Monday, 16 July 2012


Recently I turned 53 and became a Grandfather for the first time. Does that mean I am now officially old? Old age affects people in different ways but how does it affect our dogs?

It is really difficult to comprehend that as your dog gets older you have to make changes to how you communicate with him. Both my black labs are now nine years old. Ben, the male, has gone through two major operations in his life, which most people tell you add to your years. Mentally and physically they have always been very active. They have always gone to training school and are part of a demonstration team that carry out demonstrations throughout the summer at local agricultural meetings on obedience and fun agility. The club we are with has an agility night once a month which they go to. We have a holiday home in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, were we go twice a month and for all our main holidays. At Berwick they go for even longer walks and swim in the sea, regardless how cold or rough the sea is, wouldn’t be me. However the changes I refer to are that I have noticed that it takes longer, for Ben in particular, to respond to my commands. At first I thought he was just getting more stubborn as he got older. But that is obviously not the case. As a handler it’s hard to remind yourself that it takes longer for my dog to work out what it is I’m asking him to do. It’s generally a recall because I want to move on, or get him to come so we can go in the car and head home. As dogs get older the speed with which they translate your commands into the appropriate action takes longer. As stated in the literature with this course, the signals that once speed trough the cerebral cortex at 200 miles an hour now pass through more sedately. And sometimes we forget that. I certainly do in my busy life. Physically his looks have changed; he now has a handsome grey muzzle. He also gives a moan as he lies down, or when he gets up. He prefers a comfy warm cushion, or, if he gets away with it, up on the couch is his favorite at night when we settle down to watch telly.
I walk Ben mostly and my wife walks Tess his sister. When I walk Ben I take Miya my other dog. She is a Northern Inuit aged four and a half. Miya will tend to walk out in front and Ben will now fall behind. If off lead, Miya will continue to walk out in front getting to almost 20 or 30 yards in front before stopping and looking around to see if I’m coming. Something Ben used to do early on. Now though he seems to spend a good bit longer stopping to sniff interesting smells. It has got noticeably longer over the last couple of years. Something that, until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t quite put together with the slow to react when off lead and his age. He still loves to work and he comes alive when I put on the treat bag and get out the clicker. Even now I still try and teach him new tricks and he loves it. I haven’t noticed any real change in the speed with which he eventually gets it. Physically dogs can expect to go through a lot of changes with age, similar to humans in a way.
Virtually all of the organ systems throughout the body go through some form of change affecting vision, hearing, stamina. Mentally the changes relate to a reduction in brain size, the number of brain cells. It takes longer to react as mentioned above.
Specifically changes to things like the kidneys becoming impaired. The signs of this might be an increase in the amount of water your dog might intake. This is because the kidneys filtering system begins to deteriorate resulting in drinking more in order to flush the urine through more. Ben was never really a big water drinker, however lately he is drinking more.
It is clear then that a good supply of fresh water is always available. Other systems are also affected in a similar way were deterioration occurs and the systems start to shut down. However no two dogs are the same. Breeds are different, size can be different and even siblings. Tess as I have stated is Bens sister and does not show the same levels of ageing as Ben. She doesn’t have a grey muzzle yet for example although mentally she can be a bit slower than she used to be to respond. An important thing to do at this time when you feel your dog is showing the typical signs of ageing is to take them to a vet for a check up. Your dogs life span can be extended by a few years if somethings are caught at an early stage and appropriate medicines given. Other things like arthritis can be quite common especially in dogs of larger breeds or with hereditary disorders. Another cause for expediting the on set of arthritis might be if your dog is over weight. So by taking your dog to the vet he may advise you to begin reducing the food intake or put it on a low calorie diet. These things will have a positive effect on the quality of life left in your companion. Older dogs can tend to become overweight because they exercise less and therefore need less food. We sometimes forget to cut back on their food. As mentioned earlier Vision impairment, deafness and incontinence can become an issue. I had a medium sized cross breed as my first ever dog. When she was 10 she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She had regularly visited the vet on an annual basis and so it was caught relatively early. However even then the vet told me that I would be very lucky to have her for more than a year to eighteen months. He recommended that she be put on a strict low fat diet food which could only be bought from the vet. The vet told me she could not eat anything else. Spice, that was her name, was put onto this diet and everyone in the extended family and everyone we met were told under no circumstances could they feed her anything else. I had spice until she was 18. every year I took her back to the vet he would utter his amazement at how she had adjusted to her new regime, and the fact that I was strict in what she ate and continued to exercise and train with her, left him in no doubt that it had contributed to her extended life span. Eventually her hearing went and then her sight. It wasn’t until she became unsteady on her feet and was prone to falling over we reluctantly agreed with the vet to put her to sleep. The problem was that we both worked and Spice would be left in the house for a part of the day and she could fall over and couldn’t get up. Most of her life she walked with me off lead. It wasn’t until she lost her hearing that I eventually put a collar and lead on her. But she never became incontinent so as I mention above dogs will age differently and not necessarily exhibit all of the systems normally associated with old age. Spice never got any grey muzzle, and I only realized how old she was getting, when one day she never came to me when I called. She had walked ahead in her usual fashion. She was very street smart and never once crossed the road without first stopping and waiting for my release. She was so interested in a smell that when she looked up I had already walked past her. She looked in the opposite direction to where I now was and not seeing me she took off in that direction. I called but she didn’t respond. She stopped some 100 yards further along the street. Turning around I called her again, but it was then I saw that she didn’t hear me or see me at that distance. A panicked look was in her face. I ran towards her and as I got closer she recognized me and came hurtling towards me. We were both quite relieved. It was then unfortunately that I decided she had to go on a lead. Something she obviously didn’t like and made it known.
As Ben grows older I obviously have to make some adjustments. He is still fairly active and still does a bit of fun agility. We still go for walks of up to an hour but I will start to reduce that as and when he shows signs of being out of breath or he starts to drag his feet. Keeping him warm and comfortable is now something I am aware of. As I said earlier he likes to lie up on the couch preferring that to the laminate flooring. It becomes a dilemma for him when the gas fire goes on. Do I lie on the laminate flooring or go up on the couch next to the boss. Almost every time he ends up next to me. I’m also keeping a close eye on his weight. I’m looking for the obvious changes in his shape, losing his waist line, his belly starting to hang down. We have put him onto a different dog food, one recommended for dogs of a senior year. Obviously the condition of his coat is a tell, and changing his diet will hopefully help maintain a healthy look, changes in his skin and nails are another sign to look for. The key thing at this time of your dogs life is regular visits to the vet for health checks. Changes I will need to make are to be more patient with him, a lot more tolerant and not be quick to associate any deterioration in behaviors as anything other than a time lapse in interpreting my commands. However another important thing to remember here is although your dog is getting older and Ben is showing the signs. It will be my intention to keep him active for as long as he is willing. I still teach him new things as often as possible.
Recently I have been introduced to Dog Rally, if you don’t know what this is then let me explain. Dog Rally was created in the US primarily for dogs that had retired from competitive agility. The idea was that dogs of senior years still liked to work with their owners as a team. Dog Rally consists of a circuit like and agility circuit, but the difference is that instead of jumps, walls and tunnels etc. At each station the team (You and your dog) needs to perform a designated behavior, like sit or down or stay. There can be up to about 20 stations with different things at each station. The stations are numbered like in agility and have to be followed in sequence. The whole thing is timed and can be quite competitive. For more information please see the web site It is not true to say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, it just might take a bit longer. If you have been teaching your dog from an early age, stimulating his mind and giving him problems to solve, they grow larger brains, which if continued throughout his life means he is more than capable of learning new things well into his old age. It might just take a bit longer for him to get there, but then are we in a hurry? The goal is to keep him active, healthy and happy for as long as humanly possible.
In summary then, my recipe for prolonging the life of Ben is to;
Keep him as healthy as possible by observing the condition of his coat, skin, and nails.
Being observant for things like changes in his vision and hearing.
Keeping him active but tailoring that to his stamina.
Keep stimulating his mind, providing him that opportunity by continually training him new things like Dog Rally.
Providing as much of a daily routine as possible.
Making sure he is warm and comfortable.
And try to be sensitive about what he is going through, being more tolerant and being more patient.
And ensuring he gets regular veterinary care to catch the things that I don’t see.

See you soon .........

Wednesday, 4 July 2012


In April of 2012 the BBC ran a story on the proposed scheme of compulsory micro chipping of every new born puppy. The idea behind this proposal is so that it makes it easier to trace and prosecute owners of violent dogs. Northern Ireland has already introduced a law on Microchipping this year. At the moment Scotland has no plans, but that may change. There are two voices on this proposal, firstly all the major charities welcome the idea stating that in addition it will be easy to reunite dogs with their owners should they become separated or worse stolen. Well that’s not true is it? If you read July’s issue of Dog’s Today magazine they have done a piece on the subject of micro chipping and in it they highlight a case where a woman ,Faye Moore, had her Pug stolen from the garden a few years back and had been searching frantically for it ever since. To their amazement they were contacted by the micro chip company to be told the dog had turned up somewhere near Somerset. The new owner had bought the dog from someone in Manchester and when they went along to have it micro chipped at the local vet, the vet announced it already had a chip. However the new owner decided that since he was out of pocket for considerable expenses, he intended to keep the dog. Faye Moore contacted the chip company and the Somerset Police who both told her it was a civil matter and nothing could be done. So that takes care of that argument. Let’s now consider the government’s reasons for this proposal.
It will allow authorities to trace and prosecute owners of dangerous dogs. Well what about all the ‘dangerous dogs’ that are already in existence? How does it combat that? And what happen when dogs are sold on and the micro chip details are not updated? What happens if the dog changes hands two or three times? If it ends up in rescue centers are they now liable to have all the details updated? Will that not add considerable administration to organiations that are run on charitable donations? Who is responsible for making sure the details are updated, the previous owner or the new owner?
But here is the real question, if all of the above can be overcome, and that’s a mighty BIG IF, will the fact that, every dog in the land has a microchip prevent a dog from attacking another dog, or worse a human or child? The answer to that I am afraid is NO. So if that it the sole reason for doing this then it is a waste of time and money. In 1991 The Dangerous Dog Act was introduced by Parliament, it was subsequently amended in 1997. This was breed specific legislation which was introduced to reduce the number of dog attacks on humans that had become ‘Press fodder’ in recent times.
Let’s savour that for a minute, Breed specific legislation’. In human context this would be classified as racist. To suggest that every example of a specific breed of dog is dangerous and should be banned is ill-informed, dangerous and downright offensive to experienced dog handlers around the world. Every piece of literature I have read on the subject of dog behaviour and dog training says the one thing, “There are no bad dogs, just bad handlers”. Killing dogs after they have bitten won’t reduce the number of attacks. Proper socialisation and education is the only thing that will eventually bring an end to this awful situation. So what is the answer? In my opinion, a complete shake up of the whole process from “cradle to grave” is required. If the government wants to issue legislation then it should legislate that it is illegal to breed dogs unless you have a breeder’s license. So the back street breeders would be breaking the law by breeding dogs for profit. Every breeder would be registered. If it were made illegal then owners of cross breeds would be committing an offence by letting their dogs wander around unsupervised leading to unwanted pregnancies. At the moment every dog that ends up in rescue is dressed or neutered, therefore through time most if not all cross breeds would be dressed. I believe there is still a requirement for cross breeds and a niche market would emerge for breeders of cross breeds, and they could be licensed too. When a puppy is sold every new owner should be given a socialisation pack like ‘The puppy Plan’ created in collaboration by dogs Trust and the Kennel Club. This at least gives very useful information on how to begin the socialisation of the dog. At the moment the UK has enforce a dog license scheme, but it is ineffective and worthless. For it to mean something the license should come with conditions. For example, a license should only be given out initially for six months. After which the dog and the handler has to sit an exam which demonstrates that they have received proper basic obedience training and socialisation. Evidence of such should be provided by means of a certificate issued by a registered club or trainer. A list of registered clubs or trainers should be kept and said clubs or trainers should have reached a certain standard of qualification through a recognised training body, like The Kennel Club Good Citizen Scheme, The British Institute of Professional Dog Trainers or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. An owner would then be given a full license which could be produced upon request by the appropriate authorities at any time. There are many hurdles to overcome before this blueprint can ever be realised, but if such a thing were to happen it would take care of many issues with regards to the anti behaviour of some dogs. Namely the reduction in back street breeders operating purely for profit, the removal of unprofessional and unqualified trainers and or behaviourists who have emerged during the boom years which has seen dog behaviour come into every front room in the country through the magic of television on such programmes as The Dog Whisperer, It’s Me or the Dog and Dog Borstal. I have no issue with any of these programmes and indeed I applaud them on how they have highlighted in many cases that the anti social behaviour of the dogs in these programmes are largely down to how they have been handled by their owners. However on the back of these programmes there seems to be a ground swell in the number of ‘Behaviourists and trainers’ around. In summary I believe the measures being introduced by the government will have little effect on the number of dog attacks on children and adults and as such is a shame. We should deal with this problem like we deal with other anti-social problems, at source, from the grass roots. Why is it different because we are talking about dogs??