My mom reminded me once again, “Don’t forget she’s not a youngster anymore”.  She usually reports this fact as I’m describing my next escapade with Tess.  Maybe I’m in denial, but I really gave this adventure a good “think over” before I gave myself the ok to register for the herding instinct test that the Columbia Poodle Club was putting on.  I even asked a few questions about the judge, Carol Wolfram, to find out that yes indeed she “knows” poodles, so with my due diligence completed I mailed the check.

Well, the day finally arrived and of course it just happened to be predicted as the hottest day of the week.  Tess has been handling the heat just fine lately so no worries especially if I could get her at the top of the running order.  With some pleading and playing the “my dog is old” card I was able to get us moved up from number ten into the number five position, which equated to about 11:00 am.  In the Pacific Northwest our hottest part of the day usually arrives at 5:00 pm, but it was heating up quickly and the round pen where the test was held was without shade.

Now, I have to admit I know my dog pretty well and I have seen her herding instinct come alive before, although it usually occurs at the dog park and it usually resembled a school teacher trying to make kids stop running in the hallways.  I have also used this instinct to our advantage many times during agility trials.  I would pray that a sheltie or small border collie was ahead of us in the running order as there was nothing like the sound of a fast dog going through a tunnel to turn Tess’s drive on and we were always guaranteed a Q (Tess was always accurate, it was her inconsistent speed that kept us from the Elite level runs in NADAC).

Our judge, Carol informed us to let the dogs watch the other dogs run and not to reprimand for barking or increased behaviors.  Bingo!  I made sure that Tess could see and hear all the commotion that the dogs and sheep were making and sure enough; head up, body quivering, a whine here, a bark there.  We were in business!

I entered us into this adventure more for my experience than for more letters after Tess’s name.  Albeit, I’m not going to lie, letters are nice but I enjoy learning and learning with my dog is even better.  So into the pen we went.  Carol was all business.  Her tone had a “do what I say and nobody will get hurt” -ness about it; always good to hear when entering into a pen with livestock.  I reported to Carol that Tess is a soft dog (so please put down your stick) and that she was 10 ½ (so please let’s not run her into the ground).  With a smile, I could see that Carol appreciated this info and away we went.

We entered the pen and Tess did her best rally halt and looked at me like “this is different” and Carol called Tess to go to the middle.  Tess, being Tess looked over at me with her “not without her” look and I was also asked to enter into the middle of the pen.  As soon as one of the three sheep moved Tess took off, but then came right back to me, just like at the dog park.  What a good girl!?! This time I gave her permission to “go get ‘um”.  And she did!  She chased, oops, herded the threesome and when one of the sheep split, she went after it and herded it back to the group.  It was quite amazing to watch.  Carol, with me shadowing her every move, put Tess through some herding moves; circle to the left, circle to the right, inside the sheep (between the fence and sheep), outside the sheep, following the group.  Tess did it all!  Per the video on my camcorder, the test only lasted for two minutes and 40 seconds (thank you Carol for not running her into the ground).  It seemed much longer, but Carol said, “I saw enough and she’s 10 ½ anyways”.  Thanks for listening Carol.

Watching the other dogs was very interesting.  Besides 90% of the standard poodles being black (just like in agility), there was a difference in attitude between the ages.  The older dogs, older being older than 3 years, were generally more cautious to begin with.  They tended to check in more with there owners.  Carol says this is due to all the years of being told “no” to chasing things, especially other animals.  The younger dogs took to herding right away and were fast.  They all did great.  Poodle prey drive was alive and well at Brigand’s HideOut.

So how did Tess do?  She passed!  Here’s what her report card said:

  • STYLE/APPROACH: runs close
  • WEARING: little wearing
  • BARK: works silent
  • POWER: forceful, appropriate (this one still makes me smile)
  • INTEREST WITH STOCK: keen interest
  • RESPONSIVENESS: responsive to guidance
  • BALANCE WITH TESTER: some adjustment
  • GROUPING OF STOCK: keeps stock together
  • Recommendation to Continue Herding: Good – shows adequate potential to continue

This experience was a blast and it really reinforced what every poodle owner already knows, that poodles are incredible companions and are willing to join us on any adventure, even at 10 ½ years old.

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Let the Games Begin

Well, I just spent the last three hours clearing a safe pathway for the annual Squirrel-O-Rama that happens in my backyard every year.  After three hours of weed pulling, rock picking, and brush cutting I have decided that in my next life I want to return with a spider phobia so my partner will have the honors of being course designer and safety monitor for this event.  It’s got to be the best excuse around.  I know, I know… it’s not an excuse it’s a phobia.  Just like my hate go to the grocery store phobia.

Our backyard is famous for having the largest hazelnut tree on our block and for the next few months my dogs are in heaven.  Tess and Lucy (our Yorkie) make quite a team.  Lucy with her amazing hearing and border collie-like reflexes is able to stay out of Tess’s path and Tess with her, well…. speed and ability to leap small dogs in a single bound, make for a wonderful partnership.  It really is quite amazing to watch them work the grounds and equally amusing watching the squirrels work the dogs.

Prevention was my motive for today’s yard war.  I can’t help it.  I’ve worked with too many dogs that have come up lame during their own form of Squirrel-O-Rama, either by stepping in a hole (Achilles tendon avulsion), quick changes of directions on uneven surface (CCL rupture), being impaled in the chest by a sapling (torn pectoral muscles with punctured lung), and dog vs. retaining wall (dislocated hip), to just name a few.  Let’s just call this form of “prevention OCD” an occupational hazard, but it’s my preventive nature that originally led me to become a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist in the first place.

Injury prevention is vital for our dog’s athletic longevity.  In my opinion, injury prevention has three parts.  The first part involves what we provide for our dog, which includes conditioning opportunities and well-balance nutrition.  The second part encompasses the many nuances of teaching and communication that are required for our dog to know its “job” and understand what is required for a safe and successful outcome.  The final step is a huge responsibility.  It necessitates knowing our dog well enough to pick up on the many non-verbal breadcrumbs that they leave us on a daily basis and trusting our intuition over our desire for that Q, or improved yards per second.  And it requires believing that our dog wants to please us above all else, which most times means overriding their capacity to handle the repetitive stresses that are required on their body to get us that elusive QQ and for them a joyous welcome at the end of a run.

Due to the obvious communication limitations between human beings and canines sometimes we never notice that mineralization of the biceps tendon brewing until lameness appears.  I talk with MANY dog owners on a weekly basis that say “I thought something was off, but I just thought he was being stubborn” or “he just didn’t seem like himself today” or “I knew something was up when he popped out of the weaves, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it” followed by “but he did great the rest of the course so I didn’t worry”.   I get it.  I really do.  Learning a new language is hard, especially as we get older.

Knowing your dog means putting your hands on him or her and feeling what “normal” feels like.  Sparing you all the medical jargon, when I assess a dog I have an expected norm that I feel for.  I start at the dog’s feet and move and poke everything starting from the toes to the tip of the tail. I push, pull, poke, and strum, with a focus to clear and rule out all the joints and muscles in the dog’s body.  Why?  Because dogs naturally hide their “weakness”.  Their instincts tell them that injury equates to being left behind by the pack.  They don’t want this to happen, especially not by you.  So the detective work begins.  Because Fido is not “talking”, I begin my interrogation with you and then I put your dog through an arsenal of positions to get your dog’s body “talking”, spilling the beans about any sore, aching, or painful areas.  Nothing as invasive has water boarding of course, but they do usually come around, even the bull-headed Staffy with the pain tolerance of King Kong.  For the high pain tolerance type breeds I take a sneakier approach.  First, I get them nice and relaxed then I pounce.  It might take a little longer, but it works every time.

So, back to preventions and step three.  Try this, go ahead and start poking at your dog.  Feel around on a daily basis.  Poke on lazy days and poke right after a trial.  Do you notice any difference?  You just might surprise yourself and find a sore spot or two.  Is your dog resistant to anything?  Lightly run your hand down it’s back.  Do you feel any areas of temperature change?  Feeling your dog’s “normal” is prevention.

Do you know what your dog’s natural stretching pattern is?  How your dog raises and lowers itself to and from the ground?  Does it always lie on one side?  How does it go up and down the stairs?  Observing your dog’s “normal” is prevention.

How cool would it be to be able to palpate a sore spot and intervene with massage or ice before it became a chronic muscle injury?  How great would it be to go to your vet with enough information about your dog to feel part of your dog’s team?   How amazing would it be to identify an issue early rather than waiting for lameness to be your guide?

Knowing your dog’s “normal” is how you identify change and noticing change early is prevention.

Now, let the games begin!

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A Tale of a Tail

I’ve been posing questions to many poodle people recently trying to understand the mystery of the poodle’s tail.  Well there isn’t really a mystery, per say, but the tide is turning a bit with the evolution of the long docked tail.  My understanding so far is that a long dock removes “only” the end 1/4 of the tail versus the last 1/3.   Definitely a step in the right direction in my book, but it’s still docking!

When communicating with poodle breeders they are very open to the concept of keeping the tail au natural, but the problem seems to be in the timing of the tail’s removal.  To decrease the cruelty of docking it is believed that day three or four of the pup’s new life (at the latest) is the optimal time to remove the last 1/3 to 1/4 from the tail.  I’ve never witnessed this procedure, but I’ve heard reports and let’s just say that the eyewitness testimony varies depending on whom you talk with be it a vet, breeder, or owner.

We must thank the American Kennel Club for this tale as it’s their standard that makes breeders so very hesitant, if not resistant, to the move towards non-docking that is current in Europe.  Per AKC’s breed standard for the poodle: “Tail straight, set on high and carried up, docked of sufficient length to insure a balanced outline. Major fault: set low, curled, or carried over the back.”  Albeit, in all fairness to AKC, there are a also a few poodle experts that believe it to be in the dog’s best interest to have a docked tail due to the environment it works in.  For example, hunting or search and rescue.

Now, I am not a breeder and I don’t put any responsibility on them for this mystery.  Breeders have no way of knowing which pup is going to be the next AKC Grand Champion at 3 days old.  I personally had the opportunity to spare a pup from the docking procedure, but I too was without a crystal ball to determine which puppy had what it takes to be the next MACH by 3 days of age, so I passed on the litter.

You might not be able to tell from this post, but I am still developing an opinion on tail docking.  One part of me feels that it is cruel and unnecessary.  Why should all puppies in a litter be docked if only approximately 10-25 percent go on to be shown in AKC conformation?  The other part feels that long docking is definitely a step in the right direction as a safety measure.  But what I know for sure is tail length is NECCASSARY for performance longevity.  The tail is a biomechanical lever and acts like a rudder.  The longer it is the better it promotes a greater capacity for weight shifting both in the air and on the ground and the more it elevates the compensatory stress that is put on the pelvic girdle, hip joints, SI joint, spine, and hocks.

I know, I know.  What about the potential owner that is just looking for a companion poodle; one that looks like the pictures in the AKC breed book?  Well, information is power.  I can’t tell you how many people ask me if Tess is a doodle.  I do usually keep her in a one length coat most of the time, long in the winter, but she does have a docked tail.  Not a long dock, but a classic 10½-year-old dock.  I have also had to educate a few of my non-dog owning friends about tail docking as they thought poodles were just born that way.

All the same, with any change comes anxiety and resistance, which can be tempered with information.  Maybe, we bring full tails to the next Meet-the-Breed?  Maybe, we request pictures of poodles with long tails in the dog magazines.  We can start slow, but we need to start somewhere and we must not forget to support the breeders who have made the gutsy leap in favor of non-docking and keeping the dews.  Now, I am the last one to carry the flag or sound the alarm for this cause, it just isn’t in my nature, but I strongly believe that fear halts progress and waiting for AKC to change its standards will probably not happen in my lifetime.

What would I do if I were the queen of the world?  I’m glad you asked.  I would require breeders that promote their litters as “performance litters” to keep full tails and dew claws on their pups as more and more literature is supporting that these appendages are non-optional “equipment” for performance longevity and I would require docked litters be labeled as “conformation only”.   Boy, I can hear it now, “Hi, I am a local poodle breeder.  Would you sign my  “off with her head” petition?”

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Splish Splash

It had been years since I had a dog to play with in the water.   My Golden Retriever Oly loved “surfing” for her sticks when I lived in Southern California.  I mean she would literally body surf her way back to shore.  Great memories.  Poodles are water dogs and they retrieve.  Right?  I waited three long months from the time Tess arrived for the weather to get warm.   Finally it was July and Tess and I went to the river.  Not the same as the ocean, but a good start.  All the memories of playing with Oly came rushing back as I threw the ball out several feet into the water.  What happened next took my breathe away, but not in that “oh wow” kind of way, but more like a “what the fu….” kind of way.  There was Tess; ready and able, showing all the excitement any retriever shows to the prospect of a good game of fetch.  I threw the ball out into the water and what followed was the most awkward water entry I think I’ve ever seen by any mammal.  I didn’t know if I should rescue her or let her figure it out on her own.  Her “swimming” was anything but pretty.  It looked like she was hopping through the water on her hind legs with her front legs going a mile a minute.  She proudly returned with the ball and was ready for more.  I was dumb-founded.  She thought she was swimming.  I’d never seen anything like this before.  It had to be a fluke, so I threw the ball out into the river again.  Nope, it wasn’t a fluke.  She was “swimming”.

Standard poodles are very versatile performance dogs, but many of them meet their match when it comes to swimming.  Why do some take to it and others don’t?  Here are a few of my hunches:

  1. Poor coordination between the front and hind end.
  2. Decreased instinctual drive.
  3. Poor trunk strength.
  4. Poor hind end control (awareness + drive/strength).

Did you notice how angulation, head carriage, and tail set didn’t make my list?  Here’s what I know so far….

Swimming is a new motor plan for many, if not most, dogs.  It’s basically running backwards (running = rear then front leg movement; swimming = front then rear leg movement).  If there is a strong instinctual drive then it overrides this lack of motor plan.  Many poodles have had the “hunt” bred out of them over the years.  So practice is necessary.  This new motor plan demands a lot of coordination/communication between the front and rear legs.  This is difficult for many standard poodles for multiple reasons that I’m not going to get into in this post.  If your dog has a hard time maintaining a trot or has a “springy” gait, then it will definitely have a difficult time learning to swim.

Swimming requires a stable (elongated) trunk to provide a base for reach and drive.  Many dogs use flexion (shortening of the trunk) for stability, which makes keeping the rear end high in the water difficult.  A flexed trunk also shortens their reach.  Carrying a bumper/decoy or even a tennis ball in their mouth cues elongation of the trunk via neck musculature just as using floats around the waist cues elongation via the pelvic musculature.

If your dog is a “springy” mover then it’s used to getting a lot of proprioception input from the ground in order to know where its body is in space.  Guess what?  Minimal proprioception occurs while swimming.  This lack of awareness stresses the dog and puts them in a “fight or flight” state.  A slow introduction to the water will desensitize them to this gravitational insecurity and will decrease or eliminate their need for the “fight or flight” response, which in turn will let the neurological system relax enough to learn something new.  This remains Tess’s biggest obstacle to efficient swimming.  She has always hated her feet off the ground.  It took me three months to get her to move (notice I didn’t say run) across the dog walk and I gave up on the teeter all together and headed to NADAC so we could trial.  I know Tess’s swimming skills would progress more quickly if I still lived in Southern California instead of the mighty Pacific Northwest, but we have ample water close by to practice in during the summer month(s) so I’m not complaining too much.

Swimming is a great activity for dogs.  It’s wonderful for improving endurance and body awareness, but it should be used as a cross-training activity for the agility dog and never replaces a good 20-minute trot for muscle strength and coordination (the dog’s neurological system is “simple” in that it needs activities similar to movement patterns used for performance – don’t forget, swimming is running backwards).

Tess, once again has been my inspiration for expanding my knowledge of the canine neurological system, physics, biomechanics, and learning theory.  I’ve always said that if I can teach a child with special needs to crawl and/or walk I should be able to teach a dog to swim.  I can’t wait for more 80-degree days.

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Witnessing Bliss

When I looked up the word bliss via the little dictionary icon that came with my Mac, this is what it said, “perfect happiness; great joy” and that is just what I witnessed over and over again yesterday at the WC/WCX Hunt Test hosted by the Columbia Poodle Club at Sauvie Island in Oregon.  Over the years I’ve observed poodles doing many different sports: agility, herding, tracking, dock diving, and obedience, and during my observations I’ve been looking for that blissful expression that I’ve seen multiple times on Border Collies during herding trials and I finally saw it on a poodle.

Now, we know that our poodles will do anything FOR us and share in the happy moments of joy as they play the “games” WITH us, pleased with their successful accomplishments as they anticipate their celebratory tug or treats and our hugs and happy voices.  But yesterday at the hunt test I saw relaxed and natural athleticism.  I heard the whining of standard poodles, both adult and puppy, pleading to be released to retrieve that bumper or bird from water or field.  I witnessed first hand and close up during the practice rounds, (I was in charge of the “slinger”*- our club’s way of breaking in the newbie,) poodle after poodle unleashing their instinctual drive and exercising their sensory and motor systems with gusto.

Miniature poodle owners were well represented by a little silver girl, owned by Jane (sorry Jane, I never got your last name) named Star (a Kallista mini) as she carried a duck at least her size across field and stream.  As one handler from British Columbia said “it was well worth the test fee just to watch that little silver girl work”.

I enjoyed everything about yesterday.  The peaceful pastoral setting, the quiet, the fresh air, the silliness of Mother Nature as she teased us with her weather samplings, and most of all I appreciated a sport where the dog’s essence is protected.  The judge in her opening instructions to the handlers emphasized this by stressing the role of the handler as the support system.  This is a sport where the team is disqualified if the handler is heard saying the word “NO” at any time during the test and that includes the honor portion of the WCX.  I think I’m hooked.  To my partner’s dismay, I now have a legitimate reason to purchase camouflage.


* A “slinger” is a small catapult-like contraption that is used via remote control to fling a bumper or duck into the air for the dog to retrieve.  My job was to load the “slinger” without severing a limb, blow the duck call, and then release the bumper or duck into the air while hiding behind a blind.  As I write this it sounds a little like hazing.  My partner reported today that my duck calls sounded like my duck was drunk.  Yup, definitely hazing!

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I Want to Be Like My Dog When I Grow Up

My dog is 10 ½ years old now and using the old conversion factor is about 74 human years or 27 years my senior.  How she puts up with me I don’t know.  Her sustained zest for life is my guidepost as the aging process beckons to me once again with an all too familiar pain in my right foot.  As I hobble around the house her eyes make me vow:

When I’m 74 years old, I will wake up each morning with an attitude that says, “more please”.  I will lift my body from the sheets, display a few downward facing dog yoga poses to alert my joints and muscles that the day has begun and shake my body with a vigor that leaves my checks nicely smoothed out from the creases left by pillow.  I will venture forward to void yesterday and make room for today’s surprises.  I will tease my friends to let them now that they are appreciated and come rain or shine I will survey my surroundings for change.  I will obey the rules that say waiting my turn may require patience.

I will dress without complaint to accommodate the weather, even if an extra layer is more for looks than for function.  I will patiently stay put when requested and relax when released.  I will be the first to volunteer for new adventures and persistently make my presence known when not acknowledged for my feats.

I will be a loyal friend, unbiased listener, and a shoulder to cry on; always available at a minutes notice.

I will hesitate when intuition requires more information and give all I have when I know what is required of me.

I will commit my presence in times of sorrow and dance in times of joy.

I will frolic and play unlimited by my body’s moments of discomfort because life is the game and living each moment to it’s fullest is like breathing fresh air – easy, without thought, and with effortless peace.

I will sleep without awareness of time or place and I will age with dignity and wisdom, sharing all that I have with patience for the young and awareness for all.

My dog has taught me many things, but the most important wisdom is that the only thing that attitude has in common with aging is the letter A.

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Is There Such a Thing As a Safe Game of Fetch?

Dogs playing fetch falls into one of those “stop holding your breath and just relax” categories of dog ownership for me.  Every time I saw a game of fetch I heard a mantra in my head similar to the one in the famous beer commercial that goes “taste great, less filling”, but mine goes “great fun, vet visit”.  The games of Frisbee, which thank god my dog is horrible at, and fetch cause a constant internal battle between the fun dog owner and the canine rehab therapist in me.  So, to keep the peace within, I decided to control as many variables as possible by adding as many safety features to my game of fetch as I could.

First and foremost, we must turn our dog’s brain on!  I do this by making things less rote.  In my yard, I have stations that I randomly rotate my dog through.  For example, I have a carport full of “stuff” that has many nooks and crannies to throw/kick a ball into.  My dog sprints to the carport, slows down and then hunts for the ball.  For my next station, I use the rooftops of my house and carport to throw/kick a ball onto, so the dog can catch it after it rolls off.  Once kicked, my dog patiently follows the roll of the ball and is always able to catch it before it hits the ground, cataract and all.  Then, there’s my favorite station in which I create a barricade or  “fort” with some lounge chairs that are arranged in a semi-circle against the fence with either one or two openings (this changes each time we play).  I throw/kick the ball into the center of the semi-circle and the dog has to go around the “fort” to find an opening in order to get the ball.  Voila!  At each of these stations the brain will have to engage for the dog to be successful and the dog will develop some nice collection and body control skills at the same time.

Oh, there’s one more station that I am trying to master and right now it works best using a tennis ball.  With Tess standing next to me, I bounce the ball on the ground and against the garage door and she catches it.  I tried kicking the ball against the garage, but my partner vetoed this.  It seems listening to the loud banging is not as much fun as creating the loud banging.

Safety feature number two involves decreasing shock absorption to the body.  Since my dog has straight fronts I wanted to decrease the forces on her elbows and carpals, so I stopped using a tennis ball and began using a small 6” ball that is not springy.  This also has the advantage of being easier for me to kick.  Think small soccer ball.

Because fetch brings out the wild abandon and sheer silliness in in our dogs (variables that I regret can’t be controlled) a generous warm-up is a MUST.  I start out by playing soccer with Tess.  I dribble the ball with her on my left (fence on the right) and then repeat with her on my right and the fence on the left.  Then I have her walk backwards while I dribble the ball towards her (I’m looking for her to walk backwards in a straight line).  I have her do circle work around the ball and me; going to the right and then repeat going to the left.  I continue the circles until I get a steady trot going, starting with large and then smaller circles.  Be warned dizziness will occur.

So there you have it.  This is how I have justified playing fetch with my dog Tess.  Any questions?? If you do, please join my yahoo group at  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/poodles-in-motion and I’d be happy to answer any and all of them.

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Underlying Motivation

As I’ve said in one of my previous posts, one of the questions that I am often asked is,  “how do you pick a performance puppy?”  It came up again last night.  This time I decided to take a more “personal coach” approach instead of my usual didactic one.  This time I asked, “What is your underlying motivation for your new puppy?”  There was a long pause, a pause long enough for me to wonder if I offended my new friend (NF).  I asked the question again. This time I asked it more directly.  “What are your plans for your new dog?”  Just to make sure I wasn’t misinterpreted.  Here’s how the discussion continued.

NF:  Well, I never want to worry about injuries again.

Robin:  Who doesn’t?

NF:  Well, I know that structure is important to prevent injuries.

Robin:  This is true, but you know that the owner is really the one responsible for injury prevention right?

NF:  Of course, but I want to not have to worry every time I jump my dog that he might come up lame.  I have two friends that this just happened to and it’s so sad.

Robin:  So, when did your friends start their dogs doing agility?

NF:  One started at 6 months, but didn’t start contacts until 12 months.  The other one started at about 10 months.

Robin:  Do you know if they were jumping their dogs at 10 months?

NF: Yes, but not at full jump height.

Robin:  Contacts too?

NF:  Yes.  Those were at full height because it’s too hard for the instructor to change the height of the A-frame and dog walk.

Robin:  Running or 2-on-2-off?

NF: 2-on-2-off for both because that’s what the instructor uses with her border collies and they are very successful.  Anyway…… how do you pick a performance dog?  I heard that a hunting dog is your best bet for soundness?

Robin:  Are you thinking of getting into hunting?

NF:  No.  You know I like agility.

Robin:  That’s what I thought, but you said you were looking into hunting dogs?

NF:  I heard that hunting dog’s have great chests, which will prevent front limb injuries, right?

Robin:  Do you know if our server is coming back to take our drink orders?

NF:  Robin, what’s that smile for?

Robin:  Well, you know great structure doesn’t guarantee performance longevity and this includes hunting dogs.

I wish things were as black and white as we humans want to make them.  Everyone is looking for a recipe, a cookbook full of guarantees.  My bottom line is this: There is NO ONE BEST STRUCTURE FOR PERFORMANCE DOGS.  Not one that will guarantee success and not one that will prevent injury.  Of course, there are biomechanical advantage points for EACH breed, but definitely not an all-encompassing definition.  I can’t emphasize enough the importance of starting out slow with your dogs.  Along with their growth plates their neurological systems must mature too.  This seems to be a new concept for some in the dog world, but we use it all the time with our teenagers, otherwise we would have our kids drive themselves to and from all their many after school events and practices as soon as their legs could reach the pedals.

Growth plates have been the much talked about definitive test for getting the “thumbs up” to begin agility because we can see this via radiographs, but there are also tendons and ligaments that must mature too.  These structures are unfortunately made of soft tissue and can’t be seen via x-ray and who wants to get an MRI?  The maturation of these soft tissue structures is very important.  So important in fact that little league baseball pitchers are restricted in the number of throws per game to protect these tissues from chronic stress.

Think about it.  How many bone injuries vs. soft tissue injuries occur in agility?  Slow and steady wins the race.  As for my new friend, she’s beginning her search for a Kleinpudel, relieved that she doesn’t have to start attending hunting trials.

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Apples and Oranges

Ever since my then 4½-year-old standard poodle became a member of my family I have been fascinated with the breed.  Her initial gazelle-like romps beguiled the clinical observer in me, having only been owned by a golden retriever, siberian husky, and cairn terrier in the past.  Although I find much enjoyment working with all forms of canine it’s the standard poodle that has my heart and tickles my brain.  Their structure is hard to compare to other breeds, even breeds within their own working class of retrievers.  I still can’t get past the fact that the poodle is placed in the non-sporting group, but I guess as my friends say, “where else would you put a dog with those funny hairdos?”

When discussing performance poodles, I find myself having to address and categorize my comments specifically to the miniature and toy poodles or the standard poodle, as they no longer present with the same biomechanical issues nor are they under the same physical demands.  Why is this?  Well, the standard poodle seems to be getting bigger and bigger over the years.  Just in the last 3 years it has seemed hard to find (in the Pacific NW) an agility standard poodle that is below 23 inches at the withers (13” above the minimum height according to the breed standard).  Per AKC’s poodle breed standards, toys are to be under 10” at the withers; miniatures are between 10” – 15”; and standards are 15” to anything goes.  Maybe it’s time to revisit this limitlessness now that breeders are more conscientious about low COI (coefficient of in-breeding), which make litters less predictable.

My girl, Tess, is 22” at the withers and in my opinion this seems like the maximum size for longevity for the agility standard poodle given the width of the dog walk and teeter, the height of the A-frame, the opening diameter of the tunnel, and the jump height demands put on the body.  With the increased height of the “modern” standard poodle I am seeing the usual angulation issues, but also a less talked about narrowing of the chest, or as I recently learned from a breeder this is also called “spring of rib”.  A narrow chest can improve reach, which does equate to increased speed, but you be the judge:  Which is more difficult to perform?  A push-up with your hands shoulder-distance apart, or one with your hands close together?  See my point?  Now picture a fast standard poodle hitting a perfect two-on-two-off position at the bottom of the A-frame.  Wow! Right?  This is just one example of how “improving” structure to “improve” performance will increase the physical demand on the standard poodle.  You just don’t see the same performance injuries happening to the toys and minis as you do with the standards.  Looks aside, their weight, lower center of gravity, and the course and contact equipment demands are definitely different between the varieties.

That being said, I support the participation of standard poodles of any height in agility and/or other performance events if the owner uses appropriate decision-making choices based on the physical demands that will be placed on their individual dog.  Now, why are you trialing in AKC vs. NADAC with that 27” standard?  Why are you trialing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday?  Why did you choose a two-on-two-off vs. a running contact?  I know, I know…. But just because they can, doesn’t mean they should.

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Annual Vaccinations

Tess and I have been enjoying the trials and tribulations of our weekly rally class.  Rally has been a pleasant surprise.  Our class consists of one lively 14 month old Norwich terrier, two Rottweiler teenagers, both rescues with very patient owners, one adorable yellow lab CCI (Companion Canine for Independence) puppy in-training and Tess the grand dame of the bunch and the poster child for the “an old dog CAN learn new tricks” adage.  Tess enjoys all her classmates, but is especially interested in the squirrel-like scurry of the Norwich terrier, Sal.

Last week as we were waiting for the class to start our little friend Sal was not himself.  This happy go-lucky little playful gnat was a rag-doll in his owner’s arms.  I inquired into the cause of his apparent personality change and was told that he just received his annual vaccinations four hours earlier and was “sleeping them off”.  Well, loud bells and whistles were going off in my head.  I must have had my mouth wide open in shock because the owner started to look concerned.  She put the little guy on the ground to try to “wake him up”, but all he could do was maintain his balance in a stiff, roached posture.   Not being a vet, I advised his owner to call her vet and take him in immediately.

Thankfully, I have never experienced a vaccination related incident until this day, but how very disturbing it was to witness.  I eventually found out from my rally instructor that Sal was doing fine and yes; he had a severe adverse reaction to his vaccinations.  By the time he reached the vet he was going into shock and was given fluids to avoid kidney failure.  It seems that the owner was getting ready to go on a trip to Hawaii and needed to update his vaccinations so he could be kenneled.

Here is a link to an article by Christine O’Drisscol for Dogs Naturally Magazine on “Vets on Vaccinations”.  The article presents the responses of 23 Holistic Veterinarians to whom she had sent questionnaires.  It is a long read, but worth the time.  I’ve had similar passionate conversations with vet friends over dinner, multiple times.  It’s definitely a hot button topic at my house.


On a personal note, Tess sees a holistic vet twice a year and board certified specialists as needed.  I recently had her titers done for parvo, distemper, AND rabies so that she could attend Rally class and avoid the vaccination requirement, as poodles are so prone to autoimmune disorders.  Hopefully I’m preaching to the choir.  Oh, by the way, Tess’s titers came back fine even though she received her last vaccinations 5 1/2 years ago.  Go figure!

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