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Hide and Seek: A Golden Retriever Survival Story

The main reason I have decided to write this story is because I feel it will help get it off my mind.  It has haunted me in a way, invading my thoughts before going to sleep and causing a deep sense of uneasiness.  For one who possesses a relatively healthy frame of mind on a somewhat consistent basis, the presence of recurring images of horror and desperation stands out far too boldly.  Perhaps by relating the incidents in the most realistic way possible, I will relieve myself of their onerous existence.

It was a clear day and the sun was setting behind the imposing shapes of the Cascade Mountains which border central Oregon on its west side.  At this time I usually like to go for a run with the dog and get in a good hard set of exercise before showering and sitting down to one of those great home-cooked meals.  But “clear” in central Oregon does not presuppose a warm temperature, especially in the middle of December when it has already snowed and experienced a good deal of subfreezing weather.  On this particular occasion all the snow had melted and the air was very dry but there was a definite bite in the air – cold enough to maintain a thick crust of ice on the ponds near the house.  Ice.  That word now holds a special meaning for me.  Never before did I think it would have such a large bearing upon my experience.

The dog’s name is MacGregor and he and I would often play and romp while the sun went down.  I would throw tennis balls for him or anything else I could get my hands on.  He is a pure bred golden retriever and without a doubt one of the most wonderful dogs I have ever known, and I have known a lot of them.  He is the type of dog that will do anything with you, go anywhere, and always be ready to play.  He is the unusual combination of being tough and strong yet his demeanor so gentle, sweet and loving.

I invent all sorts of games with him as we go on our evening romps and this particular evening it was hide and seek.  Adjacent to the ponds which lie about 500 yards from our house, there is a winding bike trail which continues all around the property.  The day before, Mac and I had gone the whole length of the trail, me on the bike, and he dashing alongside, occasionally rolling in the tall grass but always catching up and staying with me.  But this day I was on foot and running all around this bike trail with him chasing me.  A road goes over the bike trail at one point near the ponds, and a tunnel was constructed so that whether on foot or on a bike, one can proceed through the tunnel beneath the road.  I would throw a stick or something similar for Mac and while he is streaking to fetch it, I would dash to the front of the tunnel.  Just as he turns around to see me and brings the object to me as fast as possible, I would run through the tunnel and hide on the other side.  When he comes rushing through the tunnel to find me I would have already climbed up over the road and be back to the front and dashing the opposite direction while he would be hauling around the back of the tunnel still trying to find me.  He is so unbelievably fast and also so quick to learn the tricks of the game, that it is quite rare for me to escape very far before he is beside me again.

On this afternoon which I have begun to describe, we were involved in that very game and I had managed to get him wandering in great circles on the back side of the tunnel while I was dashing along the bike trail towards the house.  He took a longer time than ordinary to figure out that I was already running back and by the time he popped out of the front of the tunnel I was well around the pond.  There were two ways he could have caught up with me:  either by sprinting along the bike trail which circumvented the pond or else by making his way in a straight line directly across the intervening ice-covered pond.  Before relating his decision, I should briefly describe the nature of this pond area for it factors in greatly to the details of the story.  It is a large area designed for a wild bird preserve and all sorts of tractors have been involved in moving great masses of dirt around its edges to form the optimum shape.  The designers wanted islands and irregular land masses to appear among the bodies of water to give it the maximum aesthetic effect.  But they had not finished their project at this time and the state of the area was quite a mess.  If the weather had been warmer it would be one huge muddy mass with great walls of dirt surrounding the water and no one would dare encroach upon the water for fear of either sinking in the mud or else sliding in the water itself.  But at this time of year, it was cold enough to not only create a thick crust of ice along the surface of the water but also to harden all of the dirt areas into huge irregular masses of dark brown. It was definitely not an area where one should play, at least not for another six months or so until they groom the area to a reasonable smoothness.

Mac didn’t give a damn about the mud or the water or the ice but had one concern in his mind – to catch up with me on the other side of the pond and thereby conclude our wild game.  Without hesitation he decided to take the short route and ran out upon a muddy promontory which led to the icy surface of the pond.  His decision was by far the quicker method for there was a large bay which he would have had to run around if he stayed on land and that would take far too long by his standards.  By this time I was stopped on the other side of the pond and watching his every move as he began to step along the ice.  There was something about his movement along the ice that fascinated me.  It was like courting disaster for if it were me on that ice it would have cracked on the instant.  But for Mac it was a very practical medium for his immediate purpose.  He was no dummy about ice, however, and would not have ventured upon it if he did not think it was safe.  That is not to say he didn’t take risks; many a time he would be chasing a stick or something along a frozen area and the ice would cave in but he was a born swimmer and he would crack his way back to land.  His coat was a double variety and I would always be amazed at how the extreme cold temperature of the water didn’t affect him.  He loved it.

I stood there standing in my nice warm sweat clothes watching him scurry across this hundred yard stretch of ice and felt a sting of worry run across me.  This was a far larger body of ice-covered water than I had seen him attempt before.  Usually it was small narrow streams of ice which he courted and if he happened to fall in I would always be close enough on land to nab him should he not be able to paw or bite his way through the ice to safety.  The size of this pond scared me.  I was momentarily reassured by his confidence in crossing it because he was moving across it more quickly than his good judgment normally allowed.  Then his rapid forward movement suddenly came to a halt about fifteen feet from the muddy cliffed edge of the pond.  His sudden stop compelled me to run to the top of the cliff and I felt bewildered by his action.  He stood absolutely still and I knew he felt something was wrong.  I knew how badly he wanted to make it to where I stood yet he stopped stone still.  His face was toward me and his expressive eyes seemed to show great concern.  Then I heard the horrible, grating, cracking sound of the ice beneath him and his head swirled around as he watched the water gradually seep around his paws.  With one final staccato of snapping ice, he plunged straight down until only his head and flailing paws could be seen.

Now this very scene has happened in the course of our playing probably a dozen times, but for some reason I felt this was different.  The ice was too thick.  There was no way for him to crack the ice surrounding him with his paws or his teeth and break through to shore.  I stood above the six foot cliff which overlooked the round hole of water where he was trapped.  He would place his powerful two front paws on the ice edge before him like so many times before, but it would not give.  He would try the same action all around the hole but none of the edges would even crack.  He had fallen into some kind of freak spot in the ice and he soon recognized his dangerous dilemma and started to let out long high whimpers.  His next course was to try to place those paws on the edge and pull himself up but the anatomy of a dog is such that it is a virtually impossible trick.

All kinds of thoughts were racing through my head.  I remembered the story of a dog drowning due to the exact same situation.  I thought of all the times I had seen Mac on top of ice and wondering what I would do if he should helplessly fall in and only be able to survive through my assistance.  I thought of tugging him with a long branch which he would clamp onto with his teeth but there were only bare hills of dirt around the pond.  His desperate paddling and whimpering drove me crazy and, as he was watching me, I could feel him pleading for help.  I had to crack the ice in such a way to enable him to swim out.  The hills of dirt were encrusted with large irregular pieces of lava rock which I fished out with my hands.  The first one I heaved down and it made a hole but not a long crack which Mac could break through.  The next one I threw closer to him but it didn’t penetrate and bounced to the edge of his icy hole.  I couldn’t believe how hard the ice was and I desperately scratched the dirt for another rock to split the ice.  I was shocked to discover after turning around that Mac had grabbed the huge lava rock in his mouth.  He must have thought we were still playing games – his pure retriever breeding coming to the fore, he had this huge rock in his mouth, far too heavy to carry and the extra weight lowered his golden body further towards a very icy death.  I screamed at him to drop it but that was probably the last thing in his mind.  Only his most basic instincts were controlling him now.  He knew only to retrieve and would die in his attempt to do so.

The desperation of it all made me wild.  I threw mud at him hoping it would make him drop the rock and float longer in his attempt to fight the ice.  I screamed over and over but to no avail.  Finally, he began really sinking and flailing at the water with his paws, only his mouth and eyes and the rock above water.  I couldn’t believe all of this happening right near our warm cozy house in an area which is usually reserved for casual walks and gazing upon the sky and country in peaceful reflection.  At that moment all was wild and horrible.  I knew I had to go in after him.  So many times I had thought about this but it was really happening now.  There was no time for deliberation or wise plans of rescue – he was sinking.  On an instant I remembered the horrible report that humans could not enter water of such a terribly cold temperature for it would cause the heart to stop.  Here I was in the physical prime of life, an excellent swimmer, yet confronted with a seemingly invincible aquatic situation.  Thoughts of people falling off of canoes in an icy stream and rendered utterly helpless would enter my mind.  I envisioned Mac and I disappearing beneath the ice never to be found until the next spring when the ice would finally melt.  So horrible and only 500 yards to our warm home and family.  I was in a frenzy but all of a sudden everything became so clear.  It was Mac himself that made me come to my senses.  He was far more than just a dog sinking in the ice.  He represented so much of true life with all his vivacity and love of play.  He had a character which far surpassed most people and stood for all the qualities which make life worth living.  To me, he was life itself and never more so than at that moment.  I felt myself going down with him and I couldn’t let it happen.  All thought stopped and I moved into action.  I slid down the muddy surface of the cliff and landed on the edge of the pond, breaking its edge with a loud shotgun crack.  The ice was a lot thicker than I had imagined.  Stepping deeper and deeper into the freezing water, I broke the surface with my hands and made my way slowly to Mac’s hellish place.  Cursing, I tore the lava rock out of his mouth and he rose up high enough in the water for me to grab his collar and heave him up over the hole’s edge on his way to the shore.  At that moment I felt something weak inside me.  I was up to my shoulders in the water which had hundreds of pieces of ice floating on it and I could feel my heart miss.  There was nothing painful but just a feeling of extreme and desperate vulnerability.  I was able to back my way out of the water and scratched up the surface of the muddy cliff.  I only wanted to get back to a hot shower and ran on the bike trail home with Mac running and prancing about me.

Is Your Dog Obese?

Amy L. Fiedler has no doubt her Pomeranian needs to lose weight. And while a couple of pounds may not sound like a lot, it’s one-quarter of his total body weight!

Fiedler suspects her overindulgent parents were sneaking their grandpup human food — a no-no — when they puppy-sat each evening. So now she packs carefully measured bags of dog food dinners and the occasional snack pack for her dog’s stays with her parents. That careful diet, along with regular trips around Fiedler’s large backyard, is helping her Pomeranian manage his weight.

Just like humans, more dogs these days could stand to trim down a bit. The fourth annual Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) study, released in February, found that an alarming 55 percent of dogs are overweight or obese. Since the organization began its surveys in 2007, the number of obese dogs has steadily increased. A dog is considered obese if his weight is 30 percent above the ideal.

If your dog is obese or even simply overweight, you’ll find it more difficult to enjoy outings and adventures together. But more important is the fact that overweight and obese dogs suffer more health problems and may live shorter lives.

Evaluate Your Dog’s Weight
So how do you know if your dog could stand to lose some weight? Before you begin a weight-loss plan, make sure your hunch is correct by assessing him. Don’t depend upon “average” sizes for his breed to determine whether or not he is obese, as a dog’s individual height and bone structure must factor into the equation. Instead, try to objectively look at him. Place your hands on either side of his rib cage and carefully run your palms along it:

  • If his ribs are protruding, he’s too thin.
  • If you can feel his ribs individually and his abdomen is slightly tucked up when you view him, he’s at a good weight. “If you stand over your dog and look down at his body outline from an aerial view, the abdomen should narrow before the hips, not be in a continuous line,” explains Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a Knoxville, Tenn., veterinarian and a regular blogger for Exceptional Canine.
  • If you can’t discern his ribs easily, or if he lacks a waist and his belly drags, he needs help.

If you have doubts, your veterinarian can help you assess your dog’s weight. You can also find a helpful chart to score your dog’s shape on the APOP website.

The Cause of Canine Obesity
The same variables that cause people to pack on pounds can contribute to a dog’s weight gain. Your dog may eat more calories than he burns. He might not get enough exercise. Does he indulge in too many doggie treats? In addition, as your dog ages, his metabolism can naturally slow.

But dealing with your dog’s weight problem needn’t be painful. Premium dog food brands offer formulas that maintain a proper ratio of protein, fat and fiber and allow your dog to feel full — without overeating. Some foods also contain the nutrient L-carnitine, which can help your dog’s body burn fat into energy. And finding ways for your dog to increase his activity levels will simply mean more time together.

Look for our veterinary expert Dewhirst’s recipe for weight loss in her Exceptional Canine blog next month.

The Right Diet for Your Athletic Dog

Huskies training for the Iditarod are big eaters, consuming a whopping 10,000 calories a day. And no wonder: The dog teams propel themselves 1,151 miles from Anchorage to Nome in subzero conditions over tundra, through mountain passes and across rivers — often in whiteouts. Mushers know that without the right nutrition, the dogs don’t have the stamina to do well in the race.

Even if your dog never braves the wilds of Alaska, he still might require what is known in the dog-sporting industry as a performance food. If your athletic dog exercises regularly, he burns a lot of calories, so it’s important to adjust his nutritional intake accordingly so he is getting the proper diet.

Feeding an Athletic Dog
Performance dogs need a nutrient-dense food — they simply can’t eat the volume necessary to fulfill their caloric needs. And your dog also must consume the food in small portions. After all, you wouldn’t wolf down Thanksgiving dinner right before running a marathon.

“Feeding calorically dense food is key to maintaining optimal body weight for dogs participating in endurance exercise,” explains Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn., and a regular expert blogger for Exceptional Canine.

Dogs that compete in sporting competitions regularly or are even just weekend warriors require extra protein, carbohydrates and fat — and it’s essential that food is easy to digest. Your dog shouldn’t quickly process a food that requires a lot of effort to digest; he won’t be able to absorb the nutrients he’s eating.

“A low-residue, low-fiber dog food is easier to digest and means less bulk lingering in the digestive system,” says Dewhirst.

Performance diets should take these needs into consideration. Look for these ingredients in a food made for athletic dogs:

  • High-quality, animal-based protein. Chicken, fish and lamb provide essential amino acids to build muscle, repair tissue and synthesize hormones.
  • Quick-energy carbohydrates. Your dog’s body will efficiently process finely ground cornmeal, barley and grain sorghum.
  • High-quality fat. “Fat” is not a bad word when it comes to keeping an athletic dog healthy. Look for chicken and fish fat sources in your dog’s food; these fats are sources of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which offer many health benefits. Fat is a more efficient energy source for dogs, explains Dewhirst, so a high-performance dog needs food with a higher fat content.
  • Fermentable fiber. A fermentable fiber, like beet pulp, helps your dog efficiently absorb nutrients and keeps his digestive system working smoothly.

Know When to Feed Your Dog Performance Food
Understanding when your dog needs a high-performance food is central to his good health and success in whatever physical feat you’re working to accomplish. Experts recommend introducing a performance diet eight weeks prior to an event that would demand a lot of your dog. Gradually mix in performance food with your dog’s usual food over a three-day period to avoid upsetting his stomach.

If your dog exercises regularly — either jogging with you or herding sheep year-round –there’s no reason to ever stop feeding him a performance food. But a dog that isn’t exercising doesn’t need as many calories. For instance, sled dogs only need about 800 calories a day when they’re relaxing in their kennels in the summer. If you feed a high-performance food to a sedentary dog, it’s a recipe for weight gain.

Dewhirst recommends asking your veterinarian to formulate a proper calorie count for your dog based on his metabolic energy requirement. Watch for weight loss or poor performance in your athletic dog, says Dewhirst. “Both are signs of a deficient diet,” she advises.

Feeding your athletic dog well is just as important as teaching him about the work he’ll do. If you prepare his body properly, he’ll be able to reach the goals you set — whether that means finishing a 5K or racing the Iditarod.