Home
Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca Wallick, a long-time Bark contributing editor, resides with her two dogs in the mountains of central Idaho.

Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Dog Camp 101
Or, What I Learned by Starting My Own Dog Camp

“What do you mean, I’m cooking dinner?!” It was the day before the start of weekend two of my 2004 Maian Meadows Dog Camp, and I had just learned that I would be cooking dinner for the ten guests scheduled to arrive the following afternoon. I hate to cook. The thought of cooking for a large number of people sets my heart racing. Marie, my friend, legal-world co-worker and camp chef extraordinaire, assured me that the recipe I would use was easy, and proceeded to dictate it to me over the phone. I stopped at the store to shop for the ingredients on the drive to camp. That Friday-night meal was easy, and a success, prepared with the help of friends in the kitchen and served to camp guests who have always proven easy to please.

Welcome to Dog Camp 101, where the first lesson is: Be prepared for anything … and have a Plan B!

Some days I tell myself I’m insane to even consider running a dog camp, what with the time required to attend to the myriad details, the possible financial loss, and the worry that the guests and their dogs won’t have the absolute best time of their lives (if you’re going to worry, worry big). But those days are balanced by the uplifting ones, when I respond to emails and phone calls about camp and get to “talk dogs” with people who are as enamored of their canine companions as I am of mine. My reward is seeing the smiles on the faces of the dogs and their guardians at camp. It’s certainly not the money. Let me share with you some of what I’ve learned along the way.

Why Start a Dog Camp?
The idea germinated for several years after I saw a story on television about Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont. If it hadn’t been so far between Vermont and my home in Seattle, I would have signed up for it in a heartbeat. Instead, I decided to wait for someone to start a camp closer to home. I waited some more. Then I started visiting the Flying U Ranch in British Columbia (Bark “Travel,” Fall 2004), where dogs are welcomed, which inspired me to begin thinking of starting my own dog camp. In 2002, I decided to take the next step—if I was serious, it was finally time for me to commit to this project. I wanted to experience that sort of fun with my dogs and make it available to others.

As it turns out, my motivations were similar to those of other camp operators with whom I spoke for this article. Honey Loring of Camp Gone to the Dogs, the originator of the dog camp phenomenon, started her camp after attending an obedience seminar that she felt was way too serious and fun-deprived. She wanted to create a happy place for dogs, and has succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. Because the camp, which opened in 1990, was so unique, she received an extraordinary amount of publicity, from coverage on the CBS Sunday Morning show to articles in the Wall Street Journal, dog magazines and even Cosmo, for heaven’s sake. Those of us following in her footsteps can only dream of such free advertising.

Chicago resident Alysa Slay went to camps as a child and worked as a camp counselor herself for many years. Frustrated at the lack of places for her dog to legally roam and play off-leash, Alysa recalls the defining moment—a dream—when she knew she wanted to create a place where people could play outdoors with their dogs. She and her close friend Dave Eisendrath started Camp Dogwood in 2001.

Annie Brody is a yoga instructor who spent most of her life in New York City. After observing her own dog’s clear reluctance to return to the city after a weekend in the country, she resolved to find a way to let city dogs experience their natural environment, even if for only three days at a time. Camp Unleashed in the Berkshires was born and had its first successful session in 2004.

All of us operating dog camps love our dogs and dogs in general. We created our camps to help people reconnect with their dogs in a natural setting and deepen the bonds they share with their canine companions while having fun.

Learning by Observation
Do your research and identify the best aspects of other projects or small businesses around you before proceeding. For example, I’m a runner. I know several runners who organize trail-racing events, so I volunteered to help out, which gave me a front-row seat from which I observed how these events are put together and carried off. I began to transfer what I learned at these events and what I saw at the dude ranch to a dog camp format. As I researched, I refined what I wanted—dogs off-leash throughout their time at camp; a focus on play, socialization and basic obedience rather than serious competition training; and an experience that was simple and fun. Then I did a gut check: Was I truly willing to invest time and money, perhaps over several years, to make this idea a reality? I imagined my first year, worst-case scenario: invest lots of “free” time, lose maybe $1,000, walk away and never do it again. I decided I could live with that, and proceeded.

What’s in a Name?
Choose a word or phrase that’s easily spoken and remembered and will also look good in a logo. Many camps have whimsical names: Camp Dogwood, Camp Unleashed, Camp Winnaribbun. I ended up combining the names of my own dogs for Maian Meadows Dog Camp. I hoped the name would convey the joy of dogs romping through a mountain meadow. When campers hear me calling my dogs, they have an “aha!” moment about the source of the camp’s name, which makes it memorable.

Location, Location, Location
Early on, I received some valuable advice: Choose a location within a two- to three-hour drive of a major city, because after investing that much time in getting to a destination, most people will stay several nights, which makes for less administrative work. (Many camps solve this problem by requiring a minimum stay.)

That may be easier said than done, however. Finding a resort that would allow my guests to stay with dogs off-leash throughout the grounds took perseverance—I swear I heard laughter in the background during some initial phone inquiries. But then I discovered that organizations such as Camp Fire, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and various church groups, who frequently sponsor camps (for two-legged campers) themselves, often seek rental income during those times when their camps are not in use. Eventually—again, through a web search—I found a Camp Fire facility in the woods on a lake roughly two hours from Seattle. They didn’t laugh at my idea, and in fact, bent over backward to ensure it worked so that I could rent their camp years into the future, thus providing them with a tidy and reliable bit of extra income.

This particular camp is rustic, sure, but that’s a large part of its charm, and allows us all to stop worrying about the dogs damaging things. It has a large building with kitchen, and an open-air dining hall where the dogs are allowed, which is one of the features guests love—they don’t have to leave their dogs in their cabins at mealtime.

I negotiated the terms of my rental agreement, which included lifting a restriction on alcohol; allowing at least the dogs to swim without a lifeguard; and, most importantly, a last-minute cancellation clause that got me off the hook if I didn’t get enough guests to cover the minimum per diem. Developing a good working relationship with the Camp Fire organization has been the backbone of my camp’s success. (If you’re not comfortable undertaking these negotiations yourself, seek the help of an attorney.)

Liability and Insurance
Though running a dog camp is in many ways a labor of love, there are still real-world business concerns to be taken into account. Do your homework, study the financial and legal risks, and seek advice from a CPA and/or business attorney as to the best business format for you and your goals. You can’t anticipate every problem, but you can minimize your exposure.

For example, any activity involving dogs risks litigation inspired by bites, fights or injuries. I found an insurance policy offered to dog trainers that costs $350 per year and covers all of my training activities during that interval, including those at camp. Expensive for a couple of weekends, perhaps, but reassuring to have and required by the facility I rent. Reading the insurance policy was another gut check—was I willing to risk being sued? I decided the risk was small, and with the protections I had in place, not something that would keep me awake at night.

Marketing
As a lawyer, I’ve never had to do any marketing, so for my dog camp, I once again relied on friends. Harry designed my web site and accepted software updates as compensation. Stan accepted $50 for the “fun little project” of creating a flier promoting the camp. Robin, a dog trainer, provided her client list. I needed a logo, and got lucky when I found a graphic design student who did an excellent job. I can’t emphasize enough how key my friends have been to the success of my camp. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Some of my initial attempts at marketing were clumsy. I mailed roughly 100 fliers that first year, but later found that all of my guests learned about camp through postings at local off-leash parks or by talking to me when I encountered them and their dogs in local parks. The next year, I skipped the fliers and mailings and saved myself significant money and effort. Instead, I designed postcards with an eye-catching photo of dogs romping on the camp beach, and handed them out at parks and expos. If you aren’t already web-savvy and able to create cards and fliers yourself, learn (or be willing to hire someone to do it for you).

One key marketing factor was providing my phone number; people felt better about signing up after talking directly to me. Another was networking with other dog-oriented businesses in my area, suggesting we exchange web links. Most were happy to do so, as it’s a very supportive community. These exchanges allowed my web site to eventually show up on a Google or Yahoo search for “dog camp,” which brought new potential campers. Try to use such free and creative avenues to market your own camp.

“The Food Here Is Awesome!”
Good food for the human campers is critical! I wanted camp food to be plentiful, tasty and served family-style so campers could get to know one another at mealtime. (Canine campers’ meals come with them from home; imagine the consequences of lots of dogs eating unfamiliar food!)

Luck smiled on me early in this regard. Sitting in court one morning, I chatted with Marie, an attorney I’ve worked with for years. Impulsively, I told her about my dog camp idea and mentioned that my most difficult task would be providing the food. She quite breezily said, “I like to cook for groups; maybe I could do it.” I gave her a look of shock and surprise (remember—I hate to cook), but she insisted that it would be fun for her to do the cooking because she loved trying out new recipes on large groups. Marie refused to accept payment, or even a public thank-you for her efforts; she’s quirky that way, and I accepted her terms. Who wouldn’t?

Marie and her husband Tom did an awesome job—the food was delicious and plentiful. A special touch was a fresh peach cobbler-and-ice cream dessert served to guests as they sat around the evening campfire. To reduce dishwashing to a minimum, we used paper plates and plastic utensils. If my good relationship with the managers of the camp facility is the backbone of my operation, Marie and Tom and the food they create are its heart and soul.

Other camp operators use food services provided by the facility they rent, and hiring a caterer is another option. But we all agree that the success of a camp can hinge on the quality of the food, so don’t cut corners on this part of the operation.

Friends as Volunteer Staff: The Good, the Bad, and the Puzzling
Utilizing a paid staff eliminates hurt feelings or misunderstandings but generates additional paperwork and tax obligations. Every new camp operator has to decide how best to address this issue. Much will depend on your budget; I’m able to keep the cost of my camp low because so many people are willing to volunteer their time to help me run it.

I could not have produced my dog camp without the help of several friends: Marie and Tom in the kitchen, Robin as agility and obedience trainer (who also lets me borrow her agility equipment), Sandra as dishwasher and kitchen helper, Miki and Mark as general do-anything assistants. These amazing people gave their time and energy simply to help me realize a dream. They insisted that they had great fun in the process, but seeing how hard they worked left me in awe of their generosity. I have been blessed by their friendship and support, and can never thank them enough. Other camp operators have been similarly blessed. Cultivate your friends.

However, I have some advice on this subject: Before accepting a friend’s offer to help, ask yourself whether—given a worst-case scenario—you can stand to lose that person’s friendship. If the answer is yes, proceed carefully, and discuss what you expect and what you’re willing and able to provide in return (such as free room and board during camp). If the answer is no, find someone else for the job, hire help or (more likely) do it yourself. The reality is that this new aspect of your relationship could ultimately stress the bonds of friendship to the breaking point.

Welcoming Guests to Camp—First Impressions
Be sure your guests feel welcome from the start. Make a good first impression so that they can relax and enjoy themselves. My participation in trail-running events taught me that a welcoming “goodie bag” is a great way to greet guests. I contacted Claudia, editor of Bark, and asked if she was willing to provide me with back issues of the magazine for my guests; not only was she happy to do so, she encouraged me in this new endeavor. “It’s about time there was a camp in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. My artistic and creative sister-in-law Sue made various craft gifts as well as prizes for games and contests. The gifts and prizes were a hit and created a good initial vibe as well as word-of-mouth promotion for little expense.

My goodie bags also contain a list of camp rules, a schedule of meals and events, and fliers for the various dog-related businesses I agreed to promote in exchange for links to my camp from their web sites.

A Pleasant Exhaustion
If you approach starting a dog camp with the right attitude, you can’t help but be successful as you enrich the lives others as well as your own.

Every camp operator I talked with agreed that the people and dogs you meet and befriend at camp make all of the effort worthwhile. “I have a whole new group of friends,” said Alysa, who uses vacation time from her job as a psychologist to run her camps. I’m self-employed and can work around my own camp’s schedule. Honey is lucky enough to make a living from her camps and other dog-related businesses, but every other camp operator I know gives this advice: Don’t give up your day job! For most of us, this is, in reality, a hobby business. In many ways, that frees us to do it because we’re passionate about the camp and about dogs, not because we have to pay the bills.

Annie, who considers herself an activist for human causes, initially struggled with the feeling that operating a dog camp might seem frivolous. She came to realize, however, that camp is a sort of “alternative universe,” where for a few days, people can recharge their spirits and experience the unconditional love of dogs by being in the moment with them. If camp can provide that, it’s worthwhile. But to disabuse anyone of the notion that being a camp director is somehow glamorous, keep in mind that one of our last duties before closing down the facility is scooping poop.

After being “on” for the entire camp session, which of course follows weeks of anxiety leading up to it, I’m totally exhausted for days afterward, as are my two dogs. One of my campers told me that her Jack Russell slept all the way home, the first time in his life he’d slept in the car. To me, that was the highest praise—as I’ve always said, a tired dog is a happy dog. By the end of camp, I, too, am tired and happy. Even when I lost money my first year, I told myself I had just thrown a great party for a group of my newest friends. Indeed, when all those campers returned the next year (with the exception of one who moved to South Dakota), it was a wonderful reunion with people I now consider to be dear friends. And now, after camp, I reward myself and my dogs with my favorite vacation, time at the Flying U dude ranch. It truly doesn’t get any better!
 

Dog's Life: Travel
Dude Ranch
Dog days at Canada’s Flying U

Meadow made a beeline for the bed; the cabin was cool and dark, and she was ready for a nap. This was our third day of exploring trails at the Flying U Ranch, Canada’s oldest guest ranch, and Meadow and Maia, my two- and four-year-old Malamutes, were both happily tired after trotting alongside me and Louis, my trusty steed. In the space of three days, we had covered about 50 miles.

The Flying U is my favorite place on the planet. A dog lover who hates the thought of vacationing without my girls, I was ecstatic to learn about a dude ranch that not only lets you ride unguided on its 43,000 acres, but welcomes dogs as well.

The ranch is located in the Cariboo area of British Columbia, a drive of six hours from Seattle or five hours from Vancouver. Guests and their dogs stay in rustic cabins with comfy hand-hewn log beds, wood-burning stoves and electricity. Everyone shares a central shower/toilet house and sauna. The ranch includes a general store, saloon, a small movie theater and Saturday-night dances to live music. Guests are assigned horses suited to their riding ability for the duration of their stay, and may ride on their own or with other guests daily between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Meals are included, served at 8 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m. in the common dining hall, and guests may request a sack lunch to maximize their time on the trail.

For dog lovers, a special attraction is the ability to vacation with their dogs in a part of British Columbia known for its extraordinary beauty. The Flying U sits at 3,500' elevation, and is covered in aspen and pine trees, with several large, open meadows and small lakes. You can ride winding trails through the woods, or gallop through the fields. Part of the charm is exploring, wondering if you’re lost, and then realizing that if you just give your horse his head, you’ll be back at the ranch by the 4 o’clock curfew. The horses, accustomed to having dogs around, are incredibly gentle. When Meadow stopped in the middle of the trail, Louis gently nudged her butt with his nose, and Maia and Louis frequently touched noses to get better acquainted. Meadow and Maia learned to move to the side of the trail when the horses started trotting or galloping, and delighted in running alongside. And yes, like most dogs, they consider horse dung a special amenity.

To date, I’ve been to the ranch six times, and have always met wonderful people there. This year I visited both in April and in late September, when the aspen were changing color. In September I rode with a group that included two dogs— Lula Belle, a Poodle, and Tillie, a mini Aussie. Lula Belle’s human, Lisa Garbrick, said she’s been bringing Lula to the ranch for five years. Lula enjoys rolling in the equine and bovine by-products, and Lisa lets her have her fun. When Lula’s done, Lisa simply throws her in nearby Green Lake to wash her off. Lisa mentioned that, to avoid exposing Lula to snickers from the ranch hands, she doesn’t give Lula a typical Poodle cut before coming to the ranch. Lula gains their respect, however, by running alongside the horses all day, day after day, and still having the energy to swim and play in the evenings. (Dogs that aren’t in such good shape are welcome to stay in their cabin while their human is out riding.)

The Fremlins have always welcomed dogs to the ranch. In fact, their philosophy is, “if the dog can vouch for you, you can stay.” The only—very mild—complaint I’ve ever heard voiced was about dogs on the beds; in the interest of good manners, guests should provide a cover if their dogs are so inclined (as mine are . . . eventually). The first night, my girls sleep outside, listening to the coyotes howling and keeping a keen eye on the nearby horses. By the second night, they ask to come in around midnight to sleep on the bed—they’ve put in a few miles by this point, and a soft sleeping area feels good. By the third and fourth nights, there’s virtually no room for me in the bed from the time it gets dark! We all sleep soundly at the ranch, lulled by the sounds of the wilderness. And did I mention how beautiful the night sky is in that big, open country?
 

News: Guest Posts
Dog Camp Wonders

Whenever you mix dogs, people and the freedom to play in nature, you get something special.

In 2002 I created Maian Meadows Dog Camp in Washington State, an environment for safe, off-leash play for dogs and people who rarely get to experience it. I feel like an alchemist, stirring just the right ingredients to create a weekend full of fresh air, forest and lake, dog-centered activities, comfort food and—most importantly—the shared unconditional love of several happy dogs all together in one place. The end product is often magical.

Over the years, I’ve befriended lots of wonderful people and dogs. All have back stories, some quite extraordinary.

Two years ago, a mother and her early-twenties daughter attended. Observing them, I realized the daughter had some cognitive challenges. I couldn’t put my finger of just what sort. She was bubbly and outgoing, but her social skills were a tad off. She mixed well with the other campers and her little Chihuahua was delightful.

Saturday evening, the mother took me aside. “I don’t know if you noticed, but my daughter has Aspergers,” she said. “This is the first activity we’ve found that has kept her interested and engaged for an entire weekend. Thank you.”

While I get many heartfelt thanks for hosting camp, that one remains the most special.

The magic happened again at last weekend’s session of dog camp.

Anita arrives with her dog Toby, a certified therapy dog. His skills came in handy. After attending camp in 2010, Anita had to skip June 2011 because she was undergoing chemo for cancer. In September 2011 she and Toby spent a few hours in camp, Anita bald and beautiful, but clearly exhausted. Toby stayed close by. This year, Anita—sporting new hair—and Toby spent the entire weekend in camp, hiking both mornings and participating in all the activities. Anita’s cancer is in remission, and at 66, she’s going strong. So is Toby, by her side.

New campers Adrian and Hana bring their two year old Golden Retriever Jasper. Adrian, an Irishman and statistician of about 50, has spent his entire life afraid of dogs. With Hana’s encouragement, they add Jasper to their family. Adrian no longer fears any dogs, and delights in being around all the dogs at camp.

Dogs heal all sorts of hurts

Stick with me for one more back story. It’s a good one.

Two weeks before camp, I receive an email asking if there is still space for one person and one dog. It’s signed “Tracie and Daisy.” I reply that there is. The registration form arrives, with a very unusual first name; Tracie is a nickname. I worry that my assumption that this camper is female—and can share a cabin with another female—is wrong. I Google the full name. All hits refer to the Dean’s List at a nearby college. Intriguing, but I still don’t know if the camper is male or female, or how old.  I decide to proceed as if she is female. If a male shows up, well, there is an extra cabin.

Friday afternoon I welcome campers and their dogs as they trickle in from all over—Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and even Alberta. Just before dinner, a camper arrives with a dog meeting Daisy’s description: black lab/hound mix. Daisy bounds from the car and gleefully romps with the other dogs. Tracie gets out and introduces herself. She is a very petite young woman of twenty. She has chin length brown hair, wire-rim glasses and a huge welcoming smile showing charmingly crooked teeth. She’s wearing a daisy print blouse. Daisy’s collar has daisies on it. Already I like Tracie. She’s going to fit right in at dog camp.

And she does. I’ve never seen someone so young possess such confidence and outgoing friendliness among so many strangers, most of whom are much older. Daisy is just like Tracie, young (two years old), full of energy and enthusiasm. Throughout the weekend, Tracie frequently has to coax Daisy out of the lake. Daisy loves to swim. And Tracie loves Daisy. Their bond is strong and touching to observe. I determine to learn Tracie’s back story.

Later, during a meal, I overhear tidbits as Tracie shares her story with other campers at her table. I hear words familiar to me in my work as an attorney advocating children’s best interests in the legal system: foster care; Child Protective Services; aging out of the system. The next day, as Tracie throws the ball into the lake for Daisy to retrieve, I ask her to share her story with me. She does, without any sense of embarrassment or shame—another sign of her amazing maturity.

Tracie’s birth mother has mental health issues. She often chose, and married, violent men. Tracie suffered abuse at the hands of one step-father who broke her shoulder. Her mother kicked him out (because CPS required it), but Tracie discovered that the next man her mother brought home was a registered sex offender. Tracie, only 13, took action, standing up for herself and her younger siblings by telling a counselor. This time her mother chose the sex offender. Tracie was removed from the home and placed into foster care. This separated her from her siblings, whom she’d raised; they were placed elsewhere. Over the next several years, Tracie bounced from foster care to her mother’s and back to foster care, a sad and all too common experience for older kids in the system.

As Tracie neared age 18, the foster family she was with had a pregnant black lab. Pup number four (of fourteen!) had a big head and became stuck; Tracie helped bring that pup into the world. The foster family gave Tracie the puppy to commemorate becoming an adult—aging out of the system—and starting a new life. Tracie finally had a family of her own: Daisy.

Tracie chose the name Daisy because the symbolism associated with the flower is purity, innocence, loyal love, beauty, patience and simplicity.

While still in high school, Tracie accumulated two years of college credit. The week before dog camp, at age 20, she graduated with a four year college degree. She’s now enrolled in graduate school. She wants to become a social worker. She wants to help kids in the foster care system. She wants to get Daisy certified as a therapy dog so that they can work with kids as a team. And as soon as she’s 21, Tracie wants to become a foster parent herself. If she does, then she and Daisy will help heal children scarred by a system that often doesn’t care very much about them. I’m confident that Tracie, with Daisy by her side, will accomplish all her goals.

I had no idea, over a decade ago, that creating and directing a dog camp would provide a space for people to heal what hurts them, or gather strength to meet their next challenge. But I should have. Anything involving playful, free-roaming dogs just has to promote joy and healing.

 

 

 

News: Guest Posts
Does Running Extend the Lives of Dogs?

I started jogging in 1975. My grandmother told me it was unladylike; my mother was certain it would ruin my knees. Thirty-five years later, I’m still running regularly and my knees are fine. I love it when science finally confirms what I’ve sensed all along, and also proves my mother wrong.

 

I believe that science about humans can often be extended to our canine companions. If jogging is good for us, it’s probably also good for dogs – with the usual cautions.  I have had one or more canine running companion since getting my first Alaskan Malamute in 1985. She lived to be fourteen. My two current Malamutes Maia, 13 and Meadow, 11, are now “retired” from running, but they both ran until they were about nine years old, and still enjoy daily walks and are in excellent health. My current canine running companion is an exuberant four year old rescued Aussie.

 

A recent study out of Denmark makes a very convincing case that even moderate amounts of regular jogging improve and extend our lives. What’s impressive about this study is that it started in 1976; approximately 20,000 men and women ranging in age from 20 to 93 have been followed since that time, reporting their levels of activity, including jogging, as well as other factors related to cardio health and longevity.
 

At a 35 year follow-up, there were 10,158 deaths among non-joggers and only 122 among joggers. Jogging reduced the risk of death by 44% for both men and women. Jogging extended life expectancy 6.2 years in men and 5.6 years in women. An investment of one to two and a half hours per week, spread over two or three sessions, provided the most benefit, according to researcher Peter Schnohr, chief cardiologist of the Copenhagen City Heart Study.
 

Wow! Jog to live longer. So elegantly simple. And you get to enjoy runner’s high as a bonus!
 

Learning about the benefits of regular jogging from my own experience, I try to apply the same lessons to my dogs’ lives. From Schnohr’s study and others like it, we know that jogging improves our oxygen uptake, improves lipid profiles (raising HDL and lowering triglycerides), lowers blood pressure, improves cardiac function, bone density, immune function, reduces inflammation markers, prevents obesity, and improves psychological function.
 

Why wouldn’t this also be true for dogs? I’m convinced it is. I once made a guesstimate of the miles my Malamutes ran with me before I started noticing the signs that it was time to retire them to a walking regimen. The number surprised even me: 10,000 miles.* Observing the joy on my dogs’ faces when they run and their overall excellent health throughout their lives is my proof that running is beneficial for dogs. My vet is pleased that both of my Malamutes are lean in their old age, which benefits their joints. It’s a result of a lifetime of exercise. And we all know that “a tired dog is a good dog.” My regular runs with my Aussie mellow him right out.
 

Some people focus their efforts on making sure their dogs eat an optimal diet. That’s great, but if you forget the exercise component, you’re missing the chance to further extend your canine companion’s life and sense of wellbeing. Good diet alone isn’t enough. Humans and canines are designed to move. If your dog isn’t a good candidate for even an easy jogging routine, at least get her outside walking briskly and romping playfully every day. Regular weight-bearing movement in the key.

 

What about my mother’s long-ago warning that I’d ruin my knees by jogging? More to the point here, what about concerns that running will cause knee injuries in dogs?
 

Lauren Cox, MyHealthNewsDaily.com Contributor, asked several experts whether jogging causes arthritis in human knees. “That’s an old wives tale,” says Dr. Lewis Maharam, fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “Your parents decide if you're going to have arthritis or not — it's genetic. Jogging, or running, itself will not cause the arthritis.”
 

Dr. Michelle Wolcott, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine adds that if you’ve never had a broken bone or ligament injury that would predispose you to arthritis, then the chances that jogging will cause arthritis in the knee are minimal. “We know that weight-bearing exercise, such as running, helps prevent osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. Repetitive weight bearing and motion are good for the joints, and running essentially does that,” she says. “If you are not predisposed to osteoarthritis, and have healthy knees and are of healthy weight, then running doesn't affect your risk for knee arthritis. That's a huge misconception and one that I fight all the time.”

Again: If it’s true for humans – that jogging doesn’t damage healthy knees—then I bet it’s also true for canines. In fact, I believe that my dogs’ knees are better off running than doing activities like jumping to catch a Frisbee or chasing a ball with short bursts of speed. A lifetime of weight-bearing exercise allows for strong joints late in life.
 

In sum: What better excuse to get yourself out the door and jogging through the neighborhood than taking your dog on the same journey with you to a longer, healthier life? I have yet to meet a dog who won’t enthusiastically lead you out the door at the start of your jog, no matter the weather or time of day. It’s never too late to start. Just be sure to consult your medical and veterinary caregivers, start easy and build from there. Have fun with it. Motivate yourself by training for a local dog-friendly event, like Seattle’s Furry 5K, a run/walk that encourages bringing your dog. Your dog will thank you. You’ll both live longer and be better able to enjoy those bonus years.
 

*For skeptics, I calculated that number as follows: 8 years x 25/mls per week average x 50 weeks/year = 10,000 miles, a low estimate based on my own running logs. Many weeks we ran more miles, a few weeks we ran less. I suspect the real number is at least 10-20% higher.

 

Seattle Furry 5K: http://www.furry5k.com/

 

News: Guest Posts
My Dogs Are Messing with my Groove

Confession: I’ve been looking for love online—Match.com, eHarmony—off and on for years. With little success. I’ve made several great friends, dated a few men for short periods, but have failed to find a true partner.

I now realize that my three dogs likely have a lot to do with my on-going singleness. The real question is: Did I create this situation subconsciously-on-purpose? Perhaps. Probably. I love my dog-centered lifestyle.

Many articles about dating bemoan single women’s relationships with their dogs, theorizing that we’re replacing men with our canine companions. After all, what man could possibly be as adoring, forgiving, trustworthy and unconditionally loving as our dogs? No issues regarding toilet seats, either.

Most of us diving into the online dating seas have a list of deal-breakers. Mine include smoking and young kids at home. As I scroll through online profiles, I realize that I also often screen out men who have dogs. Why? I want a dog-loving man; indeed, a lack of affinity for dogs is another of my deal-breakers. But because two of my dogs are aging females, one somewhat reactive to other large female dogs, I’m skipping profiles that show a man smiling beside a large breed dog. If a man has a small dog, I keep reading, but warily. If he has more than one dog, I move on because I can’t imagine trying to combine my three dog household with more than one additional small dog. These are men who in all other respects appear to be good prospects. But if I can’t imagine adding their dogs to my current pack, why bother even making contact? So I don’t.

Then I have an aha moment, putting myself in the men’s shoes: Coming upon my profile with photos of me posing beside two huge wolf-like Malamutes and other photos with my Aussie, they must be thinking….no way! Too many dogs! A dog nut! Deal-breaker!

And they’re right. Dogs—and trail running—are my lifestyle. If a man doesn’t like at least one or the other, we won’t be spending much time together. He doesn’t have to be a runner, but he does have to love dogs, my dogs in particular. With three dogs, my ability to travel, even get away for a weekend or an overnight, is limited. Many men in my age group (50-65) are retiring and list travel as their top interest. Talk about a lifestyle disconnect.

Like many of the women profiled in those articles about the hazards of dating women with pets, I’m quite happy with my life and lifestyle. The thought of all the disruption and compromise required to incorporate someone new is frankly exhausting. Finding the right partner can’t be forced. It needs to happen naturally, with the right person—another dog-nut who accepts my dogs and me (although I’ll continue to hope he’s temporarily dog-less when I meet him).

I’ve decided to save my money; my Match.com subscription has expired. Nor will I try a pet-centric dating site like DateMyPet.com. I hope that the less I try to find the dog-loving partner I desire, the more likely it is I’ll bump into him in some random, casual way. It’s all about timing. Meanwhile, I share my space, time and love with my dogs, who happily reciprocate.

News: Guest Posts
Damages for Negligent Death of Pet in Colorado
Key decision but not a precedent

We all share this nightmare: somehow, our beloved dog gets out of the house, runs into the street…and is tragically hit by a car. Now imagine that awful scenario being the result of someone else’s negligence. That’s what happened to a Colorado family. Last summer, Robin Lohre’s dog Ruthie was killed after being hit by a car. Ruthie escaped the family’s home while a cleaning service was working in the home and Robin had left to run an errand. To make matters worse, the cleaning service employee knew it happened, found the dog and brought her inside, laid her underneath the dining table, and left—without ever calling Robin or a vet, or even leaving a note.

Robin and her seven-year-old daughter Imogene were devastated by the loss of Ruthie.

Lohre sued Posh Maids, the cleaning service, for negligence and emotional distress. Colorado, like so many other states, considers pets to be property. Usually, when someone negligently damages your property—say, your car—you can sue only for the replacement cost. However, in recent years, attorneys across the country have been making inroads, expanding the animal law specialty and pushing the envelope with regard to how our legal system looks at pets. When someone suffers a loss like the Lohre’s, suits for emotional distress seek to address the true wrong suffered—the loss of the human-canine bond and companionship—even if the state’s statutes don’t specifically provide for those damages.

In Lohre’s case, the defendant never responded to the lawsuit, so a default judgment for the full claim of $65,000 plus interest was entered. While on the surface this is a great financial result for the Lohre and her attorney, it’s too soon to celebrate. First, since the case didn’t go to trial and a judge didn’t render a decision, the case doesn’t provide the sort of legal precedent that others later can use for their own cases. Second, we lawyers have a saying: judgments are easy to get but hard to collect. Given that the defendant was a small business owner who didn’t hire an attorney to respond to the suit, my guess is that she won’t pay, and may even file bankruptcy to avoid payment.

Still, I see the case as a victory for this most basic reason: it publicizes the idea that our pets are more than simple property. They are our invaluable companions, and the law should treat them as such. The case is also a heads up to all businesses that send employees into peoples’ homes to provide a service: be as mindful of the family pet as you would a human child.

Here’s ABC’s full report:

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dogs in the Courtroom
A comforting canine presence provides victims with a safe harbor

It’s everyone’s nightmare: You’re the victim of a serious crime. Your world collapses—you’re frightened, stunned, physically injured and completely overwhelmed. Police and prosecutors interview you about the smallest details, forcing you to relive the experience over and over. Eventually, you’ll have to face the perpetrator in court, testifying and once again reviving the horror. Emotionally paralyzed, you don’t know if you can do it.

Now imagine the same situation, but this time, a special dog rests at your feet during every interview, sits with you outside the courtroom as you wait to testify—perhaps even goes up to the witness stand with you—and stands beside you at sentencing when you give the court your victim-impact statement. This four-legged victim/witness advocate—accompanied by his human counterpart from the victim advocate’s office—helps you remain calm and reduces what can be a traumatic part of the legal process. You stroke his soft fur, gaze into his warm brown eyes and feel the reassuring weight of his head resting on your foot. He’s there for you, giving you exactly what you need at that moment: strength to get through this part of the nightmare.

This is not a totally speculative scenario. In Washington’s King and Snohomish counties, two innovative prosecuting attorney’s offices have begun using highly trained service dogs to help victims of crime, and the dogs are having a positive impact. Not only do they assist victims, they also boost morale for the prosecutors and victim advocates who deal with the often-horrible consequences of crime on a daily basis.

Synchronicity
It all started with Ellen O’Neill-Stephens’ flash of insight. Stephens, a King County deputy prosecuting attorney working in Seattle, has an adult son, Sean, who has cerebral palsy and is severely disabled. In 2003, Stephens and Sean went to Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) of Santa Rosa, Calif., for a service dog and were matched with Jeeter, a big yellow Golden Retriever/Lab mix. Jeeter made it easier for people to approach Sean, and Sean was able to “give back” by sharing Jeeter with others. While she and Sean were undergoing training at CCI, Stephens noticed that other participants were getting “facility” dogs, dogs trained to assist caregivers in various types of institutions. One was slated for a neonatal ICU, others for a spinal cord injury unit and a veteran’s hospital; dogs were also being placed with children with autism.

Upon returning to Seattle and her office, Stephens began thinking creatively, wondering if service dogs might assist in the legal setting. On days that Jeeter could not accompany Sean, Stephens took the dog to work with her. She was the Drug Court prosecutor, and thought Jeeter might help kids with their recovery. She was right—the children quickly adopted Jeeter as their mascot. “One day in my office lobby, a boy, sexually abused by his mother and who [had] sexually abused his sister, glommed onto Jeeter. I didn’t know this at the time, but the prosecutor was offering a deal to get him to testify against his mother, and the boy was backing out. The boy asked to play with Jeeter. I asked him, ‘Would it be easier to talk if Jeeter was with you?’ He said yes, so the plea discussion was rescheduled. At the next meeting, I said, ‘Everyone on the floor!’ so the boy could sit and hug Jeeter. Defense counsel, prosecutor, cop—everyone sat on the floor. It worked. He told them everything that had happened.”

This was an “Aha!” moment for Stephens: The King County prosecutor’s office should have its own facility dog to work with victims. She started with her office’s sexual assault unit. No response. She pushed. Some were receptive, others, not so much. Things stalled. Finally, Stephens arranged for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and members of the sexual assault unit to meet Jeeter. “Jeeter convinced them,” Stephens recalls with a laugh.

As Maleng recalls, “When Ellen came up with the concept of using Jeeter with victims, without hesitation I said yes. I had an intuitive feel for what it could do; I understood from my heart what the program was all about, having grown up on a dairy farm with Collies who were an integral part of our family, offering companionship and unconditional love in sad or hurtful times.” Maleng marvels that—decades later—dogs are becoming a part of the justice system. “I center on their healing power within the justice system. There is so much hurt—the victims, families, even members of our office—from exposure to trauma and anxiety. So within this environment, the dogs contribute to justice.”

Enter Ellie
Worried that using Jeeter part-time at the prosecutor’s office was taking him away from Sean, Stephens convinced a co-worker, Deputy Prosecutor Page Ulrey, to apply to CCI for a dog. “I wanted a dog,” Ulrey recalls, but she was concerned that gaining access to offices and courtrooms would be a problem. Stephens, however, wasn’t easily dissuaded, and continued to encourage Ulrey to look into the program. In the meantime, Jeeter spent one day a week helping with child victim interviews.

Eventually, Ulrey began the CCI application process, which starts with a written essay describing the need for a dog. When she was turned down because CCI was concerned that their highly trained dog would be underutilized, Ulrey was ready to give up, but Stephens wouldn’t let her. Together, they attended a CCI dinner in Seattle and performed some magic on a CCI staff member who had once worked in a shelter for victims of domestic violence. Ulrey reapplied and was accepted. In December 2004, she went to CCI’s Santa Rosa facility for training and to be matched with a dog.

Ulrey’s training group consisted of five people and five dogs. The first three days, each participant was asked to work with each dog for a half-day; they were assisted and observed by CCI staff. “I got Brielle—I call her Ellie—on the second day. She was a nightmare! She was stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to me. I felt horrible. I was in tears by the end of the afternoon. At the end of the third day, we were asked to rank in order the dogs we wanted. I wrote: Any dog but Ellie,” Ulrey recalls. The next day, they brought the dogs out, one at a time, and matched them to people. “Ellie was last, and she got me. By the end of that day, I’d fallen in love with her. She’s a sturdy character, where the others were more eager to please. She’s calm and self-possessed, which is perfect for the criminal justice system.”

Ellie was placed into service immediately, and was an instant hit. “She’s a real morale booster for everyone in the office,” says Ulrey. “It’s a high-stress environment, with gut-wrenching trials involving victims of violence, sexually abused children, aggressive defense counsel, lives at stake. Even the security guards at the entrance to the courthouse enjoy her.” Ellie is believed to be the first service dog in the nation to be officially placed in a prosecuting attorney’s office.

Ellie works three days a week. Currently, Ulrey is in charge of the King County prosecutor’s juvenile court unit, where Ellie visits kids in detention or in court. Both Ellie and Jeeter also help with victim interviews in the main office. When she’s not working, Ellie’s life is much like that of any well-loved and pampered dog: one day a week in doggy day care, lots of off-leash park time, runs and walks with Ulrey. Ulrey can’t think of any negative aspects to Ellie’s training, demeanor or work (with the exception of an occasional embarrassing episode of diarrhea at the courthouse). She never growls, is completely reliable with people and other dogs, and is a wonderful companion.

Stephens’ desire to see victims helped by these dogs didn’t end with the success of Ulrey and Ellie. One of Stephens’ friends happens to be Janis Ellis, prosecuting attorney for Snohomish County, King County’s northern neighbor. Stephens planted the bug, and before long, Heidi Potter, victims’ advocate in the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, applied to CCI. In November 2006, Stilson, a handsome black Lab, became the second service dog to be placed in such a setting.

CCI continues to monitor the program. According to Jeanine Konopelski, CCI’s National public relations manager, “This is a new venture for CCI and we are still evaluating to see if the specialized training and skills put into CCI facility dogs are a necessity for this type of work. Certainly, the work has proved to be valuable—there’s no question about that.”

Helping Victims Cope
When it comes to young victims, dogs really shine. Ashley Wilske, child interview specialist in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, frequently involves either Jeeter or Ellie in her work. “As a child interview specialist, conducting forensic interviews regarding sexual assault, kidnapping, attempted murder,” says Ashley, “my job consists of taking an objective statement from a child. This involves not giving any feedback, support, nurturing or therapeutic intervention. When things get emotional, the only response I am able to give to a child is to offer a tissue or a break. The dogs provide a loving, unconditionally supportive environment for the children; [they] sense the change of emotion and the changing behaviors of the child [and] will move in and lay their head on the child’s lap. The dogs make themselves available for continuous strokes, hugs and affection. Having a sobbing child hug a dog is more beneficial than any tool I could ever use.”

The successful prosecution of a criminal case often depends on the ability of a victim to report and then testify regarding the details. With children—especially traumatized children—this can be extremely difficult. In just the few months that Stilson has been assisting victims in Snohomish County, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Tobin Darrow has seen a significant positive impact. “I think Stilson [provides] a wonderful, warm reception. Initial victim interviews are often when a decision is made whether [or not] to start a case. We close a lot of cases when victims—children especially—can’t or won’t talk. Stilson allows the victim to start talking. It takes children time to develop trust with a prosecuting attorney, so Stilson is very helpful there. Or when kids have to wait—it’s very hard on them, waiting for their turn to testify. Stilson is calming and reassuring.”

Mark Roe, deputy prosecuting attorney in Snohomish County’s Special Assault Unit, agrees. In a recent case, an 11-year-old girl had to testify against her father, who had sexually abused her. Stilson comforted her while she waited in the hallway, and was in the back of the courtroom as visual reassurance as she testified. Mark, who admits that he wasn’t a proponent of the service-dog idea in the beginning, now concedes that there are clear benefits, especially with children. He said that Stilson’s calm and quiet demeanor is what convinced the judge in this particular trial to allow him inside the courtroom. “It’s funny that Stilson’s being profiled in a magazine called Bark, because I’ve never heard him bark!” Mark added with a laugh.

Heidi Potter recalls a case in which Stilson accompanied her and Tobin to Harborview Medical Center’s trauma unit to interview a shooting victim, who had been left paralyzed by his injuries. The man had been bound in duct tape, beaten with a baseball bat, shot in the neck and left for dead. When Stilson entered the hospital room, the man was delighted, and spent the next 10 minutes petting him from his bed. When Tobin asked him about being shot, the man began to talk, recalling how he had thought he was going to die; then, crying, he abruptly stopped speaking. Stilson, who had been lying on the floor, stood and put his head on the man’s lap and stayed there until the man recovered enough to continue. Stilson then lay back down on the floor beside the bed. “I didn’t give Stilson any command. He just did it,” said Heidi.

Even if a victim doesn’t have to testify at trial because the defendant pleads guilty, they may still have to face the defendant at sentencing. Preparing for—and anticipating—the sentencing can be highly stressful. Jessica Haight, 24, is a rape victim who spoke at the sentencing of her abuser in a recent Snohomish County case. “I thought I was going to be a strong chick at sentencing,” she said, “but I was fixated on the guy. I started crying. I didn’t understand why the victim advocate asked if I wanted Stilson in the courtroom with me. But they brought him in and he laid his head on my foot. I noticed I was playing with his ears. I’m pretty sure I rubbed a bald spot on his ear!”

As Jessica spoke by phone from the victim advocate’s office for this interview, Stilson was lying on her foot. Jessica had “a million and one dogs” growing up, and has two now. Still, “I never would have thought of a therapy dog helping me. I saw guide dogs for the blind. But, me? I enjoyed [having] him in the courtroom. It was an extremely positive experience. It changed how I think about dogs, about therapy dogs. It should be a victim’s right to have a therapy dog in the courtroom.”

That thought is echoed by every prosecutor, victim/witness advocate, victim and legal system player who has seen these amazing dogs in action. Their use in prosecutor’s offices—and particularly in courtrooms—is still in its infancy, yet the benefits are clear and the trend is growing. We can all hope that someday soon, service dogs in this setting will be the comforting norm.

 

 

 

News: Guest Posts
The Seal Who Played with Dogs
Memories of cross-species games

Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.

Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.

Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.

In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.

Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.

They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.

Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.

I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.

I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.

We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.

Wellness: Health Care
In a Spin
Canine vertigo is treatable but scary to witness

I jolt awake in the middle of the night to the sound of one of my three dogs throwing up. My first thought is, glad the floors are concrete and easy to clean. The moon provides enough light for me to make my way to the kitchen, where I see Meadow, my 10-year-old Alaskan Malamute, standing with her head slightly lowered, a small pool of yellow vomit on the floor in front of her. Her front legs are splayed wide.

“Oh, Meadow girl, I’m sorry you’re sick …” I murmur as I approach. Before I can reach her, she stumbles and falls hard to the floor, then struggles to stand up. Stumbling like a drunk, she slams to the floor again. What the hell’s going on?

Meadow, who weighs more than 90 pounds, continues trying to stand. I hold onto her collar, using my other hand to steady her. When she falls, she crashes into my legs with all her weight, almost taking me with her. Not wanting to hear that heart-wrenching thud again, I use my body to prevent her from standing. She moves awkwardly, head swaying, fighting my downward pressure.

She finally stops struggling, but is clearly distressed. Her front legs are spread out in front of her, her chest is barely on the floor and all her weight is on her elbows. One of her hind legs is pinned under her hips, the other one extended out to the side. She pants fast and heavily. She can’t possibly be comfortable, but hasn’t let out any cries of pain and resists my attempts to rearrange her legs.

I turn on an overhead light, then lift her face toward mine. I’m confronted with one of the most frightening sights I’ve ever encountered: Meadow’s eyes are darting rapidly from side to side, as though every neuron in her brain is on fire. Almost crying in fear and frustration, I’m completely stymied.

I’m also alone in a house without cell phone reception. Just me and my dogs. The nearest ER vet clinic is three hours away, but I can’t get Meadow into the car without help. “Meadow, look at me.” I sense that she’s trying to focus, that she hears me, but she can’t make her eyes stop moving. “Meadow, you cannot leave me, not now, not here,” I say to her, trying to quell my own fear that she’s dying and there’s nothing I can do prevent it. I have to do something.

Telling Meadow to stay, I quickly dress and drive the quarter-mile to my closest neighbor’s house. Amazingly, despite the hour, they get their vet on the phone. After hearing the pertinent details, the vet makes an instant diagnosis: “She’s having a seizure. It might be the only one she ever has, or she might have more. She may have brain damage, or she may not.” Brain damage? Not good, although at least I can stop worrying that she’ll die tonight. But the eye thing, her inability to stand; it was going on a good 15 minutes before I left to come here, I argue mentally, thinking a seizure should be a quick thing, like the one I’d witnessed in a friend’s dog with epilepsy. “Seizures can last anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours,” the vet informs me, as if reading my mind. “Should I bring her to you tonight?” I ask. “No,” he replies, “there’s nothing to be done. Just watch her so she doesn’t fall down and hurt herself.”

When I get home, Meadow hasn’t moved, and is still exhibiting the same symptoms. I make a bed next to her on the floor and watch, and wait. As the night wears on, Meadow’s eyes finally quit darting, and eventually—around 5 am—she puts her head on the floor and sleeps on her side. I lay with her, stroking her fur, still trying to figure out what’s happening. It just doesn’t fit my idea of a seizure. Then suddenly, I remember: three years earlier, I’d had a sudden case of extreme dizziness, and my own eyes had danced uncontrollably, just like Meadow’s. I had awoken one morning to a world spinning out of control, unable to stand without falling or slamming into walls. Even rolling over in bed made the world heave and lurch. An ER doctor diagnosed vertigo, likely the result of a severe head cold that had affected my inner ear. A drug resolved my symptoms within 20 minutes, although I had to keep taking it for a week.

Can dogs get vertigo? I wonder as I lay there, stroking Meadow’s body. As it turns out, the answer is yes. In dogs, it’s called vestibular disease. Just about any creature with ears and a brain stem can suffer from vestibular disorders.

Vertigo (from the Latin vert(ere) = whirling or turning around) is a type of dizziness, a sense of motion when one is stationary, due to a dysfunction of the vestibular system in the inner ear. It is often associated with nausea and difficulty standing or walking.

“Vertigo is a human description of a feeling; dogs can’t tell us what they’re feeling, so vestibular disease is the term used,” says Beverly Sturges, DVM, associate professor of clinical neurology/neurosurgery at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

According to Dr. Sturges, the most frequent cases are referred to as idiopathic or “old dog” vestibular disease because it’s most often seen in older dogs and there’s no obvious cause. “It’s benign; we still have no real understanding why it occurs,” she says. “It’s self-limiting, [requiring] no treatment except supportive care and comforting the dog,” she adds. The second most common cause is infection—especially Rocky Mountain spotted fever—or inflammation.

Dr. Sturges describes two broad categories of vestibular disease: outside the brain, and inside. “When outside the brain, it involves the middle or inner ear and is referred to as peripheral vestibular disease. This type is more treatable, with a better prognosis,” she says, and includes the old-dog syndrome. “Inside the brain means it involves the brain stem and is referred to as central vestibular disease. In small breeds—Maltese, Yorkies, Pugs, Poms—it’s usually caused by a non-infectious inflammation of the brain stem, often referred to as inflammatory brain disease. It occurs mostly in younger dogs [less than] two years of age. In larger breeds, central vestibular disease is usually caused by brain tumors [putting] pressure on the brain stem. Or, sometimes, trauma to the head.” Symptoms of central vestibular disease may be more subtle, with gradual onset.

That frightening eye-darting I saw in Meadow? It’s called nystagmus, a rapid, involuntary eye movement, side to side or, less frequently, up and down. “Nystagmus is not seen in all cases, but [it] is common,” says Dr. Sturges. “It lessens as the dog gets used to the sensation. Nystagmus can be profound in old-dog vestibular disease; a few days, or perhaps one to two weeks later, it’s almost always gone. It’s a reliable symptom: if there’s nystagmus, it’s vestibular disease and not usually a seizure. But you can see a drunken gait—ataxia—and other symptoms without nystagmus and it could still be vestibular disease.”

Diagnosis is based on a description of symptoms, or better yet, actual observation of symptoms. When appropriate, a vet will do a CT scan or an MRI to see if there are tumors or brain swelling. The type of nystagmus observed (horizontal versus vertical) and the direction of the dog’s head tilt (another common symptom) can help a neurologist differentiate between peripheral and central vestibular disease. Other issues involving the inner ear, or ear infection, will be ruled out if symptoms persist.

Treating central vestibular disease in dogs depends on the type and cause. “We’re pretty good now at removing tumors from the brain stem,” says Dr. Sturges. “If there’s inflammation and fluid, that can be drained surgically if necessary. We can prescribe antibiotics or an antifungal. When a vascular cause is suspected—a temporary or permanent lack of blood supply—vestibular issues usually get better on their own,” she says. “Toxins are another possibility. Metronidazole [Flagyl] and a few other medicines can cause toxicity, including vestibular disease; taking the dog off the drug and substituting another can resolve it.”

A sudden onset of acute symptoms  and an absence of other physical findings usually mean peripheral vestibular disease. You and your vet may elect to wait a few days to see if improvement occurs before doing extensive diagnostics. After some online research, this was the choice I made for Meadow. Some vets will prescribe corticosteroids to reduce swelling and antibiotics just in case the cause is inside the brain. Ultimately, the final diagnosis of old-dog vestibular disease is made by the self-limiting nature of the symptoms.  According to Dr. Sturges, 5 to 10 percent of dogs who experience this problem may have additional episodes.

Unfortunately, like Meadow, many dogs with vestibular disease are initially misdiagnosed as having seizures. In some instances, unable to afford expensive diagnostics or consult a neurologist, the distressed owners put the dog down, fearing he or she has suffered brain damage and won’t recover, or will suffer repeated seizures in the future. “That’s sad,” says Dr. Sturges. “There’s no reason to put them down. We don’t often see brain damage in dogs. A seriously long seizure could cause damage, but don’t jump to euthanize, even in cases of seizure,” she emphasizes.

Granted, sudden onset of vestibular disease can look like a seizure; the two are often hard to distinguish. “A neurologist could maybe tell the difference,” says Dr. Sturges. “An EEG to measure brain electricity and some other tests could help differentiate. But actually seeing the episode is the best way to diagnose. A video—everyone has cameras and video-cams these days—would be very helpful.”

For those who have never experienced vertigo, let me assure you: it’s sudden, overwhelming and incredibly frightening. You don’t know what’s happening, or why, and your brain seems disconnected from your body. Dogs must experience similar fear. And it can be dangerous, depending on when and where it occurs. Both Meadow and I were lucky; we were safely at home and our falls didn’t cause injury. Growing up in a family of aviators, I remember hearing whispered talk among pilots about vertigo, how deadly it can be during flight; it was the one thing they seemed to fear. Then, I couldn’t understand how simply being dizzy could cause a pilot to lose control of an airplane. Now I do. In fact, vertigo is thought to be the most likely reason the private airplane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., and carrying his wife and sister-in-law crashed into the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, killing all three. With vertigo, you literally don’t know up from down. Remember white-knuckle rides on that spinning playground equipment? When you tried to get off, you’d stumble and fall to the ground, head still whirling. That’s vertigo light. The real thing is more intense, longer lasting and much scarier.

Meadow and I eventually fall asleep. Around 7 am, I’m awakened by movement. I open my eyes to see Meadow sitting up. “Meadow! Good girl!” I say excitedly. This is progress; this is huge. “Do you want to go outside?” Before I finish the sentence, Meadow is leaning forward to get her hind legs underneath her. Helping her up, I usher her unsteadily toward the door. Out in the yard, she immediately pees and poops. I’ve never before been so excited about normal bodily functions. We head back into the house, where she goes straight to her normal sleeping spot beside my bed. Her gait is wobbly, but she’s moving under her own power. As she settles down, we both heave a huge sigh of relief.

Within a few days, Meadow’s gait is back to normal. She doesn’t have the lingering head tilt common with vestibular disease, but displayed every other symptom. Follow-up blood work discloses that she’s hypothyroid, a possible cause of vestibular disease.

After the dust settled, I shared my experience with friends. Many had similar stories involving taking their dog to a veterinary emergency clinic. One - a vet - has seen several cases in her clinic. Sharing our stories can help prepare us in the event our dogs – especially our old dogs – suffer a sudden episode, making it less scary. Seek medical treatment when appropriate, but if a diagnosis doesn’t ring true, trust your own observations and get another opinion. You know your dog better than anyone.

 

Be Prepared

An online search of “vestibular disease in dogs” and “nystagmus” brings up YouTube videos of dogs showing classic symptoms such as head tilt, drunken gait (ataxia) and nystagmus. The videos are hard to watch, but being aware of the symptoms of vestibular disease could save you a night of fear and stress, or help you notice warning signs of central vestibular disease, allowing early intervention and an increased likelihood of a good outcome for your dog.

Dog's Life: Humane
Volunteers travel the globe to help animals
Travel with a purpose
World Vets veterinarian Dr. Lydia Tong examines a pup in Vanuatua.

The stout, elderly woman — think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata- Monteoru, Romania.

Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.

Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.

At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats, and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”

The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and pálinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.

When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.

According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture.

Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around, or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!”

The marriage was amicably dissolved, assets were sold and split, and Dr. Steele took over that ocean-side practice in August 2007. One big dream realized. But owning her own practice meant she might have to set aside her other dream of traveling. Or would she? In a happy twist of fate, she saw an article about adventure travel, with a sidebar on World Vets. “I’d always been interested in Doctors Without Borders. Intrigued after visiting the World Vets website, I signed up for Loreto,” she says.

Dr. Steele encourages her staff members to go with her. She pays her own way and helps sponsor fundraisers to defray the cost of her staff ’s travel expenses. That year, they had a community dinner with a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Calendars are another fundraising favorite. For a $5 donation, clients submit a photo of their pet, and people donate $1 per vote to select the 12 “calendar girls” (and boys). The pet with the most votes gets the cover and one month’s page, and the balance of the calendar features the eleven other top vote getters. The cover dog raised $250 in votes in the calendar’s first year, and the entire project generated close to $2,000, remarkable considering that Ocean Shores is a small town of about 4,000 people. Funds raised in these and other creative ways help Dr. Steele’s staff participate in World Vets, and a portion is also donated to animalwelfare organizations like Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Old Dog Haven.

Michelle Smith, Dr. Steele’s lead assistant at the Ocean Shores clinic, had never traveled out of the U.S. before she went to Loreto. “The Loreto trip was totally a life dream come true,” she says. “It allowed me to combine my passions for animals and seeing the world. It’s great to see another culture, how they are with their animals, while bringing them veterinary care and education. I learned so much about injections and intubation; I now use those skills in the free spay/neuter clinics we provide four times a year in our own town.”

Michelle fondly remembers the gifts of food they received from the townspeople. “It was the best: homemade cheeses, enchiladas, tacos. The people are so grateful, and show it with food and invitations to their homes. Great food, great people!” Michelle is looking forward to participating in a World Vets clinic in Peru later this year. (World Vets programs in Loreto have been so successful that they no longer include that town on their roster.)

Like other “voluntourism” opportunities, World Vets requires all participants to pay their way. “There’s a set fee for each trip, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on location,” explains Dr. Steele. Every participant except the trip leader pays the same amount, plus their own airfare. World Vets chooses the site and handles incountry logistics; almost everything is provided — lodging, transfers, some or all meals, as well as vet supplies like anesthetics, gloves, antibiotics and sutures. “We also seek donations for supplies,” she says. “Getting supplies into a country can be a challenge. In Nicaragua, some of our luggage was ‘lost’; when it was returned to us, the antibiotics were missing. It takes a king’s ransom to buy a small bottle of injectable antibiotic there, so most likely it was stolen to be sold on the black market.” But despite the costs and challenges, the experience is positive. “World Vets is very good about providing safe, nice places to stay and a couple of days off to see the locale,” she adds.

Dr. Steele has brought clients along on trips to Nicaragua and Romania; one client has gone on to do additional trips with World Vets on her own. Other vets have done the same. “It’s addicting,” she says; in March, she went to Ecuador, her fourth World Vets trip. She delights in sharing her adventures by giving slideshow presentations for the folks back home.

Dr. Steele has a special and lasting reminder of her first World Vets experience: Oreja (“ear” in Spanish), a Mexican mutt she rescued. The sturdy little dog was one of many rounded up from the streets of Loreto and brought to the clinic. “I took one look at her and said, ‘She goes home with me!’” recalls Dr. Steele. Alaska Airlines generously agreed to fly Oreja and six other rescued dogs back to the U.S. for free. Oreja joined Dr. Steele’s five other dogs for a happy and healthy life beside the ocean. Dr. Steele swears she won’t be bringing her pack any more rescues from World Vets trips. Time will tell.

Pages