Earlier this year, Puffy, my soon-to-be-15-year-old dog, was diagnosed with Vestibular Disease. I heard him collapse one Sunday evening and rushed to hold him tight. All I could do was hold his body as my frightened little boy lost all sense of control. All I could tell him as he experienced what I thought was a seizure was, “Stay with me Puffy, stay with me.”
He eventually came back, only to have a stronger episode hours later at the vet’s office. Thankfully the vet was able to see it and realize it wasn’t a seizure but Vestibular Disease, which is a disease that affects the body’s balance system and sense of spatial orientation. Unfortunately, that second episode was stronger and had major consequences: Puffy’s eye movement was unstoppable, he had no strength in his back legs, and had the disease’s hallmark head tilt. He had lost his balance due to symptomatic vertigo and dizziness. All the vet could do was send us home with motion-sickness medication and some basic information on the disease (there’s not much information available on Vestibular Disease in dogs).
In his eyes, I could see that my baby was still there; I never felt I lost him mentally, but his aging physical body was betraying him. As I laid next to him for hours that first night, I could see him trying to stand up and move, but failing at every attempt. All I could do was try to remain calm for his sake, despite the fact that I was scared and didn’t know too much about what he was experiencing.
The next day, Puffy was already beginning to gain strength in his back legs, but was still walking and acting like a drunken sailor. His appetite was stronger, along with his will to get better. I could see him trying to walk, but his body was not cooperating yet. Thankfully for both of us, I knew some exercises that would help him start to connect his mind and body once again. With his appetite back, I knew I would be able to use treats as a reward in our at-home therapy sessions.
As we prepared for the exercises, I made sure I did not push Puffy to do anything beyond what his body could handle. Always a highly food-motivated dog, I knew if food was involved, Puffy would want to perform above his limits just for the reward. While he might be mentally strong and young, his body is not. I learned that one day as we were coming back home from our walk. I had a few treats left over from an earlier lesson, and decided to reward him at each of the stairway landings on our way up to our second-floor apartment. As soon as he realized I had treats, Puffy started racing to each landing and then turning back to look at me with his tail wagging, waiting for his treat.
I must admit, it was really cute seeing Puffy speeding up and feeling so proud of himself—but there is a reason I stopped doing that. As he raced up the stairs, I noticed he got a little clumsy, and would lose focus on his steps. His excitement over the treat had increased his adrenaline levels, causing him to feel less pain and be less aware of his body. This could be harmful for any aging dog—not just one with Vestibular Disease.
There is a fine line between pushing oneself to excel and pushing against real, physical limitations. This had me thinking: how many times do we misuse treats during training? Sure, we want to reward good behavior, but at times treats are used to lure behaviors out of dogs—behaviors the dog might not be physically ready to perform.
When working with a senior dog or one with some physical limitation, it is obvious that their physical health is affecting their behavior. However, I often see similar limitations in dogs of all ages. This is why it’s always a good idea to first rule out any medical explanation for a spontaneous new behavior or a marked change in attitude. A highly food-motivated dog might ignore physical signals (such as pain and discomfort) just to get the treat, but pain is our body’s way of saying something is wrong and, usually, that the body needs to rest. How many times has our doctor prescribed painkillers but also recommended we stop putting any more stress on the injury and let it rest and heal? While we might not be in pain, we know we are not yet fully recovered and should avoid causing more damage by continuing to stress the injury.
I am happy to say Puffy’s recovery was faster than anyone expected. Within days, he started to gain control of his eye movement, his balance, and his coordination. While treats were used—judiciously—in this process, we focused more on the exercises themselves and made sure Puffy’s body was not asked to handle more than he could. When Puffy was doing the exercises, and when he uses the stairs, I make sure his movement is controlled, slow, and that he has full awareness of his body (and, in particular, his rear legs).
Treats and reinforcers are a great way to motivate dogs and get them to perform. However, as dog owners, we also need to be aware of our dogs’ physical limitations. It’s not fair to tempt a dog to push himself more than he should, just because he’ll do anything for a treat. Our bodies have evolved to be functional and fit for survival. Therefore, if our appetite is suppressed in times of pain and stress, there is probably a good reason for it. Even when a dog’s appetite starts to come back, like Puffy’s did before we started physical exercises, we should remember that his body might not be back to 100% yet. Treats should be used mindfully, to encourage a dog when he’s ready and physically able to perform—not sooner and not more. Remember: part of being a positive handler is avoiding inflicting pain or discomfort on our dogs!