Like It’s Your Last

At one particularly bad class, when Dahlia struggled and I was frustrated, I remember my instructor saying “What if this were your last run ever? What would you think of it?” It was a sobering thought. I was tense and angry and upset and Dahlia was stressed out and unhappy. My instructor followed up with telling us to treat every single run like it was your last one. Because you honestly don’t know when the last one might come. Life can change in an instant and your last agility run might come sooner than you expect.

dahlia-jumpFor Dahlia and I, that was November 9, 2015. I didn’t know it was going to be the last class we would take together. I always imagined the end of our time in agility classes would be something I knew was coming, a decision I made. This is it. This is the end. Then I could go to class and we could celebrate and I could cry when it was over and give her big rewards and tons of love and I would know. It wasn’t that I couldn’t see that the end was coming in the next year or two. Dahlia was nearly 10 and not structurally the best dog for agility in the first place. By 11 or 12, I knew she’d be done and so I had this whole idea in my mind of how it would go.

But things didn’t quite go the way I had intended.

I still remember that last class with Dahlia. It was a tough one. We did a 19-obstacle jumpers with weaves course with a lot of twists and turns and taking the backside of jumps. It wasn’t easy. It was the kind of course that would usually have left me feeling out of my element and left Dahlia shut down a bit. But right away that class, she seemed to be working with me, running faster and harder and with more enthusiasm than I’d seen in a long time. She stayed with me every bit of class.

dahlia-jump2At the end, after running the first half of the course and then the second half of the course, we did the entire thing as if it were a trial situation. Keep your rewards on you, but don’t reward until the end. I still remember the high of that run. Dahlia was amazing and beautiful to watch. I keep a sort of diary about my training this was what I said about that particular run: “Dahlia was damned near perfect. Really. We were working together so well as a team. She was attentive, excited, fast for her, and really just into it. We blew through the whole thing with hardly any hesitation. It felt so good to see her really rocking it and moving the way I always want her to move. She was just so into it and gave it her all. I just love this dog so much and I love working with her in agility. These last classes she and I seemed to be able to reconnect really well and we seem to be working together with amazing ease. Love my best girly!”

When the run was over and we all celebrated her amazing run, the instructor asked if we all wanted to run it again. We had the time. I declined. Dahlia had been so amazing the first time out that I didn’t want to blow it by taking her through it again.

Looking back, I don’t regret that decision at all. Yes, it would have been one more moment with my best girl, but that run, the one that turned out to be her final run, was so amazing that I can always look back on it and say Yes, we got it. In all honesty, my only regret was that I never videotaped that run.

dahlia-tableAt the time of that run, I couldn’t wait to get out there again with her. I had been working with Dahlia for over 5 years and we were finally getting ourselves together and looking like a team.

And then Dahlia was struck down with vestibular disease a month later. Our agility career came to a screeching halt. It’s been a year now since I last went to a class with my best girl. And I miss it every single day. I leave for class with Ben and feel terrible about leaving Dahlia behind.

But at least I know that the very last run of her very last class was a beautiful one that we celebrated. And I have no regrets over that last time out. That’s how I wanted her agility career to end, ultimately, with joy and excitement. And that’s how we went out. I hope your last run is filled with joy.

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Thank you Dahlia for over 5 amazing years of being a team!

Happy First Gotcha Day Ben!

On June 27 last year my husband and I went to Glen Highland Farm (yes, the same place we have vacationed at for several years) to meet a few dogs that could potentially be our second dog. After meeting Ben, we just knew he was the right dog for us and he came home that very night.

And turned our lives upside down (you can read more of our story here).

He’s been the most amazing, goofy, ridiculous, awesome dog we could have asked for. He’s become a best friend to Dahlia and one of the lights of our lives. I can’t really imagine life without him at this point. He’s no longer the new dog. He’s just our Ben.

So I bring you the things Ben has learned in his first year with us!

1. New toys are the best thing ever!

01 new toys

 

2. Snow is pretty darned cool.

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North Carolina dog experiences REAL SNOW.

3. Tug is better with a friend.

03 tug4. Sitting politely will get me whatever I want*

04 sit

*still a work in progress

5. All must hail the might and power and amazing fun of the chuck-it.

6. Balls are no fun if they don’t squeak.

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7. Daddy’s lap makes the best chair

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8. It’s nice to have my own space sometimes.

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9. If running won’t get me there fast enough, I’ll just have to fly.

09 fly

10. Biting Mama’s boobs might lead to squeaking but they are, in fact, not squeaky toys.

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Did you really think you were getting a picture of Ben biting my boob?

Thanks Ben for choosing us! We hope to continue to be worthy to be your people!

Happy 8th Gotcha Day!

It’s hard to believe how much time has flown by. Eight years ago today, we brought home the amazing Miss Dahlia. She came home a sweet dog lacking confidence and has grown into a sweet dog with the confidence to tackle everything from moving houses to agility to silly tricks to being able to go outside during a thunderstorm. She’s just the best.

So, this year I bring you, 10 things Dahlia has learned this year. It’s been quite a year for our girl!

1. That sharing my house with another dog is really not as bad as I thought. It might actually be kind of fun.

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2. That having another dog to play tug with is kind of awesome.

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3. That even though my Mom was told not to shove toys in my face to get me to play, I will try that with my brother. Sometimes it even works!

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4. That having my own yard is kind of awesome.

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5. That barking at the dogs in the yard behind me is the best.

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6. That I don’t really mind (that much) when my brother leaps at my head.

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7. That I can share my toys and treats and even the same bowl of water.

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8. That I am still the best fun policing dog around.

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9. That the “wait and come game” is even more fun with a friend!

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10. That nothing gets me down, not even vestibular disease.

From this...

From this…

...to this.

…to this.

She’s one of the seven great dogs (there are only seven at a time, you know) and I hope for many more years to come for my girl!

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 3

This is the final part in my three-part series on our experience with “Old Dog” Vestibular Disease. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can find them here:

Part 1
Part 2

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Dahlia at the beginning of Week 4

As we headed into week 4, I was starting to feel really positive about Dahlia’s prognosis. The vet had assured me that most dogs make a near-complete recovery and as long as the dog is showing improvement after those first crucial 72 hours, they are likely to continue improving. This was certainly what we’d seen with Dahlia! She had conquered the stairs to the outside. She was able to get around the lower floor of our house with no real issues. She was happy going on walks and doing a bit of play with Ben in the backyard.

But she was not still at 100%. And we were all too well aware of that. Her head was still tilted, though it had become less extreme. She still had not attempted the stairs to our second floor. I was still sleeping in the downstairs guest room with her. And she had not been in a car since Christmas.

We were very careful with Dahlia through her convalescence. She is a dog who came to us with very little confidence and while she had gained so much during her 7+ years with us, Vestibular Disease shook her rather seriously. And so we did not want to try to get her upstairs or into the car before she was really ready to do it. Maybe we were too conservative. Maybe others would have pushed the issue earlier. But I think we ultimately made the right choice for her.

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Day 34: Playtime!

It was the middle of the 4th week after this whole thing began, that Dahlia tried the stairs to the second floor. I still remember it clearly. Ben raced up the stairs as he usually does (Ben does nothing slowly!) and I went upstairs to find him a treat for bed. When I turned around, Dahlia was starting up the stairs. I absolutely panicked. My plan for getting her up the stairs consisted of one person being at the top of the stairs tempting her with treats while the other person stayed directly behind her in case she got wobbly and fell. Because Dahlia is a stubborn dog who does things on her own terms, she just decided to do it with no one behind her in case things went badly.

I rushed down and got behind her just as she got a little wobbly and stopped. She didn’t fall, thankfully. But it was clear at that point she wasn’t ready to continue. I managed to get her to turn around and walk slowly (one step at a time) back down the stairs.

It was scary. She didn’t get all the way up. But she did it. On her own with no coaxing. Dahlia wanted to get better and so she simply did.

Day 34: Head almost straight!

Day 34: Still sitting a little awkwardly, but her head is basically straight!

It was sometime during the following week that we decided to work more on getting her upstairs. We knew she had it in her and so we gave her a few more days to sleep downstairs and then decided to see if she could do it. She was hesitant and afraid to start up them. Her first experience did not go all that well and she had lost some confidence. So we put her on leash and got out the big guns. The “big guns,” of course, were the treats I used in her agility classes: Hormel dried beef. She loves that stuff. And so we got it out, waved it under her nose, got her really excited and after a bit of hemming and hawing, a bit of wobbling around, she did it. Once she got going, she just kept going (me in front of her tempting her with treats, my husband holding the leash and staying at her side to catch her if she fell) and she got to the top with no real problems.

The next morning was, of course, the next big challenge: Getting her down the stairs. I went down stairs to get some more treats out of the refrigerator and was heading back to go upstairs to put the leash on her and help her down. And lo and behold, Dahlia was making her own way down the stairs. Slowly. One step at a time. But she did it. On her own steam, with no one having to coax her down. She knew she wanted those treats. And so she came down to get them.

Ironically, I was pretty sure the down part would be much tougher than the up part. But Dahlia proved me wrong as she so often does.

day 34

Day 34: Playing with Ben!

By the time weeks 5 and 6 rolled around, Dahlia was regularly racing into the backyard with Ben. She was still a bit wobbly at times and when Ben would do his trick of running 90 mph at her and leaping at her head, she’d fall over. But she got up quicker and would race off after him. Here’s a video shot on day 28 after this whole thing started. You might think the dog running at the camera at first is Ben, but you’re wrong! (And you’ll realize that when the second dog comes flying past the first one.) You can see how much she’s improved since the video I posted last week. She’s much steadier on her feet and while she still struggles a bit and is a bit wobbly, she’s able to run at a pretty decent speed (especially considering she’s running on snow!).

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Nearly 8 weeks in: A straight head!

By the end of week 6, she was regularly going up the stairs on her own. We were able to fade out the need for treats to coax her upstairs and every day it seemed like it was just that much easier for her to get started up them. She now goes up the stairs at just the mention of bed time. No treats, no coaxing, and no wobbling at all. And she races down them if she so much as senses someone might be going into the guest room closet (where we keep the treats).

We also noticed that head tilt is almost completely gone. There’s still a bit of a tilt inside, but outside it has disappeared and inside it’s almost not noticeable. This does not happen for all dogs or cats (or, as I found out in doing some research many other animals: rabbits, sheep, cows, and other animals have been affected by this same disease). Some will always retain a small head tilt (and some quite a big head tilt — see Marnie the Dog) so if it doesn’t resolve itself for your dog or cat, don’t be too dismayed!

Day 47: Finally in the car!

Day 47: Finally in the car!

This left one last thing to conquer for Dahlia: car rides. After Christmas (day 10 of this ordeal). she had not attempted getting into the car. I wanted to make sure she was confident enough to get into it. After seeing her try to get up on the couch and then decide not to do it again, I didn’t want to have the same issue with the car. When Dahlia started to attempt the couch again and got on it successfully, I decided it was time to see if she could do it.

So one day, while my husband was out walking Ben, I grabbed some of her favorite treats and took her out to the car to see what happened. I opened up the doors to the car and turned to see if I could help her. But nope. Dahlia did not need any help. She leapt up into the car like she had never ever had Vestibular Disease. She also had no trouble getting out of the car, landing solidly on the ground without stumbling even a little bit. We went to Petco to celebrate. She got a lot of attention from the people she met there and a few delicious treats.

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7 weeks in: Racing around the backyard like this never happened!

This is where Dahlia is now. She has her old life back. She can go places with us. She can go upstairs and sleep on her bed at our side. She can run around the backyard with Ben. She gets steadier all the time with running, as you can see in the following videos, shot 7 weeks post-diagnosis.

She is happy and healthy and sometimes it’s almost like this never happened. Just the other day she leapt a branch in our backyard like it was a standard agility jump. I keep saying to people “You wouldn’t know anything is wrong with her.” But the reality is there isn’t anything wrong with her anymore.

But here’s the somewhat sobering reality: our vet told us that this rarely comes back. We left the vet’s office that day feeling relieved that we may never have to face this down again. But having spoken to many people whose dogs and cats have experienced this has led me to believe that a recurrence is not as uncommon as we were led to believe. So will it ever return? It’s hard to say. Knowing now what I know, I feel more prepared to tackle the disease. But at the same time I sincerely hope we never have to go through this with her again. It has been frightening and frustrating and was simply awful to watch for a time. Dahlia is now about 99% better than she was the day that it started. Hopefully if it ever recurs, she will get back to her usual self as quickly.

Throughout Dahlia’s convalescence, I spent a lot of time on the internet doing research and talking to other folks who had been through this. Some of the sites I found that have been indispensable to me are as follows:

Vestibular Disease in Dogs Support Group. This Facebook group was the main thing that kept me going through the past two months. The people there have all been through it, some are still going through it. New people join all the time (and not just with dogs; there is no equivalent cat group on Facebook so some cat owners have joined this one — Hint to cat owners: Create one! I bet you’d be a great resource for cat owners who didn’t want to post in a dog group!). And many people (including myself) stick around after their dogs have recovered to cheer on and support those who are currently going through it.

Lassie, Get Help – Vestibular Disease: Leave a Light On. Besides just the blog post, reading the comments to the post were incredibly helpful. Just seeing that others had been through this and that their dogs were ok made me feel better about the whole thing.

Shake, Rattle, and Roll: Top 10 Things You Should Know About Vestibular Disease. This is a great, very informative PDF about the disease.

I hope these posts have been informative for anyone who has not experienced this disease and perhaps a comfort to those who have. Please stop in and comment if you wish to. Let us know about your dog’s (or cat’s or rabbit’s) experience with this disease and how they’re doing now!

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 2

Last week I wrote about the absolute scare Dahlia gave us when she woke up and couldn’t walk and the first week of her recovery from Vestibular disease (if you missed the post, you can read it here).

This has been a long, hard road for us. And especially for Dahlia, though she has fought it every step of the way. No one wanted to return to normal more than Dahlia did and her fighting spirit helped her near-constant progress.

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Day 8: Awkward running, but a short run nonetheless!

The second week brought about many great changes for Dahlia, though there were many struggles. Early in the week, she was still refusing to go into my husband’s study, but he decided to bring her out back with Ben through the outside gate. She was so happy to be outside that she tried to chase Ben. She was wobbly. She was unsteady, but she wanted to play. It was the first time since this happened that we actually attempt anything playful. During that first really hard week, we weren’t sure she would ever play again. I remembered wondering if she’d play tug, if she’d ever bark. She was silent during that first week and while Dahlia has never been a noisy dog (see my post on teaching Dahlia to bark, among other things), she has learned to bark in excitement. Seeing her so quiet was hard.

Christmas at my mothers - a very comfortable Dahlia!

Christmas at my mothers – a very comfortable (and tired) Dahlia!

The worst part of the week revolved around Christmas. Because we didn’t want to leave her out of the festivities, we opted to bring her over to my mother’s house (across town). which meant a car ride. As I mentioned in my earlier post, dogs with vestibular disease do not like being lifted off the ground. And as Dahlia had never really been picked up by us, it was especially difficult on her. She really wasn’t ready to attempt a jump up in the car, so we had to lift her in. This involved her rolling, almost falling out of the car, and at least three attempts before she was situated into the car. It also meant a difficult time getting her out. To reduce the stress, I stayed the night at my mother’s place with Dahlia while my husband went home with Ben. That meant two car rides instead of four. It was absolutely the right decision for Dahlia. Now you might ask Should you have taken her at all? That’s the question I still don’t have a proper answer for. Dahlia would not have wanted to be left behind and I was not comfortable at that point leaving her for several hours. So in the end, we decided the stress of getting her into the car was less than the worry about leaving her behind. And outside of the stress of getting her into and out of the car and being nervous coming down the hallway, Dahlia was comfortable at my mother’s place. She begged as usual and, a new thing: she was comfortable walking on the hardwood floors in my mother’s kitchen (anything to beg for food!).

And a Christmas miracle! When I came back from a walk with Ben, Dahlia got very excited and played tug with her Mama. It was the first time she’d shown any interest in toys or playing her favorite game! I will admit that I had tears in my eyes as I played with her (and I apologize for my voice in this video — you might want to listen on mute!).

You can pretty clearly see that her head is tilted to the side as we play. That’s not normal. That’s a result of the vestibular disease. It is something that may or may not resolve as the dog recovers.

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Day 12: Sitting, but the head tilt is still pretty prominent.

By the end of the second week, we were taking up rugs in the house and Dahlia was getting around with little difficulty. Her head was still tilted awkwardly and I despaired of ever seeing her head actually straight again. She wasn’t going up stairs. She wasn’t going into my husband’s study. But she did, finally, sit. Which seems like such a small thing. But many dogs with vestibular disease have trouble with sitting. It takes some decent balance to sit down like that and for the first couple weeks, Dahlia either stood or laid down. But finally. Sit. It was awkward. But she did it. And she did it on her own!

And…perhaps the biggest change that week? Dahlia played tug with Ben. She was so excited to see me when I got home and they were both so worked up (and Ben brought me a toy, as he so often does), that she simply turned to Ben and grabbed the toy he had and a wonderful game of tug began!

Day 18: Beggars!

Day 18: Beggars! (You can see how tilted Dahlia’s head is in comparison to Ben’s)

The third week brought about even more changes. Dahlia started to pursue more play with Ben and more play with us. She was getting steadier on her feet and as she regained confidence, she started to act more like her usual self. When she was excited, she’d race down the stairs into my husband’s study after Ben. It’s like she simply forgot to be scared of them in the moment. And then she’d race outside and try to chase Ben. She was still pretty unsteady on her feet at faster speeds (and especially in the opening of the video where she’s trying to move on the small hill down into our yard). But as you can see in this video, while she’s still pretty wobbly and not giving huge amount of chase, none of it seems to faze her and she eggs Ben on by barking and spinning around to follow his path. (And Ben, as you can see, is having great fun with it, even if she isn’t giving chase!) You’ll also see her shake her head once and lose her balance. In the first week, she would have fallen over. But here she stays on her feet.

While the stairs to the second floor were still a bit beyond her, she was able to sleep in the downstairs guest room with me. Which was huge…for me! I’d been sleeping on the couch in the living room with her for nearly a month but she was finally comfortable walking into the more enclosed space of the guest room and so we moved into there. Sleep came easier for both of us, I think!

Day 19: Awkwardly perched on the couch!

Day 19: Awkwardly perched on the couch!

She also started to get up on the couch, though the couple of times she did it, she struggled a bit. We’re not sure what the issue was exactly. Either she couldn’t quite judge the distance or (and this may be more likely) her back legs weren’t quite able to push off properly. So she ultimately ended up flinging herself onto the couch and just laying wherever she ended up. It wasn’t the most comfortable thing for her and she only did it a few times before deciding she would rather stay on the floor.

She started barking more during this week and especially on command. I wasn’t sure she’d ever get to do any of her old tricks and while some (like standing on her hind legs) may be forever beyond her balance abilities, barking was not. Here’s a short video, shot on day 20. You can see her head is still tilted funny, but she’s excited and happy to bark for the treats we received in the mail from a Secret Santa exchange.

And then…she got naughty. I took Ben out for a walk one day and came back to find Dahlia had pulled a bag of pizzelles (a crispy Italian waffle cookie made with vanilla and, you guessed it, butter) off the counter and proceeded to tear it open and eat half the cookies before I got back. Instead of being upset over such a transgression (though I was sad over the loss of the cookies!), I was thrilled that she had enough of her in her to do it.
In just three weeks, Dahlia had come so far. From not being able to walk to being able to play a bit with Ben, she had made great progress. But there was still more recovery ahead of her!
Read the third and final part here.

Day to Day with Vestibular Disease, Part 1

I will never forget the morning of December 16. My husband woke up around 5:00am and discovered that Dahlia had vomited. No big deal, probably something she ate. He ran down to get some stuff to clean it up and I went to check on Dahlia.

And that was when I discovered her condition.

She couldn’t stand. She tried to, but her back legs wouldn’t get underneath her and she kept falling over.

Her head was moving strangely, like she was following something darting around the room.

I remember calling to my husband, shouting that there was something seriously wrong with Dahlia. I kept trying to get her up and she finally just lay there, head bopping around in the half light of our bedroom, not moving while I panicked.

It was a stroke. I was absolutely sure of it. My husband carried her downstairs. She was dead weight in his arms. He doesn’t even remember the trip downstairs or out to the car. He barely remembers the drive to the emergency vet.

But I do. I remember feeling both panicked and numb at the same time (how is such a thing even possible?). I remember being sure that we were losing our best girl, that the end of the road had come far too early (at only about 9 1/2) and far too quickly (she had been running around the yard playing hard with Ben just the night before). When we pulled up to the vet, I was sure we were about to get terrible news. They whisked her away from us to check her out before we had much of a chance to even think and we were taken to one of the rooms to wait for her return and the vet with her.

I don’t know how long we waited. It wasn’t very long, that much I do remember. The techs brought Dahlia in to us and laid her on a blanket. We both sat on the ground with her. I wanted to cry.

The vet came in shortly thereafter.

And she was smiling. I remember thinking Why are you smiling? We’re losing our best girl…

But we weren’t. And that was what the vet was there to tell us. As it turned out, Dahlia had something called Idiopathic Vestibular Disease (or IVD for short). Sometimes called “Old Dog” vestibular disease, IVD is an inflammation of the nerve going between the inner ear and the brain and is something that tends to strike older dogs (and cats). In most cases, there is no known cause (hence “idiopathic”), though it can sometimes be caused by an inner ear infection.

The symptoms are pretty clear-cut in most cases and come on rapidly:

  • Rapid, uncontrollable eye movement (called “nystagmus”)
  • Dizziness and loss of balance
  • Staggering (some liken this to a “drunken sailor” walk)
  • Circling in one direction when attempting to walk
  • Rolling
  • Head tilt
  • Nausea/vomiting

It was that first one I hadn’t noticed, likely because it was dark in the room, but it explains the strange head movements I saw. Her eyes were trying to orient her body to a room that was spinning rapidly around her.

My dog had vertigo. I’ve suffered from vertigo on occasion due to my hearing issues, but only for short periods. It’s intense. And it’s scary. But I know what’s going on when it happens. Dahlia didn’t. Her world had been turned upside down and ours with it.

But the good news is that while these episodes come on quickly, they also resolve…well…fairly quickly. Generally, the nystagmus should disappear within 3-4 days and at that point, you should see marked (though not complete) improvement.

I am, of course, the type of person who immediately went on the internet and looked up more information on the disease and tried to find progress reports for people’s dogs who had gone through this same thing. One thing I found was that a lot of people had had this happen to their dogs. One thing I didn’t find were very many progress reports. I felt a little bit like I was in the dark staggering about with my dog and hoping I was doing the right thing by her.

So I thought I would document Dahlia’s progress here on Team Unruly. I will admit up front that it is a month out from her original diagnosis and she is much improved, so never fear there! My girl has a strong will!

I won’t lie. The first week that Dahlia struggled through this disease was one of the hardest weeks of my life. We brought Dahlia home rather than leaving her at the vet’s for supportive care (which was an option and never feel bad if you take them up on it). They gave her some sub-q fluids, a shot of Cirenia (for nausea), and recommended 25mg of Meclizine (an over the counter medicine used for motion sickness) a day for the first few days. The hope was that she would feel a little less nauseous and therefore eat something while all of this was going on.

That first morning when she came home she didn’t seem too bad. I remember being relieved that she wasn’t “as bad” as everyone else’s dogs I’d seen videos of. She walked into the backyard. She was wobbly, but she could walk. She even managed to find a place to do her business. And when we went inside, she ate some hamburger. I remember being so happy that this was such a mild case and expected her to be back to her old self in a short bit. But that’s not how the disease goes. And in Dahlia’s case, it worsened over the course of that first day.

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Day 4

By that evening, she was at her lowest point. She could barely walk and when she did, she only walked in circles. She developed a dramatic head tilt (in fact, the whole front of her body looked tilted oddly). She couldn’t get down the stairs, so we had to carry her down to go outside. This was an absolute nightmare for Dahlia. And it is for many dogs with IVD. When the world is spinning, they orient themselves by having their feet firmly on the ground. Removing that ground made her panic. But she wouldn’t walk with a towel underneath her belly. And she was terrified to go down the stairs (and we were terrified she’d hurt herself if we let her try). So we had to carry her. She rolled in our arms. We came close to dropping her a few times as she panicked. But we got her outside each time and she was, thankfully, able to find a place to pee on her own.

Two days later, her eyes had slowed down, though there was still some movement, and that seemed to steady her a bit. She still couldn’t take the stairs to the outside and it was still an ordeal to get her out, but she wanted to go further once outside. Instead of just finding a spot to pee out front, she would get about two houses down and around the corner before laying down in exhaustion. Then we’d walk her back and carry her back inside.

Because our house is two stories and our bedroom is upstairs, I ended up sleeping on the couch in the living room with her on the floor near me. I didn’t sleep well those first nights. I was constantly on alert, woke up at every little movement. Dahlia, thankfully slept through the night. Or at least, she did for the first two nights.

At this point, she ended up with diarrhea, likely from all the stress (maybe from the medication), which just added to the difficulty. This was really the lowest point for us. I was exhausted and stressed out, afraid to sleep for fear she’d have another accident or try to get out or that she was overly stressed. It almost seems like a blur a few weeks out from it, like it happened in another lifetime.

Day 4 was when we finally turned a corner. Her eyes stopped moving and while they still seemed a little glassy and she was definitely not “herself,” she was fighting to get back to normal. She pulled her “stubborn Dahlia” trick of standing there and refusing to move unless I went the way she wanted to go. We walked around the whole block. And that afternoon she insisted on going down the steps to the outside on her own. I held onto her collar and stayed with her in case she slipped. And she did stumble a little, but she made it down the steps without having to be carried down and when we returned, she made it back up the steps with only my hand on her collar. Which was simply massive progress at this point. It meant that there was less stress on her and one person could get her out.

We also put down rugs all over the house because she wanted to move around more, wanted to visit us in the dining room or beg for scraps in the kitchen. We found all our old rugs and covered our hardwood floors with them.

It seems like such a small thing, really. Getting down the stairs on her own. Walking around the house. Things she’s done every day of her life. But this was what we were down to: celebrating those little tiny moments.

Day 6

Day 6

We had more to celebrate in the coming days. On the fifth day, her eyes lost the glassy look. She was more alert and with that came better balance. She walked further, she was interested in meeting other dogs and people, she squatted and peed with one leg in the air (see: the tiny moments!). She was able to control her speed better. The first few days of this consisted of walks where she would lurch forward, lose her balance, stagger, stop, and then lurch forward again. Day 5 showed a dog who could control her walking speed again. It meant the walks were slow, but she was able to stay walking at a steady pace.

On the sixth day, she went for a mile-long walk. We’ve always allowed her to make choices for walks and that was her choice that morning. I was at work all day and when I arrived home, Dahlia was at the door to greet me. She had not had the energy or interest in getting up to go to the door since the whole thing began so having her there meant so much.

The seventh day began with a vet trip to take care of the diarrhea issue as it wasn’t clearing up on its own, despite trying a bland diet. She wasn’t able to get into the car, so we had to walk her to the car and lift her in, which continued to be very difficult for her. She panicked and rolled and it took a few times to get her in and out. But the vet visit itself was good. They pronounced her in excellent health. She’d lost weight (thanks Ben!) and the vet said except for the head tilte and her being a little wobbly, there was nothing wrong with her. We got antibiotics and were on our way.

We noticed some more small changes around the house that day. She was willing to walk into the kitchen, which is a tile floor. She contemplated going down the steps into David’s study but for some reason they made her nervous, so she stood at the top and watched from there instead. And she was less hesitant getting around the house. Her head tilt was still rather pronounced, but we noticed that while it was quite dramatic inside still, outside her head tilt was getting better. This is something many have noticed in the community that I belong to for dogs with this particular disease. Some will struggle more inside, some more outside, but it’s not unusual to find that your dog seems much better in one place, but still struggles in a different place.

So at the end of that first week, things were better, but certainly nowhere near normal. I was still sleeping downstairs, still on the couch because she didn’t feel comfortable in the more enclosed guest room, and she still had a long way to go. But Dahlia has a strong will and she was working her way back to normal.

Read Part 2 here.

The Emotional Impact of the Second Dog

It wasn’t long after we got Dahlia that I started contemplating a second dog, knowing that the idea was far off in the future, a sort of pipe dream. We lived in an apartment, the lower floor of a duplex in the city. We had no yard to speak of and more importantly, we had a landlord who agreed to one dog and one dog only. It didn’t stop me from looking and look I did. Almost constantly. I kept bookmarks of dogs I really liked on Petfinder and rejoiced when they were adopted. I perused rescue sites and decided where I wanted to get a dog from long before I even thought we’d be able to do it.

I always said…when we get a house. If we get a house. And then in the summer of 2014, my husband’s parents surprised us. They wanted us to get a house. And they were going to give us some of our inheritance early to help with the down payment. Why wait until we die? We want you to be comfortable now. We want to know you’re in your own place now.

So we bought a house. And moved in April 2015. So we had the house. We had the yard, fenced in even. We had the rescue we wanted to get a dog from.

And I realized, as time went by, that I wasn’t sure I was ready for such a thing. I looked at Dahlia and wondered if it was fair to her. She’s 9. She’s been an only dog for 7 years. She liked other dogs, but how would she be with one actually living with her?

So on the outside I said “Once we get settled we’ll get a dog” while coming up with every single reason why we shouldn’t get one. We just moved in. The house wasn’t set up. The yard needed to be fixed. We still needed to unpack things. Dahlia was still stressed out from moving. What about money?

I knew that if we didn’t adopt a dog this year, it probably would be unfair to Dahlia. At 10, she may be less interested in play and therefore less likely to happily allow another dog into her domain. But still I waited, ready to say “We can’t do this to our girl” and pretend like this was the saddest thing ever when inside I was secretly happy that we wouldn’t be able to make it work.

And then one day I came across this picture.

Ben1And my heart just leapt. I had had the application for the rescue filled out for ages and then suddenly there he was. The dog I wanted. The dog I had been waiting for. I sent off the application.

And then I sat down on the floor with my perfect amazing dog and held her as I cried. What have I done? Have I ruined your life? You’ve been the light of our life and now you’re going to be one of two?

I wanted to take it back. I wanted to go to my e-mail and hit “unsend” (I was just a wee bit late for that though). I wanted to call the rescue and say “Nevermind I am not ready please give it back I was only kidding.” I couldn’t do this to Dahlia. I was an absolute wreck after I submitted the application (it probably did not help that the very day I sent in the application, my father-in-law passed away after a long decline).

From there, everything happened so fast. The rescue called me to talk about my application, the owner of the rescue called me to talk about specific dogs, and we were at the rescue four days later to meet dogs. We went home with Ben, the dog I knew was supposed to be ours.

And suddenly there was this other dog in our house. And I absolutely had no idea what to do with him. He was stressed out that first day. He found all our toys. He ran around squeaking them all evening. For hours. He got into things. We had to rescue books and a box that had been delivered that day. He stole the butter right off the counter (he wouldn’t be our dog if he didn’t steal butter!) and we had to keep him away from counters and table (Oh God did he countersurf!). He wanted to explore everything and preferably through his mouth. He drank and drank and drank, He would not stop moving. It was about 10:00pm that night when he finally dropped into an exhausted heap.

Finally asleep!

Finally asleep!

He was up the next morning at 5:00am to start it all over again.

I remember thinking that morning What have I done?

I won’t lie. Those first couple months were really stressful. Ben did not know how to settle down. And as he got more and more tired, he got more and more frantic and got into more and more things. He chewed up any books that he could find, grabbed anything that might be a toy. We were used to having a dog who never chewed on anything and so found ourselves having to be a lot more careful with our things than usual, especially as what Ben loved to chew on were paper products and my husband owns a thousand books (at least). We were up at 5:00am with Ben and collapsed in bed far too late at night. We were exhausted and sometimes unsure of ourselves. I worried that we couldn’t meet his needs, that he was too much dog for our household.

I will admit that there were times I was relieved I went to work to escape. There were times I was relieved to go spend the day with my Mom to escape from it all. His stress affected me. Very badly. The What have I done feelings did not stop that first morning. They continued for a good month or so. I was absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed and often feared we’d made a huge mistake.

In other words, I was where a lot of people are when they say “No this isn’t working, the dog needs to go back.”

There was nothing bad about Ben. Nothing at all. He was a smart, active little guy, but he had been kicked around a lot in a short period of time (two shelters, two foster homes, and one failed adoption before he came to us – we were the 8th place he had landed since in about 3-4 months). And he was stressed out. Really stressed out.

So I took a deep breath. And I talked to people about Ben. I asked what to do, how to help him, how to help us.

When he couldn’t settle down, I put him on leash and kept him at my side. I took away all his options for play (no running around, no toys, no other dog to play with) and within about two minutes, his mind would finally stop and he would just drop and fall asleep. He was like the toddler who is out at a restaurant way too late, exhausted, and so spends the whole evening screaming. That toddler doesn’t need more entertainment. That toddler needs to sleep. And that was 100% Ben’s issue. He simply didn’t know how to settle on his own. The leash did that and once he was asleep, I could take the leash off and he’d stay there, sound asleep at my side.

We spent a lot of time petting him, softly, slowly, talking to him in a soothing voice. We took him for long walks. We threw a lot of balls. We did a lot of fun impulse control training with him. And then later in the evening, it was time to settle and the leash came out.

A month to the day after we got him, Ben got up on the couch for the first time, rested his head on the armrest and soon was sleeping soundly.

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Ben’s new favorite place

I still remember it so clearly. It was like he breathed a sigh of relief, like “I am home now.” It was the first time he voluntarily relaxed since coming to our house. And it marked the end of my having to use a leash to settle him down. He started to get up on the couch and settle on his own. Now, that’s not to say he was a couch potato! In order for him to settle, I’d have to send the dogs in the backyard and let Dahlia bark at him until he got running in huge circles faster and faster and faster until he finally just grabbed a toy and laid down. He needed that last push to get out all that energy. Then he could come in and relax.

But he relaxed. And it didn’t matter that I had to get him to run like crazy. He could relax.

You cannot imagine how relieved I was. This dog, so stressed out and so crazy when we brought him home, was starting to learn to live with us, was starting to figure things out.

That’s not to say it was perfect. Not by any means. After a couple months, we started to trust him out of his crate during the day. We used my husband’s study as a place to put him and keep him separate from Dahlia (and the rest of the house). If we weren’t careful and left something out (like a book!), he would chew it. But not every time. Sometimes he was amazing in the study. He ate his bully stick, he ate his frozen kong, and he didn’t get into anything. But there were those rare occasions, maybe once every couple weeks, where he got into something. We debated continuing to crate him. We thought about baby gating him into the kitchen while we were out. But we kept up with the routine of putting him into the study when we were out.

And one day, some 4-5 months after Ben came to live with us, we realized he had been fine in the study for a long time. The morning we had to rush Dahlia to the e-vet (that’s a tale for another post!), we had to put him in the study without double-checking to make sure the books were put away and without taking Ben for a long walk first. We came back almost 2 hours later and found he hadn’t done anything wrong. And there had been books that had fallen on the floor the day before and had not been picked up. They were untouched too. He was perfect.

Now, 6 months later, Ben can relax without that gigantic push of energy that he needed. Around 6:30-7pm every night, he gets up on the couch or his favorite chair and falls asleep. He no longer sleeps in a crate and instead curls up on the bed with us. He is no longer crated during the day and instead gets to relax in my husband’s study with a Kong and some squeaky toys (though he does think the draft stoppers are great big toys and drags them out into the middle of the room, completely negating their purpose). He has a lot of fun in the yard, is fantastic on walks, and settles wonderfully. He has learned to beg and share our handouts with Dahlia.

As for Dahlia? What does she think of this interloper? Well…pictures ought to tell you the complete story.

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I’d say that Dahlia adapted rather well.

So if you’re in this situation. If you’re staring at your new dog and wondering What have I done? Remember, that often it does get better. Your dog will learn that they are home, that they are safe, and as they learn that, the stress will disappear and you’ll have the dog you always wanted. I no longer look at Ben and wonder What have I done? I look at Ben and think I am so thankful that he has come into our lives. He is part of our family and I cannot imagine our lives without him now.

House hunting and moving… with dogs

Note: This post was written before we adopted Ben.

Back in July 2014, my husband and I got the good news: we’d be able to purchase a house the following year. Our lease was up in June (we were able to weasel out as early as April) and so we had plenty of time to figure out where we wanted to live and what kinds of things we wanted in this new house of ours.

You might remember the way I went about adopting a dog with my list of things I had to have, things I absolutely could not deal with, and the things I was willing to bend on. This served me well yet again as we started to list those things we wanted in a house.

Now, plenty of those things had little or nothing to do with our dog (or future dogs). We had to have space for my husband’s books. We had to have a guest room and preferred it on the first floor as his father had trouble with stairs. We really wanted a dishwasher because…well…that one should be obvious! So I won’t say that every single thing about the house was thought of in conjunction with dogs, but there were certainly things that we considered that did have to do with dogs.

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Examples from Trulia. The house we were considering vs. the house we bought. Just look at all that red! Yikes!

1. The neighborhood. There were many questions that we had about the neighborhoods we looked at. At the top of the list was: Is it safe? Obviously this is not just about our dog, but there are certainly reasons why the two are connected. I have to walk her before work, often before it’s even light out. I take her out to pee at night. I don’t want to be looking over my shoulder and being afraid that someone might come after me when out for a walk. My go-to site for crime statistics for particular houses I was looking at was Trulia. Trulia gives you a general idea of how many crimes and what type of crimes have been reported in the area surrounding a particular address. One house we really adored we decided not to look closer at because the area was a higher crime area. And this was driven home rather well when it was discovered that not only was a house fire a few blocks away intentionally set, but that it was set by a man who was literally an ax murderer! The neighborhood we chose was “low” in the crimes list and those crimes that happened were relatively benign (no ax murderers living in our neighborhood, thank you very much!).

In addition to crime, we worried about noise, especially with a Border Collie mix (and future Border Collie) and how busy the neighborhood is. We were moving from a college neighborhood (read: drunken parties until the middle of the night) and wanted something far more peaceful. We found a nice suburban neighborhood that is essentially cut off from other neighborhoods. That means about 99% of the traffic that comes down our street is from people who live in the neighborhood. It’s quiet and not crime-ridden. Exactly what we wanted!

The yard is not pretty (yet!), but it's ours...and it's fenced in!

The yard is not pretty (yet!), but it’s ours…and it’s fenced in!

2. The yard. This one is pretty obvious. For my husband and I, personally, a yard is not a big deal. He wants to plant a small garden. So having a lot of space was not really necessary. But for our dog and for any future dogs? We had two requirements in a yard: (a) A decent sized yard that enabled me to set up some agility equipment and play some good games of fetch, but that was not so large that we would need a riding lawn mower to take care of it and (b) fenced in. The latter was something we could have bent on, but I really didn’t want to. Fencing is expensive. And as we’ve discussed before, many rescues require a fenced in yard, and if they don’t require one, they would really really like you to have one. Having a fenced in yard means there are more rescues we can adopt from.

3. House size and layout. The former was really far more about my husband’s stuff (read: 1000+ books), but the size of the house and the layout of it were fairly important when it came to dogs. Right now we have one dog. In the future we would like to get a second and there were things we took into consideration for future dog. The two most important things for us were (a) space in the bedroom for two dog beds, one on each side of the bed (we got it!) and (b) a comfortable room that we can close one dog up in if necessary. I will admit, I’m not big on crates unless there is a really major reason to use one (e.g. housebreaking, dog is more comfortable in the crate). I like giving Dahlia the run of the house when we’re gone. She’s not destructive (unless we leave some sort of food item out…*ah hem*…butter thief), she’s housebroken, and mostly she just lays around and sleeps all day. If future dog is not destructive and housebroken, then I want future dog to have that same benefit. But I admit, I’m a bit of a nervous nelly. I hate leaving two dogs together because I have constant fears that I’m going to come home to something really horrible and am always relieved when I come home to find them laying around and just chilling. So I can well imagine that I’m going to want to separate them when no one is home, especially at first, just for my own sanity. But I don’t want one dog to have someplace comfortable to lay and the other one be stuck in a tiny room. So that was all taken into consideration when looking at houses. The house we bought has a 240 square foot room that my husband is using as his study. It’s comfortable, has some nice chairs in it and plenty of space. It’s certainly a good place for future dog to hang out in.


 

So what about the actual move? Moving can be really tough on dogs. Everything is being packed up, things are being discarded, their routine is being disrupted. There were a handful of things we kept in mind as we were preparing to move with our dog.

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Not only is the layout of our living room very similar to the old one, but the couch, recliner, dog bed, and rug all made the trip to the new house with us. (The dog did too, of course…you might notice her comfortably lounging on the couch!)

1. Keep something the same. When my parents moved back in 2007, they made one huge mistake. They got rid of everything but their clothes and some kitchen things. And I do mean everything. They got all new living room, bedroom and dining room furniture, all new decorations. They even tossed out their dog’s old bed and bought her a new one. When their dog (Teri) came over to their new house for the first time she was frantic. She spent three days pacing. You could almost feel the panic coming off of her. When are we going home? She did finally settle, but it took longer than my parents would have liked. So when it came time to moving for us, we kept almost everything we owned. We ditched our bed and bought a new one. But our living room and dining room furniture was the same (including the area rug for the living room). And most importantly, we took Dahlia’s old bed and the blanket on top of it. We didn’t even wash it. We wanted it to really smell of her.

We also kept her routine the same. The shape of the house may  differ from the apartment we lived in. We might have had to send her to the living room to eat around a corner instead of straight down a hallway, but the routine of where and when she got fed, where and when she got treats, where she slept, has all basically been kept the same.

She adjusted much quicker than my parent’s dog. Was there stress? Of course. In fact, I’d say that only now, a month or so after the move, has she become completely free of the moving stress. But she was much more comfortable in the house than I think she would have been with all new things.

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Mom, what’s happening? Dahlia’s last trip to a mostly empty apartment was confusing.

2. Find a safe place for your dog(s) to go during the move. Moving is a lot of hard work. Doors have to be kept open. People are running in and out of the house carrying 40 boxes of books (ok maybe that’s just us). It’s confusing even for the humans involved. The last thing you need is for your dog to escape the house and be lost or for your dog to be injured because she is underfoot. I’d even say that it would be unfair to the dog to crate her in a separate room where she can hear all the noise and then be let out only to find out all her things are gone and nothing looks the same. Imagine how disconcerting that would be to a dog!

We sent Dahlia off with my mother for the day of the move. She trusts my mother (in fact, my Mom came to pick her up and Dahlia didn’t even look back when she got her into the car!). She knows my mother’s house and her dog. She was happy to hang out in her kitchen (we don’t call her “the food lady” for no reason!) and follow her around the house. It made the move far less stressful for us and for her.

Dahlia soaking up the sun in our front yard during my week off.

Dahlia soaking up the sun in our front yard during my week off.

3. Take some time off. I know this probably isn’t possible for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for my husband as we moved in the middle of the school year and he’s a professor. But it was for me and so I scheduled a whole week off of work. We moved on a Saturday and I spent the next week with my dog in and out of the house. That meant she always felt safe because she knew her Mama was there with her. Her Daddy left and always came back to the new house! She got to explore a whole new area and her Mama always took her back to that same place. By the end of that first week, she would turn toward the house as soon as we got near it. She knew it was her house, even if she wasn’t 100% comfortable there just yet.

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The best reward of all, so says Dahlia!

4. A lot of rewards. I’ve never been skimpy with treats for my dog. I make no bones about that (haha bad dog pun…get it?…not that she really gets bones or anything…anyway…). But I gave her even more during those first weeks in the house. You came down stairs? Oh boy, rewards! You headed toward the house after a walk? Oh boy, rewards! You came into the kitchen? REWARDS! I wanted her to associate every room in the house with something awesome. I wanted her to be happy to go into the guest room or the study or our bedroom or even the bathroom (which has now become her safe space during storms).  Dahlia has had threshold issues in the past. In our previous apartment she wouldn’t go past the living room and so we had to coax her into the dining room and the kitchen and our bedroom. This time she had much more confidence but I wanted to make sure everything was as awesome as it could be for her.

Now she’s underfoot.

All the time.

But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If you play your cards right, your dog might quickly look like this!

If you play your cards right, your dog might quickly look like this!

So have at it folks. Have you picked out a house with your dog(s) in mind? How did you acclimate your dog to their new home? Come share your words of wisdom with your fellow Team Unruly readers!

Agility Photography Tips

agility-dobeMore often than not lately my photography focuses on dogs running agility. I still take plenty of photos of my own dog when we’re out and about, but when I’m asked to take pictures, about 99% of the time it’s for agility photos.

Disclaimer: I am not a professional photographer, just someone who loves the hobby and spends too much time thinking about it.

Disclaimer, part 2: I love taking photos of agility dogs.

Agility photography is fun, no doubt about it it. But there are plenty of challenging aspects to photographing these dogs. For one, they’re fast. Sometimes really fast. And they’re somewhat unpredictable at times. Dogs speed up. Dogs slow down. Handlers direct them to the wrong obstacle and they veer away from where you expect them to be. Unless you know the specific dog in question, you don’t know if you’re looking at a dog who is going to race through the course at Mach-10 or if the dog is going to just trot through it with a ridiculously stupid grin on her face while making everyone laugh (Dahlia, I’m looking at you). And honestly, the way they come out to the field is not always indicative of what you’re going to see. There’s a dog in our class who trots out slowly with his handler. But then when she releases him watch out! He’s one of the fast dogs I know.

So there’s a lot to think about in regards to taking photos of these crazy dogs in action. If you do it wrong, at best your photo will be a little blurry and at worst you’ll completely miss the moment. And there’s no do-overs in agility, especially in trial situations. So you have to be fast. You have to be accurate. And you have to know what you’re looking for.


Equipment
Let’s address equipment issues first. I’m going to be honest here. Agility photography without a DSLR is really really difficult. I know because I’ve been there. When I first started classes in 2010, I still had a point and shoot camera. A fancy one to be sure, but it still wasn’t a DSLR. I took a handful of pictures once and managed to get a couple that weren’t overly blurry, but still weren’t good quality. They definitely weren’t what I wanted. And they’re probably not what you want either.

So what do you want?

If you’re going to take photos outside at a fun match or a trial, any DSLR will do, really. I took my first agility photos at a trial back in 2011 using a Sony A230. It was a small, lightweight camera, and an entry-level DSLR. It’s not the best of the best, certainly, but it was more than adequate for outdoor agility photography.

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Not half bad for a relatively inexpensive DSLR!

However, a camera like the A230 is going to fail you if you want to take indoor agility photographs. Which is most of what I do these days.

Camera fail!

Camera fail!

A camera upgrade was definitely warranted! These days I use a Sony A580. It’s a great low-light camera and we’ll get into why that is in a little bit!

So now that you’ve got a decent camera, let’s talk lenses. Lenses can get ridiculously expensive. Anyone who is into photography learns that lesson pretty quickly. Do you need an expensive lens? Not necessarily and especially not if you’re at an outside event. The first photo I posted was taken using a Tamron 75-300mm lens, which I got for about $150 in 2011 (that lens is now discontinued, but the Tamron 70-300mm is only $165). It’s a little tougher using a cheap lens. They’re not very fast. They’re a little bit clunky. You have to get really good with timing your shots because the lens doesn’t react quickly. But it’s certainly doable. So if you have an entry-level DSLR and a cheap zoom lens, have at it!

Now, that being said, if you want to take indoor agility photos, the lenses are out there for that. In this case, you truly do want a very fast lens.

What is a fast lens? A fast lens has a large aperture (generally f/2.8 or lower), which allows a lot more light in. Why is this important? Because the more light you let into the lens, the faster your shutter speed can be. And when you’re talking dogs moving as fast as some of these agility dogs do, you need a pretty speedy shutter to freeze the moment. A “fast” lens also autofocuses fast. The problem with the Tamron lens above is that it often hunts for focus and so sometimes you just don’t catch the moment. With a faster lens, it can autofocus almost instantly, catching the moment as you see it coming.

In addition to wanting a fast lens, you’re going to want a lens with a bit of reach. There are some great fast lenses at the 28mm and 50mm range, but that’s going to generally put you far too away from the action you’ll end up seeing far more of the course and far less of the dog than you want to. Favorites of agility photographers generally are in the range of 70-200mm.

My current favorite lens for agility photography is a Minolta 135mm f/2.8. Yes, it’s a prime lens, which means any “zooming” has to be done by my feet or by cropping the photo (both of which I use quite frequently!). It’s extremely lightweight, it’s very fast, and it lets in a lot of light. And because it’s a prime, it tends to be very sharp. The other lens I use on occasion is a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8. This lens produces some great quality pictures, but has some drawbacks. It’s extremely heavy (the lens itself weighs 2.5 pounds!) and not nearly as fast as the prime lens. It gives me a little more (and less) reach, but I find myself reaching for the Minolta far more often because the Tamron is hard to handhold for extended periods of time.

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Photo taken using the Sony A580 and Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens. One of the rare times I got to photograph my own dog doing agility!

Ultimate suggestion for agility photography: A mid-level DSLR and a lens that goes down to f/2.8 for aperture and gives you a bit of reach.


Camera settings
Now, Dom has explained an awful lot about camera settings for dog photography here. I’d definitely suggest re-reading that if you’re unfamiliar with the terminology or want a quick refresher. On the technical camera side of things, all photography can be seen as a combination of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.

These can combine in many different ways, but here’s how I see it for agility:

I need a fast shutter speed. That is Priority #1. Fast-moving dogs require a fast shutter speed. I never shoot slower than 1/500 and if I can I shoot at 1/1000 or faster. In brighter light where I can make use of it, I’m often up around 1/2000 or even higher. The faster I can go for shutter speed, the faster the dog I can capture.

To get that fast shutter speed, especially in lower light conditions it means doing two things:

(1) Lowering aperture. At indoor shoots, unless there is some ambient light from outside, I tend to shoot as wide as I can (generally f/2.8, though I have had the rare opportunity to use my 50mm f/1.7 lens in class situations). The wide-open aperture often means that photos are likely to be a little soft (which means they’re not quite as sharp when viewing the full size photo), but it’s a compromise I make to get a higher shutter speed and a photo that’s in focus. Since most people these days aren’t making huge prints of their photos, this isn’t a massive deal. But it’s something to be aware of. And as Dom points out, less of the photo will be on focus.

If you look closely, you'll notice Nia's head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it's not the other way around!

If you look closely, you’ll notice Nia’s head and front is in focus, but her back end is not. Be careful with wide-open apertures that it’s not the other way around!

(2) Raising ISO. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the digital processor is to light. So it seems to make sense to bump this up as high as you can go. But…(you knew that was coming, right?)…there is a caveat. The higher the ISO, the more grainy (or “noise”) there is to the photo. And some cameras simply cannot handle an ISO above 800. The “camera fail” photo above was taken at 3200. The Sony A230 is really not designed to take low-light/high-ISO photos. This was my main reason for switching to the Sony A580. While there is still some noise at higher ISOs, it is much less severe. I have shot as high as 6400 at an indoor shoot at night.

This photo was taken at night in a poorly-lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it's still better quality than the "camera fail" photo that was set to 3200!

This photo was taken at night in a poorly lit agility barn. ISO is set to 6400. Note that it’s still better quality than the “camera fail” photo that was set to 3200!

Ultimately, what works best is completely dependent on the lighting conditions that are present. In the agility barn during the day, I like to keep to ISO 800-1600, and at least 1/640 shutter speed. Aperture is almost always at f/2.8. That combination allows me to get a fast enough shutter speed to catch photos like this one.

Photo taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

This photo from an agility foundation class was taken on my Sony A580 with the Minolta 135mm f/2.8 lens; ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/640

For outdoor agility photos? This is so dependent on the lighting conditions (which can change from one moment to the next, making outdoor photography occasionally even more challenging) that it’s hard to say. In bright sunlight, I aim for 1/1000 to 1/2000 for a shutter speed, try to stick to no higher than 200 for ISO, and bump up my aperture to sharpen the images.

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

Still one of my favorite agility photos of Dahlia. Taken using the 135mm f/2.8 lens, set to ISO 100, f/4.0, 1/640

 


Setting up your shots
Here are a few recommendations from my experiences in shooting agility:

(1) If this is a trial situation, be very careful of where you are. Do not sit too close and make sure that you’re not interfering with the hired photographer, if there is one. You may even want to introduce yourself to the photographer during a down time and let them know you’re just there for some practice.

(2) Watch everyone walk the course or get yourself a course map. You’ll want to pick one spot to stand and be able to catch a couple obstacles. You will not be able to get everything. So situate yourself where you can catch something toward the beginning and something toward the end. Remember that these dogs move fast. Sometimes they finish an entire course in under 25 seconds! That means you don’t have much time to think. So get yourself in there, find your spot, and stick to it!

two shots

I was sitting at the end of the A-Frame in this class (being used as distraction!), but also was able to get a clear shot to the jump.

(3) Watch the sun if you’re outside. The last thing you want to do is pick a spot and find out that the jump you wanted to photograph has the sun directly behind it.

(4) Make sure you are far enough away that you don’t interfere with the dogs on the course. The first agility trial I ever went to, I found a spot toward the end of the weaves to photograph. I was about 10 feet back from the ring so not right up against it, but still, someone came over and informed that where I sat was a huge distraction and a dog was going for their MACH (Master Agility Championship title) that day. I moved. It was the polite thing to do. Now, granted, that dog should have been able to ignore anything by that point, but they wanted to give him his best shot at finishing that all important agility title (he did) and I understood entirely.

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

A rare chance to take close-up shots of dogs running the weave poles. I was situated directly at the end and using only a 50mm lens. This is the kind of distraction training all dogs should be subjected to!

(5) Use “continuous” mode shooting. I make this mistake more often than I’d like to. I take some portraits and then head off for an agility shoot and it often takes me about 30-40 photos to realize that my camera is set to the wrong mode. Most cameras have three modes for shooting: Single-shot (you press the shutter down halfway, the focus locks on that particular thing and you can move the camera to recompose your shot; handy for portraits but not for agility!), Automatic (if you lock the focus on a stationary object and it starts to move, the camera will continue to focus on it; this can be handy for agility, especially if you “track” the dog as it’s heading toward a jump); and Continuous (the camera is constantly focusing without ever locking down; definitely handy for agility). I prefer the latter only because dogs are so fast that sometimes tracking them in automatic doesn’t work as well as you might think.

(6) Don’t be afraid of using the burst mode of shooting on your camera. In the burst mode, your camera will continue to take pictures while you hold the shutter down. My camera has a few different modes for this, but I generally choose the “low” option, which allows the camera to focus between shots, but still can take up to 3 photos per second. This means that sometimes I can start taking photos just before the jump and finish just after the jump. I might get 6-10 photos in that short bit of time and one of them might be at the right moment. I don’t use this nearly as much as I did in the beginning as I’ve gotten pretty good at timing the photos based on the dog’s speed. But when it comes to a particularly fast dog or a tricky spot, I still make use of it!

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Using burst mode on my camera allowed me to get these 4 photos of this dog weaving.

Phew! There’s a lot to agility photography as you can see. Feel free to offer more tips in the comments. And if you’re reading this and thinking “Wow I never thought about everything that goes into that awesome photo of Fluffy I bought last year,” then go thank that photographer! They’ve put a lot of work into their craft to get that photo for you.