(Original post on August 9, 2016)
The past 30 days have been quite educational for me as a dog owner, agility competitor and instructor. Starting in May at the Regionals, Kelsey’s performance was really off. Kelsey has been a very consistent performer in the ring. Since 2014, Kelsey has had a clear-run range of 25%-100%, with the average trial earning us 50% clean runs.
However, in 2016, this changed. Her rate dropped to 0-10%. She was doing odd things on course like: running inconsistent speeds, refusing jumps (despite perfect approaches), taking down a pole, popping out of weaves. This started at the Regionals, continued into our UKI trial the following weekend in May, pre-Nationals training, and Day 1 of a two day trial in July. People would comment, “That’s not like Kelsey!” Yet she wasn’t showing any outward signs of lameness to me: no heat, no tenderness to palpation, no visible favoring of a leg or what have you. All she was doing was an inconsistent performance.
Some suggested (and I initially thought) she might be going through a pout-phase given we had a new dog in the house. She was, after all, suddenly choosing to spend the night in her bedroom crate instead of with us (yes, I let my dogs sleep with me on my bed).
However, the odd performances were during our girls-only weekends and OUR time.
Plus, Kelsey has never been one to pout. She’s very verbal and isn’t shy about telling me off if I’m doing something wrong. So, in May/June, I started my investigations with my vet to find what’s going on, and we kept finding her to be healthy. On July 11th at 5am, Dave Munnings texted me and said that he saw her videos and he recommended an MRI of the lumbar spine as she was presenting the same way his Dobby (World Champ dog) did prior to his diagnosis. (I had asked him to see them for any signs of physical issues a couple of weeks earlier.)
We don’t have MRI for animals on the island, so that was going to be very challenging, and I pulled her from Day 2 of the local trial. Then enter the orthopedic surgeon, who found the point(s) of pain (shoulders – mild, knees – moderate, LS joint – severe pain), and we started to hone in on why these points hurt.
As serendipity would have it, I had Kelsey registered for Nationals in Montreal. I pulled her from competition. At this point my gut was saying that while we could run in Nationals and do sort-of-OK, a bigger picture perspective was more important for us. The surgeon got us into the CHUV clinic for an MRI and another round of assessment.
The trip’s timing was perfect and enabled us a chance to access resources not otherwise available. The MRI confirmed that Kelsey has disc issues that in the current state were high risk for rupturing, but also mild enough to not warrant surgery. We have a treatment plan and more insights from coaches, veterinarian friends, our care-provider team, and the specialist and I discussed Kelsey’s long term plan. Kelsey will be back in the sport, albeit modified so as to reduce the risks of rupturing her discs. Our favorite games are still on the menu, and over time we might be able to earn her championship. However, the immediate concern is to keep her happy, pain-free, and on the path of healing. As Claire says: The body will regenerate.
So, from all this, what was the lesson I learned from Kelsey? There are several.
The first lesson, which also came from one of my students’ dogs years ago, is: When there is a behavioral challenge, first rule out a physical reason. Psychological reasons can and do exist, but to be on the safe side, rule out the physical side first. Remember the Training Thought I wrote on Handler’s Proprioception and Pain? In essence, in that article, I highlighted how pain diminishes coordination and proprioception. Well, Kelsey taught me that this applies to dogs as well. Her weird bars down was a sign of diminished proprioception (lack of awareness where her tail was – as it was her tail taking down the bars in training and at Regionals). If, after all the scans, and assessments, there weren’t indicators of true pain, I’d be on a different training regimen to handle a psychological aspect, but that’s not the case here.
The second lesson is: Listen to your support group for ideas, but most importantly, listen to your gut. My gut knew something wasn’t right. My gut also knew something was going on in her back, but I couldn’t find it though my touch (no heat, no guarding to my massage). My gut also knew how to guide me to ask for help from the people who would know the best: my coaches, my vet, my own care-providers. A benefit from training a dog in agility to the point of consistent performance is that we can become aware of issues well before the issues are blatantly obvious.
The third lesson is: Everything happens for a reason at the time it happens. My friend, Carolyn who joined me on my trip to Montreal, and I were marveling at the serendipity of it all: the timing of the feedback from Dave, the timing of the appointments with the orthopedic surgeon, the timing and location of the Nationals (Kelsey qualifying for them even though I think her spirit knew she wasn’t going to be competing in them), the generosity of the clinic in Montreal to squeeze her into their schedule, and the timing of Kelsey’s and my support team being present at Nationals to help. If we had started down this path of inquiry a week or two later we wouldn’t have had the same care and support available.
So in closing, while it was challenging to be at Nationals and not compete, I am forever grateful for the kind words and support from friends and fellow competitors at Nationals and from our online agility community.
Have faith in the journey and accept the support and guidance from your trusted circle of peeps; they are in your life for a reason.
Listen to your gut, you know your dog better than anyone else; you are their companion and champion, you are their voice, so let it be heard.