Monday, August 27, 2012

Hypothyroidism - Like mother, like dog-ter

Bella has "sub-clinical hypothyroidism". When Dr. Dodman told us that this condition could be contributing to her aggression towards Jan, I nodded in understanding. Not that I also feel aggressive towards Jan, but you see, hu-mom has hypothyroidism, too, and can clearly empathize with how it can lead to making one feel pretty cranky a good bit of the time.

Among the human symptoms are fatigue, sleepiness, cold sensitivity, constipation, dry skin, memory loss, weight gain, muscle aches and pain, stiffness of the joints and depression. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Now, imagine if you were a dog and couldn't tell anyone you felt this way?

I know I look sad and pathetic but it's not really about hypothryroidism.
You just can't see the bone I'm being so good about "leaving". 

But first, let's rewind a few weeks.

When Bella first attacked Jan, we immediately set up an appointment with our vet to rule out any physical causes for her bad behavior. Of course, she was a perfect, if shut-down, angel during the physical examination and according to our vets, her blood-work came back "perfectly normal". According to our vets.

Don't get me wrong, I like our vets. But vets have a lot of information they need to keep track of and may not always be the most up-to-date on every condition out there. However, having dealt with the condition myself, and experienced first-hand how shifts in diagnostic ranges can impact and influence treatment, I was curious to see Bella's actual results.

When I saw that her "T4" (the main thyroid hormone) came in at 1.1 on a "normal" range of 1.0 - 4.0, I actually turned to Jan and said, "I think she's hypothyroid".

Seriously, can I eat this now?
Actually, she's sub-clinically hypothyroid.

Her levels are low but not below the diagnostic range. According to Dr. Dodman, this condition is a behavioral affliction in and of itself. Dogs with this condition "may become anxious or fearful, become more aggressive... may also appear hyperactive". Hmmm. Sound like anyone you know and love?

Dr. Dodman believes that dogs who are sub-clinically hypothyroid can benefit from a low-dose of synthetic hormone. Their T4 levels and behavior are monitored over time to check for improvements. The first re-check was 6 weeks after we put Bella on the medication and her levels jumped up right into the middle of the healthy range and have remained there ever since.

She's been on a very low dose of the medication for a year now and many of her other 'symptoms' have faded in that time including her itchy, flaky skin and dry brittle coat. I don't think Bella's ever going to have a normal constitution but overall, that has improved as well.

Oooooh my gawd, shut up and let me eat already!
Score one for the humans.

While I consider everything we've done a contributing factor to Bella's overall well-being, this was an easy win and we'll take it. The moral of the story to me is: never stop questioning. If someone tells you your dog is okay but you think they're not, seek a second opinion. You are your dog's best advocate.

I know there's at least one other Bella out there in Blog-land who suffers from hypothyroidism. Is anyone else dealing with it, too? Do you have any advice you'd like to share? We are always interested in hearing your stories and tips.

For more information about hypothyroidism and behavior problems in dogs, see Dr. Dodman's Assessment of Hypothyroidism as a Factor in Behavior Problems.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Saturday's Dog: Still Dill

Dill was my very first Saturday's dog almost one year ago.

Sadly, she is still in foster care and available for adoption. I'm going to let her foster mom speak to what a good dog she is and what a loving companion she would be for the right family:

"Dill is a sweetie and very affectionate dog with a waggly tail...
She’s great with kids and other dogs. No cats, she is just too interested in them. She is a great companion dog; she makes no demands on anyone, loves everybody and loves attention but isn't pushy about it.

Dill is ready to be your walking partner, encouraging you to share fresh air and exercise with her. She can be your couch partner, waiting to cuddle with you and watch an old movie...

It takes a special person to adopt a dog already in the twilight of her years. When we open our hearts to an old dog in need with lumps, bumps and graying muzzles, we know that our time together will be all the more precious.

Are you that special person? The rewards of loving a senior are great indeed. She will give back tenfold."

Because North East All Retriever Rescue requires a home visit before placing a dog, she is available for adoption only in the New England area. She does however, qualify for their "Foster-to-Adopt" program. You can read all about her and learn more about NEARR's adoption policies on the website.

In the meantime, would you please tweet her story and let people know she's still looking for a home of her very own? You can do so here or from her profile on the web site. Thanks.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Exercise - the second spoke in our wheel

The only problem with having a mixed-breed dog is you really can't tell up front what their exercise needs are going to be. Not that a particular breed's exercise requirements are ever 100% accurate but having that knowledge can give you an idea of what to expect. The shelter we got Bella at told us she was a "Lab mix." Hahahaha.

There is a dog in this picture.
(But you may have to click through to find her.)


Hahahahahahahaha. Hahahaha. Hahaha.


Oh, sorry. Whew.

Where was I?

While Labs are the most popular breed in the world and odds are in their favor that the errant stray will carry some of their genetic inheritance, shelters really do have to do a better job at actually trying (or perhaps not trying at all?) to identify the breed that makes up their mixed-breed dogs.

Because, really, there is not even the remotest possibility that Bella is a Lab-mix. She does not retrieve. She doesn't even fetch. She can't catch anything, not even food, without an enormous set-up. She does not much care for water (we don't even know if she can swim). She is not impervious to pain. And, let's be honest, she's hardly of a mellow and tolerant temperament.

The second spoke in the wheel

In addressing Bella's aggression towards Jan, Dr. Dodman told us we needed to get her more exercise. I know it's trite but the saying "A tired dog is a good dog" has quite a bit of merit to it. It's tough to be on-guard and anxious about everything if you're just too pooped to putt.

And while I say that we were aware she had issues, I will admit we were totally unprepared for her exercise requirements. Heck, we went from having a 14-year-old, mellow, clingy, gentle, deaf arthritic couch-potato to a young, curious, ceaselessly energetic juvenile delinquent that the Energizer Bunny would be ill-prepared to keep up with. What we really didn't understand was just how much her energy needs would play into her behavior.

Despite her altercations with Jan, Bella is actually a very good dog. She doesn't get into the trash. She doesn't counter surf. She doesn't chew everything in sight. She doesn't get into mischief just because she doesn't have anything to do at any given time. (Well, unless she's deliberately trying to get Mom's attention and even then she just steals paper, socks or hair ties - she doesn't chew them.) The problem is she doesn't necessarily find any positive ways to release her energy either.

Of course, that's supposed to be our job.

But then, finding ways to exercise a dog that's reactive to other dogs, afraid of people and faster than lightening can be a bit of a challenge. I've shown pictures of our garden here on the blog before so it might be obvious, but we don't really have a yard that can be easily fenced in and dog parks are pretty much out of the question. We all miss the days of going to the Tufts Farm Field but the new dog park they put in is just too small for us to feel comfortable bringing Bella. (I really have to write about how/why that whole thing changed for us but that is for another day.)

Jan often takes Bella for long walks around the neighborhood but Dr. Dodman said that wasn't enough. We have several of the Nina Ottonson puzzles, any number of treat dispenser toys, numerous Kongs, puzzle balls and the squirrel house. She figures them out so fast, she gets bored with them. Like I said earlier, she doesn't fetch, she doesn't even catch so frisbees, balls and sticks aren't on our list of available options. She doesn't tug either. She likes to run, jump and wrestle. And in none of those activities is mom a worthy competitor.

So how, exactly, were we supposed to get the "one hour a day of unbridled play" Dr. Dodman said Bella would need to help her become a healthy and happy dog? The fact is, we weren't. It's just not a reality for us.


We were able to improve the situation. First, as you probably already know, we enrolled Bella in an agility class for reactive dogs. The class spends time addressing both reactivity and agility obstacles. Bella gets a huge physical workout and a tremendous mental one as well in the class. But the big reveal is: Jan built her several agility obstacles, including jumps and weave poles, so she can run around and burn energy on these at home as well. Score one for hu-dad.

The other thing I did (and in this case, I use the word "I" specifically because it took some convincing to get Jan on board with the idea) is I figured out a way to create a fenced in area in the yard without spending $25,000. (Seriously, that's a quote we got from a local fencing company of what it would cost to fence part of our yard with the type of fencing we wanted to use. Can you say "cost-prohibitive"? I think you can.)

Instead, I bought a bunch of X-pens I found on sale and, for about $250, a little ingenuity and some garden stakes, Bella now has her own little playground. It's not quite a dog park but she has enough room to run around (which she LOVES), play with agility obstacles and just generally explore.

Note: Pictures taken from inside her playground to show the fence.

Bella used to hide under the bushes when we would taker her outside with us (see first picture in this post for evidence). Now, she's getting more confident to explore further without us. She's even started lying out in the grass and not just under the bushes. She knows to come to us or go to the door to be let in whenever Bailey is out and about or the bugs start to frighten her. She is tuckered out right proper after a day of being outside with us even if she hasn't gone running full tilt for all of it.

If you're wondering how we as gardeners are coping, yes, she digs, her pee turns the grass yellow and her toenails tear up the turf better than any football player's cleats could hope to. But she loves it. And we can live with that.

Queen of all she surveys. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Thankful Thursday - For Pamela and Blog Paws Swag

I have so many thankfuls and thank yous due, I figure I have to start participating in the Thankful Thursday blog hop just to make sure I get them all in. Over the next few Thursdays, I promise I will get to saying thank you to all the kind folks who have graced us with an award over the last few months.

But first, since I'm tired and somewhat lazy today, I'm going to start by saying thank you to just one person -- Pamela from Something Wagging This Way Comes for the massively monster bag o' swag she sent us after we won the Match Game contest she ran in July.

Thanks to her fabulous clues (and my obsessive-compulsive analytical nature), I was able to match the bloggers with the pupsters and won her Bag O' Swag contest. This meant we were sent a huge bag of goodies that she picked up when she was at Blog Paws back in June. Well, I'm just going to let video speak louder than words to show you just how awesome Bella thought that was.

As you can see, Bella definitely approves.

So, thank you, Pamela. It was fun opening the package. Tons of neat treats for Bella, new products we're going to check out as well as lots of info for me to read up on. Her favorite thing in the bag, however, were the samples of "Whole Life" freeze-dried treats. A few had fallen out of their baggies and were at the bottom of the totes. This would be why I couldn't get Bella's head out of the bag.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You are what you eat. Or not.

Author's notes:

Following on last week's post about the appointment we had with Dr. Dodman of Tufts University's Behavior Clinic, the next 5 installments on Bringing up Bella are going to be a little drier than usual as I lay out what we were told, what we did and how we feel it worked.

Since we implemented a bunch of changes all at once, I want to speak first to what each of those changes was and why it was recommended. Once I get through the "spokes of the wheel", I'll get back to talking about how Bella felt about the whole thing.

On a totally unrelated note, we missed our blog-iversary last week. So, yea us! :)

Last week, when I wrote about the 5 points of focus we would take to help Bella live more comfortably with us, I knew nutrition was going to be a tough subject to write about.

First, because I'm not a nutritionist and I really haven't done the research in this area that perhaps I should have to speak authoritatively about it. I also thought it would be difficult because I had the impression we were failures in this area. Turns out, after having written the post, we didn't fail too badly after all.

Dr. Dodman, while also not a nutrionist, has seen a correlation between high protein diets and aggression so his recommendation to us was to lower Bella's protein intake. But what to make of all the focus right now on no-grain and raw food diets, as my friend Cindy pointed out in the comments last week?

To be honest, I have no idea what to say about that except that, just as for this entire series, I hope people find the information helpful but I am only relaying what we learned for our dog in dealing with a very specific, and hopefully, relatively uncommon situation.

Confession time.

This is the one spoke in the wheel in which we have, let's not say failed, let's say 'less than succeeded'. We've actually done better than we thought we were doing, now that I've done my research but we still use high protein freeze-dried raw treats during training. (Just ask Deccy and his marvelous Mums. Long story.)

The truth is Bella is a very fussy eater. Yes, the same dog that will eat slugs and goat manure compost (along with even more unmentionably unmentionables) dares to turn her nose up at perfectly good treats like Milk Bone dog biscuits or even high quality vegetarian offerings like Sam's Yams Dehydrated Sweet Potato treats.

So how do you get a dog who loves meat onto a low protein diet?

Oh but wait, it gets worse.

When Bella was first put on the medication (which we'll get to in a future post), we learned just how quick a study she was when she began rejecting all food once she figured out that's where the puppy Prosac was hiding. Bella had spit out Pill Pockets, cheese, peanut butter and any number of other treats we had come up with. Baby food worked. Once.

So, we have a really fussy puppy who won't eat, a doctor who says she needs a low protein diet and a very, very, very vocal opponent to the whole change in dinner plans.

Gratuitous picture of said vocal opponent.

Social media to the rescue - again.

I ended up putting a plea out to my Facebook friends for recommendations over what to do about a dog who refuses to take her medicine.

Some of the recommendations we recieved were:
  • "Take it away if she doesn't eat it" which is all fine and dandy except she HAD to eat to take her medicine.
  • To be fair, the friend who recommended we "just open her mouth and shove the pill down her throat" didn't know we were addressing owner-directed aggression but still, not really a suggestion we were ready to roll with.
  • And then there was "Tripe".
The life-saver award once again goes to our first trainer, Sheila, who recommended canned tripe.

We picked up a can of the stinkiest, dog-awfulest smelling slimy stuff I have ever had the (dis)pleasure of touching and what do you know! She liked it, she really liked it! And at only 22% protein, score one for Sheila. At least now we could get Bella's medicine down by burying it in teaspoons full of canned tripe. This, of course, means we actually have to touch the foul-smelling stuff. Twice a day. Not sure who won that round after all. Hrumph.

And we learn to make compromises.

Dr. Dodman's recommendation was to actually lower the protein in the treats we were using for Bella but we knew we would never get her attention during stressful events without the highest valued treats she prizes above all else. So we decided instead to change her kibble.

We used to feed Bella Nature's Variety Instinct dry dog food at a whopping 35% protein. Now the kibble portion of her dinner consists of Eukaneuba's "Small Breed Weight Control" formula at 22% protein. This specific product isn't listed on Dog Food Advisor but the Eukaneuba line gets an average rating in general from them. And we're okay with that. We're choosing our battles.

So what are the take-aways?

We didn't 'fail' as much as we thought we did.

Most of Bella's diet is low-protein now but we still use high-value, high-protein treats to get her attention during training and at the most crucial times.

It's much more important to us to have her succeed in her reactive dog training and to gain the confidence that comes from conquering a once-scary agility obstacle. It's a balance but it's one that seems to be working for us.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Sort of Wordless Wednesday 51 - Young Thor

Pay no attention to the dorky human in the picture. Just feast your eyes on my dog-nephew, Thor, when he was just a pup.

He's a little bigger now. ;)

Happy Wednesday!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Once bitten, Twice as determined to get help

When Bella's vociferous advances towards Jan on my behalf ultimately escalated to physical contact, we realized we were grossly unprepared to teach her what we felt she needed to understand - that she was safe and no one was going to hurt her here. We had tried all the tips and tricks we could find online (turn away, walk away, don't stare...) but it obviously was doing nothing to help her realize she wasn't under constant threat. Armed with the advice of our vet and our first trainer, we sought out a behaviorist to help us help her.

We made an appointment at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Animal Behavior Clinic. We chose Tufts in part because in 2007 when Beau was deathly ill, they were able to perform living-saving surgery all while treating us with kindness and respect. (They all loved Beau by the time he came home with us again.)

We also chose Tufts because the behaviorist we were lucky enough to get an appointment with was Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS, founder and director of the clinic.

That's right, folks, we here at Bringing up Bella seldom do anything halfway. If we were going to take our dog to a behaviorist, it was going to be with one of the guys who pretty much got the party started. (If the name doesn't ring a bell, think Dogs 101 or one of several books such as "The Dog Who Loved Too Much", "If Only They Could Talk" and "Dogs Behaving Badly".)

Before we got to meet the good doctor, we had to fill out a 9-page behavioral fact sheet detailing everything we knew about Bella and explaining the behavior we were seeking help with. We had to list her daily activities, diet, exercise regimen as well as any training she has had. 9 pages. Let's just say it was thorough and we hadn't even walked through the door yet.

Once we did get in the door we spent well over an hour and a half talking to Dr. Dodman while his assistant took notes. We reviewed all the information on the sheet, providing clarification or further explanation as necessary. We discussed the incident at length and considered all the factors that may have contributed to it.

Bella's 'diagnosis' at the end of the appointment was listed as "Generalized anxiety, owner-directed aggression, fear aggression, inter-dog aggression, thunderstorm phobia and - insect phobia." "Insect phobia"? Really? That's a thing? Who knew?

Well, we do now.

A treatment plan for the whole family

What I appreciated most about the visit was the attention given to Bella as a whole dog. Her health, diet and exercise needs were addressed. As were her human parents. We walked away with oodles of literature to read, recommendations to implement and, yes, medications to administer. I'll go into detail in future posts about each avenue we were advised to pursue and how we addressed them but here's a quick summary:
Nutrition - Bella's diet was assessed and determined to be a bit too high in protein which can exacerbate aggression issues mostly due to increased energy. Because we use high-value (read: high protein) treats to train her, Dr. Dodman recommended we use a lower-protein kibble for her regular meals.

Exercise - There's no such thing as too much exercise for a dog like Bella. Likely part sight-hound, largely part herding dog, the more exercise she gets, both mentally and physically, the better.

Hypothyroidism - Bella was diagnosed with hypothyroidism which has been associated with aggression especially in fearful dogs. She was prescribed Solixine to adjust her levels.

Medications - The meds aren't meant to cure her, they're meant to help her heal.

I will go into much greater detail in a future post but we were all in agreement that Bella could benefit from a very low dose of Fluoxetine (Prosac). Bella has been so stressed for so long that our attempts at training good behaviors and coping skills weren't even getting through to her. Addtionally, she was prescribed Clonidine to help with her thunderstorm phobia and this is also where we learned about the Storm Defender cape. (Jan calls it her Super Hero cape.)

Communication - Recommendations were made on how we should communicate with Bella (Jan - say what you mean and mean what you say; Leslie - "must be the one to intervene and correct" the possessive behavior). We also had an extensive conversation about learning what Bella is trying to say to us and why she may not always understand what Jan especially is trying to say.
Overall, we came away with a plan and an ally in our journey to help Bella live comfortably with us and we with her. As shown in last Thursday's video, the plan, along with her agility and reactivity training, is working.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thankful Thursday - For Bella

I wasn't planning to post today but, in light of the seriousness of recent posts here on Bringing up Bella, I thought you'd all like to see a short video of Bella in her reactive dogs agility class last night. We were all very, very proud of her.

We've been working a long time to get Bella comfortable with some of these obstacles. Today she even showed some excitement about the opportunity to run a course.

Willie, Bella's "Agility for Reactive Dogs" classmate, is on the other side of the gate visible in the doorway behind the tunnel. He was a very good boy while she ran the course and Bella wasn't even remotely distracted by him being there. This was a HUGE accomplishment for both of them.

So we are thankful for Bella's resilience, enthusiasm and curiosity, our trainers' patience and wisdom and all the good people out there researching and advocating for better ways to help fearful dogs, not only cope, but actually thrive.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Wordless Wednesday 50 - Come sit with me in the garden...

I'd like to thank Pamela from Something Wagging This Way Comes for directing us to the lovely memorial garden post over at 24 Paws of Love. It prompted me to share the story of ours. Folks who have dropped by So grows the gardener... have already heard this story but... (Did I say that out loud? Oops. Dear Jan, please don't divorce me.)

The year I lost my Beau, I was already building a new garden so it was an easy decision to turn it into a memorial garden. It was in an area that my dad once told me was his favorite place to sit in the garden. And now that he has left us also, I like to imagine them sitting there together under the Hemlocks and amongst the Hostas and ferns.