Dana Standish lives in Seattle; her previous articles for The Bark include "Sleeping with Dogs" (Spring 2004) and "Three Legs to Stand On" (July 2006).
Wellness: Healthy Living
August 6 2012
There’s a brief moment in Mike Nichols’ iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate, that helps me imagine what life is like for my 15-year-old Corgi, Edgar, who has lost most of his hearing. Early in the film, Benjamin Braddock, the eponymous graduate, enters a pool party given by his parents in his honor, wearing full SCUBA gear. Wellmeaning faces from his past float up in succession, each one with advice about what he should do with his life, but, while he can see their mouths moving and read their facial expressions, all he can hear inside the diving mask is the sound of his own breathing.
Every now and then, I look Edgar straight in the eye and say, as helpfully as I possibly can, “Plastics.” That is the advice given to Benjamin by the soonto- be-cuckolded Mr. Robinson about a possible career path. No one ever laughs at my jokes, so Edgar’s blank look is not new, but it makes me feel as though I am still communicating with him even though he cannot hear.
It might seem petty to worry about a little deafness when Edgar is in otherwise perfect health. But I realized that his deafness was a barrier to our bond, and that I felt as estranged from him as he undoubtedly did from me. He had never come when he was called, so that was nothing new. But suddenly he looked away when I said the various trigger words — “Let’s go for a walk,” “Do you want a treat?” “Do you want to ride in the car?” — that used to cause him to cock his head from side to side in a manner that made it clear we were communicating. Suddenly, he was silent during birthday parties, when in the past, his exuberant baritone rang out above all the other voices during the Happy Birthday song.
Dogs’ hearing mechanism is basically the same as that of humans, and they experience hearing loss for many of the same reasons: they can be congenitally deaf (deaf since birth), or they can acquire deafness due to having dirt, wax, ear mites or other foreign bodies in the ear; an infection or inflammation of the ear canal; trauma to the head; noise trauma; exposure to certain antibiotics or other drugs; or old age. I do not know when or why Edgar lost his hearing; part of it was undoubtedly just normal aging process. But he also had an ongoing skin infection that extended into his ears, which I treated with antibiotics, either of which can cause hearing loss. His hearing seemed to have deteriorated overnight, but most likely, it was a gradual process that I didn’t notice until he exhibited some of the more obvious symptoms: pacing around looking for his people, suffering obvious distress at being left alone, exhibiting a pronounced startle response at being touched while he was asleep.
“In hearing, as in most other things, dogs are very adaptive and good at compensating,” says Colette Williams of the University of California, Davis, Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Williams has been an electro- diagnostician at UCD for 29 years. Among many other tests that she conducts, she assesses animals for hearing loss using brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) technology. Many seeking her expertise are breeders, who use BAER to identify congenital deafness in their puppies.
If a puppy is found to be bilaterally deaf (deaf in both ears), breeders have a difficult decision to make: euthanize that puppy or let it go as a pet. Those who favor euthanasia point out that many deaf dogs end up in shelters because of the challenges in training them. Also, deaf dogs often get hit by cars, and they can be snappy when they are startled when sleeping, which gives the breed a bad name.
Colette Williams has tested thousands of dogs and has owned two deaf dogs of her own. One of her dogs, a bilaterally deaf-from-birth Dalmatian, learned hand signals that Williams and her son made up. “The key was consistency, and rewarding him with treats,” she says. “I had a hearing dog at the time, and he was harder to train than the deaf dog.” Hearing dogs often aid a deaf dog, Williams points out. They give social cues and can help with training. Williams trained the hearing dog to wake the deaf dog so she didn’t have to worry about the deaf dog biting her young son if he touched the dog while he was sleeping.
Deaf dogs can be marvelously adaptable and inventive. “Dogs are good at using their other senses,” says Williams. “My deaf dog knew where every cat in the neighborhood was. When we walked, he would scan from side to side, taking in everything.”
Like Edgar has had to do, Williams’ deaf dog accepted his condition and got on with life. “Dogs don’t have the self-pity that a lot of people have,” she says.
Seattle-area dog trainer Diane Rich, who has worked with numerous deaf dogs over the past 25 years, points out the importance of developing other modes of communication regardless of whether your dog is deaf or has tip-top hearing. She teaches people to use a combination of body language, hand signals and auditory cues. That way, if the dog loses hearing in old age, he won’t feel quite as isolated. “People want to keep up communication with an older dog,” says Rich. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to learn how to communicate differently, not just verbally.” She also recommends teaching all puppies a “watch” command in addition to the usual commands. Hold some alluring food near the dog’s nose and slowly bring it to your eye level, maintaining eye contact with the dog. Say “Watch” or “Look.” Work on “fading the lure,” and eventually, you’ll be able to just point to your eye and have the dog’s full attention. “Dogs use an array of body language already,” says Rich. “People need to be able to use their own body language to communicate with their dog.”
While many people teach their dogs American Sign Language, any hand signal will do, as long as you’re consistent. “There’s no ceiling to how many words or signs a dog can learn,” says Rich. “They can learn as long as they have a pulse and you have motivation and patience. If you make training fun, they’re going to love learning, and it’s going to cement your bond.” She points out that it’s not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: sometimes it’s easier to train older dogs because they have longer attention spans.
Further, she recommends taking a matter-of-fact approach to your deaf dog’s disability. “Dogs aren’t saddled with ego,” she says. “If we pity them, we can create a situation where the dog may either shut down or act out because they think they did something wrong to make us feel bad. If you act like the disability isn’t a big deal, dogs will respond like it’s not a big deal.”
And so Edgar and I continue together into (in my case) middle age and (in his case) senescence. Taking care of him is a lot of work, but the truth is that I am no bargain either. He is very accepting of the ways in which I am not perfect, and, in turn, I am accepting of his increasing physical limitations. Every day, we practice the hand signals we learned in puppy class 15 years ago, which he still remembers: come, sit, stay, down, good boy. I smile a lot and pat him while giving the “thumbs up” sign when he does something well. I continue to tell him my jokes and he continues to give me a blank look, just like he always has. On every birthday, I bark and howl and yelp when people sing the Happy Birthday song, in honor of the joy his “singing” has given me over the years.
Though he requires a lot of extra care for all his special needs, it is care I am happy to provide in gratitude for the happiness he has brought me. In short, even though he has lost his hearing, arthritis has slowed him down, he sleeps most of the day and cannot participate fully in all of our old antics, he is still my best friend, and encroaching old age will never change that. Because — as every creaky, long-in-the-tooth, middle-aged woman and failing, deaf, 15-year old dog know — love is blind.
The BAER Test
BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) is a diagnostic test for hearing whereby a dog is fitted with a sound source in the form of earphones with foam inserts that extend into the ear. The device emits a sound and the response is detected by tiny electrodes that have been placed at specific sites on the dog’s head and shoulders. The BAER detects electrical activity in the cochlea of the ear as well as in the auditory pathways of the brain, much like an EKG detects electrical activity in the heart. The resulting waveform definitively shows the extent and degree of a dog’s hearing loss and is used to evaluate a dog’s hearing status. The procedure is painless, but occasionally dogs will object to wearing earphones and being lightly restrained; in extreme cases they are muzzled or sedated, though this is rarely necessary. Results are available on the spot.
While curious pet owners sometimes seek confirmation of a hunch that their dog is deaf, BAER testing is used routinely by breeders, primarily those whose breeds are susceptible to congenital deafness. Coat-color-related deafness is associated with some white-coated and merle breeds, such as Dalmatians and Australian Shepherds. (To find out which breeds are most affected, see Louisiana State University’s Dr. George M. Strain’s comprehensive list.)
Inside the ear, the organ of Corti includes a layer of cells, the stria vascularis. The job of these cells is to secrete a factor that keeps hair cells healthy within the ear. If the stria vascularis cells are not pigmented, they are defective and lead to hair cell death within a puppy’s first few weeks, resulting in deafness. Unfortunately, this takes place in the inner ear and is, therefore, not visible to the eye; often, it is not obvious that a puppy is deaf. Deaf puppies may play harder than their littermates (because they cannot hear the yelps they inflict); also they may be hard to wake, or be seen to be following cues from the other puppies. Hunches must be confirmed with BAER testing.
Those who train working dogs also utilize BAER testing. These dogs need to be able to hear in both ears in order to localize the source of a sound. A dog can be unilaterally deaf (deaf in one ear), so that he can still hear but cannot tell where the sound is coming from. Others whose dogs experience chronic ear infections may seek BAER testing to find out how much hearing loss their dog might have experienced as a result of infection. BAER testing is also used to aid in the diagnosis of more serious medical conditions, such as vestibular (inner ear) disease or brain tumors.
BAER testing can be done only at one of the centers that specialize in the test. (Click here for a list of BAER testing sites.) However, BAER testing is occasionally available at “health clinics” at major dog shows.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Three legs to stand on
April 23 2012
A really expensive car can go from zero to 60 in less than six seconds, but that car would have nothing on Harvey, a seven-month-old Mastiff/Husky mix, who went from being an $85 dog to a $2,000 dog in less than four hours. That’s how long it took Harvey to be adopted from the Tacoma Humane Society, perform a cursory inspection of his new home on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Seattle, race out onto the outside terrace to check out the dog house and vault over the surrounding hip wall. Harvey hit an awning, landed on the sidewalk and ended up in the emergency room with a badly broken right rear leg that later had to be amputated. “The vet said they usually try to pin the leg first,” says Lindsey Votava, who had fallen in love with Harvey on Petfinder.com, “but with the extent of Harvey’s injury it would have been like trying to put together a bag of potato chips.”
Votava and her husband, Leif Dalan, were clear that having Harvey’s leg amputated would give him the best chance of recovery. Trying to save the leg would have doubled their vet bill and meant they would have had to immobilize Harvey for up to eight weeks, which would have violated several of the laws of physics. “Harvey walked up the stairs after his surgery,” recalls Votava, and never missed a beat. He maintains a wicked Frisbee schedule at the dog park and does everything a four-legged dog does, except “he can’t scratch his ear.” They give him glucosamine for his joints and try to keep him from overexercising so that he doesn’t injure his remaining limbs. “We have to think for him,” Votava says. “That jumping off the roof was how he is. He’s a totally go, go, go kind of dog.”
It’s not unusual these days for a dog to lose a leg, generally for one of two reasons: they suffer some sort of accident or trauma, like Harvey’s, or they develop bone cancer or other bone disease. The latter is what happened to Bernie, an eight-year-old Rottweiler whose left front leg was amputated in January. Bernie was recovering nicely from surgery to her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) when her guardian, Tom Tilden, noticed she was limping and not bouncing back as quickly as he had expected. An X-ray showed bone cancer. “The first vet we consulted suggested giving her painkillers until the pain got to be too bad and then having her put down,” says Tilden. “We found another doctor.”
Bernie’s situation is completely different from Harvey’s. Harvey is lean and lost a rear leg while he was still a puppy; he was able to adjust immediately. Bernie is a stockier breed and lost a front leg relatively late in her life. “The front leg accounts for approximately 70 percent of the dog’s strength and balance,” says Sheila Wells, a hydrotherapist in Seattle who works with Bernie several times per week. “That is why front-leg amputees often have a more difficult time adjusting to their new state. The rear can follow but the front has to lead.”
Wells says that in her experience, most three-legged dogs are “very highly functioning.” Some dogs do better than others, depending on their size (smaller dogs have an easier time), age and other physical problems. “The biggest challenge a dog faces when it loses a limb,” says Wells, “is that it has to relearn proprioception, which means it needs to get a new idea of where its body is in space and how to balance; it’s like the bubble in a level.” The most important challenge for tripod-dog owners, she says, is to protect the remaining limbs; often people will let the dog overdo it, and that ends up putting undue stress on the dog’s joints, which can lead to injuries and arthritis. She recommends that owners observe the following checklist to keep the three-legged dog healthy for as long as possible:
• Protect remaining limbs
One of those animals was Wortman’s Clover, a one-and-a-half-year-old Pointer/Border Collie mix who arrived at the shelter with a badly broken right front leg that had to be amputated. “She was up and running the day after surgery,” says Wortman. “She’s a very athletic dog. She keeps up with the Greyhounds at the park. She’s inspiring to everyone who sees her.” Wortman says that she has noticed that people’s acceptance of three-legged dogs is growing. “Before, perhaps, people would have thought it was sad that she was missing a limb. But that has changed. I was recently at the dog park and met a couple whose baby had a paralyzed right arm. They said to me, ‘I wish we could get a three-legged dog so our child could grow up to think it was okay to be missing a limb.’”
“We always try to save the limb first,” says Thomas Mason, director of veterinary services at Pets Unlimited, “though sometimes this is much more expensive and requires more rehabilitation.” An amputation typically costs $1,200, while it may cost up to $3,000 to try to salvage the limb.
Before doing an amputation, a vet must decide if the dog is a good candidate. “We assess the animal’s overall physical condition. If the dog has arthritis in the other legs, for instance, he wouldn’t be such a good candidate. Amputation causes wear and tear on the other joints.” Many times, says Mason, a vet will end up taking off a dog’s entire leg, even if the trauma or the cancer is low down on the “ankle” joint. “Because of the way dogs walk, you end up with a lot of problems if you leave some of the limb. It would just get in the way. Most of the time, amputation is more cosmetically acceptable.”
Martin Kaufmann would like to see a change to this type of practice. Kaufmann, of OrthoPets.com, makes prosthetics and orthotics for both “two-legged and four-legged animals and any variation in the middle.” His goal is “to get the animal world up to speed with what we’re doing with humans.” He began his practice with animals four years ago, after a cousin’s Schnauzer suffered a stroke and lost the function in its right front leg. Kaufmann began studying animal anatomy books and learned that the muscle and bone terminology in dogs is almost exactly what it is in humans. Now, 30 percent of his practice is making artificial limbs and braces for animals, mostly dogs. “When three-legged dogs are brought to me, when they are amputated way up at the joint, there aren’t many options,” he says. Too often he sees animals who had cancer in the “wrist” joint.
“The vets tend to think of it as a useless limb and amputate way up at the top. That makes it almost impossible to build a prosthesis. We need at least one joint in order for the animal to be able to operate” with a prosthetic limb. Kaufmann explains that since this is a new field and he is one of only a few people doing this type of prosthetic work, not many vets know of this option. But he is trying to spread the word. “For limb preservation, it’s important to salvage as much of the limb as possible, or as many joints as possible.” If the limb has already been amputated at the top, he recommends having the dog use a cart to maintain the weight distribution on the leg that’s left. “Compounding forces on the remaining leg can cause arthritis from overuse. If the animal loses the remaining leg, what does it have left?”
Whether a dog loses a leg due to trauma or disease, most often he or she will bounce back and learn to adjust. As Sheila Wells points out, dogs don’t have the same stigma that we would have about losing a limb. “Some don’t ever notice their leg is missing,” she says. “Usually a leg that has been taken off has been painful for a long time and the dog is already used to not using that leg. When they get it removed, their whole demeanor changes because they can run around without being in pain. There’s no reason a three-legged dog has to be disabled.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Giving new meaning to the term “assisted living.”
April 11 2012
My sister left me a phone message : “I think Mom has had a stroke.” It was shorthand for us, a message my sister and I have exchanged many times, whenever our mother was particularly difficult or unreasonable.“Having a stroke” meant our mother was irrational, belligerent, mean, needy or any of the other possibilities that crop up regularly between women who care too much for each other. If I called my sister back every time our mother “had a stroke,” I would have to wear a phone headset and my sister would need to invest in a toll-free number.
Several hours later, I got a more frantic message from my sister. “Didn’t you get my message? I’m in the emergency room with Mom. I think she’s had a stroke.” And then she added, because she must have figured out why I hadn’t called her back: “A real stroke.” So began a journey that was to teach me about a lot of clichés; among them, the limits of love and the importance of not losing heart. And this is where Mom’s dogs,Daisy and Pumpkin, come in, for in many ways,we were in the same bind:We were three gals who had lost our mommy, and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.
To say that Daisy and Pumpkin are Mom’s dogs is like saying that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It’s essentially true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the degree or the depth of the situation. My mother has always had dogs and has always been devoted to them, but since my father’s death12years ago, and my aunt’s death a few years later, Daisy and Pumpkin have become her family, her tribe and her friend base. “My fur people,”Mom calls them. It fell to me, in the midst of dealing with Mom’s medical crisis, her frantic friends and her unraveling life, to figure out what to do with Daisy and Pumpkin.
Of course, I had promised my mother —five years ago and nearly every week since then—that if anything ever happened to her I would take care of her dogs.And so I began to call her friends, relatives and acquaintances. Everyone wanted to help.“What can we do?” they asked.“What we really need,”I told them, “is for someone to take care of the dogs.” “Well,” they’d say,“what else can we do?” Several people offered to help by taking the dogs to the vet to be “put down.” Even the local no-kill shelter said,“Bring them in and we’ll euthanize them.” I learned quickly that being alone, elderly and female is perilous, whether one is canine or human. Every day I would return from the hospital and tell the dogs not to worry, that I would think of something. And every day, as it became clear that Mom would not be able to return home, I said it with less conviction.
I admit that Daisy and Pumpkin were a hard sell. Here is the ad I would have had to run in order to find a new home for them: “Wanted. Home for two 14- year-old, deaf, possibly blind, obese, flearidden, mangy, matted, incontinent dogs. Have never heard the word ‘No.’Will eat only Beef ’n’Cheese Snausages and Booda Smacklepuffs Chicken Quesadilla Dog Treats, and then only if you hand-feed them one by one. Both bark incessantly, so you’ll never have trouble with burglars (or your friends, ever again) entering your house. No need to walk them; they just pee on the carpet when nature calls. Comfy sofa a must.” But finding a new home for them wasn’t an option, because even though Mom could hardly speak, she mustered enough strength to tell me she would die if anything happened to her dogs. Every day in the hospital, it was the same story: How are the dogs? Who’s taking care of the dogs? When can I see the dogs? It was her mantra, one of the few ways we had to measure that she hadn’t lost her mind entirely. If she stops asking for the dogs, I decided, we’ll declare her gone.
Daisy and Pumpkin had each been through adoption fairs, foster homes and humane societies before my mother took them in. Mom had spotted Daisy at an adoption fair and had fallen madly in love. She had made my father sit on Daisy’s crate while she went to fill out the forms, so afraid was she that someone else would snap Daisy up.Daisy had been with Mom through my father’s illness and death and has been her companion during all the years since. Pumpkin had been my Aunt Barbara’s dog, and Mom had ended up with her after Barbara’s early death from brain cancer, when there was no one else who could take her. This was at least the third time that no one had wanted Pumpkin.
Except for me. I wanted Pumpkin. And Daisy. After two weeks of caring for them in my mother’s house, I wanted both of them. I wanted their incessant barking, their fatness, their blindness, their weird eating habits reinforced by years of my mother’s singular parenting style.We were, I figured, sisters under the skin, or fur. I wanted everything about them. I wanted them to come and sleep on my sofa. I wanted them to shed bales of fur in my house. I wanted them to bark until my eardrums frayed. I loved them both with a fierceness that astounded me, and I was not about to have them “put down” or sent to a “nice home in the country.” Taking care of them was perhaps the only thing I could do for my mother, and I was determined not to fail.
I live on the other side of the country from my mother, and my rescue illusions bumped up against reality when the vet told me that there was little chance Daisy and Pumpkin would survive a plane trip or a long car ride. My mother moved into assisted living, and Daisy and Pumpkin moved temporarily to Camp Bow Wow, where they played outside with other dogs and slept in “cots” in their “cabins” at night. Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve watched them on the CamperCam as they trot around with their new pack and get their ears scratched by the staff. Daisy and Pumpkin look happy. Pumpkin has lost weight and they both play avidly with the other dogs. Camp Bow Wow is about a mile from my mother’s assisted living apartment, and friends take the dogs to visit her a few times each week.
From the beginning, I considered Camp Bow Wow to be a stopgap, a place where Daisy and Pumpkin could be cared for until I could figure out how to get them to Seattle.We could afford to keep them there for a month or two at the most, and after that I was out of ideas.
And this is the part of the story where human generosity and the importance of not losing heart come in, for just as I was reaching a point of despair about not being able to keep my promise to my mother, I learned that it is not just I who unexpectedly fell in love with my mother’s dogs. Tony Caruso and Kim Martin, “rangers” at Camp Bow Wow, called to tell me that they wanted to foster Daisy and Pumpkin for us, that the dogs could stay at Camp Bow Wow for the rest of their lives, as a favor to us and as a way to help my mother get better. Daisy and Pumpkin won them over with their determination to make the best of a bad situation. Tony and Kim were touched by my mother’s devotion to her dogs and by our dedication to not giving up on them. They are in a position to help and they would like to do so. Would we possibly consider their offer?
It is not perfect for Daisy and Pumpkin to live the rest of their lives at Camp Bow Wow. There are no antique sofas to sleep on, no mailmen to attack, no junk food. They will see my mother only sporadically and, like my mother, will never return “home.”But it is as perfect a solution as we are likely to find. All three of these elderly ladies, down on their luck and in failing health, have gone into assisted living. The dogs won’t ever again live with my mother, but they will live with people who saw their plight and were able to love them because of it.
In one of the darkest times of my life, when I was faced with both losing my mother and breaking my promise to her, Daisy and Pumpkin showed me what true compassion, generosity and love look like. They helped me take care of my mother and keep my promise. Near the end of their lives and with the help of Camp Bow Wow and Tony and Kim, Daisy and Pumpkin rescued me.
A night at the theater: tails required
February 11 2012
Even playwright A.R. Gurney might not have been able to imagine his play, Sylvia—the story of a man’s willingness to risk everything for the sake of his dog—being performed in front of an audience that had much in common with the title character. Yet, this is precisely what happened at “Dog’s Night Out” in the canine-obsessed city of Seattle, where pooches outnumber progeny by more than two to one and dogs are regular denizens at cafés, outdoor restaurants, shops and now, the theater.
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