Therapy Dogs: Could We Do It Better?

Several years ago, I saw a poster asking pet owners if they wanted to join a local program in which their dogs would be ‘therapy dogs’ and participate in ‘animal-assisted therapy’ that often involved visiting schools, hospitals, and other venues where the dog would meet, greet, and sometimes entertain the residents of that venue. 

I had been looking for some kind of work or pastime for Dee, my mixed-breed girl, so I signed up for the training classes, and after about six hours of the class time, she passed the test and was accepted into the program.  (This program is entirely local, and their certification is not the exam offered by the national therapy dog organizations.)  The training was loosely modeled on the Canine Good Citizen exam, and I have taken quite a few of my dog through the CGC exam, so I was familiar and comfortable with Dee’s classes.  The training methods were positive, with the occasional exception of a recommended collar correction; since Dee is enormously food-motivated, I can get her attention and if necessary bait her through just about anything, so I didn’t use the collar correction. 

After passing the certification test, we went to a number of programs as observers, as the rules required.  I think I started to see, then, some of the things that would come to bother me a great deal, but I was happy to be doing this with Dee and I didn’t look too closely at my scruples.  We finished the observation phase of training and asked to be assigned to a high school in a nearby suburb where the students were dealing with emotional or behavioral issues.  Every other week, we spent an hour there and different groups of teenagers interacted with the group’s dogs.  It was a rather unfocused program:  the organization wanted dogs to be able to perform tricks, which they would use when visiting children and seniors in hospitals, but that didn’t seem like enough for the teenaged kids in the high school program.  What were we supposed to be doing?  I asked, no one knew the answer.  I’m a compliance officer and my default behavior is ‘train them!’, so I suggested we train the kids in how to interact with dogs.  I started showing the students how to elicit certain behaviors from Dee with cues and rewards, and some of them were very good at it.  We had fun with that!

Most of the students in the program were from neighborhoods where dogs have at worst been weaponized, and in general are viewed as dangerous.  The program volunteers did several instructional sessions on how to avoid confrontations with dangerous dogs – and heard quite a few stories from the students of dogs they knew who had bitten people, or people they knew who had been attacked by dogs – but after that, the program seemed to stumble to a halt again.  One of the other volunteers spent several sessions showing the students how to brush and groom her Yorkie-Poo.  Watching this, I thought through an alternate educational module, which I then presented to the organization, called the RESPECT program.

Routine:         Dogs like a routine, where things like meals, walks, and bedtime happen every day at about the same time. Routines make dogs feel secure and comfortable in their homes.

Exercise:        All dogs need some amount of exercise daily. On-leash walks are one form of daily exercise. In a fenced yard, you can also play fetch or other games that allow your dog to run around.

Space:            All dogs need space, and all dogs are bothered by being crowded. Never force your dog to meet people or other dogs. Never let anyone grab your dog or bring another dog right up to your dog’s face.

Play:         Dogs learn through playing.  You can teach your dog good manners, and even tricks, by playing with them and rewarding the behaviors you want.  Set aside some time every day to play with your dog.

Exposure:     Dogs need to be exposed to things outside their houses and yards, but not in ways that make them feel frightened or overwhelmed.  Take your dog one new place every month, and take plenty of treats with you to reward your dog’s good behavior!  Your dog should be on leash for all outings.

Calmness:      Your dog needs you to be calm and not use loud or angry tones of voice to him. Negative emotions are very upsetting to dogs, making them anxious and fearful. Be calm around your dog.

Time:             Most of all, your dog needs your time. Owning a dog is a commitment of the time that it takes to care for and work with the dog.  Dogs can’t play video games, they need you to interact with them for some time every day.

I could develop every one of those topics into a multi-week training module.  In fact, I wanted to do that!  I thought it would be fun, and the kids would enjoy it!  But I wasn’t particularly surprised when the proposal went nowhere.  By that point, I’d seen enough to realize that I was in a bureaucracy, where the existing forms and routines were prized by the people who kept them going.  The Yorkie-Poo’s owner was offered the Group Leader position of the high school visitation program.  I took a break to attend to matters relating to my mom’s serious health issues.  Dee stopped doing her visits – I felt badly about that.

After maybe six months, I e-mailed the program and asked to be put back on the active participant list.  Dee had to renew her certification, so I drove her up to the North Shore to the program’s headquarters and we went through an exam similar to the one at the conclusion of her initial training.  She passed and we were approved to return to visits.

But the high school program had fallen apart for lack of participants, so I put Dee in a program where the dogs visit the developmentally disabled students of a grade school in a nearby suburb.  That was a very different experience and Dee was at first unsure what to make of it, but with more visits she relaxed and grew to enjoy seeing some of the kids who were able to pet her and talk to her a bit.  On any given day, quite a few of the children weren’t interactive or communicative, and we never knew what the sessions would look like.  In addition to that, I was offered a spot in a Read To Rover program at a suburban library, and I accepted that. 

The library program was for children ages 7 through 12, and the format was simple and straightforward:  the kids would come in to the room that the library had provided for the program, would select a book, and would take it to one of the ‘reading stations’ where a program volunteer and dog waited.  The child would then read the book to the dog.  There have been many, many studies that show this ‘read to a dog’ format helps children develop reading skills and confidence, and I thought it was a wonderful program.

Dee thought it was B-O-R-I-N-G.  She wanted to do something!  She wanted pets!  And treats!  She was willing to work for them, but she was expected to just LIE there like a stuffed animal, she complained to me.  I saw her point.  I wondered how to remedy this, so she would like the program more.  But while I wondered, the option of her liking the program at all ceased to exist.  One evening a couple came into the reading room with their two children.  One, a girl about 7, was in the program; the other, a boy of about 18 months, clearly was not.  I was later told that the program rules prohibit children younger than 7 being around the dogs, but no one told this couple that on the evening when all hell broke loose.  While one parent sat with the 7-year old girl who was reading, the other parent attempted to rein in the toddler, who was very active.  And obnoxious.  More than once, the toddler and attendant parent were told to not touch the dogs.  Dee, who had had her ear grabbed very painfully by a disabled child in the other school the week before this, was eyeing the toddler warily at first, and then with animosity.  When he reached out again for her head, I put my hand down and said to the child ‘NOT her head, leave alone!’  Less than a minute later, he grabbed for her head again and this time Dee, with a scream that would have done a banshee proud, launched herself at the child’s face.

If I had it on video, it would be a textbook illustration of how a dog issues a warning.  No part of Dee made contact with the child, but her lips were drawn back showing all her teeth, and she was eye to eye with the little boy as she shrieked at him to leave her alone.  Knowing Dee, I’m sure the language would have been pretty blue if it had been English.  And now the parents, who hadn’t been controlling their child, were freaking out and the program people were freaking out and I was grabbing my dog and thinking ‘we need to get out of here, this is BS’ and when the dust had settled, we were out in the parking lot headed for our car and there had been a pretty spectacular FINIS written to our career in the therapy organization.

I back my dog one hundred percent, and I did from the instant it happened.  She did not bite the child.  She gave him one of her most unambiguous and emphatic LEAVE ME ALONE messages and she had every right to do so.  She was in no way wrong or even ill-mannered.  Shame on the parents for ignoring the safety rules of the reading program.  Shame on the library admin for letting them flout those rules.  Shame on the therapy organization people for not calling a halt to the program that evening because of that failure.  They set my dog up for an unpleasant event, and they set that child up to be traumatized by the consequences of their failures.

For some time afterward, I was too shaken by the events of that evening to think anything of it other than ‘thank goodness we’re out of that program, never again!’  But then I started to think of all the other things about that program that had bothered me, and to wonder if this is really what ‘animal assisted therapy’ should look like.  They never showed the slightest interest in educating the people that the dogs visited about dog behavior, dog care, or dog/human interaction.  The assumption was that the dog should accept any behavior the humans chose to inflict on it, and should be ‘bomb-proof’ enough to not react to it if it happened to be really stupid behavior.  Hey, how about not letting people do that to the dogs?!  We were told in training that people would want to hug our dogs, so our dogs should learn to tolerate that.  I call bullshit on that:  some dogs love being hugged, others will do anything to avoid it.  Why can’t you say to the hospital patient or the school student, ‘Dogs are nervous about hugs, but you can pet Rover like this’ and demonstrate a better approach?  Train the dogs to deliver teddy bears to the patients or students; they can hug those!  There are SO MANY WAYS to achieve the goal of making the humans better equipped to meet dogs; why was that absolutely outside the realm of consideration?

Now, of course, with COVID 19, the therapy group activities are on hold.  I don’t have any interest in the group and will never return to that form of activity for any of my dogs, but I shake my head at their short-sightedness and entrenched bureaucracy that keeps them from moving out of the 1970s and into the current age of amazing advances in dog training and behavioral studies.  I wonder if there are other animal therapy programs that do it better; I hope so, for everyone’s sake.

A Goodbye to My Best Boy

I used to own Shelties.  They were the first dogs I ever had, when I discovered dogs in the late 1980s, and for many years, they were the only breed I owned.  I had Shelties from pet stores, Shelties from breeders, Shelties from rescues.  Until I adopted a rescue Finnish Lapphund in 2009, it was all Shelties, all the time, at my house.

Beau passed away this week:  he was the last of my Shelties, and truly a bright light in that firmament.  When my Border Collie, Rowley, was about 3 years old, and all my other dogs at that time were seniors, I decided Rowley could use a canine companion of his own age, so we went to look at the available dogs in Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue.  It was a nice summer afternoon and the big fenced yard was full of Shelties, as it always is; there were two who seemed like candidates to come home with me and Rowley.  One was a sable boy with a very nice head that spoke to some good breeding in his unknown background; he had been picked up stray in another state and made his way to Illinois.  He was maybe 3 years old and was called Sonny.  The other was a 4-year old tri-color whose owner had gone into a nursing home, putting her Sheltie, Bogey, into rescue.  Sonny caromed around the yard, demanding the other Shelties play with him.  Bogey made his way over to me and sat in my lap.  ‘That one might be kind of a handful,’ the rescue director said, nodding at Sonny.  Well then.  ‘I’ve got a 3 year old Border Collie, my hands are already full,’ I said.  We took Bogey home with us and changed his name to Beau.

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Even at the time, I could see that Beau was dazzled by Rowley.  He wanted to be with Rowley, and he wanted to be with me, and everything else was fine with him so long as he was with his BC and his person.  He liked the other dogs in the house just fine, but he loved Rowley.  He raced after him in a game in the yard that involved me kicking the soccer ball for Rowley and Beau barking at him – that was pretty much the entire game!  Rowley was fine with it, and seemed to enjoy having Beau along on our walks, outings, and games, so they became pals.

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Beau also fit well into the household.  He was a perfect gentleman who displayed good manners at all times; he walked nicely on a leash; he didn’t quarrel with any other dogs; and if he wasn’t hanging around with Rowley, he was napping at my feet.  It was as if his wish, on finding himself in rescue, had been granted:  he had a home, a family, security and love, fun outings, and good health – and he knew he was a fortunate dog.  Even the small vicissitudes of life didn’t dim his happy gleam:  he once cut a back leg open to the ligament, and didn’t utter a peep as I, white-faced, rushed him up to the vet clinic where they rushed him into surgery and sutured it up.  He bore the obligate dental surgeries that are a Sheltie’s lot in life stoically.  He never refused a walk or a hike at the local nature preserve, where he and Rowley and Alex were allowed to be off-leash and explore the most wonderful things, the most disgusting things, the most vile things that were perfect for rolling in hurriedly before your owner saw you and shouted at you to get out of there!  An outing was followed by a nap, and a nap by a meal, and so went Beau’s days, in a canine equanimity that was comforting to see.  Rescue dogs came and rescue dogs went and Beau stuck close to Rowley and life was good.

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I knew Beau was not a well-bred Sheltie and I knew this affected more than his conformation and dentition, but I was completely surprised by the first seizure, in January 2019.  Beau had just turned eleven.  It happened late one evening, and I, not having dealt with seizures in a dog (or in any form, for that matter) wasn’t sure if what I was seeing was a seizure.  It was.  Our vet weighed in and presented the probabilities:  in senior dogs, the onset of seizures is unlikely to indicate epilepsy and very likely to indicate a brain lesion or tumor.  Some other causes, related to organic failures, were ruled out by blood tests.  The brain lesion/tumor hypothesis could be confirmed by a consult with a neurologist, but at a really (to me) staggering cost:  thousands of dollars to answer a question without providing any solutions or remedies.  I decided to pass.  Over the next few months, as we tinkered with the Keppra dose and tried adding in Prednisone (with great benefit), the vet and I became comfortable with the tentative diagnosis of cancer somewhere in the brain.  It was something I didn’t want to look at directly, actually:  if I only glanced at it occasionally and increased the meds after a seizure, or added a Chinese herb combo that helped control seizures in canines, I could keep my dog – that’s what it felt like, anyway.  Beau continued to lead his happy, active, balanced life.  At one point he had a stretch of almost four months with no seizures, which was wonderful.  I knew the ‘thing’ wasn’t going away, but I had slowed cancer in another Sheltie, my Sander, and I guess a small part of me thought I could slow this, too, and give Beau the chance to die of an age-related malady before the monster got him.

So time went on, and Beau showed the effects of aging and of the disease and of the meds he was on:  he became bloated from the Pred, and his respiration got raspy, and he tired easily in warm weather.  Still, he was right at my feet when the dogs and I settled down in the living room every evening.  He still went on the long walks at the nature preserve, until earlier this summer those became too much for him.  That was a sad day for me.  I kept looking for him and he wasn’t there.

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And in April, the seizures went from bad to vicious.  I was shocked by the violence of them, and by the frequency:  he had one about every four weeks now.  And his recovery from them was slower and less complete every time.  I started to see behavior that seemed to indicate mental deficiencies and confusion, although as our vet pointed out, we couldn’t tell if the seizures or the disease caused it.  Beau reached a new stage in his deterioration, and I know that if I had seen this Beau next to the healthy Beau of two years ago, I would be shocked by the change; but it was so gradual and Beau so faithful to our routines, that I didn’t notice the full extent of it – until another seizure would occur.

The final seizure, on Monday night (August 3), was more than any dog should have to endure, and I carried Beau out to the car and we drove to the emergency vet clinic.  I am very thankful that I was able to be there and bid him farewell and make his death peaceful.  It was one of the hardest partings I have ever had, and I’ve owned a lot of dogs and sent many of them to the Bridge.

But I also keep finding myself repeating this:

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It did happen!  I had the best dog!  Beau never ‘did’ anything, he had no titles and wasn’t a performance or sport dog, he was just my dog, and that was enough for both of us.  He’ll be my dog forever, because we both agreed to that.  That’s pretty rare!

I had the vet at the emergency clinic cut a tuft of hair from Beau’s ruff, and the next day, on our walk at the nature preserve, the other dogs and I stopped by a bench on the west shore trail, and I let the wind carry the hair into the brush and woods.  I can feel Beau’s presence in several places, and the preserve is one of them.  Now when we pass that spot on our walks, I stop and say hi to Beau.  I wish he could be with us physically, and there’s no doubt he is too soon gone, but he’s still my best boy, and Rowley and I are still his lodestars.

How lucky we are, the three of us.

My heartfelt thanks to my friend, the artist Nana Nishigaki, for this drawing of the two amigos.  This too makes me smile.

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And another thank you to the talented amateur photographer who took this photo of Beau one day last winter at the preserve.  I’m so glad to have this.
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Goodbye, Peekaboo, and the End of an Era

The remaining Merle Girl has gone:  Peekaboo died on June 11 of this year, and the character of my dog family has changed.  Not because Peeks was a personality or a force in the household, but because she wasn’t.

Let me explain.  I’ve written about the Merle Girls before, and about the third canine ‘charity case’ in my home, Charlie Bear.  I took all three in when they were seniors – about 12 years old for Charlie, and 12 years old as represented by their breeder for the Merle Girls, who were apparently littermates.

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I’d taken in quite a few senior dogs before that:  I started in 2000, when a neighbor left Angus, a 10-year old Sheltie, in my care and never returned (I knew it was a dump when it happened and was happy to have Angus, who was a sweet little guy).  Later I took in other Shelties:  Rudy, an entirely delightful character who fit in with my crew wonderfully; and Good Guy, who just needed a place to nap away his last years; and Banjo, who made me laugh with his enormous enthusiasm for life in my pack; and Irwin, who went for walks with us and squeaked his toy vigorously in the back yard until his heart gave out.  I adopted a 9 year old Finnish Lapphund, Heikki (Mike), who introduced me to the breed, which I love, and to chronic tick disease, which I loathe.  All those dogs were cherished family members and all of them had good times with me and with my own dogs then in residence, from Sander to Sunny, Pippi, and Shiri, and Rowley and Beau.

Charlie and the Girls were a whole different category of adoptees, and if I realized it at the time, I certainly didn’t know how that difference would manifest in my house and my dog family.

For one thing, the three of them were probably unadoptable as pets.  Charlie was a Pomeranian cross – the rescue thought Pom x Sheltie, and although I never saw any Sheltie in that guy, I’m pretty bad at guessing breeds.  Charlie was found on the streets in New York – Brooklyn, I think – and he was blind from untreated KCS (keratoconjunctivitis sicca), and he was a train wreck, structurally, and most of all, he was a crabby SOB of a dog, even when he was enjoying himself.  He wasn’t about to join any group, and he had no use for any of my dogs; once he communicated that, they returned the sentiment wholeheartedly.  For a while I blamed myself for not making a more hospitable environment for Charlie, but that was nonsense.  Charlie would have been Grumpy McGrumpypants anywhere he landed.  He didn’t want to bond with me, either; he didn’t want to be petted, he didn’t want company, he wanted you to put the food bowl down and then get lost.  Because he was a determined, resilient little dog, this was sort of amusing, but I never developed any kind of bond with Charlie, and I provided him with room and board and kept him safe without enjoying his company, or he mine.

The Merle Girls were bred by a hoarder and they were not well bred.  (Shocker, eh?)  Posey was a sweetie, and the more ‘normal’ of the two, in that she could interact with people and enjoyed their company.  She had been bred who knows how many times, and was still intact when she came to me; the rescue vet wasn’t keen to do spay surgery on a bitch who had encapsulated mammary tumors that likely were malignant.  So she remained unspayed, which became a feature of her relationship with one of my dogs, and occasionally she and Alex would go off into the underbrush in the back yard and play Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin.  This wasn’t something I liked at all.  It encouraged Alex’s marking (in the house!), and generally wasn’t conducive to a harmonious ‘pack.’  I took to keeping the Girls separate from the other dogs most of the time.

And Peekaboo – how to describe Peeks?  I have never met a Sheltie like her before and I hope I never do again.  Peeks had the flattest affect of any dog in my experience, and her range of emotions went from terror to mild anxiety.  I’m serious.  She had virtually no normal dog reactions, she sought no interactions, she was comfortable only with her sister.  I’d say it was heartbreaking but really it was infuriating, because it was so clearly due to truly awful breeding, compounded by the most unenriched environment possible.  I don’t know the hoarder who surrendered Peeks and Posey, but when I learned last year that she had died, I was relieved – for the dogs who would be spared the miserable lives that she provided.  Hoarding is a mental illness, or an aspect of one, of course.  How I hate to see animals pay the price for human problems like that.  At first, friends who had successfully rehabbed Shelties from mills and hoarders, Shelties who had pronounced kennelosis, suggested things to try with Peekaboo to get her out of her emotional corner of fear.  Maybe if Peeks had been younger, some of those things would have had results, but she was 12 when she landed in my house, and the window of opportunity had slammed shut long ago.

In May of this year, Peekaboo was doing poorly and an x-ray showed a tumor on her lung.  Three weeks later, she collapsed and it was clear that she had nothing left, so we made the trip to the vet clinic for the euthanasia visit.  She followed her sister and Charlie into the Great Beyond, and I went home to a changed house:  no more boarders.  It feels different.  Truth:  it feels better.  I’m glad I was able to provide care for Charlie, Posey, and Peeks, but I wish they could have had more – their lives, even in my house, were not lives I would want for any of my dogs.  People did badly by those three, and that saddens me.

Right now, I have five dogs:  Rowley (rescue BC) is 10; Beau (rescue Sheltie) is 11; Alex and Siili (Finnish Lapphunds) are both 6; and Dee (rescue Sheltie mix) is probably 7.  Beau has serious health issues, and has signs consistent with a brain lesion or tumor.  (I don’t want to pay the enormous sum for a complete neuro workup, which would answer questions but change nothing.)  He’s doing well on anti-seizure meds, but the prognosis isn’t good.  I will have a hard time when Beau goes:  from the day he came over and sat in my lap, in the rescue director’s big back yard, I have loved this little guy, and he has been an integral member of my dog family.  I am sorry that he probably won’t get those ‘old dog’ years that so many before him have enjoyed here, and that I hope Charlie and the Girls enjoyed in their own way.

I’ll always adopt rescues, but I don’t want any more boarders.

Charlie Bear came in the spring of 2014; the Merle Girls arrived in the summer of 2015.  Looking back, I think I did expect them to become family members, but they never did.  They remained boarders for the time they had here, and it was good time:  Posey died (probably of cancer) in May 2018, Charlie died (of old age) in October 2018, and Peekaboo died (of cancer) in June 2019.  While they were here, they received excellent care in every way, but they simply weren’t members of my family.  I don’t know that they would have been members of any family.  I think with dogs like that, the best solution for their later years is a senior sanctuary.  I wish there were more such organizations.  I donate to the ones I know about, and I hope you will too.  Not every senior dog can be a pet, but every senior dog deserves comfort and ease in its last years.  Here are some places you can help make that happen.

Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary:  https://ofsds.org

Silver Muzzle Cottage:  https://silvermuzzlecottage.com

House With A Heart:  https://housewithaheart.com

Forever Loved:  https://foreverlovedpets.org

Grand Paws Senior Sanctuary:  http://grandpawsrescue.org

Wise Tails Senior Dog Sanctuary:  http://wisetails.org

 

 

Take it off — take it all off!

You’d think someone who has owned Shelties for 30 years would be able to groom a dog.  And you’d be right – if by ‘dog’ you meant ‘Sheltie or any breed of lesser coat.’  My Shelties were often rumpled, disheveled, and happily unkempt, but I could and did bathe and brush them regularly.  It wasn’t until I got a Finnish Lapphund that I met my Waterloo in that area.

A lot of people tell me that they enjoy brushing their dogs.  They say it’s relaxing, for them and for the dogs.  They say things like ‘Oh, I just watch tv for an hour or two and brush Fido at the same time’ – they make it sound like knitting, or some other pastime that engages the hands and produces beautiful results.

I’m not one of those people.  I don’t like brushing my dogs and I never have.  I like to have my dogs clean, with their coats in good order, but if it requires more than minimal effort, I’m not the person to call on for that effort.  I wondered about this, recently … I have done plenty of things that were time-consuming, that required patience and precision, and I enjoyed doing them.  Years ago, I would spend hours with a dear friend (now deceased) and the two of us would smoke cigarettes, drink iced tea, and work on counted cross-stitch projects.  Finicking and precise work, but I loved it.

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So why can’t I bring that mind-set to dog grooming?  After all, I mocked myself, it’s not like you ever had a bad grooming experience!  And then I realized that yeah, I had.  I developed my aversion to this form of personal hygiene through my childhood experience of my own grooming!

Until I was in the third or fourth grade, I had long hair.  Waist-length long hair.  My mother wasn’t about to let a 7-year old child run around with hair that long blowing in the breeze, and so every morning she would corral me, stand me in the dining room, and brush out my long hair and plait it into two braids.  My kindergarten picture (Kohn School, fall of 1960), which thankfully has been lost in the mists of time, shows an apple-cheeked little Dutch girl with glossy dark hair in two braids, which have been looped up and tied with colored ribbons near the ears.  The stern, uncompromising line of bangs across my forehead speaks wordlessly to the intention of the hairdresser to be done with this chore and on to others.  That was exactly how my mom approached our daily ordeal.  She had a husband to get off to work and three daughters to get off to school, and all she wanted was to get my hair in order and get me out the door with my schoolbooks and signed field-trip slip.  All I wanted was to be able to cut my hair.

This is why I don’t believe my dogs enjoy being brushed.  How can they – I hated it!

When I adopted a Finnish Lapphund in 2009, his coat was unlike any Sheltie coat I’d ever encountered.  I found a groomer nearby and three time a year, Heikki (Mike) would spend the afternoon with Rose.  Mike had ehrlichiosis, and he was 10+, so he tired easily and Rose, the groomer, would work on him for a bit, then put him in a kennel in the drying room, and work on him again a bit later.  Mikey never seemed unsettled by his visits to Rose, and he came home looking and smelling wonderful.  When I let his coat go and didn’t get him to Rose in time, he looked like a lumpy quilt.  But when he spent the afternoon with Rose, he looked lovely!

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But when Mikey passed on, and Alex joined my family, I had a heck of a time getting his grooming needs in hand.  I assumed Mikey’s groomer would now be Alex’s groomer, and that would have been the case but for an unfortunate wiggle incident at one appointment that resulted in Alex’s scrotum being nicked by the clippers.  Any thought that he would willingly return to the scene of THAT crime was soon banished, and I started the search for another groomer.  One very nice woman was an hour’s drive from me; that got old pretty quickly.  The next salon was caught up in a kerfuffle on social media when a day-care customer alleged that the salon owners had put a shock collar on her dog, to curb its barking.  Ugh.  I didn’t schedule further appointments there.  I found a very local groomer who did a great job, but who also made me feel that my neglect of Alex’s coat should be reported to PETA, or maybe DCFS, and all my dogs rehomed to more caring owners.  Not up for a serving of guilt with my grooming bill, thanks.

Then I went into the “I Can Do This Myself” phase, which lasted about 18 months.  I assembled the tools, even buying a very nice dryer, and dedicated a space in the house to the project, and declared that I would get Alex’s coat into the condition it should be in.  It was rather like a person with $150K in credit-card debt announcing that NOW she can live on $10 a day, just you watch!  In other words, delusional.  The tools are the right tools, but I don’t wield them.

Thank goodness, a friend responded to my kvetching about this recently by calling her groomer, and making an introduction, and I then made a grooming date at that shop in a nearby suburb.  The groomer, who is around my age, had definitely seen and done a thing or two, and she introduced herself to Alex, sweet-talked him for a bit, and then plunged her hands into his coat.  “What you have here,” she said, “is a year – more than a year, maybe two years – of old coat.  It has to come out.  And then he has to come in once a season so it doesn’t get like this again!”

And come out it did.  I returned to collect Alex that afternoon, and when I saw his back end, I said “ack!”, or something along those lines.  The groomer shrugged.  “Had to come out,” she said, “but it will grow back.”  I made a return date for 3 months in the future and took my clipped Lapphund home.

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Since then, I have not only made my peace with Alex’s abbreviated coat, I have grown to love it.  I doubt I want to keep it quite this short, but I know I want some form of a clip done on him at least twice a year, and I know I want to keep the hair on his belly and underside clipped very close.  It’s so much easier!  When he goes tearing through the high grass at the nature preserve, and digs under the leaf mold in the woods there, and wades into the mud-bottom lakes, it’s so much easier to remove the evidence of that from his reduced coat.  We’re both happier.  I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I am not able to groom my dogs, and I’m glad to know that there are people who will do it for me.  And to those lovely people I say, don’t spare the clippers!  It will always grow back!

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Our No-Good Very Bad Horrible Day; Also, Why I Hate Trialing

February 23, 2019 —  Updating with accurate, albeit belated, info…
Someone was kind enough to collect my scoresheets from the NACSW trial on February 16 and deliver them to me, and from them I learned a couple of pretty significant (to me) things:

Yes, we NQ’ed in Exteriors when Alex marked in the search area.  It is what it is.  Dogs who indulge their love of odor through marking as well as sniffing are at risk for that NQ.

In Vehicles, we actually passed and got a Q!  There was indeed only one hide, and Alex found it.  I am, as promised, very surprised.

In Interiors, we passed two of the three rooms!  Yes, he false-alerted in room one, but room two was a Clear room — the first I’ve encountered in NW3 trials — and with no alerts, and my calling ‘finish’ with less than a quarter of a second on the clock, we got it.  I’m going to pretend it was more than inadvertent and take pride in passing a Clear room.  Good job, Alex!

Also in Interiors, we found both hides in room three, so we passed two of the three rooms.

I pulled him from Containers, so that was a scratch.

Over all, not a great score, but my dog worked REALLY well under the circumstances.  Yes, those circumstances include the fact that I didn’t like the trial site and I was driven nuts by the wait times and the logistics of the running order (WTF was that starting dog #8 shit, anyway; it should have been dogs #1 and #18 starting — okay, never mind) — but Alex was a STAR!  Yes he was!

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February 16, 2019

Alex has come very close to getting his Nosework 3 (NW3) title from the National Association of Canine Scentwork (NACSW), but today he took a giant step … backward.

It was an interesting day.

The trial site was about 30 miles from me, so a 40-minute drive.  I got up at 5 am so I would have time to take all the dogs out for a decent walk before breakfast; it didn’t make up for the fact that they were to spend the day alone, and that is one of the biggest reasons I dislike trialing a dog:  the other dogs sit home alone.  I have a petsitter who comes in and gives them a break and some cookies but still …

I put Alex in the car at 7.05 am and headed off for the trial site.  When we got there, the parking area was one of the least attractive spots I’d seen in a while.  This matters, because at NACSW trials, you crate in your car.  I did a NW trial at Alpine Valley once, and it was a beautiful venue on a perfect spring day, a pleasure to sit in a lawn chair on the grass next to my car, with Alex in his travel crate beside me; and I guess I think all NW trials ought to have that combination of great weather and delightful environment.  Ha.  Today’s parking lot looked like something found in an Eastern Bloc country in the 1970s, and Chicago’s February weather was happy to add insult to injury.  With temps in the upper twenties, I was not only crating in my car, I was sitting in my car with the engine running for a good part of the day.  Lovely!

And this is a big deal because of the pace of NACSW trials.  There are 35 dog-and-handler teams entered, and two judges.  Interiors, in NW3, comprises three separate rooms/searches.  So one judge is assigned to Interiors, and that generally takes up his/her entire day; the second judge will run two searches back to back – today it was Exteriors and Vehicles – but even so, that moves faster than the molasses-in-January production that is Interiors.

On checking in, at 7.50 am, I found that Alex and I were number 28.  Ugh.  The briefing was held from 8.30 to 9.30, and the first dogs started searching at 9.45.  Dog #1 went to Interiors, and Dog #8 went to Exteriors/Vehicles.  With twenty dogs to go before Alex and I were called, I told one of the trial volunteers that I was going to the Starbucks that my GPS said was less than four miles away, and did she want me to bring her anything?  No, she said, but I should ‘hurry back’ because sometimes things moved faster than anticipated.  She had clearly been bogarting *that* joint.  I got back at 10.15 am and Alex and I were called for Exteriors/Vehicles at 12.05 pm.  My dog had been in the car for five hours, albeit with frequent potty and walk breaks, but how much can you walk in a gravel parking lot in an industrial-type area, and in 27-degree weather?  My dog was bored out of his mind, and I couldn’t blame him.

We crossed the start line in Exteriors and less than fifteen seconds in, Alex alerted and was correct.  I felt a lightening of my spirit:  things were off to a good start.  He wanted to work, he was working.  He paused to examine a shrub closely, and at the instant that I pulled him away from it, he lifted his leg on it.  Alex likes to mark things.  If your dog marks in a search area in a Nosework trial, you NQ that search.  Twenty seconds into our first search, and there went any hope of the NW3 title today.  That lightening of my spirit fled the scene.

On to Vehicles, where Alex gave a very good impression of a dog who was bored and didn’t have any interest in the proceedings.  Twice he stopped at a spot on one of the vehicles and his nose went into overdrive, and twice I thought he would alert, and twice he stopped and seemed to say ‘meh’ and moved on.  He did eventually alert, correctly; but we finished the search of the three vehicles with only that one find, and if there was only a single hide on those three cars, I’ll be very surprised.  It’s possible – there can be one, two, or three hides in a NW3 Vehicle search – but I think it unlikely.  Back to the car.

More vehicle time:  another two hours.  My own boredom was becoming intolerable.  (Hell is boredom, for me; I’ve never been any good at dealing with it.  Penned in my car on an ugly grey cold day in February, my resources are scant.)  At 2 pm we were called for Interiors.  Three rooms, and I planned to let Alex work off-leash for all three.  In the first room, he headed for the opposite wall and on a small item of furniture there, he alerted with a paw-scrabble and a look at me.  Too bad there was no hide there!  No treat, NQ Room One, move along to Room Two.  Search time was two minutes for each of the three rooms and at 1.59.77 in Room Two, I called finish without a single alert, or anything resembling one, from my dog.  No idea if we’d just encountered our first ‘clear’ room in NW3, but I’d be pretty surprised if it was.  In Room Three, I left the leash on and walked him around the room in something closer to a search pattern than his random desultory examinations of the first two rooms had been.  He found two hides, correctly, and I called finish to end it there.

Going back to the parking lot, we were told that Containers would be starting at 2.30 pm.  Twenty-seven dogs to go before Alex and I got to that start line; search time on Containers was 2.5 minutes.  Say 3.5 minutes per dog, with the shuffling in and out in addition to search time.   Over 90 minutes.  Alex and I would get to Containers at 4 pm, and based on his truly awful performance so far, I could only guess what he would do there – take a dump on a box, maybe?  I didn’t think our no-good very bad horrible day would be redeemed in Containers, so I pulled him from the lineup and we were home by 3 pm.

Alex was ‘off’ – actually, WAY off – all day, and I have seen this before, and I know the training dilemma it presents to a handler:  how do you re-start your dog, re-motivate your dog, when the dog has mentally checked out and is barely going through the motions?  I know the answer, I have been training Alex for five years.  I take him home, return him to his group, get them all some outdoor play time, and let Alex restore his equilibrium in his own time.  He’s not the less-than-stellar search dog he was today; but neither is he a working dog.  When the Search Dog Foundation is desperate for recruits, the cry does not go out: ‘get us all the Finnish Lapphunds you can find!’  Alex loves to sniff, and he hates to be bored, and when boredom short-circuits him, the love of sniffing isn’t strong enough to overcome it.  (Besides, he wears that nose 24 hours a day, he sniffs all he wants whenever he wants!)  I felt the same way in grammar school, and the look Alex gave me in Room Two of Interiors was the same look I gave my fourth-grade teacher when she told me to put away the library book I was reading under my desk and open my spelling workbook.

So no NW3 for us today, but I’m with Alex on this:  that was the most BORING day inflicted on us in quite some time!  Does it have to be that way?  Can’t they get a better logistical arrangement of dog-handler teams, somehow?  What about having the handlers report in staggered groups of twelve:  first group at 8 am, second at 10 am, third at noon.  Can that brain-numbing blather from the trial CO; put it in a written handout and make everyone sign it when they check in.  We’re adults, we’re in NW3, we really don’t need to be told to not let our dogs meet other dogs.  GMAFB.  Walk-throughs?  Video the damn things and show them to each group of arrivals on a TV.  There have got to be better ways to run a trial than what we experienced today!  (I am not taking a swipe at the host club or any of the people working the trial; they were all terrific and nothing they did caused any of the down-time.  NACSW’s trial model has that down-time built in, and isn’t it time someone proposed a solution to that?!)

Me, I’m going to only enter trials in the spring and fall months, and only go to scenic venues on days of perfect weather.  At this rate, Alex will be 12 before he gets that NW3, but who’s in a hurry?

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The End of an Era? — Not So Fast!

February 12, 2019

When Beau developed a seizure disorder last month, I was – and remain – devastated at the thought of losing him much sooner than I had foreseen.  I’ve mentioned in other posts how hard this is, but one of the reasons it walloped me is because Beau is my last Sheltie.

From 1989 until 2009, I owned *only* Shelties.  I raised them from puppies (Briar Rose, Sander, Sundance, Pippi, Shiri); I rescued them as seniors (Angus, Rudy, Guy, Banjo, Irwin).  My neighbors referred to me as ‘the Sheltie lady.’  All Shelties, all the time, that was my house!

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In 2009 I adopted a senior Finnish Lapphund, Heikki (Mikey), and for the first few months he was in my house, I would start with surprise on catching a glimpse of him and have a ‘what’s that?’ reaction for a split second:  he wasn’t a Sheltie!

mike on biomat

Then in 2010 I adopted a young Border Collie (Rowley), because I needed an agility dog and I didn’t think I could find a Sheltie with the temperament and structure for it; and anyway, I had long wanted a BC.  So Rowley has been my agility dog ever since, and he is, no question, the best agility dog ever, bar none.  If he had a better handler, he would have piles and piles of advanced titles!  But we get by and he loves his twice-weekly agility classes.

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After that, when Mikey left us, a young Lapphund came to stay, and introduced me to Nosework and other things Lappy, and now I can’t imagine my life without a Finnish Lapphund!
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And in 2014, I adopted a mixed-breed, Dee, who turned out to be mostly (44%) Sheltie but is not anything like a Sheltie in the overall package.  Biddable and gentle?  Ha ha, not Miss Dee!

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And somehow, in that, Beau – who joined us in 2012 – is now the only Sheltie I have!  I’ve been giving away a lot of my Sheltie-themed stuff, since I’m not really a ‘Sheltie person’ anymore … and I haven’t worked a Sheltie since I trained Shiri in agility, so many years ago.  But when I thought of having no Shelties in my family after Beau, I was gobsmacked.  And watching the Masters Agility Trials at Westminster recently, I was reflecting on the fact that Rowley will turn 10 in a few months, and at some point he won’t be as active in agility as he is now; and that made me sad, too.  I’ve trained my dogs, and trialed them some, in agility since 1993.  I have no plans to stop doing agility anytime soon.

And then the two pieces fit together perfectly and showed me a picture of the future:  I will get an agility Sheltie!  Beau will NOT be my last Sheltie, and I will start a Sheltie puppy in agility in the near future!

Wait a minute, the buzzkill side of me said, a second Lapphund is joining your family this year.  Do you want to have five dogs even post-Beau?  I gave my buzzkill side an admonitory smack.  I’m not going to start a 6-year old dog, one with whom I have no training history, in agility.  I have plans to start Siili in nosework, which I believe she will enjoy.  If she enjoys it to the extent that Alex does, I will trial her as I trial him.  Siili is an awesome dog and will add a lot to my group, and I look forward to her arrival this spring, but she is not my next agility dog.

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Rowley is still my agility dog, there is a ‘no vacancy’ sign on that position this year, and most likely next year too.  But then …?

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So I went to the assa.org website and looked for breeders near me, and then I started ruling out the breeders near me.  Too many of them have lines from a particular Big Name Sheltie Breeder in this area that I want to avoid:  I had one of her dogs, and his structural issues were as bad as his breeder’s lack of ethics.  No more of that.  (Let me just ask:  if YOU had a 2-year old dog from a breeder, and that dog’s sire was conclusively diagnosed by biopsy with a heritable autoimmune disease, and the breeder did not tell you because she ‘didn’t want you to worry’ – would you consider that breeder an honest person?  I wouldn’t, and I didn’t.  And that wasn’t even the half of it.  Oh no, not going near THOSE bloodlines again, ever.  My mistrust extends to the breeders who bred to the kennel of my dog’s breeder.)

So that’s where it is:  I’m on a puppy list for a spring 2020 breeding by a kennel that has some really nice-looking agility Shelties on its website.  I’m looking at other breeders, too, and asking them about their dogs.  I’m a bit perplexed by breeders who have no website or social media page:  that’s such a good way to find out what and how they breed, and pedigrees tell me more than any sales pitch.  If you’re a hobby breeder and have no cyberspace profile or presence, what would induce me to consider your dogs, if I’m a person who wants certain things in a dog?  Oh well.  I’ll keep on looking!  I’m in no hurry.   Have you seen the video on FB of Amy Brastad, age 92, doing an Excellent Jumpers run with her Sheltie at an agility trial?  She’s not just my hero, she’s my role model!
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How’s Beau Doing?

February 11, 2019:  Just Checking In

Beau has been on the Keppra for 10 days now, and he has not had a seizure since the one on January 28, which was the third of three that month.  This means he is 13 days seizure-free, and I have to assume the Keppra is working.  I’m very grateful for that!

There are some other little things that are not so reassuring:  he saw his chiropractor this past weekend, and Dr. H found that while Beau’s head was not on crooked (the chiro’s favorite term for out-of-alignment conditions in the cervical vertebrae region), Beau’s head was giving off a lot of heat, which is not normal.  I see clear discharge from his eyes, which is not normal for him; I have to clean crusts of ‘tears’ from under his eyes.  And his snoring has become the sound of his breathing now, particularly after he’s had exercise — it sounds like his nasal passages are not clear.  I don’t know what this means, but I know what it could indicate, and that makes me incredibly sad.  Our dogs are too soon gone even with normal lifespans, and sometimes we are in such a period of ‘this is great, everything is harmonious and happy’ that we wish we could hit the ‘pause’ button on time.  But time is inexorable, and I can only keep the wonderful experiences of Beau and the Boyz and Dee in my heart as they turn into memories, and diverge from reality.  It sucks, but it’s better than nothing.
And for today, Beau is having a chicken wing for breakfast, and going to the nature preserve with us to explore the snowy woods.

 

February 4, 2019

As I noted in my last posting, I have a ‘seizure dog’ now.  And his veterinarian is not sanguine about the outlook or the reason for those seizures:  it’s very likely that Beau has cancer, somewhere in the brain.

In other words:  there’s maybe a 15% chance that the seizures (three in 16 days) were caused by late-onset idiopathic epilepsy.  The much greater chance, weighing in at 85%, is a brain tumor.  You can’t like those odds!

How can we find out for sure?  Well, for an expenditure of somewhere around $6,000, Beau could have a neuro consult and a complete neuro workup, including an MRI.  The MRI would show us, pretty conclusively, any tumors in or on Beau’s brain.  It might even show enough to allow the neuro staff to identify the type of neoplasm, and if we knew the location and type of tumor, the likely behavior and progression of it could be predicted.  But I have a lot of gaps in my store of knowledge, and I’m going to live with this one.  Six thousand dollars can buy a lot of quality-of-life things, like dog training classes, and vet visits, and really good treats, and tanks of gas for the car to take us to the nature preserve, and the Ag HS fields, and a whole bunch of other things that Beau loves and enjoys.  He would not enjoy an MRI.  So, no.

The less scientific way to find out, of course, is to wait and see.  Beau started on Keppra (levetiracetam) to prevent seizures, and it will work until it doesn’t work.  In other words, at some point the cancer will become too powerful to be reined in by meds.  If that happens, Beau will have seizures even while on the anti-seizure med.  We can increase the dose of Keppra then, and hope it prevents seizures for a while longer; the nice thing about Keppra, as opposed to phenobarbital or potassium bromide, is that it’s possible to give really high doses, because the drug doesn’t appear to affect the liver or liver enzymes.  It has to be given more frequently than other meds, and Beau started at 250 mg every 8 hours.  The frequency of dosing is due to the fact that levetiracetam breaks down rapidly in the body, with an elimination half-life between four and six hours.  Beau doesn’t even need his blood levels monitored.  All in all, it’s a terrific alternative to potassium bromide and phenobarb.  One vet told me it’s the go-to drug for seizure control now.

What Beau’s seizures are not:  they are not caused by liver disease, kidney disease, or a thyroid disorder.  Those things can cause seizures in dogs, but a seizure is never the only sign of kidney disease, etc.  Always, other symptoms accompany the seizures, and the malfunction of the organ can generally be seen in bloodwork.  Beau’s CBC/chem panel contained no anomalies.  His SDMA test, which is an early detector of kidney disease, was one point higher than the same test done two years ago.  Beau, a Sheltie of very poor breeding, probably has kidney disease in his future – or if he doesn’t, that’s only because his future won’t be long enough to allow renal failure to develop.  Goody goody gumtrees for that, eh?

No, all the indications are that cancer has developed in Beau’s brain.  I would like that not to be the case, and if he has managed to be in the small percentage of dogs who develop idiopathic epilepsy at age 11, I will be thrilled.  Well, okay, less than thrilled, but happier than the cancer option makes me.  But eighteen dogs have found their way to me in the past 30+ years, many of them seniors, and all but the five now living here have passed away while in my care.  I certainly know what death looks like, and more importantly, I know what a good life looks like, for my dogs.  Even in managing to defy some daunting odds with Sander (who lived with a malignant oral tumor for more than seven years) and Heikki/Mike (who lived with ehrlichiosis for more than four years), I never kept a dog alive when they had lost the things they loved in life.  A life with no joy is no life.  So when the veterinarian told me that one of the signs of advancing brain cancer is inappetence, I knew with certainty that when Beau doesn’t want to eat, it will be time to make the decision about quality of life and time remaining.

But that’s not today.  Today he seems unchanged; today he goes for walks and car rides and tucks into his meals with great enthusiasm.  Today he gets his three daily doses of Keppra in sugar-free Jello pudding.  Today, Beau is happy and life is good.  Dogs have got this mindfulness thing down pat, don’t they.

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I Have a Seizure Dog — Wait, WHAT?!

Thirty years, I’ve owned dogs.  Lots of dogs.  I acquired some of them as puppies, and more of them as adults – seniors, even – from rescues.  Sometimes I amuse myself by recalling all the names, and enjoying the mental images of the dogs that come to mind with that:

Sander – Alexander Prince Charming

Briar Rose

Sundance – Lynnlea’s The Sundance Kid

Pippi

Shiri – Shofar’s Summer Song

Rudy

Good Guy

Angus T Bang

Irwin

Banjo

Posey

Those were the Shelties; it was 20 years before I brought in another breed, and then I got a Finnish Lapphund, Heikki.  Changed his name to My Dog Mike and helped him deal with ehrlichiosis for four years before he departed.  Charlie Bear wandered in:  he was a Pom/Sheltie mix, and a battered little fella who’d been found on the streets of Brooklyn.

Now, of course, the crew is Rowley (BC), Alex (Lapphund), Dee (Sheltie/SharPei mix), Beau (Sheltie) and Peekaboo (senior Sheltie).

In all those years and all those dogs, I’ve dealt with all kinds of health issues.  Briar Rose had dermatomyositis and my then-veterinarian vaccinated her to death.  I’m older and wiser now, and he’s not my vet any longer.  Sander lived with cancer for 7+ years, in what has to be some kind of record – no surgery, no chemo, no radiation, just truckloads of supplements, and raw food, and avoidance of toxins.  He had a heart as big as all outdoors, Sander did.  Mikey arrived with chronic ehrlichia, and I learned about platelets and the Bio-Mat and chlorophyll supplements.  It did kill him, eventually, but what a fight we gave it for more than four years!  I’ve seen numerous incidents of vestibular, and the signs of HGE are all too familiar.  This year I treated Rowley for heartworm, which was a learning experience of the terrifying kind.  But I’ve never had a dog with a seizure disorder.

Until now.

In 2012, Rowley was three years old and the other dogs in my house were seniors.  I felt that Rowley – and I – needed a younger dog in the group; so we drove to Bloomington and met some of the Shelties that were available for adoption through the Central Illinois rescue.  There was a 3-year old sable, named Sonny, whose nice build and very good head spoke to some good breeding in his pedigree; he was said to be something of a ‘handful’, according to the rescue director.  I had a young Border Collie, my hands were already full.  There was a 4-year old tricolor boy who worked his way over to us, as I sat on the lawn in the big dog yard, and took a seat in my lap, and stayed there.  He was a bit shy.  He’d been an only dog, owned by an elderly woman who surrendered him when she went into a nursing home.  He was a catalog of conformation faults, but he had those sweet, trusting Sheltie brown eyes, and he came home with us.  Immediately, he attached himself to Rowley.  His name was Bogey, but Beau suited him better, so Beau he became and Beau he remains.

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Seven years later, Beau is the only one of my Gang of Four who doesn’t have work to do – Rowley is my agility dog, Alex is a nosework dog, and Dee is an AAT dog.  Beau’s job is to be Beau.  He goes everywhere with the group, he is as reliable off-leash as Rowley and Alex (never Dee, her hunting instinct prevents her being off a leash EVER), and he is one of the Busy Boyz.  He is devoted to me and to Rowley, and fond of Alex.  From Dee he maintains a respectful distance, which I take to mean he’s afraid of her.  He’s a smart dog.

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Two weeks ago, Beau woke me at about 3 am, and I found him on his back on the floor next to his bed, unable to right himself, which his legs and paws moving – ‘paddling’, I have since learned it is called.  I picked him up and set him upright on the floor, but he pancaked.  I picked him up again and held him, and after some minutes, when he seemed calmed, I put him down; this time he walked carefully over to his bed and lay down in it.  He was soaked with saliva.  That was the first ominous sign that made me think ‘seizure’, and my thought was confirmed soon enough.

We went to the vet clinic, where they drew blood to see if anything was amiss in his liver and kidney functions, or maybe his thyroid.  Nothing looked unusual or elevated.  The SDMA test, an indicator of decreased kidney function that identified kidney disease earlier than BUN and creatinine readings, was one point higher than it had been in 2017.  One point.  Not a lot.  But … he is a Sheltie, and kidney disease is the disease of this breed.

Nine days later, he had another seizure.  This one was worse than the first one, and lasted almost four minutes.  I learned that four minutes is a LONG time, and that two seizures so close together is a bad sign.  We did a blood pressure test:  it was about 10 points above ‘normal’, which is elevated, but not drastically so.  I started him on CBD oil, and agreed to consider medication if he has another seizure that is as serious as the second one was.

I’ve been given a lot of useful information by friends who have dealt with seizures in their own dogs, in some case for years.  I’m truly impressed by the resilience of those people, and those dogs, as my two experiences with Beau’s seizures have completely unnerved me.  I’ve read up on triggers, on things to avoid, on dietary tweaks – but the big question is still unanswered:  What caused an 11-year old dog with no history of seizures to have two within ten days?

It’s not idiopathic epilepsy:  that starts younger.  I truly doubt that it’s kidney disease:  I believe his kidneys are crummy, but for kidney disease to cause seizures, it would be advanced enough to show other signs, and there are none.  I think the blood pressure is a piece of the puzzle, but I keep coming back to what a couple in one of my agility classes told me had caused sudden-onset seizures in their 10-year old Bearded Collie:  lesions on the brain.  Why do I think this?  I’m not normally a doom-and-gloom person about my dogs.  When Sander had cancer, I refused to even admit the thought that he might die from it.  And he didn’t, he died at 14 ½ of liver failure.  When I adopted Mikey, I knew the ehrlichia would be a pain to deal with, but it was just part of the picture.  But now, with Beau, I’m feeling nothing but foreboding, and I’m acknowledging that for some time, I’ve not had a comfortable feeling about this dog’s old age, based on how really poor his breeding is.  I feel like his genetic inheritance is not good.

Maybe I just have to face the worst and think through it so I can gain some equanimity.  Maybe Beau will live to be 15 and have only occasional seizures; maybe the CBD oil will work; maybe Keppra will stop the seizures.  That would be great.  And surprising.  Two seizures in ten days, after 11 years of no seizures, is not a positive indicator.  So I consider what I will and won’t do:  I will not put Beau on the heavy-duty seizure meds, phenobarbital and potassium bromide.  I will not make him stay here when his life is no longer one continuous round of hanging with the other Boyz and hiking in the Izaak Walton Preserve.  I will keep Beau’s wonderful life wonderful, and when it ceases to be wonderful, I will let him go join the other Hooligans at the Bridge.  I hate thinking that that day may come any time soon.  Beau has brought nothing but affection and activity to my group, and it’s hard to think that those things may be taken from him by some organic defect.

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Maybe I’m worried for no reason.  But I don’t think so.

Hang in there, Beau, we’re all with you and you’ll never be alone so long as you’re here.  And when the time comes you’re not here, you’re still in this family – that’s forever, and for always too, as the old song says.

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Chill, Dude! — In praise of laid-back dogs

Recently a friend posted this link on Facebook, to a study about how service dog candidates are selected:

https://tinyurl.com/yb549gb3

The interesting part:  “All of the dogs in the study underwent a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. Despite calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala — an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to fail the training program.”

I don’t think anyone would dispute the assertion that excitability in dogs is, in general, more common now than in the past; and in many scenarios, people are looking for that excitability, taking the view that it enhances the ability of a dog to perform in various dog sports and competitions.  There’s a lot of discussion about what constitutes ‘drive’ and what is ‘arousal’ in dogs, and I don’t get the sense that there’s always a clear context for either term.  In general, ‘drive’ is defined as ‘an instinctive desire or impulse’, which says nothing about whether that’s expressed calmly, or with great agitation.  Presumably the need to express that desire or impulse quite frequently is what makes a dog ‘high drive’?

Probably more germane is the definition of arousal, courtesy of good old Wikipedia:  “Arousal is a physiological and psychological state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. It involves the activation of the reticular activating system in the brain stem, the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system, leading to increased heart rate and blood pressure and a condition of sensory alertness, mobility and readiness to respond.”  It can also involve jumping on people, bark-screaming, and even biting, my observations have shown.

Unlike the program that screens candidates for the role of service dog, other programs look for dogs that have been deemed hyper-excitable and too easily aroused and discarded for that behavior:  the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation combs the shelters of the states in the Western US for such dogs and enrolls likely candidates – who have usually spectacularly flunked Pet Dog 101 with one or more owners – in their training program, upon completion of which the dogs are transferred to first responders and spend their working lives searching for survivors of disasters, both natural and man-made.

If you aren’t familiar with NDSDF, you should check them out: https://searchdogfoundation.org/

And the topic of arousal leads inevitably to reactivity, since reactivity, as I would define it, is the inappropriate or excessive arousal in response to stimuli.  If a dog barks and lunges at every other dog it sees on the street while on a leash walk, it’s reactive.  There’s too much arousal there, and no ability to turn down the volume of that arousal (although that is something that can be trained, with greater or lesser degrees of success).  One trainer I know says that she is seeing an unprecedented number of reactive dogs in her area, which is a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago; the reasons probably include breeding and the social world in which we expect our dogs to live.  An urban environment isn’t easy for a canine to navigate – which is not to say that every dog living on 150 acres in a rural area is a paragon of balance and confidence.

I’ve been involved in some facet of dog sports since my first Shelties, way back in the early 1990s.  In the 25 years of training a dog in agility, I’ve seen many changes in that sport, not the least of which is the propensity of people to get dogs with high levels of drive and/or high levels of arousal so that they can be trained to do agility courses faster and faster, with a greater degree of control by the handler.  It’s an amazing thing to see, but it’s kind of like the one percent taking over — it changes the game for everyone else, invariably.  When I ran Sander in agility in 1995, he might actually come home with a placement ribbon as well as a qualifying ribbon from his NADAC (or NCDA) trial; not a fast dog, he was responsive and fun to be with on an agility course.  Today, placements go to the fast, intense dogs — if they don’t NQ by doing a fly-off on the teeter, that is.  It’s less fun for those of us who don’t aim to complete the course in the blink of an eye and who aren’t in pursuit of advanced titles, but just want to have fun with our dogs.  If it weren’t for CPE agility, I’d be entirely done with trialling in that sport — and I HAVE a fast dog!

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Now I’m seeing something similar take place in Nosework, as that dog sport has become hugely popular.  The dogs who get cited by judges with a ‘pronounced’ designation* are the flashy dogs who zip through the search area and identify the location of hides in almost the blink of an eye, not the dogs with the more methodical and considered search styles.  I have one of those dogs, and he’s awesome, but most of the judges have never seen a Finnish Lapphund before, and their eyes are drawn by the German Shepherds and Border Collies.

(*In NACSW, where Alex and I trial, the judges may ‘Pronounce’ handler/dog teams demonstrating exceptional technique and/or teamwork at each trial.  This is not part of the title, but rather an acknowledgement of exceptional teamwork on that particular trial day.)

I even know someone who’s done agility for years with her dogs, of a hound breed, and was given some ‘advice’ by an agility trainer, that in order to really do agility, she should get ‘an agility dog.’  You know she doesn’t mean a hound.  Or a Lapphund.  She means a JRT, or a BC, or — you get the idea.

It’s an interesting topic, and my personal tastes are firmly on one side:  give me a dog who gets it done without drama.  A dog who’s chill.  I’m a baby boomer, we grew up striving for cool, seeking cool, worshiping cool, being cool.  ‘Act like you’ve been there before’, the baseball players say about becoming a star.  In the environment of the trading floors of the Chicago Board of Trade, where I spent the years from age 18 to age 40, cool was The Thing To Be.  That was back when the markets were entirely open-outcry and human beings did the work that today is done by a variety of electronic devices, using algorithms and programming functions.  We used our brains, and our voices.  We did an enormous job, we who were not brokers or traders but members of the support system that each day wrote the scripts and set the stage for those brokers and traders.  We processed orders from desk to broker, we relayed information from the pit to the desks, we made sure that every last five-lot was accounted for, and we did it all with an understated flourish that conveyed that we were COOL.  We didn’t actually use the term ‘dude’ in every sentence, but it was certainly implied.  This open outcry method of information dissemination was a highly efficient system, considering it predated cellphones by several decades, and a clerk who could do that for 4 to 6 hours every day – and do it accurately — was a god-like being, the essence of cool.  Usually pretty well paid, too.

The strongest disparagement of another clerk was that he or she was in a ‘personal fast market’ – the assessment delivered in a tone of amusement verging on ironic, but with a deadly serious undertone that left no doubt about the incompetence of Mr/Ms PFM.  It occurs to me that I should define ‘fast market’ here, since with electronic trading, it has ceased to exist.  In the open outcry trading pits, members would shout the prices of their trades, as they made them, to a staff of pit reporters seated in the ‘pulpit’ at one end of the pit; those reporters would key the prices into the exchange’s price dissemination system, and the quotes would be streamed out to the world at large.  (Hence, transparency of pricing.)  When the markets got really rocking and rolling, and 200 voices might be shouting prices at once, the pit reporters couldn’t physically enter those prices in the order in which they heard them, so they concentrated on just getting the prices in and they put the letter F next to each one, which indicated that there were ‘fast market’ conditions and the sequence of prices recorded was not guaranteed to be impeccable.  A fast market was the very definition of chaos, say, thirty seconds after the number was released on what the clerks called ‘Un-enjoyment Friday’.

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So a clerk who was in a personal fast market was someone who couldn’t keep his (or her) shit together, who got in his own way, who fought the chaos instead of riding it like a surfer on a wave.  The trading floors were a highly specialized environment, and not everybody belonged there.  But now, thirty years after that time in my life, I find myself thinking ‘huh, personal fast market’ when I encounter a dog who is habitually over-aroused or aroused by things that are mundane parts of daily life.  And even as I am wowed by the flash and style and speed and intensity of ‘high drive’ dogs in performance sports, I wonder if those dogs are as anxious and hyper-alert in their off-the-course lives as they often seem to be.

I think it would be tiring to live with such a dog.  When Dee came to live with me, four years ago, she was pretty reactive to other dogs outside of her home.  Walks became less fun than they had been.  But when I have to find them, I can reach back for patience and consistency, and with training, Dee got past that and stopped becoming so aroused by the sight of other dogs.  (Cats, now, that’s a different story with her.  I think *that’s* prey drive.)

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That’s also why when I got Rowley, my first Border Collie and certainly one of the smartest, quickest dogs I’ve ever owned, I didn’t train him to offer behaviors.  I would find that annoying, I know; so Rowley knows that when I want him to do something, I will communicate that to him.  He doesn’t have to guess, suggest, or try out.  A friend used to spend hours with her Shelties as they offered behaviors that she then shaped, and it was remarkable what she could teach them, that way – but it’s not for me, thanks.  It’d make both me and the dog neurotic in no time, I guarantee.

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And then there’s Alex, my Finnish Lapphund, whose style of work has been a learning experience for me.  He’s an excellent Nosework dog, but he will never be that dog who takes high in trial with a combined search time of 27.26 seconds (for six searches).  Alex likes deliberate and thorough examinations of things.  I think he’s searching for anything that might interest him, and the hide odor is only one of many things he finds.  He alerts on it, though, because cheese interests him and he gets cheese for a correct alert.  But as with so many other things in Lapphund Land, I feel that my objective is only one of several items on his agenda.  Wow, he’s so different from my Border Collie and my Shelties that way!  Viva la difference, I say.

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But most of our days aren’t spent at training centers or in trial venues, anyway.  Most of our days are spent in the back yard, or on the streets of our neighborhood, or at the off-leash places we frequent:  the nature preserve, the fields at the Ag High School.  One day last month the dogs and I were at the nature preserve in the late afternoon of a beautiful October day.  It was sunny and the temperature was in the 50s, great dog weather.  We had gone up through the woods and were coming back along the west shore trail, when a woman who frequently jogs on the trails there appeared, headed towards us.  As she approached, Rowley went to meet her with some wags of his tail.  Alex was doing Lappy Rolls on the path, Dee was looking for mice in the underbrush on the side of the path, and Beau watched the woman incuriously from his spot behind me.  The woman and I customarily exchange greetings, so I said hello as she passed us; she gave me a big smile and said ‘I just love your dogs!’ and continued off down the trail.  She’s never met my dogs, never stopped to pet them or learn their names; she just sees them enjoying the preserve and being dogs.  And on that lovely afternoon, they were so in synch with their surroundings and themselves that she was moved to comment about them.

I would rather have had that perfect moment, I think, than any ribbon I’ve ever brought home from a competition with any of my dogs.

I love my dogs too.  They’re cool.

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The Work That Dogs Are

The definition of ‘work’ is:  ‘activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.’

The very best kinds of work, of course, are activities that you would do as often as you could, and would do without compensation because the activities themselves are compensation.  The worst kinds of work are the Sisyphean rolling of a boulder up a hill:  tedious, onerous, and exhausting, and something you would avoid at all costs.

So ‘work’ can be any number of things in our lives.  Work most certainly is energy:  it requires energy, and in the actualization of it, it produces energy in return.  Any time I’ve read a biography of a famous artist or inventor, that aspect has been prominent:  the energy they derived from their activity in the medium they loved was a central feature of their lives.

Dogs are work.

This thought occurred to me recently as I was talking to a friend who was considering adding a second dog to her household.  I realized that when I hear that, I immediately think of the work that will be involved, and the reward that will be a result of that work.  Sometimes the work is so enjoyable as to render the effort negligible:  in an imaginary world where I did not already have six dogs, if you told me tomorrow that you were giving me a well-bred Sheltie puppy to raise and keep, I would not care one bit about the effort involved in getting that puppy through the less-enjoyable puppy stages like potty-training, safeguarding my house from puppy teeth, and the like, because I would have so much fun and get so much enjoyment from the companionship of the Sheltie puppy and the processes by which it learned all the things that would enrich its life.  I know quite a few people who, when they acquired a dog, were over the moon happy about it and couldn’t wait to get to the work that would allow them to enjoy dog sports or the like with that dog.  Work?  No, fun!

But that’s not to say that everyone would greet such an offer with enthusiasm, and there’s where things go badly wrong in too many dog-human relationships, I think.

My friend who was considering adding a second dog to her household decided against it, and for very good reasons.  Her resident dog is a rescued Dachshund mix, and to say that the dog, M., can be a tough customer is putting it politely.  M has some baggage:  reactivity, anxiety, lack of confidence.  But in her current home with my friend and her husband, M is very happy and as relaxed as she can be.  Her angst doesn’t collide with the angst of any other dog, in the normal course of her day.  Yes, meetings between her and other dogs have to be managed, and they are.  But her living space isn’t shared with another dog, and at the age she is (estimated to be 12), she would not welcome that sharing.  She particularly wouldn’t welcome a 2-year old Pittie, which is the dog that captured my friend’s fancy in a rescue group that posted her for adoption.  The dynamic between those two would almost certainly be – well, let’s just say ‘not good’ and let it go at that.  Two female dogs in the same household will generally produce more expressions of animosity than will a female and male dog, or two male dogs.  I don’t know the reasons for this, and I’m sure there are as many theories as there are voices on the internet, but I do know that it’s been proven time and again in my experience.  And with the unwillingness, in general, of a female to back down from a confrontation – and in particular, the ‘bring it!’ attitude that Dachshunds and Pits almost always have – my friend looked into the future and saw a lot of work she didn’t want to do.  So very wisely, she decided to stay a one-dog household for a while.

It’s not that my friend couldn’t have managed the household to the benefit of both dogs – of course she could have.  She’s owned dogs for more than 25 years.  She knows training, and she knows where to find resources when she needs them.  But for this pair of dogs, she didn’t relish the work that would be required.  The opposite of me and the imaginary Sheltie puppy.

Another instance of this is ongoing in my neighborhood:  a couple in their 50s who live around the corner from me have had dogs for many years.  I recall a Weim, and a Westie, and I think there were one or two others.  They now have a young, beautiful, female Pit that their daughter gave them when the dog was a puppy.  Are there alarm bells going off as you read that?  There ought to be.  Any time someone GIVES a dog to someone else, it’s virtually guaranteed that the person receiving the dog has expressed no interest in or willingness to undertake the work that is involved.  And this couple has done precisely nothing to train this dog.  They also can’t contain the dog, which is how this has become my problem.

The husband and wife like to sit on their screened-in front porch, on pleasant afternoons and evenings, with their dog keeping them company.  I walk my four dogs, on leash, up and down that block.  In years past, we would be greeted by the barks of the Weim or the Westie, and I would call a greeting to the owners.  With the energetic young Pit in residence, we are now greeted by – HER.  She bursts out of the front porch, tearing the latch from the doorframe, and arrives in the midst of my group of dogs with a bang.  Literally.  In baseball terms, her exit velocity is about 20 mph, which has a major impact on my dogs.  She’s not aggressive, but she’s way, way over threshold and so wound up that the effect is almost the same.  In particular, her behavior to my own bitch, Dee, scares the crap out of me.  Dee doesn’t do well with other females and if she and this Pit ever got into it, Dee would probably get killed.

So I wasn’t thrilled when this first happened, earlier this year.  And having worked on the trading floors at the CBOT for 20+ years, I have pretty good lung power behind my shouts.  That always gets one of the Pit’s owners on the scene; but even then, they can’t corral their dog.  They have no recall on her.  They never walk her, so when she finds herself free from the yard and porch, she’s not anxious to be re-incarcerated.  This makes things rather tense for me and my dogs, as you can imagine.  The second time it happened, the woman who owns the dog apologized to me, nearly in tears; she said that her husband had nixed the idea of training classes as ‘unnecessary’, but the dog is now too big for the woman to control (she’s probably 65 pounds or so), and she is having all kinds of problems with the dog.  I gave her the name of an excellent trainer who makes house calls, since I didn’t think the owners would be able right off to take the dog to group classes.  When they called the trainer and signed up for four home-visit lessons, I was encouraged.

I was overly optimistic.  They completed two lessons, put the remaining two on hold, and appeared to have changed nothing about the way they keep the dog:  she’s allowed out in her yard to chase squirrels, which gets her all amped up, and allowed to remain out there on her own to bark endlessly.  Not a good sign.  Two weeks ago she again burst out of the front porch and bombed into my group of dogs, and this time I really let loose, not only with volume but with profanity.  In my view, the owners are damn lucky I don’t call the police on them.  I don’t care to be told by the husband that the Pit ‘isn’t going to hurt’ my dogs, and I mentioned that to him.  He finally got the dog by her collar and dragged her back into the house.  Two days later he contacted the trainer and canceled the two remaining lessons, saying that her methods “don’t work.”  (Her methods, for the record, are a mix of Sophia Yin, Susan Garrett, and Sue Ailsby, with Karen Pryor’s ‘300 peck’ method of increasing duration/distance thrown in.  They work.)  The owners also told the trainer that they are considering a shock collar for the dog.

Anyone else think that’s not going to end well?  I wish they would re-home the dog right now, before she bites a dog or a person – and I can almost guarantee that she will, at some point – but I’m sure they won’t, because their daughter gave the dog to them.  And they cannot say to their daughter, ‘Thank you, but we in no way wanted this work at this point in our lives.  This dog needs an owner that will and can do the work.’  Because that’s what it is, really!

When someone takes on work that they don’t want and aren’t going to do well, that bad decision has a ripple effect, and makes MORE work for everyone else.  I am not sanguine about the situation with the Pit.  I have stopped walking my dogs past their house.  If I am approaching the house with my dogs and I hear the Pit bark, I will reverse course and add a block to our walk to avoid passing their house.  (Being the rather petty person I am, I often add choice comments about the situation as I do so.)  A good neighbor relationship has been ruined, and I fear that may be only the first casualty.

Here’s my Alex with his friends Biscuit and Lizzie, who are both rather reactive; all three attend class every week with the trainer I mentioned and all three have just completed the AKC’s Novice Tricks title and are now working on the Intermediate Tricks title.  Just because work is necessary doesn’t mean it can’t be fun!

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