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

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.

Lily my special-needs puppy being chased by Athena

I spent the Easter weekend trying to understand Lily’s limitations and strengths.  While at the vet clinic on Saturday, I discovered that her vision is poor.  By Monday, however, I knew conclusively that she could detect movement.  I discovered this while “charging the marker,” which is the equivalent of “charging the clicker” where you follow a click, or whatever marker you have chosen, with a treat.  You do this in quick succession so that the dog associates the clicker (or visual marker) with the treat.  This is the first step in clicker training an animal.

Anyway, the marker I use for Lily is an outward flash of all five fingers on my right hand in front of her face, followed by a treat delivered in my left hand.  At first I noticed that Lily was focused on my left hand with the treats.  When I put my hand around my back, I saw her eyes follow my hand.  When she shifted her attention to my right hand,  I marked the behavior by giving her “the flash” and followed it immediately with a treat.  She learned very quickly to focus on my right hand.

Because of her broken toe, the veterinarian recommended that she get a lot of rest.  Yeah, right.  Encouraging an otherwise healthy five-month-old puppy to rest is like stopping the flow of water over Niagara Falls.  She so desperately wanted to play with my other dogs, so on Monday night I allowed her a very brief play session with Athena, who seemed to dote on her.

The two romped in the house, then Ms. Athena decided to take the game outside.  She ran through the back door and of course Lily followed.  What happened after that just about broke my heart.  Lily fled through the back door into the night, made a flying leap from the first of three steps that descend to my backyard, and landed face down in the dirt, butt in the air.  After a few horrifying seconds when Athena and I froze staring at Lily as she lay on the ground, she slowly got up and, holding up the paw with the previously broken toe, limped into the house to me.  The pain must have been excruciating.  She held up her paw and opened her mouth as though to scream, but no sound came out.

In my research prior to fostering my first special-needs dog, I learned that a deaf dog is first a dog, second a breed (or mix), and third deaf (or blind, or crippled).  Lily, my foster Catahoula/German Shepherd mix has been in my house for 48 hours, and I’m amazed at how quickly the dog has settled in.  When I first brought her home, I took her into the garden in the area reserved for the dog toilet to relieve herself.  I took her there about two or three times before going to bed.

On the following day I put her on her leash when we woke up, and the first thing she did was to run over to the “potty” side of the yard to relieve herself!  She now has access to the entire house off-leash, but supervised, and in the 48 hours that she’s been in my house, she hasn’t once had an accident in the house.

Unfortunately for Lily, deafness is but one of her issues.   I discovered that she has really poor eyesight.  Aside from crashing into things, she does not recognize people’s features.  I had her at the vets today, and the vet techs and doctor walked passed her a zillion times, and she lunged and barked at them a zillion times.  Now she’s not an aggressive dog, because each time the individuals held out their hands to her she wagged her tail and was all wiggly with them.  However, this will be an issue for her as most people read this behavior as aggression.  I know that she only sees shadows coming towards her, and she doesn’t know what it all means.  Barking and lunging is her best defense.

Then there’s the issue of her bones, her skeleton.  In the initial hours that she was in my home, I showed her around on-leash.  She stubbed her paw on an empty metal bucket, and started holding up the paw.  I thought it was odd, especially the next day when she was very reluctant to put her weight on the paw.  Because Friday was a public holiday in Jamaica, I had to wait until Saturday before I could take her to the vet.  X-rays showed that she had broken her toe from that innocuous stub of the toe.

With Lily’s poor vision that makes her crash into stuff and trip over objects, and her weak bones, I have a huge challenge on my hands.

However, she is a real love bug who has just fitted right into my household and wormed her way into my heart.

Lily enjoying dinner at the shelter

…to welcome its newest guest, Lily.  I will be fostering this snow white Catahoula/German Shepherd mix.  I’m heading out to meet the driver who would have driven nearly 100 miles to bring her to me.  I’m meeting Lily for the first time, too.

Lots of exciting things happening at White Mist Kennels for the summer.  As summer fast approaches–it’s hot as Hades at the moment–my goals for these few months’ break from teaching includes doing a lot of training with my dogs.  My work continues with Athena, who must qualify three times in the Intermediate ring to earn her “Companion Dog” title, the first of two obedience titles that she will earn.  We’re almost there.  With consistent, focused work, heaps of patience, and a lot of fun at the same time, I think we’ll get there.

I’m also preparing Tuvok for his first obedience trial in the Fall.  He’ll be doing Novice, but because of my limited time to train, his obedience training has suffered quite a set back.  I’m only now working on stays.  Tonight Tuvok did a 6-second sit/stay with me standing close by, which I was able to put on a variable schedule of reinforcement.  We have a far way to go.  Fortunately, Tuvok, like all the other dogs, adores his obedience lessons.

At the same time, I’m making preparations to rehabilitate and train a deaf catahoula/German Shepherd mix.  I have named her Lily as in Easter Lily, and she is five months old.  I will post more about Lily later.

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