Written by Amie Chapman
It is not uncommon for puppies to change as they mature into full-grown dogs.
Penny recently turned one and she has changed a lot mentally and physically over the last few months. With these changes, both she and I have been faced with different challenges. Life has been a bit of a roller coaster, but that is a very common part of the puppy raising adventure.
Penny’s changes and challenges began with her first heat cycle in December.
We noticed some radical behavioral changes with her from the hormone increase. She had previously been a little timid around strangers at times. Some people she took to right away, others she would back away from and be hesitant to meet. A few days before she started her heat cycle, I noticed her being even more timid, even letting out quiet growls under her breath. The night before she started her cycle I had her at work with me. She growled and backed away from a few of my coworkers.
At one point I was helping to get a patient into emergency surgery and realized that it had been some time since Penny had a chance to potty. I knew that I would be tied up for a bit and the receptionist on that night offered to take her out for me. A few minutes later she came to me saying that there was something wrong with Penny. Penny was terrified of her and refusing to walk. I called Penny over to me and she came, but then tried to hide under one of the desks. They had never made it outside to potty. Penny was shaking and not herself at all. Penny had met this person many times and had never shown any fear of her before. Later that evening she barked at the surgeon when he walked by her kennel. These were all never-before-seen behaviors and very surprising. But when she started her cycle the next day, it made sense.
During her heat cycle, Penny was very clingy with me and got very upset when she was left alone. She also got a little moody with other dogs when they were greeting me. Nothing major, but we did separate her when I greeted our friend’s dog, who stayed with us over the holidays. We kept her inside for most of the duration of her cycle, no walks, no public outings. We did set up some playdates with one of her best friends in their enclosed backyard. During that time we also fostered a young puppy that Penny grew very attached to and it was hard on her when that puppy was adopted by a family. This puppy was nice to have around to keep her distracted when she couldn’t be out and about.
Once her cycle was over at the end of December, Penny mostly returned to herself. She was pulling more when we were out walking, but the fear of strangers decreased a lot. She seemed very excited to be out and about in public again. All was going well.
In early February, we noticed some behavioral changes in her again.
She started looking over her shoulder at people when out in public. She would get nervous on neighborhood walks when we passed people working out in their front yards. And she started being scared of a few coworkers again. At first I thought that she was going into another heat cycle. It isn’t the usual course for a dog to go into a heat cycle so soon after finishing one, but not completely unheard of.
But as more time passed, I noticed even more changes with Penny. She started digging and nesting behaviors with the dog bedding. I would find her taking toys and going into kennels other than her own, even some that were too small for her. She had difficulty getting comfortable, and she would pace and even starting having barking outbursts randomly. There were physical changes as well — her mammaries became swollen and enlarged. She also started to refuse to eat. Penny had always been a good eater, picky about treats in public sometimes, but always finished her food. I would put her food bowl down and she would look at it and walk away. She would even tip her dish and dump her food out.
She became very needy and clingy again, but then would also outright refuse to follow cues. I would try to do small training sessions with her and she would walk away from me and lay down in another part of the house. She got frustrated easily and protested when she couldn’t get what she wanted when she wanted it. She would be frustrated, grumpy, and refuse to do what you asked of her one minute and then ask for hugs and snuggles the next. Any girl who remembers going through puberty can probably relate to these types of mood swings. She really didn’t understand what was happening to her and why. She even got protective of a young puppy that we were babysitting for a friend. All very unlike her.
All of these new behaviors and signs pointed to Penny going through a false pregnancy.
This was very hard on her. Once again, we stopped taking her out in public and working her. She was very unsettled and seemed stressed when I took her places. Even going for walks was difficult. She refused to walk with a loose leash a lot of the time. She would whine and bark if our other dogs walked in front of her. She would pull to sniff everything and had so much energy that she would try to run and circle around me. Everything was mentally stimulating to her. For the first time in her life she started showing interest in things like squirrels, things blowing in the wind, and birds. Another challenge, walking a very large easily distracted puppy. All of a sudden our normally cool and collected puppy had major ADD. She couldn’t focus on me for more than a second before getting distracted.
It was very difficult to figure out how to let Penny get her mental and physical energy out in a productive manner. I didn’t want her to learn that pulling on the leash when walking was acceptable so we only walked her on the days that she was able to focus. It was also difficult to do training exercises with her. She was either not into it or too easily distracted. She was refusing treats a lot of the time as well. We just were not making any forward progress with her. It became apparent that we just needed to give her a break from training. We did our best to keep her entertained with toys and company with the occasional walk and playdate.
In late January we were given the go-ahead by Brigadoon to get her spayed.
But before we could get the surgery arranged I noticed the behavioral changes and that got put on hold too. Ideally, it is best to wait until a dog is fully over a heat cycle to spay them. After discussing the false pregnancy with the veterinarians at my work they felt that it was best to wait until she was over this as well.
It took a few weeks for Penny’s physical symptoms to resolve and once they did, it was time to arrange for Penny to be spayed. Since Penny was still acting uncomfortable with strangers I felt that it would be best to have the surgery done at my work, where I could be with her the entire time. One of the veterinarians that I work with was very gracious and donated her time to do the surgery. There was only one issue with doing the procedure at my work, and that was that since the clinic is an emergency clinic, there was no way to set up an exact time for surgery.
We worked out a plan that the nights the doctor and I were both scheduled to work I would bring Penny with me. If we had time to fit her in we would, and if not she would get pushed back to the next possible evening. Well, we managed to get her done on the second night we tried. I worked my normal shift from 4:00 pm until midnight, and then we started prepping Penny for surgery. Lucky for Penny, my coworker Angela was also on. Penny absolutely loves her and is very comfortable with her. This made getting Penny prepped a lot easier on her.
When we realized that we would have time to do Penny’s surgery I slipped her an oral anti-anxiety medication to help her relax. It was enough to keep Penny relaxed enough for me to give her an injectable sedative and pain medication combo—we do this with all of our patients before surgery. It allows us to keep the level of the gas anesthesia lower during the surgery. It also made it a lot easier for us to draw a blood sample to run and place an IV line and in Penny.
That night I also weighed her, a needed step to be able to calculate appropriate drug doses for her.
She was six pounds less than the last time I weighed her. The weight loss made sense, since she had missed a few meals or didn’t finish eating all her food offered in the last few weeks. But it was a little concerning that a still-growing puppy had lost that much weight. It was also another sign that Penny was dealing with more than just teenage rebellion and testing me.
Once her IV was going and we ran a quick blood panel on her we induced her with an injectable anesthetic, placed a breathing tube in her, and maintained her on gas anesthesia. We shaved her belly, scrubbed her, and moved her into our surgery suite.
Penny did really well in surgery and we were able to not only spay her but do a stomach pexy. This pexy is a procedure done to keep her stomach from flipping if she were ever to bloat in the future; if that happened she would need emergency lifesaving surgery. Being a very large breed dog increases the possibility of this condition happening to her. It is still a serious condition, but the treatment for it will not be as invasive, her recovery will be a lot faster, and a lot less expensive. She also had her rear dew claws removed. Not every dog is born with rear dew claws, and unlike front dew claws the rear ones are often not fully attached by bone, but by mostly cartilage. Because of this they tend to be “floppy” and can easily get caught on things and torn. It is a very easy procedure to remove them and many dogs get them removed when they are spayed or neutered. I also took the opportunity while Penny was under anesthesia to X-ray her hips and elbows, just to check for any signs of dysplasia. If Penny is going to be a working service dog, she needs to be clear of any dysplasia. Having German Shepherd in her genes it was a good idea to do a preliminary check, since that breed is prone to both hip and elbow dysplasia. So far Penny is looking clear of both. She will need X-rays again at around two years old to be positive.
Upon removing her uterus, it was discovered that it was slightly enlarged, either still from the false pregnancy or possibly preparing for another heat cycle. Just another indicator of why her behavior was still off and possibly hormone related.
It took about two hours to complete all of Penny’s treatments.
She woke up from everything really calmly and she soon went back to sleep comfortably. We kept her on some strong pain medication and I even placed a pain patch that would keep a constant level of pain medication to keep her comfortable for the first few days after surgery. I stayed right next to her, and even took a short nap with her until she was awake enough to realize where she was.
A little after 7:00 am I left the clinic to go home and sleep for a few hours as I was scheduled to work again at 3:00 pm. At this point I had been up for almost 24 hours and was getting really tired. I left Penny at the clinic as she was not quite ready to go home with me. She was not really wanting to walk and I didn’t feel comfortable leaving her unsupervised while I slept.
When I arrived back for my shift Penny was very happy to see me. She had been a good girl for the day staff. I was very happy to hear that she wasn’t afraid of them and was very cooperative.
During her surgery recovery we did keep her on a mild anti-anxiety medication to help keep her calm. She needed to stay quiet: no running, jumping, or hard playing, just out to potty only for ten days. This was a little hard for her, but she managed okay. I didn’t trust her not to chew her skin staples out when not directly supervised. The first night home, I put a collar on her to prevent her from getting to her staples and the bandages that were on her back feet. She was terrified by the collar. She sat on her bed frozen and trembling for almost 30 minutes before she would lay down and go to sleep. She did adjust, but she hated the collar. I was able to find her a post-operative suit that would completely cover her spay incision so she couldn’t lick or chew at it. And as long as I kept her rear feet bandaged she left those alone as well. She was a very good patient and allowed me to change her bandages and check her belly daily. She even allowed me to remove all the skin staples by myself when it came time to do so.
When Penny was healed up enough to do short outings and exercise, she was very excited.
She was so happy to be able to run and play again. She even seemed excited to go to the store with me again, but she was still constantly looking over her shoulder and uncomfortable with certain people passing us. She still wasn’t herself yet.
Now, it can take multiple weeks and up to multiple months for certain hormones to fully leave the body, so it wasn’t surprising that Penny didn’t go back to her normal self right away. She still seemed a little lost. She was still nervous out in public and refusing to take treats at times. She was still struggling to walk without pulling and being easily distracted.
It was time to see if we could help Penny return to herself again.
I decided to try an alternative approach and set Penny up with an appointment with a holistic veterinarian. We met with the new vet and started some herbal supplements to help hormone imbalance and we gave acupuncture a try. But once again she was weighed and she had lost another two pounds in the two and a half weeks since her spay surgery. She had been eating well, but evidently not enough.
We started seeing positive results the day after her first treatment. She started to regain her focus on walks again. She was still easily distracted but able to refocus for the first time in weeks. Along with this treatment plan we did our best to decrease her stress level as well.
We had plans to travel to the Vancouver Webfest, but Penny wasn’t ready to do a trip like that so we stayed home. I still had the time off work so I took this opportunity to spend it with Penny and see if we could make progress together. This time was well spent. We took short outings every day to different places like malls, different stores, and walks by herself. Each day I saw a little improvement. She was eager to go out, excited to earn food rewards, even looking to do short training sessions, eating all the food offered to her at meal times, refocused, and a lot calmer. I even stopped by my work and my coworkers noticed a difference in her.
We finished Penny’s second acupuncture treatment just before I started writing this blog. She has gained back four of the eight pounds she had lost and is eating great every day. She is still nervous and not trusting of certain people, but it is variable. Some people she will walk right up to and others she will back away from and look over her shoulder until she is sure that they are not following us. This is still a work in progress and we will continue to watch her on this. We have had several very successful outings with Penny so I feel like we are making progress in the right direction with her.
However her future as a service dog is still up in the air as some of her recent behavior has not exactly been service dog caliber.
I have always said that puppy raising is a bit of a roller coaster ride with ups and downs. Penny has regressed a lot over the last few months, but sometimes you need to take a few steps backwards to move forward. Going through a heat cycle, false pregnancy, major surgery, and possibly getting ready to go back into a heat cycle has taken its toll on Penny. It’s a lot for any puppy to go through, especially a such a sensitive one like Penny. We are taking things slowly with Penny at the moment and doing everything we can think of to see if we can get her back to the puppy she was before all the changes in her life. Only time will tell if these behavioral changes were caused by the hormone change or if this is the dog she is maturing into or maybe a little of both. We are paying very close attention to what Penny is doing and saying to us and will be working with Brigadoon on making decisions on what is best for her.