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Listening to our dogs

It is difficult to know where to begin in writing about Ripley’s story. And to remember when I began to wonder where had I gone wrong?

Ripley was born with a deformed tail. All the vets told us it should not stop her from having a normal life and we believed them. Soon after she arrived home, we noticed a deformed toe too. From that point, I believe there started a nagging thought, to which I could not give form to at the time, but I now know was “what if there are other things wrong with her?”

I did all kinds of training with Ripley. From when she was a little puppy to later on in both our lives. We did what I thought were fun things together, like puppy classes, where they were taught all the traditional commands such as sit, down and stay. We did dog dancing and circuit training. It seemed there weren’t any classes we couldn’t do.

We did obedience training when I was overwhelmed by my 'first puppy' experiences. She would not do what I asked of her and this made me feel like a bad parent that couldn’t control her puppy. I didn’t see the cheeky, totally lovable, border terrier that she was, with all the characteristics inherent to this breed and totally normal for her age.

Then we did agility. At the time I knew nothing about what this could do to my dog. I felt it was a bonding experience and I was doing it for my dog, definitely not for myself. Alarms bells should have started ringing then. She was quite slow and my teachers kept telling me to motivate her more, with toys and food. It was my fault the dog wasn’t performing. There were contradictory messages about how I should train her but one theme stuck - that I wasn’t doing enough to get the best out of her, and I was boring her. I felt a bad parent again.

Luckily the English winters got the better of me and we didn’t keep this activity up for very long. The years went by and Ripley started to slow down. She is nearly 11 now, but from as early as 4 or 5 years old, we were thinking she was lazy. The signs started to escalate over the years, such as the growls at walking time and when we were putting her harness on. We just didn’t pick up on them.

When Julia Robertson from the Galen Therapy Centre came to Asturias, I started to realise that I had been wrong all along. That nagging voice was still there, which is why I attended her seminar with Ripley. This was when I discovered that I could and needed to do something more for my dear dog, so I decided to do the Myotherapy diploma at Galen. We haven’t looked back since. Ripley started receiving massages and then asking for them. When she is in pain, she looks for me and gives me her paw, a sign she had been doing for many years and that I had never interpreted correctly. She is receiving medication and the massages complement her treatment. Arthritis can be a very painful disease and I wish I had known more sooner.

Ripley stills wants to go out for walks and we have found a way of giving her what she needs. We use a sports sack that we put her in after she has walked for a while and is showing signs of stopping. The issue of putting on her harness was resolved with one that clips at both sides, so that there is no need for her to bend her paws. We are also considering other methods of transport and we will adapt with her when she needs it.

I have a very good relationship with Ripley. She trusts me, she looks to me for protection and as the years go by, I will have to be careful that the rest of the dogs in the household don’t cause her any unnecessary discomfort. But it is the least I can do. I love her dearly and nothing I do for her seems too much. She has been my teacher over the years. This kind of relationship should have given me the insight to believe in what she was telling me. Why do we need to “interpret” what the dog is saying? Is it because we believe that we know better than the dog what is wrong with them? Parents always think that they know better what is good for their offspring. It is so clear to me now that she was in pain and that she was telling me so, to the extent that I cannot even comprehend how I didn’t see it.

But it was when Ripley had a recent x-ray that we realised the extent of her problem. The picture stopped us in our tracks. It was shocking to see the extent of Ripley’s osteoarthritis. She also has spondylosis and all the compensatory changes she has made throughout her life, must make her situation pretty uncomfortable. So, we must prepare for the future.

I know now that some of these things that I did could have been potentially detrimental to Ripley’s physical and mental health, but it is this knowledge that has empowered me to learn more and study with some of the most talented people in the dog world. So, in a way, I am grateful for this. I don’t want to feel like a bad parent or guilty and as I continue my work as a Galen Myotherapist and a dog trainer, I can only hope that I may help other dog parents in feeling less like failures and more encouraged to look for answers and be empowered to understand dogs.

I want to say a few words about exercise too, from my point of view as a Myotherapist and the experience that having dogs and treating dogs has given me. I don’t think we are going to stop people from exercising with their dogs so a few guidelines should be applied.

Is exercise important for our dogs? Of course! But we must do everything possible to adjust the activities to the situation of each dog:

  • Evaluate if the dog has any pain or injury, physical or mental. At a physical level the exercise might be contraindicated. At an emotional level, if the dog is suffering from stress, exercise is an excitatory activity. There will be peaks of substances that are released during exercise, such as adrenaline, glutamate and dopamine. Therefore, if we continue with the exercise, the stress will become chronic with potentially devastating effects for the dog.

  • Consider the age of the dog. If they are too young, they haven’t yet developed properly, and we can damage the dog permanently. If they are old, they might not be able to carry on with the exercise.

  • Make sure the exercise that we have chosen is not going to be of a repetitive nature. For example, a dog tied to a bicycle where the dog is under a constant movement in the same direction. This impacts joints and muscles in a non-natural way, as dogs aren't designed to move like this.

  • If you are involved at competition level with your dog, make sure the dog performs warm-up routines before any exercise and cool-down routines after the session, to avoid injuries and for optimum performance.

Above all, remember the canine ethogram and to give the dog choices. Forcing a dog to do exercise can never be considered as offering a choice.

Leticia Sanchez-Moral is a PDTE member and trainer based in Asturias. Find out more at Preparadogs.

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