Nina’s Uninvited Guest

June 12th, 2021

April 24 & 25 Nina, Zhora and I went to an agility trial for the first time since last August. It was great, they did great, I went into the weekend thinking if Nina told me she was ready to retire then I’d just scratch her and that would be that. Well, she ran and loved it and was Nina, older and slower for sure, but Nina nonetheless. This was less than a month before her 14th birthday.

Over the last year or so a couple of her liver values on her bloodwork had been elevated. Not concerningly high by any means, but above normal. Her liver function tests were always normal. She’s been on Denamarin (a liver supplement) for a while and she’d been acting just fine, like the extremely young-for-her-age senior citizen she is. But the last urinalysis we did showed a lower than normal concentration (USG), which was repeatable on subsequent testing. So now we had a concern about her kidneys (older animals can have kidney failure, not great but also not terrible since there’s a lot we can do to manage it). So I booked her an ultrasound with our usual radiologist Dr Homco, who I usually take my dogs to once a year or so for a screening, but thanks to COVID, we hadn’t been since January 2020.

That was the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend, and I came into work on Tuesday after Memorial Day to Dr Homco’s report on the fax machine.

Nina had a mass in her liver. Approximately 6 cm.

In her voicemail to Dr Stein, she said she couldn’t determine malignant vs benign (and she often can), which I guess is better than “it’s malignant”, but either way a mass on your liver isn’t something you want. Dr Stein (who is the best veterinarian I have ever known) sat down with me and had a long discussion about what our options were. Number one was do nothing, ultrasound her again in 4-6 weeks and see what it looked like then. Number two was get a CT or MRI done to learn more about it (operable or not). Number three was explore her, either him or a boarded surgeon.

I called around out of interest and we were looking at several weeks to months before a CT, MRI or surgical specialist consult were available. And aside from anything else, while Nina is a vibrant and very young 14, she’s still 14 and has age-related heart valve disease and kidneys that aren’t 100%, in addition to whatever was up with her liver. Plus we’d done a dental on her a few weeks before and her blood pressure was hard to manage during that procedure. I am fortunate that Dr Stein has a special interest in anesthesia and analgesia, and our anesthetic protocol and management where I work is second to none (he runs a website for other vets to help them perform better anesthesia, and he’s lectured internationally about anesthesia and pain management). I wasn’t sure I trusted the anesthesia anywhere else for a dog with her anesthetic challenges, plus Dr Stein had extensive post-doc surgical training and is an excellent surgeon, and I absolutely trust his skill in the OR.

Jim and I talked about it, and I went into work the next day and said we wanted surgery. Dr Stein said “here?” and I said “yes” and he said “putting the surgeon to the test huh?”. We’d done a liver surgery on an 11 year old Golden Retriever in March (his mass was benign), and I absolutely trust Dr Stein and the amazing staff I work with, so I felt this was our best shot. He said we’d better do it soon if we were going to do it (especially because he had some time off coming up). So we did a chest x-ray right away to be sure there weren’t any lung metastases (she has an old lady chest and an enlarged heart, which we already knew, but nothing obviously ominous per the radiology consultant). And so then last Tuesday (June 8), was the day. I knew she might not make it, but I needed to know what that mass was, and far better to do the surgery while she was feeling great, full of energy and not showing any symptoms. The weekend before we spoiled her rotten, took her for nice walks, made a fuss of her (even more than normal, because she’s Nina), called Ulla (Nina’s breeder) and had a long talk and a good cry (Nina’s great grandmother Cranberi had a 7 cm liver tumor and lived for 2 years afterward as an old lady). All “just in case”.

The techs and Dr Stein had a meeting on Monday to discuss the surgery (we do this with any complex case), Linda had mentioned after the dental that maybe we should do Total Intravenous Anesthesia (TIVA) for her next procedure so we could manage her blood pressure and heart rate better. So that was the plan.

I brought her in Tuesday morning and cried (I’ve cried a lot over the last couple of weeks). I wasn’t second guessing the decision at all but I knew it was a risky surgery. Dr Stein was already there when I arrived (and I get there at 6:30 or earlier), I buzzed up and said good morning and “how are you feeling?” and he said “ready to take on the liver!”.

She was first on the schedule that day (to leave all the rest of the day for monitoring her for complications). And in addition, that was the day I was scheduled to get my Invisalign fitted (my teeth have moved and are very crowded now and are chipping each other because they’re hitting each other). Not a relaxing day! Bekka buzzed down to me and said they were going to poke her (that means give her her pre-anesthetic sedative injection) and did I want to come hold her for it (I usually do hold my dogs for this, and you can bet I wanted to hold Nina).

The mass was significantly bigger than Dr Homco thought it was (which either means it had grown, or just that she wasn’t able to completely visualize it). Dr Stein got the best margins he could get. Fortunately it was on the left lobe of her liver, which is the lobe that can be completely removed, so he took the entire lobe and as much as he safely could get. There was at least a small amount of apparently healthy liver that he took, so we will have to hope it’s enough.

She was up and BAR (which means Bright Alert and Responsive) pretty quickly after the procedure, and started the usual spinning around that she always does post-anesthesia (which makes running an IV and CRI (constant rate infusion) difficult to impossible). I went up to see her and Bekka said “that’s a healthy dog”, meaning that for a 14 year old dog to be that bright that soon after surgery she was in good shape. Her packed cell volume (PCV) was 38-40 throughout (normal is over 38, we get worried the lower it gets, since lower than that is anemic). Bekka texted me pictures of her looking comfortable and alert while I was at the orthodontist.

I took her home Tuesday night since she was way too active for an overnight CRI (I’d planned to sleep at the clinic with her) and we didn’t want to give her too much additional sedation. I gave her oral meds that night and she had a good and quiet night Tuesday and looked great on Wednesday.

Thursday she started out the day OK (I was bringing her to work every day for monitoring), but then mid morning she suddenly got pale (her gums were pale) and very weak and droopy. Her PCV was down to 33 and all of a sudden things looked bad. We were worried she might die. Dr Stein was very stressed. He said “we do not, NOT, want to put her through another surgery”. We talked through what might be going on: it didn’t seem likely that she was septic since her temperature was normal; it didn’t seem likely that she was hemorrhaging since her PCV wasn’t continuing to drop. We took x-rays and they looked unremarkable for a post-op dog (also another confirmation that there were no obvious chest mets), and you’d expect to see something on an x-ray if she was septic or bleeding. The hopeful sign was that she didn’t continue to get worse, she went down in a valley but then started to climb back up.

Bekka came and told me she thought she was looking a bit better. Then Linda buzzed me and put me on speaker so I could hear that Nina was barking and complaining about being in jail (she was upstairs in case they needed to act fast if she crashed). I carried her downstairs and took her for a short walk and she urinated and then tried to drag me over to the car so we could go home. She was pretty much back to where she’d been first thing that morning (you’d never know she’d had major surgery).

Bekka and I discussed what might have happened (after she and Dr Stein had been discussing it). It could have been a vagal issue (the vagus nerve is in that area and they had to do a lot of pulling and pushing to get access to the part of the liver Dr Stein wanted to remove), it could have been some kind of transient delayed shock (losing half your liver a huge insult to the remaining liver), it could have been her spleen reacting to the whole thing. We don’t really know.

What I do know is that her PCV was up to 40 on Friday and she thinks cage rest is bullshit. She is strong, she is eating, she is taking her meds well, she tries to drag me around when I take her out into the back garden for potty walks on a lead. She is sleeping comfortably when she’s not angry about being in jail.

As best we understand it, dogs only really care about their quality of life, we’re the ones who care about quantity of life. But I have always believed that it’s well worth putting a dog through short term reduction in quality of life if there’s a reasonable chance for a return to a good or better quality and quantity of life. And selfishly, I’m just not ready to lose Nina, especially when she’s so full of life and joy. She’s sassy, she plays, she runs, she wrestles with the other dogs, she’s happy. Many people wouldn’t perform a major surgery on a dog of her age, but her lines tend to be very long-lived (well over 16 usually, and some 18 or even 19), and she’s lean, fit and very young for her age. I am fortunate that I work with some amazing and knowledgeable professionals, who have shepherded her through the first part of this with so much skill.

I love all my dogs but we say “but only Nina is Nina”. I have never had a dog like Nina and I probably never will again. The bond she and I have is something so precious and rare, she is my heart.

We don’t have the pathology results from the mass yet (it was big and smooth and pink), we don’t know what the future holds. But we do know that Nina is a tough cookie, and after all, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

The haircut is pretty punk, and cage rest is bullshit

Update June 13: Biopsy is back already: BENIGN adenoma with narrow clean margins. The best possible news!!!!

One Year Later

March 22nd, 2021

One year ago I spoke to my boss on a beautiful Sunday, went into work, and recorded a new phone message and designed a new work schedule.

Yesterday I got my first COVID-19 vaccine, we drove to Syracuse to get it, at the State Fairgrounds in the Expo building where I was at a dog show two years ago, when it was packed with people and the worst you felt about huge crowds was just that it was claustrophobic. What a bizarre year. I can’t imagine ever being in a huge crowd again. One good thing about COVID is that people stay TF away from you!

And Then There Were None

January 17th, 2021

I have so many pictures and videos and things to post, the last couple of weeks have been crazy and I really have had to just neglect the blog in favor of work and getting the puppies home.

Unsurprisingly, I have some thoughts about the last couple of weeks here.

Choosing homes for puppies is one of the best and one of the worst things about breeding. Some breeders just let people choose a puppy and it’s all good. That works for them. That isn’t what works for me. The way I do things doesn’t work for everyone and that’s ok. I use an application, talk to people, and see if there’s a puppy who seems like a good fit once their personalities come out and once I’ve done their structural evaluations at 8 weeks. My obligation is to my puppies, and I hope people realize that I’m doing my best to find the best home for the puppy AND the right puppy for the owner. And that making a bad match does neither party any favors.

There was a lot of frantic, last minute running around this week and COVID makes everything more difficult (I mean, obviously most difficult for those who are sick or who’ve lost someone to the virus, but it’s amazing how many things you never even think about are harder because of it). And obviously the background level of stress and anxiety is so much higher, so it’s unsurprising that the usually-stressful time of sending the puppies out into the world to start their lives was even worse this time.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the homes for this litter. I always hope I did a good enough job raising them. Both parents are stellar dogs with great temperaments, the puppies all seem like great dogs. But you always worry. Will their owners love them as much as they deserve? Will they love them as much as we do? Will they kiss them on the nose the way that puppy loves? Will they play tug the way that THAT puppy loves? Will they talk to them in the stupid squeaky voice that makes their faces light up and their tails wag? Will they blow on that puppy’s face the way that makes her crazy happy? Will they realize what an amazing being they have to share their lives with now? Will they realize that they are about to become that dog’s whole world?

Letting go is hard. Packing up and putting away the puppy stuff is bittersweet. Going back to normal life is comforting. Planning the next litter is exciting.

I don’t know that people who haven’t raised a litter understand just how much work it is. It’s a labor of love for sure and it’s so gratifying and so fun. But it’s also work. SO much laundry, SO much poop, SO many days you just want to come home from a hard day at work and sit on the couch and veg out and you can’t. But so worth it to see them out there starting their lives and learning about their new people.

Red girl Alfa is now named Mimic and is living in Canada with her great aunt (Grandma Zhora’s sister). She will learn to play agility and probably already knows ten tricks.

Orange boy Bravo is now named Timber and is living in Canada with a lovely couple who are first time puppy/Vallhund owners and who did everything right from research to networking and were so excited to get him it makes me smile every time. It does your heart good.

Yellow girl Charlie is now named Valkyrie (Kyrie) and is living in Vermont with a lovely family who’ve had a Vallhund before. She will learn agility and will go kayaking!

Green boy Delta is now named Whiskey and is living in Canada in an experienced dog home. He will learn agility!

Blue boy Echo is now named Enzo and is co-owned by me and a lovely couple who are friends of mine. He will learn Barn Hunt and will hopefully be a show dog too!

Purple girl Foxtrot is now named Daisy and is living in beautiful Prince Edward Island where she will hopefully be a show dog and will definitely play on the beach!

Pink girl Golf is now named Jovie and is co-owned by me and a wonderful couple who also have Jovie’s great uncle (Zhora’s brother). She is their third Vallhund from me and if that’s not an enormous and humbling compliment I don’t know what is. She will learn agility, hopefully be a show dog, and will go some way towards healing hearts broken by the untimely loss of their oldest dog.

Have wonderful lives my D litter. We will miss you.

The Name Game

January 7th, 2021

So I made a video about how to play this game. I didn’t invent the game but it’s a super useful way to train your dog to come when called!

This is classical conditioning (like Pavlov): you are teaching the dog to associate their name with something good. They don’t have to DO anything to get the reward, they just have to hear their name, and then eat a cookie!

Here’s how I play this:

  • choose a boring (to the dog) and small room in your house (the bathroom is perfect)
  • take a handful of kibble or treats (literally no more than 10-15 per session is enough)
  • take the puppy and the food into the room and close the door
  • say the puppy’s name, feed a treat
  • say the puppy’s name, feed a treat
  • not “come”, not “sit”, not “down”, this isn’t teaching the dog a command, it’s simply building an association between their name and something good
  • do this twice a day for two or three weeks, until you can tell the dog is looking for the treat when they hear you call them
  • periodically just walk up to the dog, call their name, feed a treat (I still do this with my 13.5 year old dog!), this keeps putting money in the bank that the one time you really REALLY need them to come when you call them, they’ll think it’s worth their while
  • try your best not to “poison” their name by using it for negative things (baths, nail trims, end of playtime, just go get them).
  • occasionally call your dog to you, take their collar, feed a treat, and let them go back to what they were doing (so they learn that coming when called doesn’t mean playtime is over necessarily, sometimes it means snacks!)
  • it is NEVER a bad idea to play this game at ANY point in your dog’s life!

I have Orange boy Timber on my lap for this video, but in a bathroom you can just let the puppy wander around (remember, he doesn’t have to come to you, he just has to hear his name and eat a treat, even if you have to follow him around and say his name and feed him like a crazy person!)

Stacked Pictures

January 4th, 2021

Here are the stacked pictures, taken Sunday (ideal time for assessing structure is 8 weeks +/- a day, they turned 8 weeks on Monday). I made my dear friend and mentor Ulla Gamberg get on the phone with me and assess them with me (overall I was extremely pleased with this litter!):

Red girl Alfa:

Orange boy Bravo (now called Timber):

Yellow girl Charlie:

Green boy Delta:

Blue boy Echo (now called Enzo):

Purple girl Foxtrot (now called Daisy):

Pink girl Golf (now called Jovie):

Day 54 – Clicker

January 2nd, 2021

My timing isn’t great (video is unforgiving), but they are getting the idea.

Yesterday was affirmation of why I have started sending them home at 10 weeks instead of 8 weeks. Yellow girl Charlie and red girl Alfa, who’ve both been happy and confident all along, were worried about the paper bag I gave them to play with. Fear period. Today they are almost back to normal, but pink girl Golf, who’s consistently been one of the bravest of them all (and who was a maniac with the paper bag just yesterday), is worried about things today. Fear period.

Fear periods are very normal and can come and go quite quickly, but the wrong thing at the wrong time during a fear period can be a problem sometimes. Much better not to upend their entire world when there’s a statistically higher risk of a fear period! You can see pink being quite cautious and subdued in her clicker video below, when she was perfectly happy and reckless as is her usual personality yesterday. Fear periods can happen throughout their first two years according to some behaviorists. We used to think you should work through them but now most think you should just ignore them and they should normally just go away (and the risk of what’s called “single event learning”, which is where one bad experience can cause a significant and lasting issue, is higher during a fear period).

The paper bag:

You will see in pink girl’s clicker video that she is quite subdued, this is NOT normal for her, as anyone who’s been to visit them will attest, she’s normally an absolute lunatic (and look at her in the paper bag video taken just yesterday). Purple girl and red girl are also a little quieter than normal.

Red girl:

Orange boy:

Yellow girl:

Green boy:

Blue boy:

Purple girl:

Pink girl:

Day 47 (Boxing Day) Barrier Challenge

December 26th, 2020

Excuse the horrifying carpet, puppies running around means accidents!

We repeated the barrier challenge today with the puppy having to leave the food to get around the barrier, you can really see some of them thinking hard and then the light bulb going on. This time it was stinky canned tripe, which they’d never had before, so they were pretty interested in it!

Alfa:

Bravo:

Charlie:

Delta:

Echo:

Foxtrot:

Golf:

Echo attacked Jim’s slippers:

So far the whole litter has really nice toy/tug drive:

We are also in the middle of a lake effect snowstorm so they went outside and played in the snow! It is quite cold but like true Vallhunds, they didn’t really care!

I am finalizing my planning for their evaluations next weekend, we will do temperament and structure. After that I will have a pretty good idea of who is likely going to fit best where. I can’t believe they’ll be seven weeks old on Monday already! The time flies by.

Barrier Challenge Day 41

December 20th, 2020

We videoed their barrier challenges today. This helps them with frustration and problem solving. The first video for each has the puppy and the food very close to the same end of the barrier (the puppy can see and smell through the barrier). The second video has the puppy farther away from the food. Later we will place both the puppy and the food far away from the way around the barrier.

Alfa barrier challenge 1:

Alfa barrier challenge 2:

Bravo barrier challenge 1:

Bravo barrier challenge 2:

Charlie barrier challenge 1:

Charlie barrier challenge 2:

Delta barrier challenge 1:

Delta barrier challenge 2:

Echo barrier challenge 1:

Echo barrier challenge 2:

Foxtrot barrier challenge 1:

Foxtrot barrier challenge 2:

Golf barrier challenge 1:

Golf barrier challenge 2:

40 Days Old

December 19th, 2020

What a busy week! Here’s what we did:

  • continued to have at least one new enrichment item every day (including an empty pop bottle, new toys, and an especially poignant toy – a present from Riley‘s family which was a new version of Riley’s favorite toy)
  • met new people including a very active toddler and a man with a huge beard
  • started working on a conditioned emotional response to nail grinding (feeding the puppies baby food, which they love, while they listen to and then feel the Dremel), they did spectacularly well at this! Nobody was too worried about it and everyone loved the baby food more than they cared about the Dremel
  • experienced SNOW!

34 Days Old!

December 13th, 2020

I haven’t been blogging as much as usual because work is insane (we added a new doctor, which is amazing, but we aren’t yet adequately staffed for it, which is not). I’ve been working overtime and then basically I come home and do puppy stuff until bedtime. So I’ve been blogging in spurts and uploading video and photo dumps so you can at least see what’s going on!

What’s going on:

  • a couple of the puppies have entered their first fear period, which is normal at about this age. According to Puppy Culture, you should assume that the entire litter is in a fear period when one is, so we have adjusted things accordingly. We aren’t doing startle recovery (what happens in the house happens, but we aren’t purposefully startling them), we are minimizing anything which might frighten them while still providing new experiences daily
  • they get a new object or toy in the box every day, and we take out the old toys (they will count as new toys again after a few days). So far they’ve experienced all kinds of toys and textures from soft to rubbery to crackly, and they are starting to assume that everything in the world is something to explore
  • they are walking on all kinds of surfaces from wood to towels to carpet
  • they ventured out onto the deck yesterday
  • they come out for a “bomble” in the house several times a day, and are getting braver and braver about exploring new areas (this is also a leak test for our puppyproofing as we discovered this morning)
  • I introduced the clicker yesterday. I don’t normally “charge” the clicker when I’m training adult dogs, but I do think it’s helpful with baby puppies. “Charging the clicker” is teaching the dog to associate the click with the reward without a behavior, I don’t bother with this with most dogs because they figure out very quickly what the click means and sometimes I think omitting the behavior actually confuses them. For those who don’t know: clicker training is based on the principle of operant conditioning. The click marks a behavior and tells the dog that whatever they were doing when they heard the click earned them a reward. I have found it to be an extremely powerful training tool. We used tiny bits of Pill Pockets (they have a perfect texture for this) and shredded cheese. I take the puppy into another room so that the other puppies can’t hear the click
  • One thing Jane Killion points out in the Puppy Culture movie is something I think we don’t always realize: learning to eat food from a person’s hand is a skill in and of itself! I have been hand feeding the puppies some things for a while so they are getting the idea but…
  • Socializing them during COVID is a challenge but we’re doing pretty well! Yesterday they met a family who owns Alice’s brother, we know they have been extremely cautious and they came with their baby so now the puppies have met a baby. The big dogs were thrilled! During these brief socialization visits we all wear masks, stay far apart, and we put a fan in the window to circulate air. It makes it a bit chilly but it may help. We also discuss our exposure risk carefully beforehand. My work family has also been visiting.
  • Our house is a disaster! Having to move half the living room out to make room for the puppy pen, and having so little spare time right now that it all gets spent on the puppies means some things are falling by the wayside but it is what it is! Jim is being incredible as he always is, picking up poop and doing laundry and playing with puppies.
  • They’re eating the Royal Canin starter kibble really well, they’re getting three meals a day and I am already starting to feed them before Alice does to start taking the load off her. The litter Alice was born in were terribly slow to start eating but I think these guys will be weaned before too long.
  • I can’t wait to evaluate them and see what we have! I am already starting to get an idea of which puppy might fit where, but they change so much I don’t make any decisions yet! We have already seen two puppies change significantly over the last couple of weeks!
  • They are learning to speak dog very well from their interactions with the big dogs. Tish especially has been amazing with them. You will see in some of the videos in today’s huge video dump of videos from yesterday that there’s a lot of really nice and appropriate interaction. Every time we think Tish is being too much for them, we realize that the way they are reacting tells us that it’s just fine
  • They are so cute and sweet and they run over, tails wagging, crawl into your lap, beg to be picked up…I am going to cry a lot when they leave for their new homes. I love them.