Day 11: Six Weeks Old

We’ve had Ghost for eleven days now and based on our guesstimated date of birth, we’re assuming she’s just about at the end of her sixth week. I figured I’d take a moment or two this morning to write an update on her progress – if I can get five minutes of peace where she’s not chewing on my toes under this chair as I write! Ow!

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The good news is – teaching her to Heel won’t be a problem! In fact, getting her away from my side is harder than getting her to come to it!

Ghost has been walking for almost four days now, a sign we hoped we would see as it provides positive proof that her inability to walk previously was a neurologic symptom of her starvation and dehydration. Some neurological problems went away rapidly with rehydration and food but others have persisted longer. Her vision and ability to track was the first visible sign that returned, followed by the urge to relieve herself away from her bed, eating and drinking, and finally the ability to get her legs back under the control of her brain. Her brain was sending all the right signals but the pathways were too corrupted to interpret the signals correctly. If it helps, you can picture her brain and her legs like two men, standing across the tops of two hills with one yelling instructions to the other through a wind storm and fading light.

Brain: “Legs, point to the ground!”
Legs: “You want me to flop around? What?”

Brain: ” I said POINT to the ground!”
Legs:  “Act like a clown?” (flop around comically)

Brain:  (gesturing now) “Put yourselves on the GROUND!”
Legs: “What have I found?? Huh?” (ooh, sees lint on paw and licks it off)

Brain:  “Damnit, hold me up so I can walk!”
Legs:  “You wanna hold up and talk? Ok. I’ll wait.”

Brain: (sighs) “Screw it.. go back to sleep!
Legs: ok!!  (puppy passes back out exhausted and frustrated with herself)

Without truly knowing what’s going on in her brain, I liken it almost to advanced Alzheimers in a human patient. For a dog this is bad. For a puppy this age, this is incredibly bad, not just because it’s sad to watch, but because puppies have a very precisely controlled biological schedule with respect to their ability to learn and be imprinted.  For example, she’s already imprinted that Amy and I are her pack. Regardless of her physical ability, she will try to get to us if we walk into a room, but won’t make the same effort with others. In her brain they aren’t her pack and aren’t posing a threat so going back to sleep is OK with her.

At certain key intervals in her youth, her brain starts to do certain things. At five weeks, she can start being trained. Her brain opens up like a sponge to soak up TONS of information. It’s basically turning on at full power for the first time. By seven weeks many of her long-standing responses to stimuli will be hard-coded into her personality, specifically her responses to external stimuli. If she’s going to be socialized, this HAS to happen now and it has to happen in the right manner under controlled circumstances in order to shape how she’ll perceive things long term. For example, right now is the key time to take her out with me everywhere possible; to Lowe’s where she can see other humans large and small, differentiate the smells and see that they don’t bother her pack leader (me). If she has an owner (or in her mind a pack leader) that is comfortable around all these things, she will become comfortable around them. Now is the time to expose her to a vacuum cleaner, air compressor noise, the sound of traffic, etc. It’s the time to take her out and let her meet other dogs, see they don’t bother me or Amy, spot rabbits and deer and field mice, etc.  If she can’t walk during all this time, her chances of becoming an emotionally well-balanced dog suffer greatly. Ghost would instead be either fearful or agressive to unknown stimuli because she wasn’t exposed to any of that during that period of her life.

By eight weeks (yeah, only about seven days later) they begin the fear-imprinting stage of their learning. A single growl from another larger dog can forever make her timid around other dogs. A fall from the steps onto the pavement could make her never trust steps or want to walk on the concrete. There are a hundred things she could choose to take from every encounter at this point and with her mobility only now coming back, she faces a real chance of not being able to form the relationships to stimulus that she needs to in order to be happy and a good working dog later on.  Basically, from now until the end of her first three months are the most important times to socialize her and start training her. Anything that happens after that will be either successful or made more difficult by what happens to her during this phase of her life.

So what’s the big deal? She can’t walk correctly.

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The fact that she’s walking at all has me overjoyed! Now we have to wait and hope that her body and mother-nature will see fit to correct her stance if she’s ever going to be a working dog. It’s not evident in the picture above. All you see is a happy and alert puppy coming to you. Yeah! Woohoo!

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It’s a little more evident in this picture above. It’s actually proved to be almost impossible to get far enough away from her to get a proper picture of what I mean because she won’t let you get that far away without trotting over, so I had to settle for this one. Look closely and you’ll notice she’s got her paw laid almost completely flat on the floor. It looks almost like she’s got really long floppy socks on each paw. That’s because the tendons in her carpus and metacarpus bones aren’t developed properly.

If you were to picture a human walking around on all fours on the ground, it’s much the same. You’d “walk” with your hands flat on the floor and to move around, right? Now picture that on your elbows instead. That’s almost what she’s doing. The analogy isn’t perfect because she has a bone between her paws and elbow, and we humans don’t, but you get the idea. This is a picture of how a German Shepherd should stand. Karmen-Side-364x260

See that slight curve in that bone above the front paws, where the fur pattern changes? That’s the carpus bone. It should be almost straight up and down. Hers is lying almost completely flat. If we don’t break her of that and get her up on her paws like she should be, there is no telling what the end result will be, but it won’t be a healthy dog. Here is a glimpse of how the stance should be from a medical picture standpoint. canine-front-paw-bones-compare

The bone in purple is the carpus, shown the way it would be if she had the proper strength in her tendons and muscles.

How do we fix it?

We can’t. Ghost, God, and Mother Nature and her own internal instincts will have to be responsible for getting her to adjust her stance. You can’t split them, or do much of anything to help except pray for her at this point.

My prerogative to get her healthy and walking has to be applied with a little caution. Not walking around and not moving is definitely bad for her muscle development and emotional state overall. Working and walking too much at this point could make her muscles strengthen in the wrong places and not encourage tendon growth in key areas and she could forever be this way. Truly we don’t know what to expect right now.

My personal belief is that Ghost is a fighter and she’s incredibly smart. Between her and God, I have faith they’ll get her up and moving the way she should be in short order. In the meantime, I just do what I can to keep her health improving. So, those of you that have prayed for her health and well being, don’t stop just yet! Be thankful and grateful for the recovery she’s had thus far, but don’t give up the prayers just yet. She’s still got a lot of work to go before she’s a “healthy” German Shepherd.

Time for the cute stuff.

Ok, fine. After all that, I need some cute stuff to cheer me up. How about you? Here’s a few pictures of Ghost these last two days.

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Ghost relaxing in the recliner after a fairly long day yesterday.


Her first day up and able to stand on her own and walk around.

Her first day up and able to stand on her own and walk around.

Look at the picture above with the full grown shepherd with regard to his back legs, and the look at this pic above. You can see the rear legs suffer from the same issue as the front. Her rear feet are almost flat on the deck. If her stance were correct, only her paw and “toes” would be on the ground. That rear metatarsus would be almost vertical, not horizontal in a proper stance.

Other good news: Weight

From the weight and food standpoint, she’s doing great. Amy weighed her at the clinic yesterday. The other day she was up to 2.8 pounds and as of yesterday she was at 3.3 pounds, almost half a pound in a day. Her stomach, ribs, and legs are filling out more by the day and she’s no longer on any drugs, medications, or intravenous fluids. Ghost has been able to eat, drink, poop, and pee normally for the last four days with no help from anyone.


Funny Story: What you think, versus what they really think.

Last night was a really good example of what people think goes through a dog’s head versus what’s really going on. Ghost has a huge protector instinct. Most people mistake this for not wanting to be lonely. In some dogs that’s true. Without specifically bred instincts, such as in mixed-breed pups going back generations, there’s sometimes no telling at all what genetic traits are taking over in their brains. That’s not it at all true with GSDs if they’re primarily pure breed shepherds. German Shepherds are protectors. It’s hard-wired into their DNA. Even barely able to walk, Ghost has a strong desire to protect her pack; a group of animals she has decided consists of me and Amy. To the outsider it just looks cute that she follows one of us around. To her, she’s protecting us by keeping an eye on us. Whether she can or can’t physically protect us has no relevance to her little mind. She’s hard-wired to protect and that means to keep you in sight at all times. If she can’t see you, she can’t protect you. If you leave her area and she can’t follow, she whines. She’s not whining for the same reason your beagle might whine. She’s whining because you’re going out without her and she won’t be there to defend you if something happens.

In an effort to work her underdeveloped leg muscles we intentionally keep her on the ground a lot and allow her to follow us around. It’s tiring for her after even five minutes or so, but the muscles need to be worked out and the tendons allowed to stretch and grow stronger – especially since she had such a huge problem with malnutrition during the first quarter of her life thus far.  When I’m on the porch, Ghost sits at my feet.  When Amy is outside with me on the porch, she sits somewhere on the deck. If I get up to go in the yard to put the mower away, she stays on the deck. In her mind, she can see me and I’m not in any danger so she doesn’t have to move. Want to test this theory with your own German Shepherd? Split up and watch what happens.

I was telling Amy about it last night – that she’s following you to protect you, not to be cute and cuddly.  I don’t really think Amy believed me. My wife knows more about what goes on inside an animal than anyone I’ve ever met, but I’ve spend my life raising them; as kid occasionally breeding them with Dad, and training them since I was old enough to throw a ball. I’ve studied a long time as an adult to understand how they think, versus how I think they think. (Although Amy might just say she finds it overly-coincidental that me and the dog that poops on the carpet and eats things it shouldn’t have such a comparable mentality….) Ghost proved herself true to her breed. If you’ve got a German shepherd, try this yourself and see what happens.

I was in the kitchen with Amy eating dinner. Ghost was lying at our feet near the table. Amy got up, put her plate away and moved off into the living room to sit on the couch, out of Ghost’s line of sight. Already forming mental associations, Ghost knows Amy and I travel as a pack together, just like her own pack would in nature. She stood up and started shuffling with her ever-improving gait towards Amy at the sofa. Upon arriving at the edge of the coffee table, she turned back to check on the rest of her pack (me) and stood there for a minute to see I wasn’t going to come.  She looked at me, looked at Amy, and walked halfway back to me. When I didn’t make any move to follow I told Amy “Watch what she does now.”

Ghost determined I wasn’t going to follow my pack-mate and Amy wasn’t coming back to the kitchen. She walked halfway between us, put herself against a wall, looked back and forth at both of us, then sat down halfway between us in the entrance to the living room, head swiveling time to time to check to be sure we were both safe. Amy laughed and I still believe she thinks its probably coincidence. Time will tell, but it’s already very evident in the way she sits, looks around, alerts on new scents and sounds. She’s going to be a great dog if we can get her over these little hurdles life has thrown in front of her.

What will Ghost Do With Her Life?

One of the most cruel things you can do to German Shepherd is try to make it a “pet” that hangs around the house. That’s unnatural to them and they get emotional about it REAL quick! If you talk to a significant amount of “bad dog” owners, you’ll find that most often it’s a bad human, not a bad dog. You’ll also find that a large portion of those that complain about an unruly dog tearing things up at home are German Shepherds. A one year old German Shepherd can turn an entire couch into mere pieces of fluff and toothpicks in about two hours flat. No joke.

They don’t like to be treated like a couch potato, because they aren’t. They’re working dogs. Yes, some of them are going to be better couch potatoes than others, depending on a variety of factors. American-bred German Shepherds sometimes have less work instinct that the ones from Germany, because the German ones tend to have more strictly controlled blood lines. That’s not to say all American varieties like that; just that it’s more likely in the American varieties.

Let me define the word “work” for you before you get confused. Work to a dog means something that engages their higher brain functions, challenges them to think, and rewards them with fun at the end, via either praise, petting, playing ball, or food. They do not do things because they “love” you. They do things because they love fun. They protect you because they are hard wired to do that. They obey you because they respect you as the leader of their pack, or because they fear you (if you screwed up their training). That is the ONLY reason a dog does something you ask it to do.  Saying “good dog” is often praise enough because they know you’re pleased – which translates into their own brain as “I’m happy because I did that right” not “I’m happy because he’s my owner and I loveses him so muches!”

So, Ghost needs to work, and I promised her that if she pulled through all this mess, I’d give her a job she loves to do and make her very very good at it. So, pending things go well, its my turn to figure that out.

Search and Rescue – SAR Dog

A search and rescue dog in their working vest.

A search and rescue dog in their working vest.

As long as the develops the muscles and agility,  Ghost will be a SAR dog. She will be trained in ground tracking (probably not air-tracking at first because it’s harder to train both those disciplines into a German and have them differentiate well between the two.) There’s a lot of differences between the two, and she might eventually do both. Bonnie does both air and ground tracking well, but doesn’t cue well to switch between the two. Her cracked-irises and light blue eyes make her more inclined to  work a grid when searching than rely solely on a trail. She’s very sensitive to bright light and can’t visually track in bright sun. Ok, back to Ghost… sorry. I digressed.

Chances are I’m going to have to work with her solo rather than as part of a SAR team. Working a SAR dog is awesome and something I’ve always wanted to do. I met with a few of the local CERT groups a year or two back and to be quite honest… I left very very disappointed. It was basically a bunch of rednecks who want to sit around and cook hot dogs , hamburgers, and drink beer on Saturday with the occasional training session thrown in. I don’t have time for that. If I’m meeting to work my dog, I want to WORK my dog. If I wanted to socialize and sit around I have a back porch for that.

The other option is to start a local SAR group and get them certified. That requires a minimum of four trained dogs, preferrably six, with trained handlers, a communications base camp operator, and people willing to work diligently. I’m willing to work with one, but I can’t feasibly take the time to start and run a new group. It would be a total fabrication to think I have the time to do that in addition to running my IT business, my firearms academy, and still see my family. (Note: if someone else wants to start one in the area, I’d certainly be glad to assist setting it up. I just don’t have the time to dedicate to a leadership role in the group long-term.)

Basically that means Ghost and I train as a team intensely over the next year and a half to teach her to be a tracking dog. It will take a lot of help from volunteers to be the “victim” and to be the tracker as she also has to learn to work with another handler. It also takes working a lot of land, working under a load (medical, water, etc) and a couple hundred hours a year dedicated to keeping the skill up.

In ‘Tommy Land” this means I get to take her out camping overnight, hunting, walking through the woods, swimming, and expose her to every possible outdoor climate and terrain she can ever go up against… which is crap I already love to do anyway! I’ll just have company doing it!


Schutzhund Training with a German Shepherd

Schutzhund Training with a German Shepherd

This is something I’ve always wanted to train, but neither Bonnie nor Piper are the right dogs to do it with. They aren’t mentally designed for this kind of training. There’s also no guarantee that Ghost will be either, but having her this young gives me a very good chance to train her in the skill properly by forming her relationships and social skills very early on.

Schutzhund builds a lot on obedience training and eventually crosses over into protection. Amy really wants this too. Properly trained in the art, Ghost can get out of the truck with Amy when I’m not home, scout all three doors and give Amy the “OK” to enter the house. Once in, she can be trained to scout the entire house (or any building) for an intruder or the previous indications of one, alert on the intruder if he/she is still in the building, and then subdue the attacker until either Amy or the police decide how to handle  the situation.

Schutzhund is a working style most dogs her breed LOVE to do. It keeps their brain engaged all the time and requires the owner keep them in top physical shape. It also requires free-heeling, or being able to walk her absolutely anywhere at any time off-leash with absolutely zero fear she will be either too timid to respond or too aggressive with a stranger. It’s fun, it’s hard, and well, hell… we like challenges around here.


That’s it for the updates on Ghost for now. It’s’almost noon on Saturday. I’m going to take all three dogs out and enjoy some play time!