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

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Down, but not out…picking up the pieces after a set back

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.

 

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Dog Breeding and the Issue of Soundness

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

Saluting the Unsung Heroes of 9/11

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

Before you call the dog trainer….

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.

References

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

When your best buddy gets sick….

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.

Responsible Dog Ownership

Reports of dog attacks are making the news frequently in Jamaica.  A few weeks ago a three year old child was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs.  Then just recently an infant barely escaped with his life when the family’s pitbull escaped from it’s kennel, rushed into the house, seized the child, and began biting him up.  At least, that’s the story that’s published in the papers.

It is really sad that the media is sending the Jamaican population into panic mode where dogs are concerned.   As an acquaintance wrote in a recent article, dogs for the most part are mistreated in Jamaica.  And the mistreatment goes beyond kicking, stabbing, burning, and using the animal as target practice, but includes emotional neglect, like tethering the dog in the backyard, or kenneling it without any human interaction or socialization.  The media paints the picture of dogs as blood-thirsty “wolves” that will devour children, justifying, it would seem, the cruel acts that are performed on man’s best friend.

The problem isn’t the dogs.  It is the appalling poor sense of responsibility that people have towards these animals.   As I wrote in an article some time back, a dog who by himself would exhibit no proclivities towards harming a human, will do just that when he finds himself in the company of a pack of dogs.  Stray dogs do form packs; that’s what they do in the wild to survive.  Dogs should not be allowed to roam the streets.

Dog attacks do not happen “out of the blue.”  There are always signs that precede an attack.  Owners need to recognize these signs.  The owners of the pitbull must have known they had a vicious animal on their hands, one that was no doubt poorly socialized, and perhaps may have been traumatized in the name of aggression training.  Why would anyone keep such a dog in a home where there are small children?  Apparently the owners had the dog for only a month.  Why did the previous owner, who MUST have known that this dog would attack,  sell/give the dog to this family with a small child.  That is just irresponsible.

Truth is, any breed of dog will attack, if the animal hasn’t been socialized or treated humanely.  Dogs attack out of fear.  It is their way of surviving and preventing harm to themselves.  So how could a child possibly hurt a dog?  In Jamaica it is a common pastime of school-aged children to torment dogs that are locked in their owner’s yards.  My six dogs are all house pets, and frequently school children on the road knock on the gate, or imitate dog noises to get my animals barking.  Because my dogs have been teased by children, I do not allow them near children.  I just don’t know how they will react.

The bottom line is, if you are planning on getting a dog, research the breed, research dog behavior.  Then, ask yourself some tough questions:  can I contain the dog in my yard?  Will I take the time to socialize my dog, and invest time and money in training it?  Socialization is necessary even with dogs that are being used for guard purposes.   Also, you do not need to train dogs to be aggressive for them to guard your property and person.  Dogs naturally do that for the humans they bond with.  None of my dogs have ever received aggression training, but they will bite if given the chance.

Not all labradors are gentle, docile dogs.  Conversely, not all pitbulls are man-eaters.  Ian Dunbar, world-famous veterinarian and animal behaviorist makes some great points in this video:

Why Train Your Dog to Retrieve?

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Busta, my Rottweiler, loves to bring his bowl to me when he’s hungry.

Some dogs never tire of a game of fetch; others would rather die than chase an object and then pick it up in their mouths.  Retrieving (fetching) is a useful skill to teach a dog, whether it’s a pet or service animal, and it is a requirement for the utility portion of obedience trails.

Retrieving serves a useful function for both pets and service dogs.  There are numerous accounts of dogs fetching items for their owners, like beer from the refrigerator.

My Rottweiler, Busta, for instance, gathers up the food bowls for five of my dogs, one at a time, and brings them to me when it’s dinner time.  That’s his job, and one that he takes seriously.   Sometimes, though, he brings me his bowl when he smells food being prepared or being eaten by his humans.

Last night he smelled left overs on the dinning table.  Before I knew it, Busta had gone into his crate, grabbed his supper dish, and sat down beside the dinning table, dish in mouth, waiting for someone to fill his bowl with goodies.

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