Last week, I had both Pongu and Crookytail X-rayed for OFA evaluation. I also had Pongu examined by an orthopedic vet.
My thinking was: I don't know if my fearful dog can do competitive obedience. Ever. If he can, it's going to be a long, long haul, because he is crazy in the brainy parts and so we are looking at years of work to get into that ring. And if his body is going to break down before we get through those years of work, then I want to know that now, because I am not going to start down that road if we can't reach its end.
As for Crooky, I wanted to know how his hips were just for my own peace of mind. Several of our friends' dogs had recently been diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. One of those dogs was a former foster of ours, and I'd had no idea that she was dysplastic even though she lived here for weeks. None! And Crooky had recently been showing greater reluctance to walk up the stairs and wasn't lifting his leg as high when he peed, so I was worried that perhaps he might be dysplastic too.
So off they trundled to VSEC, where the ortho pointed out that Pongu had a wobbly left hock (a common GSD trait) and some slight gait irregularities, and both of the mutt monsters were sedated for X-rays.
$750 later, we had some spiffy pictures, some paperwork sent off to OFA, an unofficially official diagnosis that neither dog was dysplastic, and the unwelcome news that Crookytail had minor lumbar spondylosis.
Pongu's hips (I don't know what those white ticks are, although I wish I'd thought to ask):
Crookytail's hips (he's such a fatty):
Although their hips are both fine -- so Pongu's competition career is full sputtering steam ahead -- Crooky's spine is not. Spondylosis is a very common condition in older dogs, and it is frequently asymptomatic and causes the dog no pain... but Crooky is only three, and while I don't know for sure whether his spondylosis is the reason for some of the stiffness and reluctance I've been seeing lately, I figured it could not hurt and most definitely might help to embark on a PT regimen designed to build up his muscles and stave off the effects of any further degeneration.
So I immediately booked an appointment for both mutts at the Whole Animal Gym, which happens to be very conveniently located a 20-minute walk from our condo. For Pongu, I wanted to get started on strength-building and conditioning exercises that might help ensure the length of career that I need for him to be able to take a shot at obedience; for Crooky, I just wanted to get on the prevention train early.
Upon arriving at WAG, we were met by a vet and a vet tech, both specialists in physical therapy, rehabilitation, and post-operative care. They have a number of agility and flyball dogs who are regular clients -- mostly older dogs in the 8-to-10-year range who are working to compete safely and without injury into their twilight years -- so while Pongu and I are the only Rally/obedience team in the practice, I felt confident that they were able to handle canine athletes with much more strenuous demands than ours. There's really nothing in obedience that even begins to compare to the physical challenges posed by agility or flyball.
First, we talked about my dogs' histories and my goals in putting together PT plans for both of them. Once that was set, the vet did a thorough physical examination of both dogs -- or tried to, anyway. Crooky was a good patient and let her flex his legs and go over his body with all the prodding and pushing that was necessary.
Pongu was... Pongu. He was perfectly willing to do the gaiting part of the examination, because that just meant trotting alongside me in a heeling exercise (which, as a side note, he actually did quite well on -- had we been heeling for real, we'd have gotten a pretty nice score there), but he was not okay with letting the vet give him an exploratory massage. She tried twice, and both times he squirmed away and bolted.
Still, it was enough to learn some things: both dogs are overweight (Pongu by a fairly modest 3 to 5 pounds, Crooky by a more serious 10 pounds), Pongu still has a little laxity in his left front pastern (the vet thought he could probably do agility but might want to wear an ankle brace if he ever started doing it seriously), Crooky is definitely showing some stiffness but does not appear to be in any pain from the spondylosis, so for now we are just going to do physical therapy exercises and not use any painkillers. In terms of dietary adjustments, for now we're just going to be incorporating more natural sources of glucosamine (such as chicken feet and beef tracheas) and not using formal supplements.
We also got a list of exercises to start doing at home. For the most part, they're the same ones everyone does: sit pretty, para-standing, cavaletti, etc. The one that was new to me was a pushed side pass, which is very similar to the side pass in freestyle, except that the handler actually holds onto the dog and pushes him along physically to ensure that the body maintains a straight line. Initially I was a little hesitant about that one because my ordinary inclination is to train hands-free instead of physically moving my dog around, but then I remembered that this isn't really trick training, it's physical therapy, and the priorities are different here.
Besides, trying to clicker shape Crooky into doing a perfect side pass without pushing him around would probably take the whole rest of his life. So yeah, I think I can make myself do a little more hands-on guidance in this specific instance.
Lastly, both dogs got to take a spin on the underwater treadmill.
But as soon as I got back, he was willing to do the treadmill again.
Crooky, too, did a good job on his initial run.
We started out with the treadmill going at a very gentle introductory pace of 1 mph, but toward the end of Crooky's run, the vet moved it up to 2 mph, which I could see was a good physical challenge for him at that water depth. He could do it, and it didn't seem to be too much for him, but he was clearly putting some effort in to stay on the treadmill at that pace.
I liked the treadmill so much that I immediately booked up both dogs for 5 weeks' worth of sessions. I think that it's not only great physical exercise for both of them, but a good mental challenge that will expose them to a moderately stressful experience that they can respond to by running (which definitely helps Pongu cope with stress and will probably help Crooky).
So that's our plan for now. PT exercises at home, dietary adjustments for both mutt monsters, and a standing date with the underwater treadmill for half the summer.