancer (mammary carcinoma when you were 9). You survived a slipped disc and IVDD diagnosis at 12 and still continued on in dog sports afterward. Your gastrointestinal tract was a mess for your entire life yet you thrived. We didn’t give up.

You were my teacher and I tried my best to be a good student. You taught me so much. Not just about dog training. Not just about reactivity and fear. Not just about raw feeding, homecooked meals, or quality kibbles. Not just about cancer, gastrointestinal issues, back problems, and other health concerns. You taught me about life. You made me realize who I wanted to be and how to be a better me. I saw much of myself reflected in you. Like we were two souls intertwined.

But you didn’t just teach me. Your guidance extended beyond just my life. You helped me raise foster dogs. You helped raise Kyu. You helped me fulfill my dream of being a dog trainer where I’m constantly spreading the knowledge you taught me. You taught our lure coursing operator how to help others catch their dogs after a run when the dog didn’t want to be done because you never wanted to be done with lure coursing and I needed to get you off the field! You taught your vet about the multitude of pain management options available. You have been the ripple.

We’re all fortunate to have known you, Risa.

You lived in three states. You walked in the Beartooth Mountains. You swam in Long Island Sound!

You were practically famous. You were featured in the newspaper several times. Your photographs and personality populate several books. You’re even in a couple dog training DVDs!!

I knew I was going to have to make a hard decision at the end. One last lesson I needed to learn. I tried everything I could to keep you comfortable and happy. But my options ran out. You hurt too much and I couldn’t ask you to stay. I knew it would only get worse. . .and there was nothing else I could do. I tried my best to spoil you over your last days. I stuffed you full of your favorite foods. I took you out to sniff and enjoy the world even though it was hard for you to get in and out of the car. I know it was the right choice but it was the hardest one I’ve ever made in regards to your care. How can I ever thank you enough for everything you’ve been to me? You were with me through my entire adult life. Through several moves and lay offs. Through good times and bad. You were my rock. . .and I was yours. I will continue to pass along all the knowledge gained from a lifetime with you. I will never forget you. I miss you so much. What I wouldn’t give to massage your neck ruff again and bury my head in it. How I miss your kisses on my chin and your amazing smile. You were my heart. And I will love you forever.

Posted in Aging, Back Problems, Canine Freestyle, Dog Sports, GI Issues, IVDD, Lure Coursing, Obedience, Rally, Reactivity, Thoughts, Training, Veterinarian | Leave a comment

Balancing Act

Old age isn’t easy for any of us.

I know I haven’t been keeping up on this blog as much as I used to. Life gets in the way and Risa’s been struggling lately. I’ve been struggling, too, with possible end of life decisions for her. I don’t think we’re there yet but I can’t help but think about it. Some days more than others. Pre-grieving, I believe it’s called. Risa’s been through and bounced back from so much but I know, some day, that will no longer be the case. I’m always trying to keep her quality of life at the forefront of my mind. I don’t want to lose her–EVER–but I won’t make her hold on for my sake. I owe her more than that. Deciding when the time could be, however, is always a challenge.

It was weighing on my mind a lot the past month. A lot. Like not sleeping. Worrying that I might be reaching the limits of what I can do to help her feel comfortable. Her back injury is taking its toll. The nerve damage is showing. She stands wide, falls into a sit if she tries to make a tight turn, and she stood on her overturned right rear paw for at least 30 seconds the other day. It’s rare that she stands still–moving is more comfortable–and she has trouble getting up. She doesn’t even lie in her orthopedic bed anymore because I think she has trouble getting out of it. She chooses the flatter beds instead. Her right elbow is also acting up again which is troublesome when she places a lot of her weight on her front end because of her back end’s issues. She’s on three pain meds at the moment (tramadol, amantadine, and Tylenol). I stopped her gabapentin when it appeared that it’s use might be causing some of her issues. I’m no longer sure if that’s the case though she appeared to improve after I stopped it. She definitely had significantly worse neurological symptoms when I increased the dosage at my vet’s recommendation. It’s been a challenging balancing act trying to alleviate her discomfort.

She’s also had a chronic urinary tract infection for several months; possibly even from as long as she’s been on prednisone. The pred definitely caused some urinary leakage (requiring washing of dog blankets at least weekly) and may have been the cause of her UTIs. After a third urinalysis came back positive for bacteria, I had concerns the pred was the problem. She’s on antibiotics again for at least 4 weeks to clear it up and I decided to discuss taking her off prednisone with our vet. Our TCVM vet had prescribed it and agreed with weaning her down. She gave me a schedule that would have her down to 1/4 of the dosage in about a month’s time. Unfortunately, Risa’s pain level has increased and the medications she’s on are insufficient to keep her comfortable. I had a chat with her general vet about the prednisone wean and he recommended we expedite the process so we can start Risa on NSAIDs again. It’s still a three week long wait but I think it’s truly her best option. We could potentially eliminate the UTI problem (assuming, of course, there isn’t anything else going on to cause it) but, more importantly, make her less painful. I find it funny that I was so against putting her on NSAIDs when she first injured her back and now that’s the thing I want to do for her most of all!

Still trucking along and getting enjoyment out of life. Even if her pace is slower.

I still worry that she’s not going to make it through the year. Winter is going to be hard on achy old bones. And snow is difficult to navigate. It’s hard to say how much longer she has. With her health issues over the years, I’m happy to see her approaching 15 years of age. I just hope that, whatever time she has left, it’s good time. Because that’s my biggest concern with her right now: quality of life. She still gets out for walks even if they’re short and slow. I still take her for outings when I can because it’s important to keep her mind active. We even got one last chance to dance together at this year’s local freestyle competition. I don’t know how I held it together but I did. And we truly enjoyed every moment together in the ring among our friends. I know the journey is coming to an end. I’m so thankful for it. I’m so appreciative of everything this dog has done for me, taught me about, and lead me to. She has been my rock. . .and I hers.

Here’s to hoping the next 3ish weeks fly by and that the re-addition of Novox helps put some more pep back in her step. <3

Posted in Aging, Back Problems, GI Issues, IVDD, Laser Treatment, Physical Therapy, Thoughts, Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine, Veterinarian | Leave a comment

Critical Cues

Will I get something good or something yucky!?

After catching up on my dog training podcasts, I was enlightened to the importance of the cue in teaching/maintaining a dog’s behavior. Specifically, a wonderful episode of Hannah Branigan’s “Drinking from the Toilet” with guest stars Eva and Emelie from Carpe Momentum dog training. (Honestly, every episode featuring them always enlightens me to some aspect of my training that I’ve totally been missing. Lots of “AH HA!” moments.) Cues are far more powerful than I’d ever realized and often an overlooked concept when training.

As frequent readers know, I’m an advocate for positive-based training. My focus is on making sure my dog is rewarded for doing something right and setting up a training session so that he’s most likely to be right rather than wrong. I’ve also been recently strongly influenced by Denise Fenzi and her group of instructors in that the dog is never wrong and giving a dog a cookie even when he’s “wrong” is actually a good thing. It creates and maintains the association that training is FUN! And that’s what I’ve always wanted it to be for my dogs.

But what about when your dog “knows” (sorry, but I have to put that in quotes because I think we all sometimes think our dogs know something but, it turns out that we didn’t train it as well as we could have) how to respond to a cued behavior but doesn’t? Shouldn’t we withhold a reward because he was “wrong?” If you’d asked me several years ago, I would have said that you should. However, I’m now changing my thoughts on this. In an ideal situation, the cue is followed by the proper behavior which leads to reinforcement for the dog. The dog looks forward to hearing the cue because it’s an opportunity to earn something he wants. If the dog hears the cue and does not respond as expected, many people will not give him a reward. Now the dog has the potential to become conflicted. Before, hearing the cue meant a good thing was coming. Now, sometimes hearing the cue means a good thing is on its way BUT sometimes it means something unpleasant is coming (whether it’s just no expected cookie or worse: a collar pop or other physical punishment). So, when presented with the cue, the dog is no longer certain of the final result.

It’s like the disgusting jelly beans in the Beanboozled game. You don’t know what flavor you’re going to get. This bean you picked could be amazing and delicious (like toasted marshmallow) or disgusting (like soap). You can’t tell going in whether something good is coming or something bad. This is exactly how your dog may feel if sometimes he gets a cookie following a cue and sometimes gets something negative. He may hesitate to do it the next time or not do it at all depending on how sensitive your dog is or how punishing (the scientific meaning: with the goal to decrease the frequency of that behavior) the consequence is.

It’s my job to make sure I’m using cues properly and setting up my training sessions so that my dog can respond in ways I can reinforce so that he ultimately understands what my expectations are with that cue.

This means that cues are very powerful. They let your dog know he has the chance to earn something pleasant. So what if you find your dog is frequently not responding to a cue even if you’ve always given him a cookie whether he was compliant or not? Since you want the cue to mean something, a particular behavior that will be rewarded following you giving that signal, you’ll need to re-evaluate your session. WHY is the dog not responding to the cue? Has it been trained to fluency? Is the environment too distracting? Are you too far away? Did you change your cue in some way that’s not initially apparent to you? Is your hand headed towards your treat pouch (or parked there) in anticipation of your dog performing as you expect? The onus is on us to determine why our dog is “failing” to respond as we anticipated and set up the training session so that the dog is able to get reinforced. In my own training sessions, if my dog isn’t responding to the cue I’m giving after 3 tries, I make it easier. There is no point in devaluing my cue (every time the cue is not followed by reinforcement, it’s meaning is lessened) by asking my dog again and again to do something he’s clearly not capable of performing at that time.

One of the biggest mind-blowing moments in the podcast for me was that a cue reinforces whatever comes before it. Since the cue itself is a path to reinforcement (I say this word and you will get a cookie after for performing the proper behavior), it also marks whatever precedes it. If your dog is looking at you with focused attention and you cue a “sit,” not only are you more likely to get that behavior response BUT you’re also reinforcing the focus on yourself! *MIND BLOWN*

Because cues are so vital, we really have to be careful when we use them. We don’t want to inadvertently poison them by following them with something unpleasant. We don’t want to use them when we don’t expect the dog to be able to comply because that makes them have less meaning. And we want to use them only when the dog is doing something we already like! That’s a lot to keep in mind while training. Sometimes I’m surprised my dogs have learned anything!

The podcast episode I’m discussing can be enjoyed here: Drinking from the Toilet Episode 49

Posted in Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment

Disaster Dog

Good breeding practices are important to produce puppies that will bring joy to their owners for years. . .not heartache.

I recently returned two bags of hypoallergenic kibble because Risa couldn’t tolerate them. One made her itchy and the other upset her gut. 🙁 So I find myself trying to adjust her homecooked diet again to avoid whatever food(s) might be bothering her this time and try and create a balanced diet around that. It’s not easy. I’m not sure it’s possible.

Feeding a dog, in theory, should be one of the easiest parts of dog ownership. Open a bag and pour. Feed a well-researched homecooked diet or raw food diet. The proof should be in the dog and the poop. Shiny coat, good energy, no foul odors, and well-formed poops. However, there are many dogs with food allergies and sensitivities these days. So many that limited-ingredient diets are plentiful on store shelves and there are a variety of hypoallergenic prescription diets available as well.

There are, of course, probably many reasons why this is the case. Environmental changes, changes to our food supply, etc. A living being should be able to adapt to this and continue to thrive. So why are so many dogs plagued with itchies and gastrointestinal problems? Why are their immune systems so poor?

I don’t have a definitive answer for this. And, being that I’m not a scientist, I can only speculate. Being a dog owner with a dog that has food sensitivities and allergies. . .I can’t help but be frustrated. It shouldn’t be this hard to feed my dog. Why is it that my dog is not capable of surviving and thriving on a regular diet? Why is her immune system so messed up?! Every year it gets worse and worse; I’ve been battling food issues with her since she was 3 years old. 🙁

Risa is probably a prime example of what can go wrong with poor breeding practices. Of the three main things responsible breeders strive for (good health, solid temperament, and durability in structure), Risa got short-changed on all of them. Her immune system is a wreck causing GI distress. She’s fearful and her back is a mess of disc disease and arthritis. As one of my friends put it, a “Disaster Dog.” Everything you hope to never get in a dog (hybrid vigor my ass). The sort of dog that, most people, would probably give up on. Trying to do the best you can for a dog who lost the genetic lottery is challenging and frustrating. It can be both an emotional and financial burden. I’d be afraid to total up the money spent on trying to remedy Risa’s gastrointestinal problems over the past 11 years. And I’d have a hard time recalling all the times I’ve cried over the frustration of not being able to just feed my dog. Or not being able to help her cope with the scary world.

When seeking a responsible breeder, most people look for breed-specific health clearances and they meet the sire and dam to check for any temperament faults. You might even look for performance titles to have further proof of the dog’s potential for a solid temperament and trainability. But how common is it to ask if the dog has a history of allergies? Or if he has any siblings that do. What about thyroid issues? Endocrine issues? While the average Joe might consider “health testing” for a breeding dog as simple as whether or not the dog has been to a vet recently, how often do the educated ask about the general health of the dog and those in the line? More importantly, how honest would most breeders be about this?

Genetic diversity is the key to keeping our dogs healthy and happy over the long term. With less frustration for the owners.

I’ve never, EVER understood why breeders would choose to sweep certain things under the carpet. Most people assume that, if their dog has a health issue, that bringing it to the breeder’s attention is the best course. That way, the breeder can make informed decisions about breeding her dogs going forward. If they don’t know there’s a problem in their line, it’s hard to avoid. However, I know of many people who have informed their breeder about a health concern in their dog only to have the breeder throw it in their face and blame them for the defect. Denial is the worst thing you can do. Firstly, you make your puppy buyer feel badly (and probably worse since they’re already dealing with heartache due to their dog’s medical condition). Secondly, you perpetuate the problem by failing to admit to it and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. If you fail to take into account the information your puppy owners give you about your dogs and continue to breed the affected individuals, then you should not be surprised to see the same problem pop up. Even worse, you’re now subjecting more people to the horrors of long-term medical intervention and, potentially, the loss of their canine companion at a young age. 🙁 You claim to love the breed yet your failure to admit there’s an issue (and make it PUBLIC) only adds to more heartache. It’s not fair to the dogs or the people who love them.

There are also breeds out there with congenital defects that cannot be avoided because every single individual in the breed is affected. Yet, due to human’s insistence upon breeding purebred dogs, we continue to breed them anyway. By doing so, you’re selling disappointment and heartache to everyone who buys your puppy. Because you know that they’re going to have to deal with that health issue. That their dog could need long-term medication to survive to its 10th Birthday. . .or that it might spontaneously drop dead before then. How is that fair to the dog to knowingly breed an animal with a trait that will cause an early death? How is fair to sell a dog to someone knowing this? How do you expect to eliminate a genetic trait like this when every dog in the breed has it? I think we need to stop obsessing over whether or not a dog can be traced back to 1 (or several) individuals “establishing” it as a breed and focus on the health and longevity of the breed. Outcrossing is the only option when a breed is so inbred that everyone carries that negative trait. Sure, you may lose type in the first couple generations but it’s easy enough to get back. More importantly, you’ll be breeding healthier dogs.

I think breeders, as a whole, need to step up. They need to be more transparent about their dogs and disclose any health issues they’ve noticed to prospective buyers. Genetics is, of course, a crap shoot and weird things can happen despite the best efforts of any breeder. However, a good breeder should not make you feel badly for bringing it to their attention. They should also reconsider whether to continue breeding those dogs. No one should have to live with a Disaster Dog. No one should have to face that financial and emotional burden if it can be avoided.

Puppy buyers also need to step up and be better informed consumers. You need to start asking the right questions and really probe to find the answers. Especially if the breeder isn’t forthcoming with information. Talk not just to that breeder but other breeders about that breeder. Find owners of pups from their previous litters and discuss their dogs. Research into how long their dogs have lived and, if possible, the cause of death. Buying a dog from a Wal-Mart parking lot or a pet store should be your last option since you’re never going to get that sort of information. And those types of “breeders” aren’t the ones you should be seeking a dog from in the first place.

But what if you want a mixed breed instead? Why should what the purebred dog breeders do matter? If the diseases run in the purebred dogs, they’ll run in the mutts as well. And it can be harder to avoid in a mix if the genetic defect is uncommon in both breeds. If it’s recessive in one purebred and recessive in another, the chances of a dog inheriting both copies within that breed is lower. However, if you combine two breeds that both carry the recessive trait, you’ve just increased the puppies chances of inheriting it. The genetic health of purebreds directly affects the health of mixes, too. The traits in your mixed breed dog have to come from somewhere. 😉

We know so much about breeding and genetics now. So much more than when many of these breeds were established. We owe it to all dogs (and all dog owners and lovers) to be more cognizant of what we breed. To truly seek to breed healthy individuals. It is incredibly challenging to live with a dog with severe health issues and no one should have to go through it if it can be avoided. Just because medical technology has advanced to the point that a dog can live with a condition doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to breed dogs without it. And we definitely shouldn’t be breeding dogs we know are affected by it (or carrying it).

Posted in Back Problems, Dog Food, IVDD, Thoughts | Leave a comment

Set Up

Two awesome dogs.

I was talking with one of my students the other night after class about Risa. His 7 month old puppy is dog reactive and he’d asked for input on training and on my journey with Risa. I told him that dogs like this will teach you more than any other. I told him I wouldn’t be anywhere near the dog trainer I am today had I started off with a dog like Kyu instead of Risa.

And that got me thinking. I often thank Risa for forcing me to accumulate this knowledge and to make me constantly rethink what I’m doing, change, and grow. What I didn’t really think about until that moment, however, was how my journey with her set me up perfectly to continue my journey with Kyu.

Kyu is not Risa. For better or worse. 😉 He’s silly, fun, playful, intelligent, sensitive, and a joy to work with just like Risa. But he is “differently motivated” than she is (plus he’s confident and loves everyone). He doesn’t like a lot of repetition, finds stationary behaviors less fun, loves movement-based tricks, and thrives on play and interaction. Training him is much different than training Risa who is quite content to work long sessions. . .even on the same thing. Whereas Risa presented a great challenge in behavioral modification, Kyu is challenging me more in teaching the actual behaviors.

Had I gotten Kyu first, I would have probably failed with him. Even though he’s a comparatively easy dog, I didn’t have the skills I needed yet to train a dog like him. Firstly, before I got Risa, I would never have imagined me owning a sighthound since they’re typically believed to be too independent or unmotivated to train. (FWIW, Risa is far more independent than Kyu.) I also didn’t think of dog training the same way I do now. I would have been frustrated by a dog like Kyu who doesn’t fit into the typical training mold. And I certainly didn’t incorporate a lot of play in training when I first got Risa! That’s something I had added in more recently in her training.

While I still sometimes get annoyed that training him isn’t quite like what I’m used to with Risa, I also relish figuring out how to train what I want with similar methods but in different ways to get it to work better for him and get the results I want. This helps me but it also helps my students who may also have dogs who don’t perform as well with the more standard methods I’ve used to train some of these behaviors.

Even the “easy dog” isn’t easy. Every dog presents his or her own challenge!

Posted in Puppy, Reactivity, Thoughts, Training | Leave a comment