Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Summer progressed and so did the disease.  We stumbled along on a treatment treadmill to nowhere. Day after day after day of the same old/same old.  Stool quality hitting an 8 occasionally -- just enough to raise false hope -- but far too often in the range of 3 to 5.

Through it all Bravo! seemed to feel good.  When it was time to cut loose, he cut loose.  When it was time to grab a toy and spin, he grabbed a toy and spun like a maniac.  Whenever he spied an opportunity he'd bring me his ball and we'd play until I wore out.

True, he was skinny, but his abundant, shiny coat hid that fact.  Until very recently, his coat stayed in perfect condition.  Now I'm seeing a little bit of rattiness in the area of his rear end.

At first I vacillated about his training.  Early on I shut him down for several weeks.  But it was clear he wanted to go train.  He couldn't understand how I kept forgetting.  And he was perpetually looking me directly in the face in the morning when it was time to leave for the park.

I talked to Dr. Toben about it.  "If he wants to go, I'd take him," he said.  "I think it would be good for him.  Just don't overdo it."

We went and he loved it.  On Sunday mornings, when our Wow Wob Bassackwards Utility Group did ring run-throughs, I had always done Utility and Open with Bravo!  Now I found that he was sharp, rarin' to go in the first ring (usually Utility) but a little less so in the second.  I described it as "flat" in the second ring.  So I began limiting our Sunday practice to one ring, usually Utility.  After all, my little guy is OTCH-bound and Utility is where most of the points are.

Several times Chuck Toben offered to refer me to a veterinary internist to get a specialist's take on our problem.  But two decades-plus of extraordinary success with Dr. Toben, two decades of the most wonderful veterinarian/client relationship imaginable, made me reluctant to go anywhere else.  But come September, approaching the four-month anniversary of this maddening saga, I was ready to seek an opinion from a fresh perspective.

Having reached that decision, I didn't need a referral.  In Part 1 of this series I spoke of Dr. Jim Boulay, the Tucson orthopedic surgeon who had done exemplary work for three of my dogs.  In 2004 Dr. Boulay had added entrepreneurship to his Renaissance man career.  He had built a multi-specialty veterinary facility in north Tucson.  The new hospital opened with 10,000 square feet amid rave reviews and architectural awards for functional design excellence.  By 2011, Veterinary Specialty Center Tucson had expanded to 32,000 square feet and houses 26 doctors, 11 of them board-certified specialists.  Anyone who has spent a career in university teaching hospitals, as I did, knows how beneficial it is to patients to have a group of specialists like that all within bare-headed walking distance of one another.

Above all, what I had taken away from my several previous experiences with Dr. Boulay was this:  Everything he touches turns to excellence.

So I went online to see who in that group practice was board-certified in internal medicine.  Two were listed.  So I called Jim Boulay.  He immediately said, "Oh Willard, Mike Matz is the man for you."  He went on to say that Dr. Matz is nationally recognized for his work with the very types of problems Bravo! is having.

During that conversation I told Dr. Boulay what has been going on and that we were quite certain we are dealing with inflammatory bowel.

"How do you know it's inflammatory bowel?" Dr. Boulay wanted to know.

"We did an abdominal ultrasound in June," I told him.

He was adamant as he said, "I would never, never accept a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel on the basis of an ultrasound.  Bravo! needs an endoscopy."

Before I hung up the phone that morning I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Matz for September 22.  The plan was we'd begin with a consultation, then Bravo! would get an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy.

I knew it wasn't going to be a wonderful  day for either of us.  Bravo! would begin fasting the evening before.  We'd be up at 4:30 a.m., out of there by 6:30 for our 125-mile trip.  And by the time the procedure and the recovery room were over, Bravo! was discharged and we'd schlepped 125 miles the other direction, a grinding day would come to an end.

Dr. Matz did the most thorough diagnostic medical examination (workup) I've ever experienced. Question- and answer-wise he turned me every way but loose.  Great!

Then it was time for the endoscopy.  Dr. Matz left the examining room and I had about 10 minutes to think before a technician would come for Bravo!  Alone in the room with my little guy, I replayed this part of the consult:

Dr. Matz was going to switch Bravo! to a hypoallergenic hydrolyzed diet.  Hydrolyzed means the protein in the diet is broken down into molecules too small to excite the immune system. He would be sending us home with a big bag of Royal Canin HP 19.  As I waited in the examining room, one comment Dr. Matz had made stuck out in my mind.  He had said, "Since hydrolyzed diets came on the market several years ago, I've had to scope 50 percent less patients."

Well then, I thought, might it not make sense to try Bravo! on the hypoallergenic diet for a reasonable period, see if the symptoms improved, then, if not, come back for the endoscopy?  Why subject the little guy to a general anesthetic, only to learn after the fact that diet could control the problem?  Oh, and by the way, why do a procedure estimated to cost between $1363 and $1467 only to learn later . . . . .?

So when the technician came for Bravo! I told him I wanted to talk to Dr. Matz again.  Back in he came.  And he said if I didn't mind repeating the 250-mile roundtrip, my reasoning made all kinds of sense.

We were outta there and home shortly after noon.  I heard Bravo! tell Cheddar, "They never laid an endoscope on me!"

To be continued.


Friday, November 25, 2011


In Part 1 (Nov. 22) we learned that Bravo! had started with the "soft poops" on May 16.  All the standard initial tests were normal.  So Dr. Toben X-rayed the little guy's abdomen.  That word again: "normal."

And, of course, he drew blood for the obligatory valley fever test (coccidioidomycosis, a spore).  The Valley of the Sun is also the valley of the spore, and if a dog even blinks wrong around here the first thing they test for is valley fever.  The spores emanate from the soil in our arid climate.  Valley fever is common among people here in the desert, and it's much worse among dogs because their noses are closer to the ground.  Bravo!'s valley fever test was normal.  Everything was normal except what I was seeing on the ground in the backyard.

So we took the next diagnostic step, called  fecal culture toxin panel 1.  I called it the "loudenboomer" test because it cost $300.  That seemed high at the time, but little did I know that, expenditure-wise, we were only beginning batting practice.  Again, every test included in that panel was normal.

And the soft poops continued.  "My guess, Willard, would be inflammatory bowel disease," Dr. Toben said.  His guess!  If Chuck Toben were a stock broker, I'd be filthy rich.  Twenty-plus years of hitting the nail right on the head have made Dr. Toben's guesses almost sure things in my mind.

Across the next few months, we exhausted everything in the veterinary bag of tricks known to treat inflammatory bowel disease:  amoxi-tabs, metronidazole, low doses of prednisone, panacur granules, and probably a few things my mind is fighting to repress.  Years ago, with earlier dogs, I had success treating (normal) diarrhea with a drug called Amforal.  That drug is no longer on the market, but when all else fails . . .  Dr. Toben had the drug compounded.  The result of all this?  Zilch.  Zilch.  And more zilch.

On June 24 Bravo! had an abdominal ultrasound (ka-ching!) which confirmed Dr. Toben's "guess."  One loop of the small intestine showed signs of inflammatory bowel disease.  That hardly satisfied us.  Both Dr. Toben and I reasoned that  Bravo! has a lot more intestine in there to to a job that clearly wasn't/isn't being done.

Overly simplified, here's how it works.  As food and water pass through the intestines, nutrients and water are absorbed.  "Bravo! has a motility problem," Dr. Toben told me.  He meant that food and water were moving through the intestines much too quickly, not allowing time to be absorbed.  Resulting in varying degrees of soft stool -- all the way from what I called the "soft poops" to occasional watery diarrhea.

Well, Bravo! had an absorption problem, all right.  Early in the summer, across a period of slightly more than two weeks, my 38.5-pound border collie dropped to 32.25, a loss of 6.25 pounds.  Scary!

I've said that the "wetness" of Bravo!'s stool varied from day to day and usually from bowel movement to bowel movement within the same day.  How do you effectively communicate that to a veterinarian who is not standing next to you in the backyard?  On the phone, he's asking:  How is it now?  Is it better?  Worse?  How much better?  How much worse?

So I dreamed up a 10-point scale to describe what Bravo! was contributing to our dilemma at any given time.  A 10 would be dry, perfectly formed stool -- like what Cheddar, my golden retriever, was offering up (down?) most of the time.  A zero would be the worst diarrhea you can imagine, gravy-like and running like a faucet.

I found this quite effective as I gave telephone reports to Dr. Toben.

Then, flush with my own brilliance, I created a second scale, the Residue Index.  This index, also using a scale of 1 to 10, described, for want of a better word, the smeariness of what was on the ground, how difficult it was to pick up (using the baggie-covered-hand method), how much residue was left in the grass.  Residue I would then dispatch with a now-always-handy hose.

Alas, I quickly found that the values recorded using my Residue Index were badly skewed by a troublesome variable -- the length of the grass.  So much for the Residue Index.

Through all of this -- from day one of the soft poops on -- one thing has had Dr. Toben and me mystified.  At no time -- not once -- has there been any urgency about Bravo!'s need to poop.  Not once in these 6+ months has he asked to go outside for that purpose.  And not once has he had an accident in the house.  When I take him out, after meals, in between, whenever it's appropriate, he does his thing.

Dr. Toben has asked me about it multiple times.  I tell him what I've said above.  He shakes his head and says, "I have dogs in here with diarrhea evey day.  And those dogs are frantic to go outside, seven, eight times a day."  He shakes his head again:  "I don't understand it."

To be continued.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Betcha can't pronounce it on the first try.  Or even the second.  Now look away from the screen and try to say it.  And that's the easy part.

But I'm getting ahead of my story.

Bravo! walked in through our front door on April 26, 2006.  He was a rescue, eight months old.  At the time, Barbara and I were active in Arizona Border Collie Rescue.  The plan was we'd keep Carson (that was his name at the time) for three days, until the person who was going to foster him returned from out of town.  As I post this, three days have turned into 2033.

Bravo! as I quickly renamed him, was an owner turn-in.  The people brought him to our house at 2 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon.  The first thing you learn as you work in rescue is that everybody's lying to you.  Carson's owners' cover story was they were moving to Denver and would be living in an apartment for two years.  Blah . . .blah . . . blah (with an appropriate dash of tears).  The truth?  They had gotten in over their heads with a border collie.

Their car had hardly disappeared down the street when I had the little guy out in the backyard, a treat in my left hand, right above his nose, "heeling."  And it was unmistakeable:  "Oh, I like this!" he told me. Do you believe in love at first sight?  Bravo! and I do now.

At 4 o'clock that afternoon he ran into our master bathroom, jumped into the bathtub and pooped there.  The next morning he leaped up on our kitchen counter, walked across it and stole a loaf of bread.  At which point I gave a thumbs up and said, "This is my kind of dog!"

Later that day I told Kelly Quinn, co-founder and president of Arizona Border Collie Rescue, "Don't put Carson on the website just yet.  This is an extraordinary dog.  I'd like to live with him for a week or so; maybe I'll end up keeping him." 

One time a friend who is also an obedience competitor said, "Willard, you have the worst luck with dogs and their physical ailments . . . even though you always do your due diligence."

Indeed!  Broken bones, an anterior cruciate ligament tear, cataract surgery and lens implants, a total hip replacement, valley fever, and on and on.  All part of my history with competition obedience dogs. So before I irrevocably decided to keep the little guy, I spent $1000 to get him fully checked -- blood work, X-rays, the works.  And he was in mint condition.

Then I contacted the former owner who had never registered him. She signed the ownership transfer papers and I had him registered:  Lock-Eye Phantom of the Opera (to reflect his split face).  And what does the audience cry at the conclusion of an excellent operatic performance?  BRAVO!

And so it began.

The end of that July, coming out of the show grounds at the Conejo Kennel Club trial in Oxnard, California -- where Bravo! had hung out, heeled and socialized while Cheddar went high combined -- Bravo! was holding up his left hind leg.  Bottom line:  a badly fractured patella (kneecap).  No one has any idea how it happened; such a fracture would have required a mighty blow, such as being hit by a car.  But there had been nothing.  Nothing!  And a review of the preadoption X-rays showed no fracture.

A local veterinary orthopedic surgeon examined Bravo! and was all set to cut and sew.  But I turned to my go-to guy in Tucson.  Dr. Jim Boulay (formerly chief of surgery at the renowned Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston) had done one of the first TPLOs in Arizona on my golden, Honeybear.  Later, as part of a clinical trial he was involved in with the University of Zurich, Dr. Boulay installed the Zurich Cementless Total Hip in Bebop, my first border collie.  It turned out to be Bebop's strongest limb as he jumped like a deer (actually more like a maniac) for the rest of his obedience career.

Dr. Boulay recommended against surgery for Bravo!'s kneecap, saying, "If you can keep Bravo! relatively quiet (!!!), I think we'll get a fibrous union (cartilage), and that should be plenty adequate for what he wants to do."  Five months later Dr. Boulay turned Bravo! loose to resume training for competition.

Fast forward to this past spring.  On April 16, at a Grand Canyon German Shepherd Dog Club all-breed obedience trial, Bravo! finished both his UDX2 and his Obedience Master2 on the same day.  He had accumulated 39 OTCH points.  Seventeen of those points had come just a short time earlier as a result of a Utility B win.  Little did I know he would not see an obediece competition ring again for seven months.

On May 16 I took him out in the backyard for his after-breakfast bowel movement.  It was soft, almost too soft to pick up.  I didn't think much of it. That tends to happen for no apparent reason with dogs, and it usually clears up by the next day.  But this time it didn't, it got worse.  Not diarrhea, but plenty soft.

On May 18 I took him to Apollo Animal Hospital, to Dr. Chuck Toben who has been our veterinarian for more than two decades.  They did a fecal smear and sent a stool samply to the lab. Both showed no parasites or bacteria.  They were normal.  The word "normal" would become the bane of my existence across the ensuing months.

To be continued.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I've taught Bravo! to respond to hand signals using traditional methods.  I'm not completely satisfied with the end product.  If there's one thing that gives me anxiety in the Utility B ring it's that Bravo! will glance away just as I start to give the signal, and we'll flunk.  It's not a debilitating problem, but he's done it three or four times in his career -- just enough to make signals the only Utility exercise I'm uncertain about.

THEREFORE . . .  This is a series about attention.  My dog's attention to hand signals is nothing to write home about.  Sandra Davis is one of the most creative, successful competitors in our sport.  The method she uses to teach signals for dependability is interesting.  So here goes.

"To me," Sandra says, "there are two exercises where the dog's attention to the handler is crucial -- heeling and signals.  Of those two, the signal exercise is the most critical because if you lose attention you fail."

Sandra's method of teaching signals begins in her dining room, on the dining room table, when the puppy is about 12 weeks old.  She puts a rubber mat on the table and stands the puppy on it.  She teaches the stand, the drop and the sit, in that order.  No come, because the dog is on a table.  She teaches that separately for Novice.

I'll try, with words, to help you picture what her hand signals look like.

Stand signal  Sandra stands with her arms hanging at her sides.  She thrusts her right hand out, palm facing the dog, thumb extended.  The hand, flat and stiff, ends up about a foot from her thigh.

Drop signal  Right arm and hand extended straight above the head.

Sit signal  Underhand scoop with her left hand.

Sandra adds a verbal command to each of these hand signals and teaches them over an extended period of time.

As Sandra begins to train her dog he is on leash (on the table).  Later on a flexi -- "So that I have a little tension on the dog," she says.  Over time, she backs away gradually to six feet with the leash, 26 feet with the flexi.

During the period when the dog is on the table, Sandra is very precise about rewards and corrections.  If the dog responds correctly to a signal, Sandra first says, "Good," then walks back to the dog and rewards him (using the same kibble he finds in his bowl).  "I say, 'Good' before I take my first step," she explains.  If the dog misses a signal, Sandra says, "Aach!" before she takes her first step to return.

"I want the dog to know whether I'm coming back to praise or blame," she says.  "I think that's only fair."

Proofing begins while the dog is still on the table.  "I get my husband to say something or open a door," she told me.  "Anything to take the dog's eyes off of me.  Then I give the signal.  I set it up; I want to control this.  I don't want to go out in the world and have uncontrolled proofing."

During the proofing stage, the dog learns the corrections for not paying attention.  If the dog misses a drop, Sandra pops him on the shoulder.  If it's a sit, Sandra raps him under the chin.  "These are not severe corrections," she says, "but the dog knows.  He learns he better not take his eyes off of me.'

She continues.  "The dog learns that all these things that can distract him can also get him into trouble if he succumbs to them.  They are little traps, and he can avoid them by watching.  And because he learns this on a table, he isn't going anywhere."

When Sandra says, "Aach!" thedog's ears go down.  If it's a drop he missed, he belatedly drops.  But Sandra treats the situation as if the dog hadn't dropped at all.  She goes back and pops him on the shoulder, then returns to the signal-giving position.  Then she goes back to the dog and starts all over again by gently, physically putting him in a stand.

"It's a lot of walking back and forth," she admits, "until the light finally dawns:  'Oh, I win by watching.' "

Eventually the dog graduates from the table to the floor.  There Sandra places a stick in front of him so he won't travel forward.  Then the training proceeds on the floor, on a flexi, just as it did on the table.

Some trainers insist that their dogs pay attention to their backs when they leave the dog during the recall, the drop on recall or the signal exercise.  Sandra does not.  "The dog can look and gawk all he wants while my back is turned," she says.  "I think it would drive a dog crazy to be corrected for not looking at your back.  But when I turn around he'll be looking at me because he learns how long it takes me to walk across the ring."

End of series on attention.


Friday, November 4, 2011


Once you're certain that Rover is committed to following that treat . . . that's perched out at the end of the stick . . . that protrudes from your belt . . .directly above the seam of your pants . . . it's time to move the stick and the treat to the armband position.

Think about it.  What can you take into the ring as a training aid to help your dog maintain perfect heeling position?  Certainly not food concealed in your hand.  Certainly not a toy concealed in your armpit.  But what if you turn your armband into a focal point?  YES!

That's what we're doing here.  That's the end product of all we've done, beginning with the little follow exercises when Fluffy was a puppy.

The plate now attaches to a one-inch-wide strip of Velcro.  That Velcro strip goes around the bicep, over the armband. The stick, now considerably shorter, remains screwed into the plate.  I start this phase with the stick about two inches long.  Now my dog sees the treat perched on the end of the shortened stick emanating from the armband.  Once we reach this stage, I always have my armband on when I train . . . always, always!

Let's pause right here.  I want to caution as strongly as I can about a pifall that should be avoided if you want this system to work.

I'm never without the armband and the treat.  At practice matches I wear it in the ring.  At trials the Velcro band comes off right before we enter the ring.  People see me heeling around that way, my dog well focused.  Occasionally someone wants to know where to get one of those things they see on my arm.  I try to warn them.  I'm all too familiar with the trap they're about to fall into.  Because once upon a time I fell into it.

Back in the day . . .  Bebop, my first border collie, was a world-class forger/wrapper.  If points had been awarded for forging, we'd have gone high in trial at every show.  Unfortunately, they're deducted.

Once, in Open B, my little maniac decided to wrap almost all the way around in front of me just as our judge called a fast.  I leapt over him.  Bebop quickly scrambled back into heel position . . . and we won the class.

I'd see Louise Meredith heeling her dogs around before shows, her attention stick on her left bicep, her dogs in perfect heel position.  And I knew that device was exactly what I needed to fix that infernal forging.  So I asked her where I could get one of those things.  I didn't know Louise very well at the time and she was too nice to tell me I was barking up the wrong tree.

The attention stick came in the mail.  I put it on and away we went. It didn't make one bit of difference.  Bebop continued to forge until the day I retired him with a UDX 2.

Here comes the gospel, folks:  What I've been describing in this series is a process.  You can't let the problems take root, then slap the attention stick on and expect it to work.  It won't.  Let me repeat:  Pinpoint heeling is a long, arduous process. 

It was sometime later that Louise gave me a piece of advice I'll never forget.  "How do you stop your dogs from forging?" I asked her. Her answer:  "I never let them start."  And that's what pinpoint heeling is all about.

Enough warning.

Once the stick and the food get to my armband, I treat the introduction the same way I treat each step of the process.  We don't just go marching off.  We start with, "Look!"  Then two or three steps, then, Get it!"  Then we build from there.

I keep the stick and treat in their original position for a long, long time.  Eventually, after Bowser is really focused, I cut the stick way back -- a half inch, max.  Then I turn it around so that the treat is under my arm, not so visible.  When I say, "Get it!"  I raise my arm to make the treat accessible.

One more thing about where I carry my supply of treats.  Every shirt I own for training or showing has two generous breast pockets, preferably with flaps.  The treats that go on the stick come out of the upper left pocket.  Doesn't that make sense?  If you want the dog's focus to be up there, shouldn't he know that's where the treats come from?  Not from a fanny pack on your right side or in back, or from a pants pocket that you dig around in to eventually come up with a treat.  And certainly not from your mouth -- that causes the dog to focus on your face and invites wrapping.

The rest of this story can be summed up by the following old joke:  A stranger in Manhattan is trying to attend a concert, but he's lost.  He comes upon a hippie.  "Excuse me," the stranger says, "can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"  And the hippie replies, "Practice, man, practice!"

* * *

The pinpoint heeling equipment mentioned in this series (as well as plenty of other good stuff) is available from Laurie Burnam.  You can visit her website at http://www.poochabilitydogtraining.com/ . Laurie can be reached at bellaluna@pacbell.net .  Or by phone at 1-818-784-8440.
Laurie told me she'll give a 10% discount to anyone who mentions this blog.  Such a deal!

Next (and last in this series):  One way to teach signals for maximum attention


Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Once you have proceeded through the process -- and don't be a doofus, it is a process; shortcuts don't work -- and you've got the treat at your waist with Trixie homed in on it, you're ready to introduce the attention stick.  It's sometimes called a "heeling helper," depending on who's selling it.

The attention stick seems largely to be a California thing, the brainchild of AnneMarie Silverton.  I find that most trainers in the eastern two-thirds of the United States have never heard of it.

It is about an eighth of an inch in diameter and varies in length.  I use one about seven inches long.  It's slightly beveled at one end to make it easy to slip little cubes of food on it. (I use Pet Botanics.  It's nuritionally balanced, comes in a roll and is available at PetSmart.  Red Barn makes a similar product.)  The other end of the stick is threaded to screw into a plate which the handler first wears on a belt, directly above the seam of the left pants leg; later it progresses to a focal point above the left elbow, wrapped around the armband.

But first things first.  As I introduce the stick with food on it, I hold it in position belt-high and aligned with the seam of my pants.  The pitfalls here have to do with holding the stick absolutely still.  Remember, you're trying to teach perfect heel position, not heeling in the same zip code.  So if you wave the stick around, heel position keeps changing, doesn't it?  Worse, if you allow the hand and the stick to drift forward, you'll pull the dog forward, encouraging forging and wrapping.  It's optional whether you carry the stick in your left hand or right hand.  I've chosen the extend my right arm across the front of my body, anchoring the stick/treat right where I want it.  Too, it frees my left hand to carry a leash if I'm using one.

The stick serves three purposes:
  -- First, it helps get my dog in the habit of looking up.  Two things are working for me here:  motivation (food drive) and habit formation.  And the teat is now very obvious, perched out there on the end of the stick.
  -- Second, properly  and consistently positioned, the stick teaches pinpoint heeling.
  -- And, properly and consistently positioned, it discourages a multitude of heeling sins -- forging, lagging, crowding, inattention.  And it keeps the dog in a straight line.

"But," you say, "isn't Fluffy going to try to steal the food?"  YES!  I tell my students this:  "As long as she's trying to steal the treat, she's looking at it.  Which is what you want, isn't it?"  You combat that by fending her off with your free hand.  And remember the command, "Get it"?  We introduced that way back when the little puppy was crawling up the front of you to get the treat out of your mouth.  "Get it!" has been your command to get the treat ever since.  By now that command is well-established.

So at the same time you're teaching Fluffy to get the food only on your command,  you aren't sweating the stealing.  I've found that stealing of the food somehow solves itself when the stick gets up to the armband.

But first, after you've gotten Phydeaux used to the food on the stick, you'll screw the stick into the plate on the special belt (right above the seam of the pants).   Note that both hands are free -- the better to fend off your plundering dog. And the stick can't drift.

Again, we stay at this point until the dog is doing really well.

Next:  The treat moves to the armband.