A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

El Zima's Celestial Harmony, aka "Athena"

El Zima’s Celestial Harmony, aka “Athena”  June 6, 2007-December 7, 2011.


It’s been many months since I have last updated this blog, because much has happened in my life–some good and some not so good– that has kept me away.

I lost my beautiful girl Athena on December 7, 2011.  She was my heart-dog, my beautiful baby girl, a gentle animal with a big heart, my clown, and my potential obedience champion. I spent all of my energies training her because she loved learning and she loved being out with me.  She was an incredibly easy dog to handle in the ring–always attentive to me, regardless of the distractions around her.  In true German Shepherd style, Athena was only  too eager to please me.

Athena would do anything for me, which included working when she really wasn’t feeling well.    In the latter part of last year, I made the decision to retire Athena because after her “health episode” back in May, she really wasn’t the same dog.  Medical tests showed that her liver had healed at that time.  Then she had a second episode in the summer–she had a seizure, but I didn’t recognize it as such because she wasn’t thrashing around as one expects with a seizure.  I just found her unconscious.  When she regained consciousness, I took her to the vet who treated her for tick fever.  She actually recovered.  Then months later she had another seizure.

Further tests from a new vet revealed that Athena was in an advanced state of liver failure.  Her body was so toxic that she was having seizures.  Her brain was damaged from the seizures as she could not walk without falling down, and she had lost her eyesight.  Her quality of life was severely restricted.  I made the decision to euthanize her.  She had just turned four years old.

After Athena passed away, I could not bring myself to train anymore.  Her agility equipment remained discarded in my backyard.  I just couldn’t send another of my dogs over those jumps.  I lost all interest in training and showing.

But I am now starting to miss this activity.  I miss spending time with my dogs and teaching them new stuff.  I miss the bonding experience handlers/trainers invariably experience when they train their animals.  Most of all, I miss the lessons in patience and compassion I always get when I work with my dogs.

So, I will make an attempt to revive this blog and to resume training.


Busta, winner of the October 2011 Novice Obedience Class

Busta, winner of the October 2011 Novice Obedience Class. Owned, trained, handled, loved, and ocassionally cussed at by Debbie Davidson

I write this post about a significant accomplishment exactly one week late because I’ve been insanely busy. Yet I’m pleased to announce that my five-year-old Rottweiler, Busta, who has been in retirement and who hasn’t competed in an obedience trial since 2007 won the Novice obedience class on Saturday, October 23.  He won “high in trial” too with a perfect score.

The decision to enter the dog came from a place of desperation.  Earlier I had made the rather sad decision to retire my white German Shepherd bitch who showed a great deal of promise in obedience.  But, I needed a goal, something that would keep me working with my dogs, and I needed a dog that might, just might, progress through the various classes and earn an obedience title.  I hauled Busta out of retirement.

He had learned all the novice exercises when he was a puppy, but it was many years since I worked him.  Despite my best intentions to prepare him for the upcoming show, our work together was sporadic at best.  Three weeks prior to the show I did no work with him.  We were entering on a wing and a prayer.  Yet, we managed to impress the judge.  Busta remained focused in the ring and did everything asked of him quickly and enthusiastically.

Now I scramble to find time to prepare him for the Beginner’s Class on November 20.  It’s tough when there are so many other things clamoring for my time.  A fellow competitor who used to enter multiple dogs in obedience while working full time told me that she’d wake up early and train during the 5:00am hour, working each dog with one exercise for a total of three minutes.  I will have to try that.

We need to work on the one-minute stand-stay, and the high and long jump.  Busta proved many years ago that he is not a jumper.  He is the only one of my dogs who has never shown any inclination to jump on furniture.  With the Jamaica Kennel Club’s recent decision to lower the jump heights for competition obedience, I just might be able to entice Busta to perform the jumps.  We’ll see….

What does a breeder mean when he says that he’s breeding “for the betterment of the breed”?  Is he referring to eliminating overt problems, such as hip/elbow dysplasia, deafness, blindness?  Is it to preserve the current form and angulation–the breed standard–of the particular breed?  What if the breed standard is the reason for the health issues?

A few years ago the BBC released a documentary about the realities of breeding purebred dogs.  There was not one breed registered by the Kennel Club that escaped health issues.  The documentary stirred up quite a hornets nest among breeders, and was painful for some lay people to watch.  Particularly horrifying was the fate of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, whose small domed head and long ears endears them to dog show judges.  Sometimes in breeding for this type of head, the dog’s cranium is too small to accommodate the its brain.  They ultimately suffer a painful death.

The recent statement issued by the Kennel Club asserting the unsoundness of the back end, notably the hindquarters, including the  hocks of German Shepherds apparently has made some German Shepherd breeders quite unhappy.  That’s one thing, but the Club does not state precisely what is meant by unsoundness, although they state that such unsoundness should be penalized in the ring.

The show lines of this once magnificent utility dog features a roach back and sloping back end;  that is the preferred look.  Anyone who has ever watched Crufts or Westminster has seen these dogs trotting around the ring wtih backends almost trailing the ground, as though the dogs have cinder blocks tied to their testicles, and when the dogs stand unstacked their hocks jut out, or inwards.

Is the Kennel Club referring to incidences of hip dysplasia or other crippling effects in the German Shepherd?  The Code of Ethics breeders in various countries are doing a great deal to eliminate hip dysplasia from the breed.  The disease, however,  continues to plague these dogs.

My question to you is this, is it possible to breed generations of German Shepherds with sound hindquarters while preserving the current angulation required of the breed standard?  Aside from the absence of hip dysplasia, what constitutes “soundness” in the German Shepherd?  I’d love to hear from some breeders, show-ers, pet owners and people who just love the breed.

Photo Credits:  German Shepherd Dog from http://theworlddogs.blogspot.com/2008/09/german-shepherd.html

German Shepherd Dog and his handler

They do the work that’s too dangerous and often impossible for people, and they do it amid the noises and stench that would make a normal person retch.  But, they don’t complain.  They are the Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs that are dispatched to the scene of natural and man-made disasters.  On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 these unsung heroes who scoured the rubble of the World Trade Center towers and Pentagon for survivors, who tried to answer the desperate pleas, “Can you find my mom?” or “Can you find my son?” will be honored in a ceremony in downtown Manhattan.

Unfortunately, the dogs found few survivors, and that, to a SAR dog, is most

Handler comforts his dog

depressing.  A SAR dog in training finds the whole exercise a game with a lovely reward at the end.  During these sessions, the dog knows that he will be rewarded for finding the person who volunteered to be trapped under rubble, and that motivates him to search.  He carries his enthusiasm and game-like spirit to the real world of finding survivors.  Dogs become dispirited when they fail in their searches.  I remember reading an account shortly after 9/11 of a handler whose dog worked in vain for hours day after day in search of survivors.  The dog became disheartened to the point where after working, the handler had to send his son to hide in the woods by their house so that the dog could successfully find him, and this raised the dog’s spirit.

Honoring SAR dogs at Westminster Dog Show

Sunday’s ceremony will be accessible by invitation only, but I hope that it will show up on youtube at a later date.  I remember how moving it was to see these same dogs honored at the opening ceremony of a Westminster Dog Show shortly after the attacks.  There were more dogs then.  Now, 10 years later, of the 100+ dogs that were deployed, only 12 survive.  I can just imagine how moving it will be to see these senior dogs, gray-muzzled, stiff-gaited, cloudy-eyed yet groomed and proud standing by their handlers as they receive recognition.  I take my hat off to these teams.  You are heroes, and I hold a prayer in my heart for those brave dogs that have since passed on.

Photo Credit:  German Shepherd Dog and his Handler.  Retrieved from http://herbgazin.livejournal.com/1427.html


Handler Comforts his Dog.  Retrieved from http://dogblog.dogster.com/2011/09/07/remembering-heroic-911-dogs/

Honoring SAR dogs at Westminster Dog Show.  Retrieved from http://petmemorialcards.com/mem2001-14c.html

Video Credit:  TheDogFiles (2010, September 3).  Dog Files-Ep. 11-Hero Dogs of 9/11 [Video file].  Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D91GQRX3YdY

Athena is the dog on the right

I worked Athena on the field in obedience along with other German Shepherds.  She didn’t have a good day.  She broke all of her stays, lagged miles behind me in the off-leash heel, and I had to call her about three times in the recall.  As for the retrieve.  I managed to get her to hold the dumbbell for me at the beginning of class; however, she very reluctantly went out for the dumbbell.   On one attempt I had her sit at heel and wait while I tossed the article–a bright orange plastic dumbbell.  I sent her out and she promptly brought me back a discarded styroform cup.

Half way through the class, it was evident that Athena had shut down.  It was not for psychological reasons, however;  she was simply not feeling well.  Three people whose judgement and advice I trust pointed out that Athena has not regained her strength yet, and she needs to rebuild her muscle mass.  I see the dog everyday, I noticed the improvements in her, but I needed an objective set of eyes to see what really is.

Coupled with this, Athena has an arrhythmia.  We made the decision that she would not be competing in the Jamaica Kennel Club’s All-Breed Show and Obedience Trials, and will retire from the obedience ring and will enjoy the rest of her life as a house pet.  We were so close to that CD.

Athena did very well on her first day on the field last Sunday.  I’ve been doing light training in the house, gradually easing her back into training.  She did a fabulous off-leash heel and amazing stays amid the most outrageous distractions.  I was very proud of my baby girl.  I was hoping she would earn her CD by December, but that might not be possible.  We’ve only now formalized the retrieve in the house, but of course the exercise will fall apart once we do it in unfamiliar places, like my backyard, or in the obedience ring!  I need to proof it in unfamiliar places.

We didn’t get around to practicing the retrieve at the field.  She gets tired quickly.  After being out to training then for a bit of a drive to drop something off at a friend’s house, all Athena did that night and much of the next day was sleep.  I’m hoping that her stamina will return by September 18th, the day of the obedience trials.

Police dog training from 1915

Image via Wikipedia

As Summer winds down and with it the promise of cooler, more comfortable temperatures in which to train, I must return to work.  My time will be severely curtailed this Fall, as it is every semester.  It is extremely difficult to balance full-time-plus work, graduate school, writing, and dog training.

I eagerly anticipated summer holidays:  it would be a time to focus on getting Athena ready for Intermediate obedience and earning points towards her CD.  It was an opportunity, I anticipated, for me to rehabilitate and train Lily by deaf and partially blind white Catahoula.

There’s a great saying I once heard:  “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.”  Nothing went according to plan.  Athena fell seriously ill, then my mother got very ill, and graduate school consumed all of my time.  I did no training.

It’s only within the past two days that I’ve started training Athena once more.  I keep the sessions super short, but she shows her usual enthusiasm.  Today I focused on holding the dumbbell.  She will hold the dumbbell for 5 seconds while in a sit, but I think she will hold it much longer.  She waits for the click before releasing the object, so all I have to do to train for duration is delay the click.  In clicker training the click not only marks the correct behavior, but it marks the end of the behavior; the dog is free to stop the behavior once she hears the click.

So with the remaining days before the show, I will train as much as Athena will tolerate.  I hope to take her out to proof her off-leash heel.  Last dog show she threatened to go AWOL on me during that exercise!  Unless the veterinarian advises me otherwise, we’re definitely entering this show.

A few months ago someone called me frantically for help with her little dog.  Out of the blue, her reliably house-trained dog started peeing in the house.  She was at her wits end because the dog started doing this when she was off the island.  Now the dog peed in the house when left alone and during rain.  This lady was convinced the dog had developed a behavioral issue.

I thought otherwise.  When dogs, and other animals, start acting “weird” suddenly, the first thing to do is to take the dog to the vet and have it checked for medical issues.  Pain and illness in general will turn an otherwise sweet-natured dog into a shrieking banshee that will bare it’s fangs at the least provocation.

According to Dr. Debra Horwitz, a veterinary behavior specialist in St. Louis, MO, illness can cause behavioral changes in pets, particularly older dogs, that include soiling the house, aggression, destructive behaviors (chewing stuff), restlessness and “excessive vocalization.”

Old dogs, Horwitz points out, often suffer from Cognitive Disfunction Syndrome, similar to dementia in humans.  The disease manifests itself as disorientation, changed relationship to the owners, not recognizing familiar people initially.  Apparently the possibility of developing the Syndrome increases as the pet ages.

What are we to do?  Only a vet can best advice you on how to help your dog.  Supplements such as Sam-e and a diet containing medium-chain triglycerides can help.  As in aging humans, keeping the brain active also helps stave the effects of cognitive issues related to age.

In my friend’s case, her dog, a four-year-old small-breed,  had tick fever and a bladder infection.  No amount of training would have helped this dog.  It needed veterinary intervention, fast.


Horwitz, D. (2010).  Cognitive function in older dogs.  Clinician’s Brief.  Retrieved from http://www.cliniciansbrief.com/column/applied-behavior/cognitive-function-older-dogs?pyMBZBP3PA

Athena in happier timesIt’s no fun.  My blog has remained silent for perhaps two months.  Lots have happened during that time that killed all desire to train or write.  My beautiful girl, El Zima’s Celestial Harmony, aka Athena got very ill, and I nearly lost her.

It all began back towards the end of May.   Her tummy got distended.  She tested negative for tick fever and other illnesses; however, her vet found her liver enzymes high, and concluded that she had some kind of infection, a gall bladder infection, perhaps.

At the vet’s suggestion, I fed her a special diet for dogs with liver issues.  Science Diet used to have a ready-made prescription diet, but they no longer do business in Jamaica, so I had to cook.  Ye Gods!  That doG for grandmothers.  After over $8,000 in nutri-supplements in addition to her special diet and antibiotics, the liver healed.  Athena continued losing weight, however.

We replaced the liver diet with her regular dog food, but she would only pick at the food.

One night her sister and her were in the yard, and I called both for supper.  Her sister responded; Athena was nowhere to be seen.  I heard snorting in the backyard and saw that she was stuck in something.

I ran into the back yard and found her lying in a bush, choking.  I quickly pulled her collar, but as I was pulling it, I thought it odd that she couldn’t free herself.  She was gasping for breath, and when I pulled her free she ran some distance then collapsed on the lawn.

Her tongue was blue and I thought she might have an object lodged in her throat, but her throat was clear.

I lifted my precious dog’s unconscious body and placed in on my living room floor.  There was nothing I could do.  Her breathing was erratic, but she was unresponsive to any kind of stimuli.  She was unconscious.  It was 11:00pm and I called a vet whom I thought had emergency hours.  I left a message, but she never did call me back.  I was on my own with this critically sick animal, and I had no idea how she got into this condition.

There was nothing I could do but pray, literally.  I stayed up for the better part of the night with the dog with the Book of Common Prayer used in the Anglican church.  My mother sang hymns softly to the dog.

Four hours passed.  Athena’s breathing improved, but she remained unconscious.  I decided to go to bed because there really wasn’t anything more that I could do, and I would have a long drive ahead of me in the morning to get her to the vet.  I have a tendency to fall asleep at the wheel on long trips, so staying up all night not an option for me.

As I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, images of Athena as a playful puppy flooded my memory, and how she and her sister would run through the house into the backyard and back into the house.  I remembered how they both loved chasing each other around my round dinning table.  My thoughts went to the obedience trials we entered together, and how she learned the stand and 1 minute stay in less than a week.  I remembered how proud I was the day she made history in Jamaica by being the first White German Shepherd and the first clicker trained dog to win an obedience competition in Jamaica.  I remembered how it was almost impossible to house train her.

My heart broke that night, releasing a flood of tears.  I knew that I would have to have my baby girl euthanized in the morning.  I got up once more and stood weeping over the prostrate form of what was my friend on the ground.  I tried to tell her goodbye, but all I could do was repeat her name over and over, Athena, Athena, Athena….

I made my way back to bed once more, and shortly after I heard a commotion in the living room.  I rushed outside and saw Athena up and running around the living room, quite disoriented, trying to hide her face behind furniture.  Within a few minutes she gained some orientation, could recognize me, and wagged her tail at me.   A few hours later she drank a bit of water.

Next morning CBC tests at the vets showed an infection, although her temperature was normal.  She had swollen lymph nodes, but her spleen was okay.  Although the vet was unable to check for tick fever,  because the test wasn’t available at this clinic, she went ahead and treated her for it, but I had to keep and eye on her.  We increased her vitamin intake, and put her back on the liver diet.

Today Athena has made remarkable progress.  The antibiotics are done, and at her last check-up on Saturday gone, she got a clean bill of health.  Not only that, but she gained 5 lbs.  That’s a lot when two weeks before that this German Shepherd weighed less that 40lbs.

The bond we form with our dogs is a deep one, and one that isn’t easily explained by science.  The bond is especially strong when you’ve raised a dog since 9 weeks, trained it, competed with it, trust it, and it trusts you in return.  I know that one day I will have to say goodbye to her, but for now I’m just grateful to have more time with her.

Remember when training a dog, whether adult or puppy, that the reinforcer must be something that the dog finds rewarding (and not necessarily what the trainer thinks that the dog should like).  Some dogs are not “foodies” but prefer a game as a reinforcer; others prefer to be petted, or hugged, while some dogs cringe at being hugged, and do not find pettings to be particularly reinforcing.

If the dog is a “foodie,” then find the treats that the dog really enjoys and use those only when training.  This ensures that the treats do not lose their value to the dog, but will be highly effective as a reinforcer.

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