A blog about dog behavior and training...and all other things dog!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reddy makes a splash! (Adventures in Swimming part 2)

Back to the great adventures of swimming dogs…
So now that I’d finished with Buffet and he was towel dried and handed off to his “Mom," it was time to swim his brother, Reddy. I looked down at him, watched him dance around nervously, heard his excited and somewhat anxious whining, and thought, “am I “ready” for Reddy?” I don’t mind telling you, that I was pooped. Not only had I swum other dogs earlier that day, but Buffet had proven to be a real workout. I was now sporting several scratches and a few bruises from his wilder moments and I didn’t relish the idea of collecting more. I’d always considered Reddy the more energetic of the two, and he looked charged up and “loaded for bear” at this point.

Reddy is a beautiful red dog with a large white collar, amber eyes and freckles on is face. He‘s a bit larger than Buffet and outweighs him by a few pounds. A sweet, athletic dog with tons of power and energy, he tends to take the lead when the two of them are together and can be a very pushy boy when the spirit moves him. Now normally I’m quite taken with this lovely creature with his confidence and strength, but after going several rounds with his water-ninja brother, I wasn’t looking forward to taking on an even larger “competitor” for the next round. As I said earlier, even dogs that learn to love the water can be real handfuls the first time you take them into the pool.

My dog Willow was still in the pool when I started. I’d left her in there while I dried off Reddy’s brother and did the exchange. She’s normally very quiet and calm when she’s in the pool, but she’d caught some of the excitement of her two sons and was whining and anxiously watching us as I brought Reddy into the room. He’d been pretty excited when I had his brother in the pool and now his energy seemed to be building from that of a mild rainstorm to the beginnings of a full blown hurricane.

I walked him up onto the ramp and watched his eyes go from normal to dinner plate size. I thought that I’d better just get him in the water before he started to really lose it, so I lifted him up and over the water and carried him to the swim step. I set him down and waited for the inevitable moment of explosive panic that I believed was coming. Reddy simply froze. I mean not a single movement...his body as still and stiff as a chiseled statue. I know this dog really, really well: after all, I was there when he was born, but I was a little shaken by the stillness of his body and the size of his eyes. If you don’t know dogs, you might think, “Oh good, he’s going to cooperate!” but when a dog freezes and gets that very intense look in his eyes, you’ve really got to be cautious about what might happen next.

Meanwhile, his human “ mom” Dana, was chattering and laughing and having the time of her life. She was safely out of reach, watching from an open observation window at the other end of the pool. She had no idea that we were probably seeing the “calm before the storm," and that I was most likely going to get a little beat up very soon. She was watching her “boys” have this wonderful new experience, and smiling and cracking jokes, and enjoying every minute of it.
Honestly, even though she’s one of my very best friends, I might have thrown a rock at her head if I'd had one handy.............maybe just a small one. (Sorry Dana ;-)

Willow was adding to the atmosphere, by whining excitedly as she stood on another swim step opposite Reddy. To shut her up, I called her out into the water and watched Reddy watch her as she calmly made laps around the pool. He was still doing his best impression of a marble work of art, and stood completely stiff and still, watching her through gigantic eyes. I spoke softly and calmly to him, and waited for him to shift his attention my way; he appeared to not even know I was there.

I knew he would enter the water and go ballistic, probably scratching off half my skin before I could even get him back to the swim step. I anticipated his attempts to climb up my body and made a mental note to prioritize saving the features on my face over all else. Before I lost my nerve, I thought I’d better just go for it. I told Willow to go stay on a step and gently applied pressure to bring Reddy out into the water toward me…as I slowly pulled him forward he gave me the surprise of my life...he just swam. In perfect form, and without any wasted effort, he looked to me like he might have been channeling Michael Phelps. He simply swam around the pool, with all the grace and calm dignity of his own Aussie mom Willow.

He listened to me when I told him to change directions and followed my hand around the pool when I told him to “target.” He calmly got back onto the step when I asked him to. I’m telling you, this dog was a STAR!

He did try to swim over Willow the first few times she got into the water with him, but when she finally issued a warning growl, he got the message and stopped crowding her. I was astounded by his naturalness and ease in the water and impressed at how willingly he listened to me and took direction. I know he had never even seen a body of water like this before, and he’d certainly never had an opportunity to swim. I’d never before had a dog take so effortlessly to the pool and I’ve not seen one since. Apparently when he’d stood frozen on the swim step watching his mom, it was intense concentration that he was immersed in, not paralyzing fear.

Reddy and Buffet come to swim regularly at the clinic now and both seem to really love it. Buffet has gotten much better at swimming although he still has a little bit of anxiety that makes him a bit of a loose canon in the water. He surprised me by jumping in off the swim step one day just as I was turning toward him and smacked me right in the eye. Sometimes he swims beautifully, but he can also get to slapping wildly at the water on occasion. We introduced the tennis ball to him recently and that‘s made a difference. He retrieves out of the water with the same intensity and determination that he does on dry land and that’s helped him to maintain a steadier forward motion.

Reddy is still Reddy. He still swims today as he did from day one…calmly, with great strength and confidence. He makes a good case for reincarnation, because as you watch him glide calmly through the water, you could swear he lived his last life as a sea otter.

Next up…cool pool safety tips!

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Adventures in Swimming: Taking a dog into the water for the first time.

Summertime is upon us and with it comes scorching heat and swimming pool fun. Our dogs are affected by the heat and some will also choose to cool down by taking a “dip” in the pool; still others will choose to remain on dry land, out of fear or dislike of the water. If your dog wants to go into the pool, is there a way to help them be safe? If they don’t like the pool is there a way to help them through their seeming aversion to water? The answer is yes to both questions. In this and future subsequent blog entries, I will talk a bit about dogs and pools. You see I don’t have a pool, but I have some experience swimming with dogs as I work part time doing just that at an animal rehab center.

Swimming is a great form of aerobic exercise and it’s wonderful for developing lean muscle…all you have to do is check out a swimmer’s body to see that. It’s can also be great exercise when you’ve got limited range of motion, or are recovering from certain injuries or surgeries, because of it’s moderate resistance and low impact. It works as well for dogs as it does for people and at the clinic that I work at we commonly swim dogs who have arthritis, soft tissue injuries, or are recovering from surgery. We also swim dogs for recreational purposes.

One of the dogs that I work with is a senior citizen named Chloe. She doesn’t like to talk about her age, but suffice it to say that she is most definitely in her teens. She’s an adorable doxie mix with sore elbows and arthritic joints, but you wouldn’t know it to watch her in the pool. Chloe is a lovely strong swimmer who shocked the heck out of me the first time I worked with her. I was expecting the limited stamina of a senior citizen, but she’s a retired agility dog who’s “dog mom” Karen has worked hard to keep her in shape. She walks her regularly and has brought her in to use the underwater treadmill in addition to her swim time. Chloe swims like a little champion (Karen says she gets Sardines on “swim day” for inspiration) and loves a rousing game of catch during her recovery breaks between sets (I get to be the pitcher.) I just love this little old lady and I will be devoting future blog time to telling you more about her and why.

I also work with a very handsome dog by the name of Jackson. He’s only a young man, but he has the distinguished chin whiskers of a more mature gentleman due to his Airedale Terrier lineage. Jackson came to swim for the first time with a bit of a weight problem and some very sore hips: he has canine hip dysplasia on both sides. He was thought to be a prime candidate for hip surgery and his loving “dog mom” Mary was prepared to do that and anything else necessary to help her wonderful boy live a comfortable, happy life. She started bringing him to swim regularly: to ease his soreness, increase his mobility, to help him build muscle, and she’s also worked diligently (and successfully) to reduce his waist size. I’m pleased to tell you that these things have made a huge difference. After speaking with the surgeon about scheduling his procedure, Mary excitedly told me that the doctor felt he was doing so well as to not need the surgery right now, and at this point he’s not expected to need surgery any time in the near future either. I’ll be blogging soon in more detail about this lovable dog and his journey to better health, as it’s a terrific and uplifting story.

Today I’m going to just tell you about Buffet and Reddy: two eleven month old Australian Shepherd boys who come to swim recreationally, for exercise and fun. They belong to a good friend of mine and they hold a special place in my heart because they're the sons of my own wonderful dog, Willow. They haven’t been swimming long, but as you can see from the photographs, they have learned to love their “swim day.” In fact, they love it so much that their soft hearted “dog mom” is seriously considering buying a pool for their own back yard.

The first time that I put them into the pool, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Their mother, Willow loves the water and has been swimming in a pool and at the lake for several years, but you never know how a dog is going to react when they first get into the water. Because they were her pups, I chose to bring Willow into the pool with us the first time I introduced them to the water.

I began with Buffet, a very pretty black and white dog, who’s a real character to begin with. He's named after the performer, Jimmy Buffet, but he tends to run toward the party side rather than the laid back side of his namesake. Buffet does most things in a state of “hyper drive,” with a distinct…shall we say…lack of concern for anything that happens to be in his way. I was worried (okay, I’ll admit it, maybe even a little scared) at the prospect of being pummeled by this over excited creature as he worked through his anxiety at being put into the WATER!!!!! The first time you take any dog into the pool they can get pretty wild, at best slapping at the water madly, sending spray flying around like it’s coming out of an open blender set to high speed. At worst, they can panic completely, trying to get to the highest ground they can find (which usually means the top of your head) flailing about and trying to climb up your body. I always wear some type of protective clothing when I take a dog into the water…a long sleeve shirt with shorts at the very least, and usually a 2 ml “shortie” surf suit if I’m swimming a large dog for the first time. The neoprene of a wetsuit won’t stop an excited dog from bruising you, but it can certainly save you from losing 2 or 3 layers of skin!

So on this day, I put Willow into the pool and then carried Buffet over and set him onto the first step. As I expected, his first reaction was one of excitement and anxiety, and he began to make high pitched exited barks and look for a way out. His eyes were round and buggy and he pawed at me frantically and even tried to jump into my arms. I calmly defended myself as best I could, as I waited for him to simmer down; Willow stood on the step opposite Buffet, a worried look in her eyes. I’m not sure who she was worried about, me or her puppy, as it seemed that I was the one most imperiled at this point. After several minutes of him batting at me like some kind of crazy kung fu fighter and me trying to steady him, I realized that if I didn’t go ahead and put him in and get him swimming, he might just punch my lights out. I gently pulled forward on his harness (a “no pull” harness with the ring in the front of the chest works great) and brought him out into the water so he would have to swim. Predictably, he slapped and churned at the water like some mad whirling dervish, so I put my hand under his belly to help bring him horizontal in the water and pulled him steadily forward with the harness to get him swimming forward instead where he was trying to go, which looked like up. I brought him around in one small circle in the water (carefully dodging his attempts to climb out of the water and up onto me,) and brought him back to the swim step. I helped him find his footing, and then moved out of reach, keeping a firm hold on the leash attached to his harness. Then I called his Aussie Mom (Willow) into the water and let him watch her swim calmly around the pool. Buffet stood on the sidelines, watching her carefully and making high pitched, squeaky dog noises.

Now let me just say, I do sometimes use a life jacket with dogs the first time that I take them into the water. It can be especially helpful for dogs who are elderly, or have some type of physical deficit, or that are especially dense (that’s of muscle, not of mind.) But with a young healthy dog of normal body type, I find that the easiest way to work with them is to help them to 1) figure out how to stay horizontal in the water (that’s with forward motion.) and 2) understand where the step is, so they can stop swimming when they want or need to. Buffet simply needed to learn about these two things to become more comfortable. I simply needed to survive his excitement until he did.

Willow was a great help of course. Having a dog that he knew and trusted model a calm demeanor while swimming was helpful and gave him a bit more confidence. I tried to keep her out of the water when he was actually swimming, because as soon as she got too near to him he tried to climb up onto her back…and I did want to take my dog home alive and in one piece at the end of this. I continued to bring him back into the water for short swims around the pool. I monitored his temperature (you can check the ear leather and/or the muzzle to see if they’re getting too warm; if they feel hot, it’s time for a rest break.) Dogs heat up very quickly when they’re that excited, so I kept his sets very short and just worked to help him to feel comfortable on the step in between swims. At some point I decided to give him a dose of homeopathic remedy formulated to ease stress and anxiety. Throughout it all, I remained calm, patient and reassuring, and eventually he began to feel a bit more comfortable. I ended our pool session after a particularly good set, when I believed he was feeling the most confident. The whole session took about 30 minutes from beginning to end.

Next it was time for Reddy…