Tuesday, June 16, 2009


On June 5-7, we made a road trip to Greenfield, MA with the three Border Collies in tow, in order to compete in the CPE Agility Nationals competition. All in all, it was a successful weekend and great vacation, with all of us achieving some goals, making new friends, and having a good time.

The highlight of the weekend, however, was Tristan placing in two standard runs at Nationals, and receiving the High in Standard Veteran award for his level. It was a proud and poignant moment when they read his name off at the late-night awards ceremony Sunday. Tristan has had quite a road to this point – he is a dog with the drive, determination and work ethic of a champion, but sadly with a body that has often limited him. I’ve frequently been moved and inspired by what this dog has taught me about strength and courage, and this weekend felt like the reward for all that he has been through.

When Tristan was about a year and a half old, he started to become intermittently lame on his right rear leg during exercise. He would often come up non-weight-bearing after running with us or playing flyball. We rested him, tried various therapies, and consulted with various vets and specialists. In April 2003, he was diagnosed with a partially torn cranial cruciate ligament in his right knee, and underwent a Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy Surgery. We were told he would have six weeks of strict crate rest, and then could slowly begin normal activity again. We were also told that a TPLO would give him the best chance for returning to performance eventually.

The six week recovery went fine, and he appeared to have healed beautifully. Unfortunately, as we started trying to take him for short leash walks again, we found he could not tolerate even a 5-10 minute stroll up the block without coming up lame. Thus began a year-long struggle to figure out what was going on with him. To make matters worse, he was not only coming up lame on his surgery leg, but would at times limp on his left rear leg or his front legs.

For months we sought out second opinions from other orthopedic specialists. We had complete spinal and hip x-rays taken and reviewed by surgeons and radiologists. We took him for a neurological evaluation. We had a second surgery performed to remove the hardware in the knee. Unfortunately, all this was before there was much interest or knowledge in veterinary physical therapy and rehabilitation. We only really had veterinarians at our disposal, and they eventually were stumped.

Finally one day I learned of a clinic that had opened a new physical therapy center at their facility, complete with an underwater treadmill. We took Tristan for an evaluation by the PT there, who immediately pointed out that Tristan had lost 40% of his muscle mass on his right leg during his recovery period, and consequently was very weak and was having his whole body thrown off balance.

For three months, we would drop him off at the rehab facility three times a week to spend the day working with their therapists. This meant 4+ hours of driving each day, but the clinic was wonderful about letting me drop him off before they were technically open, and picking him up late after work. We also had several exercises to do with him at home, and Lowell especially was very faithful about making sure T did his “homework.”

Finally the happy day came when the PT noted that his leg had regained its normal muscle mass. Tristan was once again able to go for walks and exercise without lameness. We continued to ease him into higher-impact activities, and in March 2005, almost two years since his surgery, Tristan competed in a flyball tournament again. Eventually we got him back into agility, and had to do a lot of “catch up” work, as he was pretty novice at the time of his initial injury. There were some wild runs at his first few agility trials after his long hiatus, but we ironed out the rough spots, and he has proven to be a very nice-running agility dog.

Tristan only competes in CPE agility, as they have lower jump heights and allow him to run as a Veteran since he turned six years old, meaning he can jump 16” instead of 20”. I have been very grateful that this organization exists, as otherwise I wouldn’t be comfortable asking Tristan to do the heights that would be required of him in other organizations.

Flyball continued to be difficult for T’s body, and he slowed down quite a bit after his surgery so we limited how much we ran him. But in agility, our bionic dog continued to amaze us. He frequently places in competition, and several times has been the fastest dog across all levels to complete a course. He is extremely willing and attentive, and a blast to handle. For a few years, Tristan continued to compete soundly, without injury or lameness.

In June 2008, he and Django competed at CPE Nationals in Mason, MI, and Tristan surprised us by earning Reserve High in Standard Veterans (basically runner-up) in his level. As we made plans to attend 2009 Nationals, we assumed that I would bring Django and Lowell would bring his up-and-coming dog, Maebe. We were proud of Tristan and would continue to run him, but thought Maebe would be the one most likely to shine at a national competition.

Luckily for T, Maebe decided to take about a 6-month break from coming anywhere near the yellow zone on the contact obstacles, and consequently was not eligible for entry in Nationals. Tristan was still holding up well, so we decided in the winter that he could come instead, while we focused on fixing Maebe’s contact issues for next year.

In late winter, after the entries had been sent in, Tristan started limping on his front right leg. We assumed he slipped in our yard, which was an ice field at the time. It took a while to resolve, and we were increasingly worried about him being healed in time to be ready for Nationals. We couldn’t do too much high impact training with him for several months, so Lowell focused intensely on flatwork with him.

By this April, Tristan was moving OK, but seemed a little “off” still. We had been hoping to get him to his flyball ONYX title, but sadly decided to retire him about 4,000 points shy of that milestone. Still, he had earned about 12,000 points since his surgeries, which made us proud as we once thought he would never run again. Flyball just proved too hard on his body though, and he has always been a much better agility dog, so we decided to work on preserving him for that.

In May, Lowell took Tristan for a structural evaluation by Debbie Gross-Saunders, a leading expert in veterinary physical therapy. She noted that he has very limited mobility in his lumbar-sacral area, which may be due to a genetic spinal condition. Though painful to hear, it also explained a lot of Tristan’s ongoing problems over the years. Lowell asked if Tristan should be retired. Debbie responded by asking if Tristan loved agility and lived for it. The answer was an obvious “yes,” so she recommended we keep at it. She gave us some home exercises for strengthening and stretching, and suggested acupuncture to keep him running strong for a couple more years.

Though I admit to being a bit of a skeptic initially, we took him to his first acupuncture appointment a week before Nationals. Right away we thought he was moving much better – was no longer “crabbing” when he ran and seemed quite smooth and balanced.

Feeling optimistic, we headed to Nationals. On the first day, Lowell and Tristan ran the nicest standard course I have ever seen them run. Tristan had barely been on obstacles for months, and hadn’t competed since December, but he did everything perfectly. I don’t think I took a breath the entire time I watched the run – which ended up earning Tristan a third place ribbon.

Tristan continued to do excellent the rest of the weekend. He only had three NQ’s, but two of them were due to Lowell forgetting the courses! In his final run of the weekend – another standard course – I waited anxiously to see how he would finish. We realized that this could be his last time running at a national event, and really wanted to go out on a good note. This run again was virtually flawless – Tristan turned a little wide on one corner, but overall was perfect and earned a fourth place ribbon for that performance.

Do to computer glitches, the awards ceremony was delayed for several hours as results were calculated. We were still camping on site though, so wandered down for the ceremony to cheer for the successful teams. Lowell was stunned to hear Tristan’s name called when they got to the Veterans’ awards (I admit I was less surprised – I knew how great they performed all weekend and thought it might pay off).

Tristan had another acupressure treatment while at the event, and continues to look good. We are optimistic that we are on a good path now to maintaining him physically, and hope to have many more runs with him to come. Still, we know that his body may eventually tell us one day that it is time to ease up, at which point we may try his paw at Rally Obedience. Ironically, the new worry is not so much his knees or back, but rather his eyes. He was diagnosed with juvenile cataracts years ago, and last year our vet noted that they were worsening a bit. She stated that she was “pretty sure he can’t read” as his fine detail vision is probably pretty impaired at this point. In recent months, as I watch Tristan jump I worry that he is not judging his timing as well as he should be, which can indicate vision problems. Then again, yesterday he was tracking a bug moving along the upper part of our living room wall, so he may be doing OK.

It has been a long journey for Tristan, and he has continued to amaze and inspire me over the years. Today his two plaques sit on our mantle as proud reminders every day of his tenacity and heart. I’m grateful that we got to experience this Nationals event with him, and will always be proud of our little dog that doesn’t give up.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Flyball Fun

We had our first outdoor flyball tournament of the season this past weekend, and it was the first time we’ve played since mid-April. Flyball was the first dog sport that we became involved in, and has been a love of ours for almost eight years now. In recent months, however, I have been sad to find that I just haven’t gotten quite as much enjoyment out of it as I typically do, even though I was still having fun with our dogs and our friends. We did make the tough decision to retire our first two flyball dogs back in April, which has been hard, and I’ve also been struggling with some of the things I see occurring both on and off the ring that I am not particularly happy with (but that is another topic!). Overall though, the dogs love it, I love having a good time with them and with friends, and it usually makes for a fun-filled weekend. I really needed a good tournament to remind me of that.

This weekend happily proved to be a very pleasant and enjoyable one. The weather was perfect, we saw lots of teammates and friends that we hadn’t seen in a while, and the schedule wasn’t too grueling. We also made some important decisions this time around, which I think really impacted our experience of this tournament.

A few weeks ago, Lowell attended a Debbie Gross-Saunders seminar on conditioning the canine athlete. He came home with a lot of great information and ideas, and we have been incorporating a lot of her recommendations into our daily care, training, and exercising of the dogs. Although we’ve only been doing this for a few weeks, we believe we already saw some positive effects on Django and Maebe’s performances this weekend . . . but more on that at a later date.

One of the most important recommendations she had though was to incorporate a good warm-up and cool-down ritual before and after every race. Flyball people, us included, have been very guilty of pulling their dogs out cold after being crated for a couple hours, expecting them to perform in a very intense, high impact activity, then tossing them back into their crates after maybe a quick dip in a kiddie pool, while the handlers rush off to the next race. Not a good strategy for preventing injury and maximizing performance certainly. Plus, as I found this weekend, we miss out on a great way to connect with and enjoy our canine companions/teammates throughout the weekend.

This weekend, Lowell and I both made sure to get Django and Maebe out 15-20 minutes before each race. Django and I would spend 5-10 minutes just walking, then would lightly jog some off-leash figure-8s. I would have him switch directions, turn to each side, and weave between my legs to help stretch him out some. Django loves doing flatwork training and tricks, and so this really seemed to make him happy and pump him up pre-race.

After racing, I would cool him down mostly by having him wear his damp Cool Coat (as Debbie Gross-Saunders warned that jumping into cold pools immediately isn’t necessarily great for the system), and would walk him out for another 15 minutes or so. Afterwards, we would return to the tent, do some gentle stretching exercises, then Django would flop down contentedly while I lightly massaged him a bit. These little rituals resulted in me feeling very connected with my furry buddy, and were the best part of my weekend. After all, the reason we do this is supposed to be to have fun with the dogs that we love, not just to win little ribbons for their crates or to put titles after their names.

Django was happy and feeling good also. Django is probably 7-ish years old, and was running as start dog this weekend, which meant re-running after all the false starts. Still, he pulled several 4.2 second runs, even into the day on Sunday, which was pretty impressive given that his fastest times even as a younger dog were in the 4.1’s. His box turn was looking better than in recent months as well, and he ran without a bobble all weekend.

Maebe also did great. She ran a 4.2 with a pass, and kept up consistent speed all weekend long. Running with Lowell and doing her “Get On the Ball” exercises really seems to be boosting her endurance. Agility is her true passion in life, and she would give 100% until she dropped on the agility course. But while she loves flyball, I do think she sometimes “phones it in” a bit in later races if she starts to tire, and you will notice her times drop slightly. This weekend she kept very consistent times both days though, so we were quite proud of her.

The other guys had a great weekend also. Jade and Tristan got lots of breaks to play ball or take walks with us. This was also the new pup Cadence’s first tournament experience, and he did great. He was able to meet tons of people, lots of children, and many other friendly puppies and dogs. He quietly took everything in when we arrived Saturday morning, but before long was getting ready to take on the world. On Sunday, we brought home a very happy and exhausted guy after a long weekend of wrestling with other pups and socializing with lots of humans.

It was good to get priorities straight again, after a stretch of feeling pretty disconnected from the activity that got me into dog sports in the first place. Once again, I am looking forward to a summer full of racing!