Monthly Archives: October 2019
Vibration collars are frequently suggested as a good tool for communicating with hearing-impaired dogs. I hadn’t had much experience with them, so when I was asked to write an article on them several months ago, I realized it was a great opportunity to expand my own education, and I jumped at the chance.
Actually, this is far from the truth. For starters, I am not much of a tech or gadget person. (There’s a reason I work with animals for a living and not electronics!) Plus, my only prior experience using a vibration collar had been a failure. We had a deaf pit bull-mix in our Behavior Modification Academy a few years ago. We worked with her for five straight days, but we couldn’t get her to acknowledge the vibrations even once, not even on the highest setting!
Also, a vibration collar looks very similar to a shock collar, and my negative association with shock collars is so strong it gives me the heebie jeebies (technical scientific behavioral term) to even look at the one that WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns had shipped bought on Amazon.com and had shipped to me. I dragged my heels on actually opening the box until I had to do it!
There are a number of remote-controlled dog collars on the market that offer a vibration mode in addition to the ability to shock the dog, and we would never advocate buying or using those collars. Products that are designed to shock are clearly meant to be used in an aversive manner, to startle and/or hurt the dog in order to stop him from doing something. This is not how we advocate training dogs.
Then there are collars that do not produce shock, only vibration, but that are marketed with claims that the vibration can be used as a more humane or gentler alternative to a collar that delivers shock. In our view, this is completely missing the point. A less-unpleasant punisher is still a punisher. We advocate training without pain or fear.
This isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s an entirely different training philosophy. We were looking for a product that produced a vibration that would be used only as a cue for the dog. As such, we wouldn’t want a collar that could produce a vibration so strong that it resulted in a dog’s fear or discomfort or avoidance.
Unfortunately, the marketing of these products just isn’t at all congruent with what we see as their best use. Even the collar we had the best results with, the one that came with the highest recommendation from a trainer who uses it for deaf dogs (the Wolfwill Dog Training Collar) is marketed for use as an aversive. The box itself says that with just the push of a button, your dog will “quickly learn the association between his behavior and your correction; in no time, you’ll have a better-behaved pet.” Argh!
That’s not at all how we recommend using these collars.
Since I don’t have a hearing-impaired dog of my own, I put out a call to my trainer network seeking volunteers with deaf dogs who might be interested in trying a vibration collar. While I was waiting to schedule appointments, I took the Wolfwill collar out of its box and took a closer look.
Now, I’m aware that when you already have a negative association with something, it’s easy to find things you don’t like about it (confirmation bias) – but I found a lot of things to dislike about the collar. (See “Wolfwill Vibration Collar: The Negatives,” on page 10.) However, my assignment was to explore the value of using this type of collar for training, so I put the negatives aside and made arrangements to work with three different dogs.
As it turned out, I was also able to compare the Wolfwill with another vibration collar. One of my interns, Peggy Bowers, happened to have the same collar that I had tried a few years ago: the Gentle Trainer GT-1 by Unleashed Technology. Peggy had used the collar successfully on another dog, so we decided to try it again, as well as the Wolfwill product. For these experiments, we were joined by another one of my training interns, Layne Tubby.
The three of us tested the collars on ourselves to see what we could feel. The Gentle Trainer has prongs that are similar to those on a shock collar. But we found that its vibration wasn’t really noticeable on the prongs themselves; only the receiver box itself seemed to vibrate. In contrast, the vibration on the Wolfwill is delivered via a curved plate rather than prongs, and the vibration was clearly noticeable on the plate.
The Gentle Trainer had a significant difference in intensity of vibration between the low setting (1 – barely noticeable) and the high (15). The Wolfwill was considerably stronger when set on its lowest setting (1) than the other collar’s lowest setting, but Layne and I could barely feel a difference between 1 and its highest setting (16) – just a longer pulse. Peggy, however, said that the highest setting on this collar sent an unpleasant sensation down her hand and arm that she found quite aversive.
The Gentle Trainer supposedly can be used with a half mile between the remote control and the collar. The Wolfwill is supposed to be capable of working at a maximum distance of about one third of a mile.
HOW WE USED THE COLLARS
I see the primary benefit of a vibration collar as an attention-getter for a hearing-impaired dog – although another valuable use could be to teach a “find me” recall. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible to vary the vibrations enough for a dog to easily distinguish a variety of different cues using the collar alone. The owners agreed – their primary goal would be to have an “attention” signal.
With each of the dogs, we did a brief introduction to the collar, feeding chicken treats without vibration, feeding treats while it vibrated near the dog, and then feeding treats while we held it against the dog’s neck. Some dogs can find a vibration aversive and I wanted to maximize our potential for having our test dogs accept it.
None of the dogs seemed concerned, so we proceeded by putting the collar on the dog. Our goals were to see if:
- The dog acknowledged the vibration when the collar was on his neck.
- The dog would begin to offer a “conditioned emotional response” (CER) to the vibration – that is, to show an awareness that the vibration meant “Chicken!” by turning toward his owner when the signal was sent.
- We could begin to establish a recall cue by having the dog move toward the owner in response to the signal at increasing distances.
We realized this was quite an ambitious agenda for just one session with the collar, but we were interested to see how much we could accomplish.
TESTS WITH SPUD
Our first test dog was Spud, a two-year-old congenitally deaf French Bulldog, belonging to Jordan Cruz and referred by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Leslie Sinn. His deafness was the result of a breeding between two merle parents – dogs with a coat color pattern that consists of a typically bluish- or reddish-gray mixed with splotches of black or reddish-brown. Double-merle dogs have a very high chance of being deaf, blind, or both.
In addition to being deaf, Spud has other behavioral issues, including anxiety and potential obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It is not unusual for other neurodevelopmental disorders, including blindness and difficulty processing information, to be part and parcel of the world of a double-merle dog.
Spud showed absolutely no awareness of vibrations from the Gentle Trainer collar. He did cock his head in acknowledgment on the first test of the Wolfwill, and while he continued to show signs of awareness that something was going on when it vibrated, after 15 minutes or so of tests, he showed no indication of giving a positive CER. Rather, at that point his signs of stress appeared to be increasing, so we ended the session.
My conclusion: A vibration collar will be helpful for Spud only if future training sessions are successful in establishing a CER – a positive association between the vibration and his chicken-dispensing human.
TESTS WITH LIVVY
Livvy is a deaf three-year-old double-merle Australian Shepherd who has very limited (and declining) vision. On the recommendation of veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall, Livvy’s owner had come to me for a behavior consultation in November 2018; she wanted to learn how to reduce Livvy’s severe reactivity to moving vehicles, dogs, and other objects. Dr. Overall had diagnosed Livvy with severe visual and hearing impairment, possible panic disorder, and hyper-reactivity, especially to moving triggers and some noises.
Irene Schmalz, Livvy’s owner, had done a little work in the past with my intern Peggy Bowers with the Gentle Trainer collar. In those sessions, Livvy had acknowledged the vibration signal after about five to 10 repetitions, but had not offered any CERs.
That’s why, for these sessions, we opted to use the Wolfwill collar and skip the Gentle Trainer, as we knew we were likely to see better results with the product that vibrated more noticeably. Livvy immediately acknowledged the signal with a turn of her head and began offering consistent CERs after 20 signal repetitions.
We began increasing the distance between Livvy and her owner – ultimately to about three feet. About half the time, upon feeling the signal Livvy would go to Irene, but sometimes, she would go to Peggy instead. That’s when we realized our error of initially having Peggy feed the chicken – duh!
We took a break and started over again, triggering the vibration and then having Irene feed Livvy a piece of chicken, until Livvy was consistently showing CERs when she felt the vibration. Once it was clear she had the vibration/chicken-from-Irene association down pat, we redid the distance work with significantly better results.
Conclusion: A vibration collar could be very useful for Livvy and Irene. Livvy responded well, and with her vision impairment as well as her deafness, the collar could be very instrumental in maintaining a good quality of life for her. Despite her impairments, Livvy is independent, and being blind as well as deaf puts her at an even greater risk of getting disoriented and lost.
Irene is already doing Nosework with another excellent trainer; I suggested that Irene work with the trainer on having Livvy find her by scent. Then they could pair the “find Irene by scent” task with a vibration cue, for maximum benefit.
We also discussed the value of adding touch cues to Livvy’s repertoire – a light touch above the tail for a sit, on the shoulders for a down, etc. – as the hand signals Irene has been using to communicate to her dog will become increasingly less useful as Livvy’s sight continues to fail.
TESTS WITH MAGGIE
Our third test dog was a 13-year-old terrier-mix who is losing her hearing due to her age. Maggie has the advantage of 13 years of hearing, so she already knows behaviors that her owner, Elizabeth White, has taught her over the years.
Maggie does, however, have several age- and health-related challenges, including arthritis (lameness despite pain-relief medication) and two large lipomas (fatty tumors). Elizabeth was very interested in the collar because she routinely walks her dog off-leash (so the leash doesn’t interfere with Maggie’s effort to ambulate without pain), and she would like to be able to get Maggie’s attention when the dog gets distracted, stops to sniff, and falls behind.
Maggie immediately acknowledged the vibration with a turn of her head and was offering consistent, happy CERs after just five repetitions.
We began adding distance and found that because Maggie is so connected to her human it was hard to tell if she was responding to the collar and returning to Elizabeth, or just choosing to return because she wanted to be close to her. With Spud and Livvy, we had worked indoors only, but we decided to go outside with Maggie to see how the collar worked where she was more likely to be distracted.
Outdoors, off leash, and with more distractions, it was easier to see when Maggie was truly responding to the collar – which was most of the time (Yay!). We had about an 80 percent success rate, with just a few occasions when Elizabeth had to push the button longer to get Maggie to acknowledge and come to her, which did eventually happen in under 20 seconds. (Note: The vibration pulse shuts off after 10 seconds – you have to release, and after several seconds push the button again.) I suggested she also pair the vibration with her verbal cue while Maggie can still hear her to strengthen the association.
Conclusion: A vibration collar could be useful for Maggie, and Elizabeth has the added benefit of being able to train Maggie to make the recall association while she can still hear. Elizabeth has already ordered a Wolfwill collar for Maggie.
I have to say, I am feeling quite positive about the benefits of using a vibration collar for dogs with hearing loss. Despite my initial reservations, and the significant flaws of both brands of collar that we worked with, it will certainly be something I recommend to owners of deaf dogs as a useful communication tool.
I want to applaud Jordan, Irene, and Elizabeth. It was heartwarming to see how connected and committed these owners are to their dogs and rewarding to be able to help explore new ways to open lines of communication between the owners and their deaf (or nearly deaf) dogs.
I recently learned a new word: haptic. It refers to any technology involving the sense of touch, so vibration collars are technically “haptics,” and the signals you send when you press the button are “haptic cues.”
An exciting new development in the world of haptic cues is the “haptic vest” for dogs, designed by Israeli scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. In results presented this past summer at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) World Haptics Conference in Tokyo, the researchers reported that cues issued by gentle vibration motors in the vest were as effective as vocal cues.
The dog used for the study was Tai, a middle-aged Labrador- mix. Tai already knew four vocal cues for turn, lie down, come, and back up, so teaching him haptic cues for those behaviors was “not a large leap,” says lead author (and Tai’s owner) Yoav Golan, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at Ben-Gurion University. The dog learned his first haptic cue – to spin, or turn in a circle – in about an hour. His second cue, to lie down, took longer to learn, partly because scientists had to adjust a motor on Tai’s hip so he could better feel the vibration. A third cue, come, took 15 minutes to learn.
If it pans out commercially, the vest would be able to give much more precise cues than a vibrating collar and could be used to teach a variety of behavior cues to a hearing-impaired dog. While a long way from arriving on the commercial market, the researchers tout future possible uses for the vest, including police and military work, as well as a way for speech-impaired humans to communicate to their dogs and hearing-impaired dogs to understand their humans’ communications.
Last weekend, I flew down to San Diego, California, to spend
a couple of days with my sister-in-law and niece (who had also flown to San
Diego from northern California), to watch my son compete in the national finals
for his sport. We watched some games, cheered and took pictures, and then went
to the beach closest to the sports park where the games were held, so we could
watch the sunset.
As luck would have it, the closest beach turned out to be a
famous and locally loved “dog beach” – and we enjoyed the sunset there,
watching a couple dozen dogs romp in the waves and dig in the sand.
I went back the next morning, before my son’s competition
had started, to take some more pictures with my camera, not just a cell phone.
On this visit, I spent a little more time checking out the area, and discovered
something that we had walked right past on the previous evening. Right near the
street, next to the dog-water fountain, is a precious little “memorial rock
garden,” with the names of dogs who have enjoyed the beach and have since
passed away, painted onto the rocks.
I was so touched by this little garden! It was colorful and
simple, not in anyone’s way or ostentatious, but a beautiful place to remember
some of the beloved dogs who had lived near and enjoyed that particular beach
in the past. I can so easily imagine walking my dogs to the beach for a play
session, and calling out a cheery “Good morning!” to the stone bearing my
deceased dog’s name. It would comfort me to see the stone and my dog’s name
(and perhaps, some of his playmates!) every time I visited, to remind me of
joyous visits to that beach in the past.
Is there a pet memorial at a dog park or beach near you? I
would love to see this catch on and appear elsewhere!
A lifelong reader of mystery novels—thank you, Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie—I’m partial to what’s known as Nordic noir, Scandinavian crime fiction that’s often as dark and cold as the landscapes in which the books are set (UK-based police procedurals are also high on my “must-read” list). However, when a new book by American writers Spencer Quinn, David Rosenfelt or Laurien Berenson comes out, I’m on it like a dog on a liver treat.
Wishes were granted recently when the following tumbled onto my reading list: Heart of Barkness (#9 in Quinn’s “Chet & Bernie” series/Minotaur), Bark of Night (#19 in Rosenfelt’s “Andy Carpenter” series/MacMillan) and Bite Club (#23 in Berenson’s “Melanie Travis” series/Kensington). Part of the pleasure is meeting up with old friends, which is what, by now, these characters have become. Another part is the writers’ reliably entertaining styles. And, of course, there’s the dog thing.
Not to be underestimated is the palate-cleansing nature of these stories. Yes, there’s usually a murder (or a few murders) involved, and yes, there are blind alleys and misdirection and the occasional dangerous moment. But by comparison, after a run of books by writers such as Jo Nesbø, Val McDermid or Denise Mina, these puzzles are rays of sunshine.
In Heart of Barkness, a country singer’s past is full of secrets that are coming back to bite her (which Chet the dog would never do). PI Bernie Little, who not only loves the singer’s music but is also afflicted with more curiosity than six of your average cats, stops by a local dive bar to hear the singer, sees things that puzzle him and sets out to help her, even though she clearly doesn’t want his help. A murder in the present sends him back to a murder in the past. As always, Chet’s narration makes the story a fine ride; Spencer Quinn’s ability to write in the voice of a dog and have it read as absolutely authentic is unmatched. Plus, Quinn knows his way around the Southwest and its environmental issues, and has a deft way of including them.
Moving on to Bark of Night, reluctant New Jersey defense attorney and committed dog rescuer Andy Carpenter again sidles sideways into a case after being contacted by his vet about a young and healthy French Bulldog dog brought in by a sketchy stranger to be euthanized. The vet, who didn’t carry out the instruction and still has the dog, turns to Carpenter for help. The pup’s real owner—a documentary filmmaker—turns up dead, and the young man who’s arrested for the deed becomes Carpenter’s client. In this case, we know “who dunit” at the start of the book; we just don’t know why. As the story unfolds, however, that becomes clear, and we wait for Carpenter (and the police) to catch up as bodies accumulate and the attorney looks for something he can use to get his client off the hook.
Where Bernie Little is heartfelt and serious and Andy Carpenter is a self-deprecating wisecracker, Berenson’s Connecticut-based Melanie Travis is, in many ways, sister to Susan Conant’s Holly Winter. Where Winter organizes her life around Alaskan Malamutes, Travis has Standard Poodles. Both fictional women have supportive male partners and a few aggravating relatives. And both look at the world through dog-colored glasses. So, no surprise that in Bite Club, Poodles play a big part, as do other breeds, since some of the action is set at dog shows and on grooming tables. It begins with Travis’s idea to assemble a few friends to talk about dog books and drink wine (aka, the Bite Club). In short order, the infant book club is highjacked by her aunt, a dog-show judge who makes the most stubborn Dachshund look like the soul of cooperation. She expands the guest list considerably, much to Travis’s chagrin. One of the club members, a man no one knows well, adopts a Bulldog puppy and turns to Travis for help training him. Well, it’s a murder mystery, so someone’s going to die, and it turns out to be the puppy’s owner. Who would want to kill such a nondescript guy? Half the people in the book club, Travis discovers when she starts snooping around (um, investigating) on her own. As in the “Holly Winter” series, not only do readers get a diverting story, they also get lots of behind-the-scenes intel on dog shows and the main character’s preferred breed.
Also on the reading list is what’s billed as the first in a new series by Kylie Logan: The Scent of Murder (Minotaur), set in Cleveland. Jazz Ramsey is a girl’s-school administrator who trains cadaver dogs in her spare time. While helping out a fellow cadaver-dog trainer, she and Luther, the young dog she’s working with, actually find a body, not something she anticipated. Even more surprising, she recognizes the victim, who had been a student at her school. At that point, the police are called in and Ramsey’s off-license detecting has more to do with people and less to do with dogs. Which leads to a small quibble: in this book, the dog connection is more peripheral than central. Still, it’s an entertaining read, and provides some interesting details about how these dogs are trained. Since Ramsey also has romantic history with one of the police detectives involved, there’s a little emotional tension as well.
If you’re in the market for a diversion as the weather (eventually) cools and the days get shorter, give these books a try—reconnect with an old friend or make a new one!
I use labels. I find that labels make it easy to talk to other people. I talk about shy dogs, reactive dogs, nervous dogs, driven dogs, etc. Labels are a part of language and exist for a reason – shorthand communication.
Of course, there are problems that come along with this shorthand communication. First is misunderstanding! Your “shy” and my “shy” might not be the same, and while that might not matter in casual conversation, sometimes it matters very much. This is particularly true if the audience/person I am speaking with is not from my normal social or professional circle, since other individuals from one’s circle are likely to use language in a similar way. I don’t find that to be much of a problem because I can adjust my choice of language and/or descriptors according to my audience, and I can ask clarification questions if it is important that I understand exactly what the dog might be doing to have earned the label of shy. However, some people do struggle with this because they are either not attentive to the results of their attempted communication or they make assumptions about the common use of language which are not warranted or maybe they are simply more interested in speaking than in being understood. If you want to be understood or if it genuinely matters, make a point of checking for comprehension and shared usage, especially when speaking with a nonstandard (to you) audience. If people are staring at you without asking questions, odds are pretty good something went wrong. And if you are about to help someone with their dog’s shy behavior, you better make sure you’re on the same page.
The second potential problem with labels is how they structure our thinking. Not only do labels provide shorthand for conversation, they also frame how we think. That is neither good nor bad, but it does lead to a fairly common result – specifically, once we apply a label we are not quick to remove them, even if the evidence suggests that the label is no longer accurate.
Is your shy dog still shy? Is your reactive dog still reactive?
Here’s an example. Brito has been reactive towards dogs. What do I mean by reactive? When he sees a single dog in the distance, he barks, growls, lunges, etc. Basically, he was an irritating jerk when I took him for a walk. That’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable for me because that’s ruining my pleasant walk. It’s not acceptable for him, because one presumes that practicing that behavior is activating the wrong part of him emotional systems. And it’s not acceptable for society, who would like to exist without the presence of a small irritant disturbing the communal space.
As a result, when I decided I wanted to make walks a regular part of his life, I structured a training plan to deal with the reactive behavior. I spent the next few months working intently on this issue, and…. it worked.
He’s not reactive anymore. It would no longer be accurate to use that label. He’s actually perfectly pleasant to take for a walk. He is pleasant in his interactions with individual dogs and with groups. Indeed, if a person watched his behavior, whether trained in dog behavior or not, they would say he has very good social skills.
How about you? Do you remember to go through that step – removing labels that are no longer accurate? When you’re working with your dog, do you look back and consider if your dog still fits the labels that you have applied?
There are two reasons for taking the time to do this. The first is simple; it’s an evaluation of your training plan. If you’ve been working on your dog’s shy, reactive, possessive etc. behavior for years, then one might argue it’s not working for you if it’s still there – change your plan, unless the plan was management rather than behavior change all along, which is perfectly fine. The second reason is accuracy and new options! If your dog no longer shows shy, reactive, possessive behavior, you might make different choices for you and your dog. Go ahead and take your formally reactive dog on walks through the neighborhood!
Take a moment to look at the dogs you have. Consider the labels you have applied to describe behavior. Are the labels still accurate? And if they are not, how might you change your vocabulary and thinking to more closely match what is actually happening front of you?
I’d love to hear from you! How do you use labels? Do they help or hurt you? Do you evaluate your dog’s behavior over time?
According to the ASPCA, there are 1.6 million dogs adopted every year in the United States. These canines can range from puppies to seniors, from purebred to a variety of mixed breeds, and have all sorts of different backgrounds, experiences, and temperaments.
When you decide to welcome one of these dogs into your home and have them become a part of your family it’s essential that you do everything you can to make her feel at ease and look for ways to make a true and unbreakable bond. It may be challenging at times, but it’ll be completely worth it in the end. Here are five ways we recommend connecting with your canine and making a friend for life.
Mercury, my Chihuahua-mix, turned 17 years old this year, making him (by far) the oldest dog amongst all of my friend’s dogs. When people see him, I’m always proud that they can hardly believe he’s as old as he is. Despite his age, Mercury is still in great physical shape and maintains an active life.
Though Mercury is still very active I can tell he is slowing down and there are days when, just for a moment, he seems a bit confused. Our vets indicate that this is a normal part of aging, but it has me worried.
It’s been estimated that more than 14% of pet dogs over the age of 8 show some symptoms of age-related cognitive dysfunction – and a whopping 68% of dogs aged 15 to 16 years have symptoms of cognitive impairment.
Some pet owners might joke about “doggie Alzheimer’s,” but it’s a real thing. The degenerative brain disease that is very similar to Alzheimer’s in humans is properly called Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD).
Gaemia Tracy, DVM, is a neurologist at NorthStar Vets in Washington Township, New Jersey. He says that dogs with CCD generally exhibit behavioral changes ranging from a loss of housetraining to aggression, and often appear confused or disoriented. All dogs are at an equal risk; there are no known associations between breed or size and the risk of developing CCD. Dr. Tracy notes that he generally sees signs of CCD developing in affected dogs after the age of 8 to 10.
Dog owners are usually the first to notice that something is wrong or different with their dogs. Common symptoms to watch for include pacing, turning in circles, staring into space, or seeming lost and confused. In many cases, the dog’s temperament changes. Dogs who have been generally friendly may begin to show aggression – and typically aggressive dogs may become unusually friendly!
Dogs experiencing an onset of CCD may also start to have difficulty navigating stairs or seem confused about how to get around furniture. CCD may also lead to dogs isolating and seeking out less attention, or generally become more fearful or anxious.
Veterinarians use the acronym DISHAA to describe typical symptoms of CCD. This stands for:
- Disorientation – Examples include getting lost in familiar places, doing things like standing at the hinge side of the door waiting for it to open, or getting “stuck” behind furniture.
- Interactions – Changes in how or even whether the dog interacts with his people. He may withdraw from his family, and become more irritable, fearful, or aggressive with visitors. In contrast, the dog may become overdependant and “clingy,” in need of constant contact.
- Sleep – Changes in sleep patterns (such as being wakeful or restless in the middle of the night), vocalization at night.
- Housetraining – Increased house-soiling and/or a decrease in signaling to go out are common. Or a dog goes outside for a while and then eliminates in the house right after coming inside, or soils his crate or bed.
- Activity level – Decrease in exploration or play with toys or family members, and/or an increase in aimless pacing or wandering.
- Anxiety – Increased anxiety when separated from owners, more reactive or fearful to visual or auditory stimuli, increased fear or new places.
Recently, the letter “L” was added to the end of the acronym:
- Learning/memory – Decreased ability to perform learned tasks, decreased responsiveness to familiar cues, inability/slow to learn new tasks.
Dylan Fry, DVM, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (DACVIM), a neurologist at NorthStar VETS, also notes that it’s important to watch for new compulsive behaviors (such as pacing) from your senior dog, as these, too, could be symptoms of CCD. If your dog is exhibiting any of the above symptoms or has developed a behavior or personality change, it’s a good idea for your dog to be seen by a veterinarian so you can discuss your concerns about CCD and rule out any other conditions like arthritis or other pain, vision, or hearing changes that may cause similar symptoms.
HOW IS CCD DIAGNOSED
Before your veterinarian can diagnose CCD, he or she will discuss the symptoms you are seeing at home and possible alternate causes. Your veterinarian is likely to do a thorough examination and blood work to rule out other causes.
“CCD is a diagnosis of exclusion,” says Laurie Bergman, VMD, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (DACVB), a veterinary behaviorist with New Jersey’s NorthStar VETS. “First we have to rule out possible medical causes of these changes, including endocrinopathies (thyroid disorders), pain, and changes in sensory function.”
Dr. Bergman notes that the time it takes to get a proper diagnosis can be frustrating for dog owners, but warns that even if your dog shows what seems like clear symptoms of CCD, the symptoms could be tied to a different condition. Tumors, inflammation, and infection in the brain can mimic the symptoms of CCD; if a dog is showing symptoms of CCD that can’t be connected to other conditions, veterinarians may recommend using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to confirm the diagnosis. MRIs can show specific changes in a dog’s brain, such as atrophy or shrinking, which can aid in the diagnosis.
Like Alzheimer’s in humans, CCD is a progressive illness. Dogs who have CCD don’t get better, but the condition can be managed. While the condition will worsen over time, says Dr. Fry, “the speed at which this occurs is variable.” Many dogs who have CCD can continue to lead comfortable and enriched lives.
That said, dogs with CCD will require careful supervision and specific management to ensure that they are kept safe. Dr. Loenser notes that dogs with CCD are particularly prone to accidents such as falling down stairs, wandering off, or being hit by a car. “As long as the dogs are kept safe,” she says, “their prognosis is fair.”
There is one medication that is widely prescribed for dogs with CCD: Anipryl (selegiline hydrochloride). It been shown to slow the progression of CCD and may improve an affected dog’s brain function.
Your vet may also discuss additional medications to improve your dog’s quality of life. For dogs who struggle to maintain a normal sleep cycle, Dr. Fry encourages owners to try giving their dogs melatonin, a hormone that can be purchased over the counter in most grocery or health food stores. This can sometimes help dogs adjust their internal clock and sleep more soundly.
Additionally, anti-anxiety medications have also been shown to be helpful for some dogs with CCD. As with all supplements and medications, ask your vet whether any of these might be helpful for your dog.
WHAT TO DO AT HOME
There are a number of things that you can do at home to support your dog as her condition progresses. The most important task is managing your dog’s personal and household routines to keep her comfortable and safe.
Dr. Loenser specifically advises that guardians should try to limit the amount of change in a CCD dog’s life. It’s really helpful to stick very closely to known routines and to be slow to make any kind of changes to those routines – including everything from who is in the home to furniture placement, mealtimes, etc.
In particular, if your dog has CCD, you need to protect her from things in your environment that can be dangerous, especially stairs, decks without railings, and other dangers in your yard, as she may have lost good judgment regarding heights. You’ll also need to be especially attentive to your dog when on walks in order to keep her safe; she may wade too deeply into swift water, or step into the path of an oncoming bicyclist. Even if her past behavior and training has long been so good that she has been able to walk with you unleashed in the past, she may no longer have the cognitive capacity to do this safely any more.
A breakdown in housetraining is a common symptom of canine CCD. When dealing with this condition, “understanding goes a long way,” Dr. Bergman says. It’s important to remember that your dog isn’t lazy, spiteful, or trying to be bad, he just doesn’t know better anymore. Belly bands (for male dogs) and doggie diapers (for females) may be needed to prevent house-soiling by a dog who just doesn’t realize that she’s “going.”
It’s tempting to pamper older dogs, but this must include keeping them active. Making the comparison to how it is commonly accepted that “brain games” such as crossword puzzles can slow the onset of dementia in humans, Dr. Bergman advises that regular mental enrichment may slow the progression of CCD in dogs. Any kind of training, exercise, and social engagement can support the mental fitness of aging dogs.
Of course, you should also be attentive to your older dogs’ physical condition; don’t push them to do anything too strenuous. Low-impact sports like scent work and trick training can be great ways to keep your senior dog’s mind active.
Food-dispensing toys and puzzles are particularly good for senior dogs, who may not have as much interest in playing any more, but still enjoy their food! For older dogs at risk of CCD, Dr. Dylan suggests trying to keep them awake during the day, if possible, in order to establish and maintain a healthy sleep/wake cycle.
That sounds challenging – and with multiple senior dogs in my home I’m abundantly aware of exactly how challenging it can be to keep them healthy and safe. CCD is concerning, but it’s comforting to know there are treatment options available to slow the progression of the disease.
Food and supplements can play a part in maintaining optimal canine cognitive functioning and supporting an aging canine brain. Dr. Fry advises talking with your vet about adding antioxidant supplements that have shown benefits for the brain, such as Denosyl, which contains S-Adenosylmethionine (SAM-e), into your dog’s diet. The most advantageous time to do this, he says, is in your dog’s “middle age” –before she shows any signs of CCD.
In addition, Dr. Tracy advises owners to feed diets high in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish oil) and medium-chain triglycerides (found in coconut oil), which may be neuroprotective and even decrease the likelihood that a dog will develop CCD.
Both veterinarians recommend commercially available diets such as Purina’s Bright Mind 7+, Purina Pro Plan’s NeuroCare, or Hill’s Science Diet BD. These products include supplements and/or therapeutic levels of nutrients that studies have shown may support cognitive functioning in senior dogs.
Editor’s note: The above-named products don’t generally have the characteristics we look for in a quality dog food. However, if a trial of a month or more of feeding one of these foods results in any improvement in your dog’s CCD, it makes sense to continue feeding the product! Or, owners may opt to discuss with their veterinarian how best to supply their dog with nutrients that may improve their senior dog’s cognitive function. These may include arginine, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA, another omega-3 fatty acid), and B vitamins.
Eileen Anderson is an Arkansas-based author who also maintains the Dog Dementia website (dogdementia.com), a resource for people whose dogs have been diagnosed with CCD or are displaying symptoms of the disease. Anderson’s book Remember Me?: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, not only chronicles her experience caring for her dog, Cricket, who was diagnosed with CCD in 2011 at the age of 15, but also helps guide other dog owners through what they need to know to best care for their dogs with CCD.
“It breaks my heart that the vast majority of people who find my site have dogs who are in late stages,” Anderson says. “These owners are usually already grappling with the oncoming choices about euthanasia. I hope that more people can learn about CCD and begin to see the signs much earlier so they can take steps to slow the process.”
Anderson has developed a printable checklist that includes an extensive list of CCD symptoms, designed to help dog owners recognize the signs and then keep records of behaviors their dog may exhibit, so they can remember to bring up these with their veterinarians. The checklist includes varied symptoms to watch for, including not responding to her name, seeking less attention, getting trapped under furniture, and being frightened of once-familiar people. (The checklist can be seen here: tinyurl.com/WDJ-CCD.)
Anderson also encourages people to keep in mind that while CCD is very upsetting for dog owners to grapple with, it isn’t always as traumatic for our dogs. “We remember the dog’s former vibrancy,” she says. “But if we take a good look, dogs who pace may not be distressed. They don’t remember what they have lost. And if dogs still have pleasures in life, and guardians who are attentive and who can help provide those, they still may have good months or years ahead of them.”
Keeping dogs with CCD comfortable is key. Anderson has become an expert in strategies for supporting aging dogs and ensuring their homes are safe. She has found that putting bathmats and yoga mats on floors can help dogs who are unsteady or disoriented. She also encourages people to put dog beds, food dishes, and water bowls in a number of locations in the house, so that disoriented dogs can find them while wandering. “I put water stations in corners because Cricket ended up in corners a lot,” Anderson says. She also advises that owners of dogs with CCD monitor and/or remove mobility ramps as well as access to stairs because the dogs may no longer have the cognitive ability to safely navigate them.
Enrichment is key for all dogs, but especially dogs with CCD. Anderson offers the important perspective that even if activity doesn’t slow the progression of CCD for a particular dog, keeping these dogs mentally and physically active will help keep their overall quality of life as high as possible.