It’s tough taking it easy so you can get better. Especially when you finally feel good again!
Risa is 12 years old. She doesn’t need to sleep in a crate in the house; she gets free access. We have a fenced in yard so I don’t have to go outside with her to potty. Even if it’s cold out, it’s up to her to decide when to go and when to come back in. We do compete in dog sports so she’s comfortable in a crate and knows to wait for permission to exit. Though she’s a medium-sized dog and isn’t picked up often, she is comfortable with it when I have to lift her. We used to live together in various apartments so she’s comfortable pottying on leash and will pee on cue. I’ve also always just let her do her business on a schedule rather than waiting for her to let me know she needs to go so she’s used to knowing how long she has to hold it.
None of these things is particularly important to most people as far as training goes. Even to me, I tend to pay little attention to these aspects of Risa’s behavior. I have spent more time on her fearfulness, reactivity, and sports training. Right now, however, I’ve been made fully aware of just how important these little things are.
Risa is on strict crate rest due to her recently diagnosed back problem. She is not allowed to go down stairs, walk around, or move much at all. She is confined to an x-pen all day and goes outside only to potty. Potty breaks are done on leash and she has to be carried inside and out. I have never fully appreciated how well-trained she is in such mundane tasks.
When I open the door to the x-pen, she waits. I loop the leash around her head and she waits patiently for me to lift her. She rides calmly outside where I put her down and cue her to go pee. She pees immediately. When she’s done, I ask her to wait so I can pick her up again. Then I place her in the x-pen, remove the leash, and close the door. All those seemingly minor things I taught her in her youth have been a godsend.
It’s something to keep in mind when we own dogs. You may have a fenced-in back yard and not need to potty your dog on a leash. You may not compete in dog sports and decide you don’t need to teach your dog to be comfortable in a crate. Someday, however, those skills might come in handy!!!
Risa’s not exactly thrilled with the new routine but it’s what she needs to get better.
I need answers. I wasn’t happy with what I was seeing with Risa. Despite being on various pain meds and having seen an orthopedic specialist, she still seemed to be getting worse. While I finally knew it was a back issue (not knees or hips), I still wasn’t sure what was going on. I did online research and everything I read made me think this was a herniated disc. I know I’m not a veterinarian and I certainly value their input when it comes to my pets’ health. But something wasn’t sitting right with me. I was noticing neurological changes in Risa that had me very worried. Even though our regular doctor didn’t seem to think there was anything to worry about.
Granted, I’m a worrier by nature (it’s no wonder Risa and I get along so well) and I’ve certainly worked myself into an anxious flurry over nothing before. But I’ve also disagreed with vets before, sought diagnosis elsewhere, and finally pinned down the problem.
Perhaps influenced by my anxiety, I like to learn about what I’m dealing with. When Ris was having gastrointestinal issues, I did all the research I could on them and consulted with friends who’d experienced similar issues. I went to that appointment with the new vet armed with information and a plan of action. That was 9 years ago and nothing has changed; I’m the exact same way now. I research and become informed so I can have a one-to-one conversation with my vet about what we think is best for my dog. I want to have a discussion about what’s going on. Pros and cons of treatment options, etc. And I don’t appreciate getting the brush off.
I had an appointment scheduled with our regular vet on Tuesday to discuss the changes I was seeing and possibly just pretending she did have a herniated disc and treating her as if that’s what was going on. I had no intention of a surgical fix so an MRI confirming what was going on was not on my list of diagnostics. I had planned to do crate rest and meds and hope that it was enough to allow her body to heal. In fact, I came home from work on Friday and immediately put her on crate rest to avoid further injury. (Since no one had specifically told me “No stairs at all” or “No long walks” I hadn’t stopped her from doing those things.)
My anxiety and worry won, however. After several friends suggested seeing a neurologist or taking Risa to the local veterinary college, I decided I didn’t want to wait until Tuesday and have to argue my case with our regular vet. I already knew the college was booked out until mid-March on neuro consults so we’d have to be admitted as an emergency. Going on the weekend, I wouldn’t have to miss any more time at work. I called and discussed what was going on and they agreed she should be seen.
Risa about went crazy when I put her in the car she was so excited. She even fell off the seat which I didn’t want to see! The staff at the hospital was great and they were very good with Risa (and me, for what it’s worth!). They took a thorough history in addition to what I’d covered over the phone. The student did a physical on Risa and a couple quick neurological tests. Then she took Risa into the back for a more extensive battery of neurological exams to help pinpoint the problem. Without even seeing Risa’s x-rays (I showed them to both of them later), she knew where the problem was originating. She said there were three possible causes. The first was unlikely since Risa is neither a young dog nor a long and low dog. The second would be a tumor though neither the orthopedic vet nor the clinician we saw today saw any evidence of that on her x-rays. The third cause is intervertebral disc disease. The likely culprit. She recommended several additional medications and 6 weeks of crate rest. Exactly what I had anticipated.
Sure it was a bit out of my way and definitely more pricey than keeping our regular appointment on Tuesday. But neurologic issues shouldn’t wait. And, despite being on NSAIDs and a muscle relaxer, Risa was still in pain. I’m glad I took her. I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of me. I have answers. I have a plan. I should be able to stop the worry train in its tracks for now.
She’s not out of the woods yet. I still have to monitor her for adverse reactions to the meds or for paralysis. But I think she’ll be okay. She’s done with lure coursing for sure, though. I know how taxing that is on her back and I know she is incapable of controlling herself in the presence of those plastic bag bunnies. It’s just not worth the risk.
Her orthopedic issues went from bad to worse after earning her RAE.
Risa quickly deteriorated after earning her RAE at our club’s rally trial. While she’d been clearly sore and uncomfortable before, she was now downright miserable. She yelped in pain and her back muscles were tight. She struggled to get down off the bed even using the makeshift steps. She no longer followed me downstairs and moved gingerly around the house. Laser therapy and pain management with Tramadol had not helped alleviate her discomfort. I took her to get some acupuncture as well and her TCVM vet commented on how sore she was on the left side. After almost 2 weeks of having a lethargic, painful dog whose pitiful looks were breaking my heart; we finally saw an orthopedic specialist. X-rays revealed no arthritic knees as I had expected to see. In fact, Risa’s knees looked downright spectacular! Instead, it was clear her source of pain was a severely bad back. She has some arthritis in her lumbosacral area along with some spondylosis (small bone spurs on the vertebrae causing stiffness). The major problem, however, is in the vertebrae just where her ribcage ends. Where there is normally space and nice cushy cartilage. . .there is nothing. The two bones are smushed up against each other. This is the source of her pain and sinking rear. She’s always had back problems; I should have foreseen this.
I was thrilled to finally have an answer. Unfortunately, this means an end to some of the things we enjoy together. There will be no more jumping competitively (I’m thankful we finished her RAE when we did!) and jumping will be limited as much as possible in her life. Stairs and anything requiring up and down movement of the back will also be challenging for her. Her immense joy racing after the lure may be over. She’s also going to have difficulty making tight turns which puts her future in freestyle and Rally Free in jeopardy. Once she’s feeling better, we should still be able to compete in obedience and continue with rally as long as we stay in the lower levels without jumps. Right now, however, this is all up in the air.
The source of Risa’s pain and discomfort circled in red.
Her competitive future, however, is less of a concern at the moment. While that is a thought weighing heavily on my mind (I’m not ready for her to retire!), the more pressing matter is getting her comfortable again. Then we can assess her future in dog sports. Fortunately, she’s responded well to taking NSAIDs (Novox) and her spirits are high again. I had missed seeing my smiley face girl and her helicopter tail. Both have returned in full force even if her agility and rear end strength haven’t.
Right now, we’re just trying to figure out what therapies would be best to help her to return to form. She’s never going to be 100% again. At 12 years old with a back as bad as hers, that’s too optimistic to expect. She had a chiropractic adjustment this week and some deep muscle massage (her sides are still so tight) and I’ll have a Back on Track jacket for her to start wearing later this week. Next Tuesday, I have an appointment to talk with her regular veterinarian again to discuss treatment options aside from pain meds. Maybe laser therapy will still be an option now that we know the proper area to treat. I certainly will continue with chiropractic adjustments (the orthopedic vet thought they would be beneficial and Ris has always done well with chiropractic care for her back issues in the past) and add in acupuncture as needed. I just need to find a plan that works best for her with minimal stress (just going to the vet is a stressful event for her and she’s gone in so much as of late!). It still breaks my heart to see her like this even though she’s clearly feeling better. And I know change will not happen overnight. It’s frustrating seeing our beloved friends like this and not being able to help them find relief.
Last Saturday, Risa earned her RAE title in AKC Rally. For those not familiar with the qualifications, a dog must compete at both the Advanced and Excellent level at the same trial and qualify in both (at least 70 points out of a possible 100) ten times to earn this title. We did it. We did it in 11 tries. We only NQ’d once; the first time we tried for it. It was that day that I decided we needed to work harder on focus and we took a year off of rally.
The RAE was the title I never thought we’d achieve.
I remember, a year or so after Risa joined the family, watching our dog trainer work towards the RAE with her dog. At the time, AKC didn’t allow mutts to participate so we were out of luck. Risa wasn’t ready anyway. She was still super fearful and dog reactive. I didn’t even think a CGC was possible, let alone the RAE.
The Excellent level of rally also still contained the Honor exercise which I would never have asked Risa to do. During the Honor, one dog did a sit or down stay on the course while another team completed it. I couldn’t risk an altercation if a dog came over to visit Risa.
A few years later, AKC decided to allow mutts to play some of their games. Shortly after that, they eliminated the Honor from the Excellent level. Both decisions opened the door of opportunity for us to try.
We struggled with rally. I often wondered if Risa enjoyed it at all. I even attended a seminar with Jane Killion who stated “This is really aversive to her and I don’t know why” when she watched us train in rally. There were several times I almost gave up on it. But, like so many things with Risa, giving up has never been an option. We struggled. . .but we persevered. I worked hard on incorporating more play and fun into our sessions. I bumped up our work on focus. I took online courses through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy to increase my skill level and figure out how to make rally more fun. The change was amazing. While Risa still lost focus on courses occasionally, it was much more brief and she was able to get back on task quicker. I had a dog with me more and more often. As we got closer and closer to those final RAE legs, I was finally proud of our performances.
I have to be picky about where Risa trials; she’s had some bad experiences in a couple venues. We could have finished our RAE sooner but I decided we’d finish it on our home turf at our club’s January trial. It also happened to be the weekend of Risa’s 12th Birthday celebration.
Our winter has been mild this year but it finally got cold in December. Risa’s had arthritis for several years but, this year, age finally caught up with her. She’d been hesitant to jump into the car and was starting to barely make it up on the bed. She slipped twice on linoleum flooring and came up on three legs holding her left rear up off the ground. Then she tried to jump onto the bed one morning and her back end didn’t make it. Risa finally got old.
It was 2 weeks before the trial. I took her to the vet and he recommended laser therapy. She’d had two treatments before our big day. Friday before her first shot in the ring, she jumped up into the bed and (barely) made it! It was improvement but I was still worried about trialing her. I decided to make it her decision. If she got to the trial site and said “no way,” we’d try again another time. I wanted our final leg, our title run, to be fun for us both.
That morning, she wanted to work. She was smiling and happy so I decided we’d go for it. I wasn’t able to get her to warm up like usual; she wouldn’t do certain tricks I know she loves to do. I knew it was because it hurt. She did great on her Excellent run though I could tell clearing that second jump was hard for her. By the time we got in the ring for Advanced, she definitely wasn’t feeling 100% but she still wanted to go. I think she chose with her heart and not her head. She was more distracted but still did her best. We qualified in both runs: a 94 in Excellent and a 96 in Advanced. We earned our RAE title.
The moment was bittersweet. We did what I never thought we’d achieve. I honestly never thought we’d try. But, every time I was about to give up, a door opened that encouraged me to proceed. We did it. WE DID IT! But now we were done with AKC rally. There was no higher mountain to climb. And I had to finally admit that my dog was getting old and was far closer to retirement than I ever thought possible. Even though she was able to work and enjoy herself to earn that final leg, I wasn’t going to ask her to do it again. I had hoped to just run her for fun the next day but I knew she was done. She stayed home on Sunday and didn’t trial.
Her arthritis has only been worse since. The laser treatments haven’t helped and she’s starting to be more panicky about going to the vet’s office than usual even though she enjoys the treatments themselves. Her doctor prescribed some Tramadol to help ease the pain. It’s still not enough. Our next step is consulting with our TCVM vet again and seeing if some acupuncture will help return my smiley girl to her usual self.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with Risa over all these years it’s that we don’t give up. We will find a way to make it happen. That’s just how we roll.
Lately I’ve been working with Risa on her fundamentals. Mainly positions (right-side heel, fronts, behind) and working on her transitions for freestyle. I never really trained those things well since I was in a big hurry to get to the fun stuff and didn’t realize at the time how important the foundation behaviors were. Her understanding of left-side heel is pretty good but it’s still easy to confuse her at times. It’s also clear that some of her tricks aren’t under stimulus control as well as I thought either.
I was focusing on fronts with her the other night after struggling to teach her an in-front side pass using a pivot platform. She did okay and we were making progress that way but it was clear she didn’t understand that “front” meant be straight in front of me regardless. Risa wanted to swing into my sides instead. This isn’t surprising. She has a much higher reinforcement history for side positions. I decided to pull out the platform to help reiterate that fronts are straight and to help her be correct so I could reward her.
Risa is familiar with the platform but I haven’t used it lately. I felt I relied on it too much and used it too long creating a dog who understood the position with the board under her paws but didn’t actually know the position without the aid. I also haven’t really needed it for her left-side behaviors which are very strong and I was able to use a smaller pivot platform to help her polish her right-side behaviors. When I plopped the platform down to work on fronts, Risa didn’t stand square on it. She’d fidget or stand half on. I was a bit dumbfounded. “She knows this!” I thought to myself. “Why won’t she just get all four paws up there so I can click!?”
It’s not that she doesn’t know it. Just that she’s out of practice. I haven’t worked on it in a while so she isn’t quite as fluent in the behavior as I had expected. It’s not surprising, really, but it’s something to keep in mind and something we often forget. Just because a dog “knows” it doesn’t mean they “know” it forever. Case in point, I studied Spanish for 7 years in high school and college. I was pretty fluent. I knew how to conjugate verbs in various tenses, knew the phonetics of the language, and even used to watch movies dubbed in Spanish to hone my skills. It’s been years since I’ve conversed, written, or tried to understand anything in Spanish and so I’ve lost my fluency in it. I have no doubt that the information is still all there in my head; I would simply need to start practicing it again and it would all come back to me.
Our dogs are no different. The knowledge is still there but it just needs to be activated again. It didn’t take long at all for Risa’s light bulb to go on and for her to realize what her criteria was for standing on the platform. Then we were able to work on fronts properly. It is, however, something to keep in mind when we work with our dogs. One may never forget how to ride a bicycle but you need a bit of practice to get good at it again if it’s been a while since you’ve done it!