In the first part of this series, I described the 5 long month breakdown of my dog Tiramisu. Trained for the sport of dog agility, Tira loved nothing more than playing on agility courses and equipment from the time she was 6 months old. At the age of 7, she suddenly started becoming fearful and unwilling to play agility. We knew something was very wrong.
Part two of this series described how we used our veterinary health care resources to determine what was wrong with Tira and how we began to get her back on the road to recovery through proper treatment and medication for low thyroid. But something was still lurking in the background of this ordeal. Medication and proper health care could restore her body chemistry to normal but the very real fear she felt could have lasting behavioural effects that we couldn’t predict. With guarded optimism, we started working her again in agility in January of this year while taking care to use our understanding of behavioural science to restore her confidence.
The Ghosts Of Agility Breakdowns Past
Our first practice sessions after getting Tira on medication for her low thyroid condition seemed promising. But it didn’t take long for problems to resurface. We practice in a horse barn and one evening, the loud bang of a horse kicking was all that it took to shut Tira down. She wanted to get out of the barn and that was that. So we didn’t push her to do more than she was comfortable with and we made some notes about what exactly happened.
The next few practice sessions went about the same way. We would get some of Tira’s firery agility performance before some noise would “spook” her and she would shut down. We used positive reinforcement for small behaviours like taking one jump or walking with me into the center of the barn before taking her back out to the car. We had some good progress including getting her back for a few short sequences after a shut down but it was still difficult to get the old Tira back. She would always start our sessions in her usual enthusiastic way until her shut downs.
We had the opportunity to do some agility trials and fun matches. She shut down at these events too. But usually at these events, it was some miscommunication from me as her handler that seemed to break her confidence on course. Again, as with practice, we did not push and when she was done we told her she was a “good girl” and took her out to play and then rest in the car. The breakdowns were still happening but they were less intense (Tira was not terrified, only uncomfortable) and we were bringing her back more quickly with reinforcement. Things were getting better, but slowly.
Support, Advice, and Wrestling Ivan Pavlov
Relying on behavioural science to help get Tira back to her old self on the agility course was a tricky road. We had to push her hard enough to understand what was triggering her breakdowns and what, if anything, could be done to mitigate her discomfort before, during, and after these episodes wold happen. In March, we hit a turning point. A very wise woman who trains with us (Thank you Carol Ray!) suggested that perhaps we should be running Tira in very short but very successful sessions in agility. Just bring her out, have a real party out there where she could do no wrong and end on a success instead of pushing until she broke down.
It turned to be very effective advice. Over the weeks that followed, Tira was happy and confident in her short runs with no break downs. At a trial we attended in March she did break down on the first day but came back to run on the second day for a few runs. That was something that hadn’t happened in over 7 months. We were seeing progress. Clearly the work we were doing with reinforcement was getting her back into the game much quicker. Tira seemed to be able to bounce back much quicker for the work we had been doing.
That said, there were still moments in practice and at trials where there would be a miscommunication from me and she would shut down and look uncertain. In addition to loud noises, clearly being disconnected with me in our runs was also shutting Tira down. And so I had to face the very real possibility that my own behaviour towards Tira could be a trigger for her discomfort. World famous animal trainer Bob Bailey is fond of saying that “Pavlov is always on our shoulder” when we are training our animals. What he means is that we are a very real part of our dog’s enviornment and Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning can make us a signal of something good or something bad for our dog. It was very possible that I was giving of “warning” signals to Tira that were making her apprehensive enough to shut down.
Turning The Medicine Wheel
Shortly after Tira was diagnosed with her hypothyroid condition, I downloaded an ebook by Dr. Jean Dodds called The Canine Thyroid Epidemic – Answers You Need For Your Dog. Dr. Dodds is a recognized authority on thyroid issues in dogs and her Hemopet diagnostic laboratories had done the analysis that found Tira was hypothyroid. A second test by Hemopet recommended a reduced dosage of Tira’s thyroid suppliment medication. We noticed a slight but important change in her behaviour. Some of Tira’s resillience and confidence were gone.
I decided to call Dr. Dodds and discuss what we were seeing in Tira since the change in medication. We had a great conversation and having read Dr. Dodds’ book really helped clarify Tira’s situation. Dr. Dodds offered a number of suggestions including changing Tira’s dosage of the thyroid hormone replacement medications on the days when she was more active, particularly at agility trials.
Another great piece of information that came out of my talk with Dr. Dodds was a better understanding of how the thyroid medications are absorbed and used in the dog’s body. We were assured that since the thyroid medications had a half-life of 12 hours, any mistakes in dosage would clear out of Tira’s system in 12-24 hours with no lasting side effects. This provided a window for us to experiment.
We had done as Dr. Dodds had suggested in her book and we had carefully monitored changes in Tira’s behaviour as we worked with her and her dosages changed. We were also careful to look at environmental factors and, since I am a dog trainer and interested in behavioural science, I also made changes in our training routine. My greatest fear was that, as her primary trainer, Tira had associated me with the worst feelings she had experienced while hypothyroid.
Things were definitely improving and, with a few minor setbacks, we thought we were on track with Tira’s recovery. This past weekend we entered an agility trial with high hopes. Most of the trials we attend offer 5 or 6 runs each day. Since Tira’s breakdown, we had not been able to get more than 3 or 4 runs in a day before she would refuse to run. At this trial, we resolved to make some changes to her medication to see if we could change that.
On the first day of the trial, we provided Tira with a “booster” dose of her medication. Normally thyroid meds are delivered every 12 hours but this time we provided an extra dose, slightly less than her usual dose. The results were mixed. Tira broke down in the middle of her fourth run. But to our surprise, she returned great enthusiasm for a fifth run that day. Not knowing what to expect, we were disappointed that she showed up for her sixth run looking very uncomfortable and she refused to run.
The fact that we saw a difference in Tira that day, even for a brief time, gave us encouragement that we were on the right track. Fortunately we are friends with another competitor who is also a veterinarian. Mike Bellinghausen of Kenmore Veterinary Hospital in Kenmore Washington was kind enough to answer a couple of questions I had about absorbtion rates of thyroid medication and he helped me work out a modified dosing plan for the next day. We knew we were close.
The next day we adjusted the dosage and timing after talking with Dr. Mike. For the first time in over 7 months, Tira ran a full 6 runs that day with all of the enthusiasm and responsiveness that we would have expected before her hypothyroid diagnosis.
To say I was relieved would be a tremendous understatement. In fact, I was so overwhelmed at what I was seeing, my agility handling was terrible! It was just so wonderful to see Tira having so much fun that I was not providing my usual signals in a timely manner. The result was a chaotic, fast, and ultimately joyous mess of agility runs that were nothing to brag about except that Tira ran her heart out. And she did the same for all 5 runs the very next day.
Ultimately I won my wrestling match with Ivan Pavlov and I was not the negative “poisoned cue” for Tira as I had feared. It appears that her difficulties with low thyroid in agility was either not severe enough or was sufficiently brief that it seems to have almost no behavioural aftermath if she is properly medicated to participate in agility. We now have a plan to move forward with Tira so she can enjoy her favorite game as the happy and healthy girl she once was.
The lesson here for me is that sometimes things really are physiological and that, as important as training and behaviour are, a good relationship with your dog can carry you through even difficult times with poor health. In the end, we had done all of the right things for Tira while she was growing up and in our day to day lives. Taking care in her training while we were figuring out her proper dosage prevented any more serious behavioural problems and may have actually improved her trust in us.
Tiramisu seems to be back to her previous agility form now. It has been an amazing journey of learning and discovery that we couldn’t have done alone. I want to thank all of our ScallyWaggs training group for their support, encouragement, and wisdom as we went through the past year. I would like to thank Dr. Jean Dodds for her informative book, her Hemopet medical services, and taking the time to talk with me and offer additional suggestions. Thanks also to Kathy Sdao and Diane Garrod for wisdom and consultation on behavioural techniques and approaches that I’m sure contributed to our success. And finally to the larger agility and dog community for being so supportive and encouraging, thank you for being there for us.
I would like to leave you with this thought from Jean Dodds:
“You, as the guardian and spokesperson, must become the champion of your dog’s well-being. This means ‘going with your gut.’ even when it does not agree with your veterinarian. Follow your instincts. Don’t ever let anyone intimidate you into thinking you are being silly or overly cautious.”
No one knows your dog better than you do. Do what is right for them. Work with veterinary health care professionals and use trusted scientific resources to be smarter about your dog’s health. Proper diagnostic testing saved us from what could have been a frustrating and ultimately failed attempt to fix this problem through training alone. Having Tiramisu’s blood tested was the best money we ever spent.
Until next time, take care of your dogs!
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Photo credits –
All photos – Petra Wingate 2012