Barnum’s Bad Breath: The Continuing Quest for a Diagnosis

I know I haven’t been posting much. That’s partly to do with me being sick and overwhelmed with my own health stuff. Things are in flux for me right now, medical-wise, and I’m waiting for them to unflux before I post more about it.

Barnum’s health has also been a source of worry for me. It’s a long, complicated saga that doesn’t yet have a resolution, but if I waited for everything in my life to be settled, I’d never post anything. This is also why I’ve written so little about writing — there’s been major flux and uncertainty on that front for the last several months. More on my big writing project when I’m less fluxed up

Let me fill you in on Barnum’s health. The way it started might sound silly to some people: I was concerned because Barnum had bad breath.

Most people think all dogs have bad breath, and that it’s normal, but that’s not true. “Dog breath” is the result, usually, of poor oral hygiene; it can also be a sign of other disease. When my dogs have had their teeth brushed regularly and have good oral health, their breath does not smell.

Since Barnum started getting his adult teeth (around six months old), I’ve tried every day to either brush his teeth or give him a raw meat meal. (Chewing up a big piece of meat will clean a dog’s teeth.) As a result, Barnum’s teeth and gums look clean and healthy.

Close-up of Barnum's mouth -- Sharon's fingers pulling back hair and lips above and below, with the canine teeth and some of the incisors visible, as well as several premolars on top and one molar on top and bottom. All the teeth are white except for a couple of yellowish stains near the root of the upper canine.

Barnum’s (mostly) pearly whites

His gums look good and they don’t usually bleed when I brush them, which is a sign of gum health for dogs. (If you’ve ever gone a long time without flossing and then started flossing, you probably remember that your gums bled, making the effort seem counterproductive, but that if you kept flossing, after a while your gums did not bleed, and your it didn’t hurt to floss anymore. This is how it is with brushing your dog’s teeth, too.)

In other words, all indicators of oral health pointed to “good” except Barnum’s breath, which should have smelled fine, but it didn’t. It smelled yucky.

I decided to get more rigorous about tooth brushing, trying not to miss any days. I thought maybe he just had more of a tendency toward tartar or plaque than most dogs, or maybe the baked kibble he sometimes got (which does have a tendency to gum up between his back molars and his cheeks, if he eats a lot of it)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     was to blame. So, I brushed more often and more thoroughly. Though his mouth looked great, it still smelled bad.

I decided to take him to the vet, but before we went, I wanted to have an idea of the differential diagnoses that might be on the table so I could prepare whatever data might be most relevant. So I searched VirtuaVet, my favorite veterinary blog. She had many posts on bad breath as well as on dog dentistry. I posted about Barnum’s problem in her comments on a post about a dog who had impacted infected baby teeth (a problem that required dental x-rays to diagnose) and she encouraged me to take Barnum to the vet, listing not just dental issues but liver or kidney disease as possible culprits for bad breath.

Back in February, I was too sick to take Barnum to the vet, so Betsy did. The vet said Barnum’s teeth looked terrific and didn’t see any problems in his mouth. A complete blood count (CBC) and chemistry showed no abnormalities (except for slight elevation in one type of white blood cells). Since he would be due for his spring health check soon anyway, we decided to get his annual SNAP 4Dx (a test for heartworm, Lyme disease, anaplasma, and ehrlichia — diseases carried by mosquitoes and ticks, respectively). Finding no obvious cause for bad breath, the vet looked to Barnum’s history, which included hookworm as a puppy. She said hookworm can cause bad breath, and even though his stool test was clean, it was possible he had it again. Since she considers the treatment (Panacur) very safe, she suggested we try that.

So, we started hookworm treatment that night. The next day, the vet called to tell me that Barnum’s SNAP test was positive for Lyme disease. I have a lot of experience with Lyme, unfortunately, in dogs and people. I have chronic Lyme disease, and my previous SD, Gadget, did, too. However, Barnum was asymptomatic, and it’s certainly best to catch it early. We started him on doxycyline, which he tolerated fine. We also ran a [next link is a PDF] C6 test to try to determine the extent of his infection. Lyme is endemic where I live, and it’s really not a matter of if your dog will get Lyme, but when, how often, and how severely.

A little over a week after Barnum went on doxycyline and about ten days after his first Panacur dose, his breath improved. This led me to believe that either hookworm or Lyme had been the cause of the bad breath, though I leaned more toward Lyme because the vet had said if hookworm was the cause, Barnum’s breath should improve within three or four days of treatment. In other respects Barnum seemed healthy, and I focused on his Lyme treatment and didn’t worry much about his breath anymore.

However, a few weeks later, Barnum’s bad breath returned. Clearly he had not had hookworm — we’d already done two rounds of treatment, and his breath had gotten worse, not better. I redoubled my tooth brushing efforts just in case Barnum had some tartar or plaque I didn’t know about. It made no difference. His breath got worse.

I called the vet again to ask if we should bring Barnum in again, but she suggested I feeding him parsley every day as this is an all-natural breath remedy. I am certainly not opposed to feeding parsley — it’s a very safe herb — but since my concern was not “dog breath” but the underlying health problem causing halitosis, feeding Barnum parsley to cover his bad breath felt a bit like turning up the car radio to disguise a worrisome noise a car is making. I was worried that the vet didn’t understand that my concern was not bad breath in itself, but what hidden problem it might signal, and therefore that she wasn’t taking the issue seriously as a health problem, not as some sort of aesthetic issue. I tried to explain this to her (but more tactfully) and we discussed what bad breath could indicate. She said she had guessed hookworm because it can cause the breath to smelly “bloody.”

“Oh!” I said, surprised. “Did you think his breath smelled bloody?” That was certainly not how I would have characterized it.

“I actually don’t have a good sense of smell,” she said, admitting that she had just taken my word for it that Barnum had bad breath because she hadn’t noticed it. Feeling discouraged, I said I’d give the parsley suggestion a try. Admittedly, I have an extremely fine-tuned sense of smell and can detect and identify smells that most people can’t. I hoped that Barnum simply had a tendency toward bad breath and that he was, in fact, healthy.

I gave the parsley a try — feeding it to him daily (covered in salmon oil and with a side of fresh liver or kidney) for the better part of a month. Nonetheless, Barnum’s breath went from bad to worse. Betsy and my PCAs have commented on it, too. By now, my entire bedroom smells like his bad breath. I look forward to fixing the problem and then washing all my bedding (and his) very thoroughly.

It definitely got worse last weekend, which is also when I got several clue as to what I think is causing the problem. Of course, dogs always get sick or show symptoms on a Friday night or Saturday!

  • When brushing his teeth, I noticed that he was very compliant with me doing the right side of his mouth, but when I switched to the left, he kept pulling his head away. Also, when I brushed the left molars, his gums bled, whereas the rest of his mouth didn’t.
  • Later the same day, he was lying in bed with me and lazily lifted his hind leg to scratch his head. When his foot made contact with the left side of his muzzle, he yelped.
  • The fear reaction he used to have when my feet moved toward his face when he’s lying on my bed has returned — after I thought I’d trained him out of it.
  • I smelled both sides of his mouth, and although it’s hard to be sure, it seems to me that the smell is worse on the left side.

Everything seems to point to some source of pain and/or infection on the left side of his mouth. I wonder now if the reason the smell got better when we treated for Lyme is that whatever caused the smell was also brewing an infection, and while he was on antibiotics, the infection part of the problem was being treated.

I’ve examined the left side of his mouth, and I’m not sure if I see anything suspicious. I thought it was possible that an area of his lip is swollen — it’s pink and a little bulbous — but Bouvier lips are so weird (varying in color from black to pink and with many wrinkles and bumps) that I have trouble determining what’s normal.

Close-up of the left side of Barnum's slightly open mouth, showing most of his upper teeth and a couple of the bottom ones. He has very wet, rubbery mostly black lips, and a lot of drool in his beard.

See? His teeth look good, don’t they? As for the rest, who can tell?

First thing Monday morning I called the veterinarian, saying I wanted Barnum’s mouth looked at again, and that I wanted to get dental x-rays, too. To my surprise, the veterinary assistant told me that they can’t do dental x-rays because they don’t have the right machine for it. I hadn’t known that dental x-rays required a different type of machine from other x-rays. She told me they referred people who wanted veterinary dental x-rays to a clinic in the greater Boston area, which is about a two-hour drive from me. I asked around and discovered a local vet has just acquired a dental x-ray machine. Unfortunately, however, they said I’d need a referral and records from my current vet and that it could take two weeks to get an appointment.

Meanwhile, Barnum is now acting sick. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t know him, but his energy level is lower. He is slower on walks and eager to get home. When he does get home, he immediately curls up for a nap — instead of trotting around the house saying hello to everyone and everything like he normally does. He also seems to be drinking a little more.

The soonest appointment I could get with his regular vet was Friday morning, which I anxiously anticipated all week. I was able to accompany him this time and meet the vet, who did the exam outside in my van as an accommodation to my multiple chemical sensitivity. I was very grateful for that.

Barnum was well-behaved and really seems to like this vet. That’s saying something, as he usually is nervous around people who smell like veterinary hospitals.

The vet did poke around and think it felt swollen above his third premolar on the upper left side of his mouth. (I hope I’m getting that tooth correct. It’s the last one before the molars.) I also had to hold his mouth open pretty firmly while she mucked around on that side, whereas when she felt around on the right side for comparison, Barnum was very cooperative. And this time she could definitely smell his bad breath! She agreed that he should have dental x-rays and said she’d refer him to the other vet and fax his records over. Now it’s the weekend once again, and since I haven’t heard from the vet who has the dental x-ray machine, I’m planning on calling her Monday morning.

I really hate waiting around for vet care when I know my pup is not well, especially because I know whatever this is has been a problem for a long time. It’s frustrating that it’s taking so long to figure out. I don’t know if he has a retained puppy tooth or an abscess or a broken tooth root or what. I just want to find the source of the problem and treat it!

It’s hard not to be angry with myself and with my vet for my not effectively communicate my concern about the problem earlier. I wonder if I had been able to go to the first appointment in person — and if my voice had been working better so the vet understood me better on the phone — if she would have been more aggressive in seeking out the cause of the problem. But probably most people wouldn’t have noticed the problem so early. This is an issue I run into a lot; service dog partners are very, very tuned in to our dogs’ health and behavior. I don’t think most vets are used to interpreting the subtleties that we present.

Also, dogs often hide their injuries and illnesses, and Bouviers are particularly known for their stoicism. This stoicism can make it hard to convey to veterinarians the seriousness of a problem. For example, I knew Jersey was in bad pain when she had a problem with her eye because she was spending time in the bathroom instead of with me, and when someone accidentally bumped her eye with their knee, she yelped, but because Jersey was eating and working and otherwise acting “normal,” I couldn’t convince any vets of that until she lost her eye to glaucoma. They didn’t get that she always was with me in whatever room I was in, and that she never vocalized (except in her sleep). I always said Jersey would have to be dying not to eat, and that turned out to be true. Gadget, too, only stopped eating within a couple of days of dying.

Barnum is the least stoic of my Bouvs, but that’s not saying much. He is eating and working and playing, etc., but I can tell he is not feeling his best. He does a lot of his work with his mouth (pulling doors open with tug cords, retrieving, pulling off socks), and I want him to be comfortable and happy.

My anxiety is a bit triggered, too, because when something mysterious is wrong with my dog’s health it tends to remind me of Gadget in the days before his lymphoma diagnosis. Even though my rational mind absolutely does not think this is cancer, my emotional/body memory self has been flung right back into that place of worry.

On the bright side, we gave Barnum a bath when we got home from the vet, which he really needed. This was the first time he’s had a bath since I replaced my six-foot shower hose with an eight-foot hose, and it was great! Much easier to reach all parts of the dog. So, at least his coat is all soft and curly and clean.

Barnum, a black brindle Bouvier des Flandres with a very short, curly coat and natural ears, lies on a red comforter on a bed, looking into the camera.

Mr. Barnum, all soft and clean

 

A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Grooming Tools and Tips (#ADBC)

This is Part Two of my posts for the spring 2013 Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (ADBC). To find out more about this month’s carnival, see FridaWrites’ call for entries. To learn what a blog carnival is, read past issues, find out who can participate, and other good stuff, visit the ADBC homepage. Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit. The theme for this quarter’s ADBC is “Resources and Tools.” My first post was about toys and chews that keep your dog busy while you rest.

My three service dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, a grooming-intensive breed, which is my least favorite thing about them. Most Bouvier owners take their dogs to a professional groomer, but because groomers use lots of fragranced shampoos and soaps and sprays and toxic flea and tick products, this isn’t an option for me due to my multiple chemical sensitivity. Other reasons you might not take you dog to a groomer is you can’t afford it (in which case you probably don’t want to get a Bouvier or other breed that needs frequent haircuts because buying the tools to do it yourself is pricey, too) or if you live in an area where there are no groomers nearby.

Unfortunately, I have very little energy for grooming (that’s what being a “spoonie” means), so I’ve learned to make the most of the time I have when I get out the toothbrush, combs, shears, or clippers. If you also need to DIY your dog grooming, this post may be for you, especially if . . .

  1. You don’t care if your dog looks “good.” This post focuses on tools and tips for a utility cut, a cut that supports the health and functionality of the dog, not its fashionableness. If you care whether your dog has the right cut for its breed — or even if you care whether people know what breed your dog — some of my tips might come in handy, but they should be heavily supplemented by learning* how to do a much more complicated grooming routine than I’m going to describe here.
  2. Your dog is a breed that has hair instead of fur, as is the case for most of the hypoallergenic breeds. No matter what you do to a Bouvier, a Poodle, an Irish Water Spaniel, etc., their hair will grow back pretty much the same as it was before you cut it. Therefore, no matter how terrible a job you do, you can rest assured that eventually the evidence of your incompetence learning curve will be destroyed.

Attitude: Training Yourself and Your Dog

There’s a reason I’m making a lot of jokes. Grooming is big deal for service dog (SD) teams. For one thing, when our dogs accompany us in public, it’s important that they look (and smell) clean, neat, and professional. For another, grooming is an essential part of maintaining our dogs’ health, and considering how valuable our SDs are — in dollars and in our lives — we cannot afford to skimp on that maintenance.

Nonetheless, the reality is that grooming can be a burden for some SD partners, especially if we are sick, exhausted, or in pain a lot. I’m simply physically unable to do as frequent, professional, and thorough a job of grooming as I’d wish. But beating myself up for that won’t help me do a better job of grooming my SD. On the contrary, approaching the situation with humor — and celebrating the grooming I am able to do — takes the pressure off of me and my dog, creating a more relaxed and positively reinforcing environment for both of us. (One of my standard responses to people guessing my SD’s breed wrong — which happens a LOT — is, “No, he’s just a Bouvier with a really bad haircut.”)

I plan to write a post in the future on teaching your dog and yourself to enjoy grooming. To fit with the theme of the carnival, today’s post focuses on tools. Still, regardless of the situation, I’ve found that what makes the most difference in the grooming experience for my service dogs are:

  1. Using the right tools
  2. Grooming often enough to prevent problems (such as matting) that can lead to discomfort
  3. Giving my dog a sense of safety and agency in the grooming process

All of these issues overlap: the right tools help you and your dog relax, but no matter how perfect the tools are, if your dog is freaked out, the process will still be exhausting and stressful. So if you try out a new tool, and things go badly, set it aside until you have a plan to make using that tool a happy experience for both of you. That’s why my first tool suggestion is . . .

Your Dog’s Favorite Treat

The whole point of making training easier and less tiring is to use whatever works best, and with the vast majority of dogs, really delicious treats work very well. If you’re teaching your dog a new cue, such as where or how you want him to stand, you can use food to lure him into place and then keep feeding treats as he stays in that position. Over time, you can reduce the number of treats to make your life easier.

Likewise, when your dog is doing what you want — offering a paw for toenails to be clipped or holding his head still for tooth brushing or lying on her side to allow grooming her belly — mark that moment with a click or YES or praise and follow up with a treat. Do that often enough, and your dog will start offering that behavior.

Don’t skimp. Use what your dog loves the most (as long as he doesn’t get so excited about it that he loses his head), and be generous. I use tubes of pureed low-fat cottage cheese for really challenging aspects of training. Other popular high-value treats are cubes of chicken, pieces of turkey hotdogs, slices of liverworts, freeze-dried liver, or peanut butter.

Slow and Easy (or, “It’s OK to have a HALF groomed dog”)

You know how sometimes you’re clipping your dog’s nails or brushing his coat or giving him a haircut, and you’re just exhausted and in pain, and the dog is NOT cooperating, and you just wish you could STOP? Well, you can. And you probably should.

There is no rule that says all nails must be trimmed on the same day or that your dog’s ears must be brushed on the same day as his tail. You can even shave the left side of your dog on Monday and the right side on Wednesday. (Or, as is more often the case with me, shave the dog’s back, sides, belly, tail, and most of the legs on one day, leaving him with enormous, shaggy paws and head to be shaved another day.) This assumes you have a couple of days when you’re staying home, when it doesn’t matter if your service dog is a fashion disaster!

Show and Tell — A Low-Quality Video of My Favorite Grooming Tools

If you are more of a video person than a reading person, and you have really low standards for videos, here is a five-minute video of me showing my favorite grooming tools. Unfortunately my cognitive impairment is on display, as I forget the word for “slicker brush” and speak in a tired monotone, but you can at least see the various tools I like the best. I captioned this video using Amara (formerly UniversalSubtitles.org) but for some reason, the captions don’t show up in the embedded Youtube version below. Please click here to see the video with captions. Transcript of the video is here.

Clippers and Blades

FridaWrites already kinda stole my thunder on two of my favorite grooming tools (or, to look at it another way, she saved me a lot of work, so thanks, girl!), but I’ll mention them here: The Andis ProClip AGC2 clipper and the Oster TDQ blade. You can see them in the video or read more about them at FridaWrites’ carnival post.

I have used a couple of the top-of-the-line Oster clippers over the years, and they were adequate, for the most part, but I am so much happier with my Andis. It is quieter, faster, and smoother. It’s also slightly smaller and lighter.

All my blades are Oster blades, and as far as I know all Oster and Andis blades are interchangeable, so I didn’t have to buy new blades when I switched clippers. My favorite blade is the TDQ, which stands for “take down quick”! It’s an extra-wide coarse blade that cuts short all over. It’s great for a summer haircut where you just want to get the hair off and you don’t care if your dog looks like a show dog. I have two of them so I can switch one out when it gets hot and keep going with a cool one.

We do the whole dog with the TDQ, with two exceptions. For his face, I use scissors, and for his the toes and pads, I use the Oster #30 blade (the Oster “Elite Cryotech” size 30. I say “30 inch” in the video, but that’s wrong. A 30-inch blade would be two-and-a-half feet long! The #30 actually cuts 1/50th of an inch). The #30 is for shaving practically bald; do not use a #30 blade anywhere that you don’t want your dog to be BALD! I like using a clipper blade for between the pads because it’s easier to go fast and remove a lot of hair without being as likely to cut your dog’s feet as you would if you used scissors (although it can happen, I’m sad to say, so you still need to use care with the clipper).

Mat Breakers

The Mars Coat King — The Best Thing Since Sliced Hair

Bouviers have rough, thick, double coats that vary from wavy to curly. Barnum has the curliest, thickest coat of any Bouv I’ve had. It’s gorgeous, and it’s a grooming nightmare. It’s like trying to brush out a shag carpet. If it’s not kept groomed, it mats very easily.

The best way to keep such a coat combed is to strip away excess hair as often as possible. Stripping the coat makes it easier to get to the skin and pull out the dead undercoat hair that otherwise gets trapped and matted under the outer coat. The Coat King works by cutting the hair as it brushes. Thus, it both breaks through mats and reduces the bulk of the coat.

The Coat King page at The Groomer’s Mall describes this tool well:

It works by quickly and easily removing loose hair, especially thick under-coats. It’s great for unraveling and dematting. Leaves the coat full and healthy — gives it that “show quality” look. All have curved, sharpened blades with rounded ends for safety, and wooden handles for easy gripping.

Note to readers with MCS: a friend of mine who has very severe MCS found, as did I, the Mars Coat King completely tolerable right out of the package, which almost never happens with any non-food item. The wood does not give off a wood smell, and the blades are likewise high-quality and inert.

The tools are very comfortable in the hand, too — lightweight and well-balanced. And unlike other mat breaking tools that tend to have the blades inserted at the top of handle in parallel, the head of the Coat King is perpendicular to the handle, so it’s a natural position for brushing, much like using a regular brush. This is not only more comfortable and sustaining for the groomer, but poses less risk of scratching the dog by coming at them sideways.

Coat Kings aren’t cheap, but they are so worth it because they are the only tool that does what they do (and does it well) and they last forever. I bought my first Coat King over a dozen years ago, and it’s still in perfect shape.

Coat Kings come in different head sizes and different styles. Basically, the head size is the width of the tool (standard size is below, but there is also a mini, a double wide, and even a triple wide, which is mostly for horses or goats). If you have a small dog or if you’re working in a close area (such as the face or arm pits), the standard or small size is better. When you’re trying to cover a lot of ground on a large dog, a wider head means cutting your time and effort in half.

Original Coat King with 12 Blades (Medium). The head of the tool is a Y-shape of stainless steel coming out of the top of the handle, and then going across it horizontally is a bar on which are attached the grooming blades.

An Original Coat King, medium style (12 blades)

The styles range from very fine to very coarse, and this comes down to how close together the blades are. I have found the coarsest style to work the best on Barnum’s thick, curly, wiry hair. The fewer the blades, the easier it is to run through the coat. For the standard width head (the “Original Coat King”) which is a bit over an inch across, the coarsest style has six blades (which is what I use); the finest has 26 (which I can’t even imagine using).

According to the website’s guide, “Use coarse styles to comb out the undercoat – fine styles for finishing.” Since combing out and thinning the undercoat is all I care about (Barnum won’t be going to Westminster), I never use the medium or fine style tools I got back when I was experimenting with what works best. This Groomer’s Mall guide gives some suggestions for what style Coat King (the number of blades) to use on different breeds of dogs — for sheepdogs they suggest the coarsest size (six or 10 blades) and for Afghan Hounds the finest (20 or 26 blades).

Another way to maximize your efficiency (and thereby reduce your energy output) is to get a double-wide blade. This allows you to cover twice as much coat with each sweep. I managed to find an extra coarse (12 blade) double wide Coat King on AmazonOne of the wisest purchases I ever made. An extra-coarse double wide is hard to find. I couldn’t find a picture of one online, but here is a medium (23 blade) double wide:

Mahogany-colored wooden handle with steel head with 23 curved blades.

A 23-blade double wide Coat King

Mat Rakes and Mat Breakers

There are many types of mat breakers. The Coat King is the best and most versatile, but if you want to try out a cheaper version — especially if you’re only dealing with mats on occasion or in limited location (the beard, the outer thighs, and the elbows are common trouble spots in my experience), you can try another curved blade mat breaker such as the Paw Print Mat Breaking Tool:

Red and black rubbery plastic handle with curved blades inserted vertically along the top of the tool.

Mat Breakers with Five or Nine Blades each

 

High-Quality Shears

The right scissors make a big difference, and again, you get what you pay for. Having bought inexpensive scissors that don’t work at all and having bought expensive, high-quality shears that I’ve used for many, many years, I strongly encourage you to go with high quality.

I use two scissors for all my scissoring work. (I have a couple of others, but they’re not worth using.) One is a pair of basic seven-inch straight shears made of Japanese stainless steel, which I use for touch-ups or any general scissoring. The brand is Image Tech, which I can’t find online anymore, though they may be related to Aussie Shears. They have a smooth action and, as long as I get them sharpened periodically, have a nice, sharp blade.

The other is a pair of Michel Tisserand’s Diamond Line four-and-a-half inch slightly curved, round-tip scissors. They’re also made of Japanese stainless steel but they have some sort of odd (and pretty!) finish that’s different from my straight shears. These small scissors are good for trimming between the toes (matted toe hair can be a big problem for Bouviers, and especially in the woodsy area where I live, with all the pine sap, it’s important to keep the toes “naked”) and around the eyes, ears, face, etc. (There’s a lot of tricky face work on a Bouvier, even if you do a utility cut.) They’re the best scissors I own in terms of ease of use, lightness, sharpness of blade, and versatility.

How do you find good scissors that last a long time? First of all, buy something that is designed for dog grooming. Probably seems obvious, but having tried other household scissors in a pinch, I can tell you, it’s not the same.

Secondly, go with a name brand that has “street cred” and that goes into detail about the materials and manufacturing process. If you’re not sure which brands are best, ask groomers, breeders, or other people you trust what brand they use. You might also ask if there are brands they do not recommend.

I’ve found that where you purchase from is not necessarily that useful. For example, I have bought both excellent and lousy dog grooming supplies from Care-a-Lot, and on this page you’ll see that there are scissors that are $7 and scissors that are $70. I’ve bought both ends of the spectrum from them. My two best shears both came from them, and I also bought some duds, like these Aaronco scissors, which literally could not cut Barnum’s hair; a five-dollar pair of office scissors worked better! If you see shears advertised (like these Aaronco scissors) as “low cost but high quality for beginning groomers,” interpret that to mean, “low cost and poor quality for people who don’t know any better.”

Sometimes it’s not that straightforward, which is where asking around helps. Both Oster and Andis are very popular and respected names in dog grooming supplies. They both have a range of clippers, from cheapo ones to professional quality, and comparable styles cost about the same and seem pretty similar, in description. However, I used a couple of Osters for several years and when my last ones broke I wondered if it might make sense to switch brands. I asked Barnum’s breeder and a couple of other people if they liked Andis better, and some of them did. I took a chance and purchased the Andis, and that turned out to be the right decision. However, I’d found out the return policy beforehand so I knew I could get my money back if the experiment did not work out.

Maintain Your Equipment

The only thing that matters just as much as, if not more than, the quality of your grooming equipment is the maintenance of them. No matter how good your scissors are, they will dull with use. Shears need to be cleaned and sharpened regularly. The same is true of clipper blades. Find a professional sharpener of dog-grooming blades or shears and get them sharpened every few haircuts or whenever you first notice a reduction in performance.

Also, read the manual before you use new equipment. Really. It will tell you which surfaces need to be oiled and with which product and which parts should never get oiled. It will tell you how to clean the various parts. Instructions can vary in significant ways from brand to brand, and I have made incorrect assumptions in the past when using new equipment.

All clippers, clipper blades, and scissors must be maintained before, during, after, and between cuts. Clean and oil your blades before use and after use (before storing clipper and blades till your next cut). And while you’re grooming, stop before you notice a drop-off and performance to clean and oil the blade. I find that the best way to maximize efficiency (and reduce time and energy) is to use two of the same blade. I use one till it gets hot, then swap it out with a cleaned, oiled (cool) blade, and use that. If Betsy’s helping me, one of us can clean and oil the first blade while the second one continues working on the dog with the cool blade.

Chime in!

I hope this was helpful. Which grooming products do you like best? Please comment! Happy grooming!

A Spoonie’s Guide to Dog Toys (#ADBC)

It’s time for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival (#ADBC) number eleven! To find out more about this month’s carnival, see FridaWrites’ call for entries. To learn what a blog carnival is or to find out who can participate, read past ADBC issues, and other good stuff, visit the ADBC homepage.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

ADBC #11: Resources and Tools

The theme for this quarter’s ADBC is “Resources and Tools.” My three service dogs have been Bouviers des Flandres, a breed which is perfect for me in some ways and a challenge in others. I’m writing two posts for the Carnival: one on toys and one on grooming tools. This is part one — toys. [Part two, grooming tools and tips, is now up.]

The best aspect of the Bouvier personality for someone who lives with chronic exhaustion, pain, and weakness is that the only thing they enjoy more than working is napping. Their “couch potato” personalities are very helpful for my chronic fatigue syndrome and Lyme exhaustion. (“Spoonie” is shorthand for a person with a chronic condition or disability, usually referring to an illness that causes fatigue, pain, and other energy drains. The term comes from The Spoon Theory.)

However, like all dogs, they still need mental and physical movement and stimulation, and some Bouvs really need a job. Barnum, in particular, has a lot of energy and a love of training, working, and playing. He is either ON or he is OFF. There’s not much in between. That’s very typical of a young, healthy Bouv. If he’s bored, and he’s trying to “activate” me, he will literally bounce up and down (catching serious air), barking at the top of his lungs. (Bouncing straight up into the air is also “a Bouv thing” and referred to as “the Bouvie bounce” among Bouv fanatics aficianados lovers like me.)

While I need a service dog who has the drive and desire to work — thus the “service” part of the title — I also need to be able to rest even when Barnum is jumping up and down, shouting, “I’m bored, Mom! I’m bored, Mom! ENTERTAIN ME! Get up! Get up!! Get up!!!”

Of course, you can wear your dog out in any number of interactive ways, such as training, playing ball, working, going for a walk, etc. However, when I have no energy myself and my dog has loads, I fall back on food-dispensing toys and chew toys. Bouviers also tend not to be really enamored of “toys for the sake of toys.” I’ve heard of dogs who love a certain ball or Frisbee or plushy and who will play with it on their own for hours, but Barnum lost this tendency when he left puppyhood, and both of my previous Bouvs were even less interested in toys. When playing by himself, Barnum either wants to eat it or to destroy it (see his birthday hedgehog for evidence of the latter).

For those of us who have working dogs or clicker-trained dogs — dogs who are likely to be driven, to be problem solvers, to be thinkers — we are likewise challenged to present harder puzzles to keep them entertained. Because they spend so much time with their human partners, service dogs may also be more prone to separation anxiety, especially if they are not from a program that has systematically trained against this tendency. The best way to prevent separation anxiety is to train against it from puppyhood. The best way to maintain your dog’s relaxed happiness when you have to leave her home alone is to leave her (preferably on an empty stomach) with several challenging food-dispensing toys.

Here are my favorite “go entertain yourself, dude” toys and chews. I used to try not to use kibble because it’s usually not a very healthy option for dogs, but for some of the best “keep yourself busy” toys kibble’s the only choice. More about kibble options below.

It’s big! It’s loud! It’s orange! . . . It’s the Buster Cube!

A hard plastic cube, but with rounded corners and edges. There's a large hole in the center of one of the sides.

Your dog’s new best friend.

The Buster Cube is Barnum’s favorite toy. It is a big hunk of hard plastic that you can fill with kibble and thereby drive your spouse, family, or housemates bonkers give your dog hours at least an hour of pure joy and excitement. It comes in two sizes — large (five inches cubed) and small (three inches cubed). It seems nigh-well indestructible.

Here is a review of the Buster Cube by sitstay.com. I like this review except that I completely disagree with the way she says to fill it. That will not keep your dog busy for long at all.

In my experience, the key to a long-lasting Buster Cube experience for your dog is to stuff it as full as possible. (The large cube can hold an impressive cup-and-a-half of large kibbles and probably two cups of regular or small-sized kibbles.) A full Buster Cube is achieved by pouring in the kibble a small handful at a time (repeatedly) while rotating it so that all the little “shelves” inside are filled with kibble. (I actually am not able to fill it, due to the exertion and the amount of wrist/hand action required, but I can have an assistant fill it and then I have it available to use when I need it). If you just pour it straight down the middle tube like the woman shows in the video, your dog will get all the food out in no time.

When it’s full, you put it on the ground, and the dog tries to get it all out by shoving it around with its nose or paws or some combination. Theoretically you’re supposed to be able to adjust the difficulty level of the cube — making fewer pieces fall out at a time — by rotating the core of the tube within the cube, but I’ve never figured out how to do that so that it makes any difference. It always seems to start out disgorging lots of kibble at once, and then as it gets emptier, it takes more and more effort to get the kibble out. Nevertheless, Barnum’s enthusiasm never flags.

If you have a wood or tile floor, the sound of kibble clattering inside the hard plastic cube as it’s slammed against the walls and floors by an extremely enthusiastic and food-crazed dog will make this THE LOUDEST TOY IN THE WORLD. For you or the people you live with, this may not be a bonus, but Barnum LOVES IT.

Introducing “Doggie Nose Soccer”: The IQ Treat Ball

Two hard plastic balls, one blue, one orange. Each has a transparent hemisphere and then a divider inside with an opaque hemisphere below. There is a hole in the divider that can be adjusted in size, and the transparent hemishere has one hole in it as well.

Entertaining for your dog to play with and for you to watch.

My favorite kibble-dispensing toy is the IQ Treat Ball. Like the Buster Cube, your dog gets the food out by rolling the toy around and it also comes in two sizes, small (3 inch) and large (5 inch).

It’s a hard plastic sphere of two pieces — a clear half-sphere on the top with a hole in it (where the kibble falls out) and an opaque half-sphere on the bottom where you put the kibble. Inside is a third piece — a disc that rests on top of the lower sphere, holding the kibble in place. It has a cutout that lets the kibble fall through from the bottom to the top when it’s rolled. (For the visually oriented this video review by sitstay.com shows how it works.) You can easily adjust the size of the cutout to adjust how easily kibble falls through. More about difficulty levels below.

The IQ Treat Ball is much smaller and appears much less sturdy than the Buster Cube. Honestly, when I first gave Barnum the IQ Treat Ball, and he started picking it up and SLAMMING it on the hardwood floor (a technique he’d learned worked well with Kongs), I expected the toy to be reduced to shards of plastic in a matter of minutes. How wrong I was! The ball has lasted two years so far and Barnum — who still gives it the occasional bounce — has never put so much as a crack in it.

Like the Buster Cube, the IQ Treat Ball is not a chew toy. The difference is that the Buster Cube is so big (and square) that your dog can’t chew it even if she wants to, the Treat Ball, on the other hand, may fit inside your dog’s mouth (unless you have a small dog and a large Treat Ball), so if he’s determined to treat it like a chew toy, he’ll likely break it eventually. However, if you teach your dog to roll it instead of chewing it (which you can do quickly and easily, as the dog will be rewarded so well for doing that), it should last a good, long time.

What do I love about the Treat Ball? So many things!

First of all, the Treat Ball is an actual ball, so it rolls (instead of thunking and clunking like the Buster Cube). For dogs who love balls, this is a big plus! This means that if you live in a house with sofas or beds or other similar furniture, your dog will have to learn to be fast to keep it from rolling away from them and getting lost. In my opinion, this is a feature, not a bug, because it adds an additional mental and physical challenge for the dog: he has to learn to push it fast enough and continuously enough to get at the food, but also learn to keep it under control. (There is a learning curve, though, so the first few times you give it to your dog, you may be called upon to rescue the toy from under the couch.)

I’ve made a video of Barnum rolling the Treat Ball, and you can see that he is quite the Pelé of the Bouviers, using his nose to change the ball’s trajectory and maneuver it away from the bed and to the baseboards where he has the best control of it. (You can see that Barnum is a devoted nose-nudger, as opposed to the dog in the sitstay.com video who used both her paws and her nose.) If you’re reading this post in an email, click here to watch the video. (There are no transcripts or captions because there’s no dialogue.)

Another great feature is that it’s really easy to adjust the difficulty level. You can make it difficult or easy to get treats out, or anywhere in between, by adjusting the size of the inner hole, choosing what size treats to give, and how full you fill it. In fact, for a puppy or a newbie dog with a low frustration threshold you could make it super easy by removing the divider that normally sits between the two halves, thus turning it into more of a Kong while she learns how to roll the ball.

Conversely, if you put in big kibbles (like I do) and make the hole just small enough for one to come through at a time, it can take a lot of work to get the kibble out. If you use small kibbles and a medium sized hole (like the sitstay.com video), it’s a moderately easy toy. I usually set it to pretty difficult. (I made it easier for the video I shot to accompany this post.)

The smaller size of the Treat Ball is also a feature — especially when combined with the difficulty level. If you have a dog who needs lots of wearing out or who is on a diet you can fill the ball enough to keep the dog going for a long time (or repeatedly) without dispensing much food.

In fact, the amount of food you put in also affects the difficulty level, but not always in the ways you’d expect. While putting in a small amount of food does lower the rate of reinforcement and take longer for your dog to get it all out, if you put in a large amount of food (almost filling the lower half), this actually increases the difficulty at the outset because the ball doesn’t roll very well. It’s heavier on one side, make it more of a Weeble than a ball, so the dog has to push harder and maneuver more to get the pieces out at the outset. After your dog has emptied it some, more kibble comes out more easily, and then by the end your dog is once again having to work hard to get the food out again. So, that can vary it up quite a bit.

The Kongsicle: Making Your Dog Work at their Kong

I bet most of you already have one or several Kongs. My favorite is the Kong Stuff-a-Ball, which I reviewed previously. Kongs are a standby among dog lovers because they’re natural rubber, last very well, can be stuffed with a range of foods, and can vary in difficulty.

However, if you have a smart, strong, tenacious, and/or hungry dog they can be too easy to empty unless you make it challenging enough. The trick to making a Kong difficult (and thus, long-lasting) is to pack it full and freeze it. You can do this with a variety of foods.

If you are a raw feeder, this is best accomplished by stuffing the Kong wall-to-wall with ground meat and putting it in the freezer till it’s frozen solid. You can also do basically the same thing with canned food.

If you use kibble, the best system is to put some kibble in a bowl with a little bit of something else your dog likes (I use cottage cheese; many people use peanut butter) and then add water. Let the kibble soak up enough of the water so it expands but doesn’t turn into complete mush. Then pack the Kong full and freeze it till it’s hard.

A Note about Kibble

I have no intention of getting into The Great Dog Food Debate here. Nor will I accept comments that are rants. (However, a short, courteous post on your own experience of anything I’ve posted here is more than welcome!) There are as many reasons to feed your dog one thing as another, and we all do the best we can.

However, having gone through the heartbreak of canine cancer with Gadget, it was important to me to try not to feed Barnum a carcinogenic diet, which I unknowingly did with Gadget. Most kibble is carcinogenic for two reasons: 1. It contains chemical preservatives and often other toxic artificial ingredients, and 2. It is extruded at a very high heat so that it is uniform in size and shape. This extrusion process makes the food carcinogenic, no matter how safe and nutritious and natural the raw ingredients were.

If you want the convenience of kibble without the carcinogenicity, there are a small number of all-natural, baked kibbles. These have human-grade food which are baked at a normal heat instead of extruded. I use Flint River Ranch when I need the convenience of kibble (such as for the Buster Cube, the IQ Treat Ball, the MannersMinder, etc.). The rest of the time I feed raw meat.

What I like about FRR kibble is that it’s clean and dry (not greasy like extruded kibble), Barnum LOVES the taste, and it’s a big enough nugget to work as a training reward (for a picky dude like Barnum). The downsides are that it’s pricey for kibble (though not outrageous for premium kibble — it’s $38 for a 20-pound bag), it will go bad if left out indefinitely (so I store most of it in the freezer), and if Barnum eats a lot of it, it gets in his beard, becoming smelly and gross and it also accrues between his lower back molars and cheek, which would definitely lead to oral health problems if I didn’t brush his teeth regularly.

I buy my kibble from my friend Carlene, who also lost a dog to lymphoma and who has been a puppy raiser. Unfortunately her site requires a Captcha, but she can take orders by email at birddog at mt.net by Paypal or money order. Otherwise, if you want to buy this brand online without going through a Captcha, you can buy from this website.

Nature’s “Food Dispensing Treats”: Knuckle Bones, Marrow Bones, and Deer Antlers

Knuckle Bones

If you want to give your dog’s jaws a workout and clean their teeth at the same time, raw* meaty bones are a great choice. My preferred bone is the knuckle bone because it is very big (so it takes a long time and a lot of work) and because it’s a joint that includes marrow, meat, bone, and a lot of cartilage, so it is good for your dog and less likely to cause a tooth fracture than a marrow bone (more about that below).

Here’s a picture of a couple of half-knuckle bones:

Two partial knuckle bones, one cut below the knee and one from above. The marrow is visible at the cut end. There is a small amount of meat around the knuckle, and the cartilage at the rounded joint where the knee is is visible.

Two beef knuckle bones from instinctpetfood.com.

Here’s a wonderful picture of a Saint Bernard enjoying a massive knuckle bone:

A Saint Bernard with a knuckle bone so big that it stretches from one front paw to the other (about eighteen or twenty inches).

From a raw bones discussion at dogforums.com

There are many benefits to raw bones: they are all-natural; they give your dog’s jaws a workout; they clean your dog’s teeth and don’t cause plaque and tartar like kibble does. Most dogs are very excited to get a raw bone. They are also not as messy as you might think. I’ve never had trouble teaching my dogs that if they have a raw bone (or any raw food), they must eat it on a sheet or towel on their bed. That way cleanup is contained and relatively easy. (Toss sheet or towel in the washer.)

Raw bones are a major source of calcium, which is generally a good thing. However if you plan to feed a lot of raw bones it’s important to offset those bone-rich meals with calcium-free meals because too much dietary calcium can lead to urinary tract infections. You can usually get knuckle bones at the grocery store from your butcher.

Marrow Bones

When most people think of “dog bones,” they think of marrow bones, which are readily available at grocery stores and butchers at a low cost. Marrow bones are yummy and nutritious and have most of the same health benefits of other bones (exercise jaws, clean teeth, etc.). Another bonus is that if your dog cleans out the marrow and leaves the bone mostly in tact, you can reuse the raw bone by filling it and freezing it like a Kong, as I described above. This makes them a more economical choice than knuckle bones.

However, the popular wisdom among raw feeders is that because marrow bones are the weight-bearing bones of very, very large animals (this would apply to cows, deer, moose, etc.), they are too hard for your dog’s teeth and can cause serious tooth fractures. I gave both of my previous Bouvs marrow bones on a frequent basis, and I don’t think they caused any dental problems, but I don’t use them with Barnum just to be on the safe side. I think it’s likely that marrow bones might sometimes cause dental fractures in some dogs. I also think it’s likely that this is not a common occurrence since I don’t know anyone personally who has had this problem. However, caveat emptor.

Dear Antlers

Piece of deer antler in its packaging. A tan-colored antler with red paper and clear plastic packaging. It says, "American Antler Dog Chews. Dogs absolutely LOVE them! Long lasting. Medium. All natural 100% organic." There is also a black cartoon silhouette of a moose and a picture of the American flag with "USA" underneath it.

This is a sized medium, good for a smallish dog or a mild-moderate chewer.

Another great natural chew option is the deer antler. Antlers are particularly good for dogs that love to chew or are aggressive chewers. They come in different sizes and hardnesses, depending on your dog’s size and how aggressively they chew. You might have to experiment to find the right size and hardness. Deer shed their antlers naturally, so no deer are harmed for these chews.

Also, even though some antlers seem as hard as cement, because antlers are not a weight-bearing bone but just something that grows on the top of an animal’s head, antlers are not a potential dental hazard (they will not crack your dog’s teeth) the way a marrow bone might be, and they don’t smell or make a lot of mess. They are more expensive than bones, pound for pound, but if you get a big, hard bone, and your dog loves to chew, they can work on the same antler for ages and ages, which makes it a very clean and economical choice in the long run.

Happy playing and chewing, everyone!

*The most important thing to know about ANY bone you give your dog is that it must be a RAW bone. Never feed cooked bones.

This also means do NOT buy “sterilized” bones or “baked” bones that are sold as pet chews. These are just as dangerous as giving them a bone you cooked yourself. Even larger raw bones will flex and can be gnawed on without splintering. Raw bones are soft and can be safely swallowed and will disintegrate in the stomach.

A cooked bone, however, which includes commercially sold sterilized or baked dog bones, will chip and splinter. This is a choking hazard, as pieces can break off and get lodged in your dog’s throat. This happened when I gave Gadget a marrow bone that I thought would be safe because it was sold as a dog bone. I had always only given him raw bones, but the bone was a gift from a friend when Gadget was undergoing chemotherapy, and I wanted him to have a treat. I thought, “They wouldn’t sell a cooked natural bone; it must be some other process that sterilizes it.” Wrong! Fortunately I was supervising him when he was eating it, and he — like all my dogs — had no resource guarding issues. I swooped in and pulled the chip out of his throat. Never again!

Cooked bones are also a dental hazard — because it’s harder and less forgiving than a raw bone it’s more likely to damage your dog’s teeth. Most scary of all, any cooked bone is a perforation hazard: once swallowed, a sharp piece of bone can can stuck in or poke a hole through your dog’s esophagus, stomach, or intestines, which — best case scenario — will lead to major emergency surgery, and worst case, will lead to your dog’s painful death.

Note: This is true for smaller bones, too. A raw chicken bone will bend and dissolve in your dog’s stomach. A cooked one can perforate organs.

Full Disclosure: I have received no pay, free products, gifts, or any other compensation or enticements for any of the products mentioned. These are my opinions based on my experiences, and I’m writing about them solely because I think this information might be useful to others.

Is Your Blog Against Disablism Accessible to Disabled Bloggers (and Readers)?

Among disability bloggers, the first day of May has become synonymous with Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) — an international blogswarm to raise awareness of disability oppression. In the United States, we call the system of disability oppression ableism. In the UK, where the founder of BADD originates, the term is disablism.

The graphic for BADD. Along the top, in yellow letters on a dark green background, it says, "Blogging Against Disablism. Below that is a multicolored square comprised of twenty smaller squares with one stick figure in each, mostly standing, some wheelchair symbols or with canes.

BADD 2013!

I really love BADD, and I make a point of participating every year, regardless of how tired or sick or busy I am. (Here are my BADD posts from 20102011, and 2012.) I love being part of this massive effort every year when bloggers all over the world unite around a common purpose. I love the diversity of topics and voices, and the learning. I always learn so much.

And it is always a source of pain, disappointment, and surprise to me how many participants have blogs that are not disability-friendly. How many have major accessibility barriers. I think if you’re going to take part in an anti-ableism blogswarm, you must want your blog to be accessible to disabled visitors, no? Thus it behooves me — since BADD falls on a Wednesday this year — to write a Waspish Wednesday post to say, “HEY! BADD bloggers! Howsabout we all make an effort to make our blogs more accessible in the coming year, OK?!”

Yes, Waspish Wednesday posts, as the name implies, tend to be heavy on the snark. But I snark with love. In fact, I will even offer tips, so this isn’t just pointless railing, but an attempt to create change! However, since I can’t cover everything (I’m starting this post at the eleventh hour as it is!) if you feel passionate about an internet accessibility barrier that I haven’t covered, I encourage you to mention it in the comments. [UPDATE: There are already some excellent questions, resources, and points in the comments to this post.]

Speaking of Comments . . . Dump the CAPTCHA!

I like to comment as I make my way around the BADD blogs. It’s a great way to support the bloggers and let them know you’ve read their post and that you care about what they have to say. Unfortunately, in my experience, most of the BADD blogs I visit require I pass a CAPTCHA — also known as “word verification” or “image verification” — to comment.

Two bendy, distorted words with a horizontal line going through each. I think one says "fellowing" and the other says "finding."

CAPTCHAs — Now, for Your Inconvenience, Making the Web Much Less Accessible

This is a problem because CAPTCHA is evil! It is a pernicious barrier to access that is like a genetically modified invasive weed that has spread to every corner of the interwebs.

What does it generally say above the box with squiggly letters or numbers? “Prove you’re not a robot.” Well, no. It should really say, “Prove you’re not a person whose disability makes solving this CAPTCHA impossible.” But maybe that’s less catchy.

CAPTCHAs are a barrier to people who are blind or low vision, deafblind, people with various neurological disabilities, mobility impairments, cognitive disabilities, and elderly people, to name just a few. I have posted before about why CAPTCHA is a problem, and how you can get rid of it, so I won’t repeat all that here.

I’ll just say two things:

1. You may not know that your blog has CAPTCHA. It is the default setting on Blogger, so if you haven’t disabled it, you have it. (Note: If you’re ever thinking about moving your blogging platform, I strongly suggest WordPress. I’ve had several blogs on both WP and Blogger, and WP actually goes out of its way to integrate disability access into its software, whereas Blogger frequently makes “improvements” that create barriers to disabled bloggers or readers.)

2. CAPTCHA is actually not all that great at eliminating spam, so the great majority of people I know who have disabled CAPTCHA do not find they are buried under an avalanche of spam. However, if this happens to you, an alternative option is to post a note above your comments section that says, “To reduce spam, word verification is enabled. If this is a barrier to you commenting, please email me your comment at myemail at cooldude dot com.”

AutoPlays or The Fun Features that Trigger Migraines, Seizures, and Screen Reader Inaccessibility

Autoplays are any feature that starts up automatically when you enter a site. They can be auditory (music is a common one), visual (animated GIFs, falling snow, slide shows), or a combination (videos that include both movement and sound).

The big problem with autoplays is that they start up automatically, without the visitor’s consent, and they can wreak such havoc on a blog visitor that they may be unable to turn them off or leave the site without shutting down their computer. For example, movement autoplays can trigger instant seizures or migraines when they start up, audio autoplays can interfere with a screen reader, making it difficult or impossible to navigate away from the page.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka from the movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He's wearing a bright purple velvet suit jacket and a flowered pink and purple vest, an enormous brown bow-tie and top hat, leaning his head on his hand and grinning maniacally. Above his head in white capital letters, it says, Your website auto-plays music? On the bottom of the picture, in even larger white capital letters it says, I can't wait to hear the entire song.

Sarcasm.

And they are completely unnecessary because if you want to share music, video, or a slide show with your blog visitors, you can set one up that they can click on if they choose. Sliders seem to have become the latest hot fad on numerous disability websites I’ve visited, and I find them so distracting (and sometimes nauseating), that if I can’t move the browser window to block them, I just leave the site.

Want more info? I’ve written in greater detail before about which, how, and why autoplays disable people who visit your blog.

Alt Tags, Transcripts, and Captions: Making Your Pictures and Videos Accessible to ALL Your Visitors

Pictures and videos are an integral part of many blogs. They can add interest, color, personality, and depth to the discussion. Often they are central to explaining or depicting the topic. It seems only fair that everyone who visits your blog should also be afforded the opportunity to enjoy these elements, especially when they are crucial to the point. This is where tagging, descriptions, captions, and transcripts come in.

Images — whether drawings, photos, or charts — should be described for readers who are blind or low vision. The description should tell the reader the important points about what the image shows.

You can either post a description of the image in the visible text (usually below the image) or you can use an alt tag, which is a description that is not visible but which a screen reader will read aloud or print in Braille. Alt tagging is not difficult. With WordPress, when you load an image into your media library, a box that says “Alternative Text” is included, and you can just type your description there. To alt tag in Blogger, after you have loaded your picture into your post, click on the image and then choose “Properties” from the menu that appears. In the pop up box will be two fields, the second of which says “Alt text.” Write your description there.

As to how to describe images — this is a learned skill like any other, something that I’ve found has gotten much faster and easier with practice. Some people use a bare bones approach and others (like me) get more detailed. If I think the details of the image are really important, I try to capture as much as I can in my description. For example, for the three images that make up my blog header, I went into detail because they say a lot about what my site is about. The alt tag for “Writing and Erotica,” is unusually long (in part because it’s two pictures):

Two side-by-side pictures of Sharon sitting in her powerchair which has a gray seat and wheels, black frame, and a cherry-red base. In the left-side picture, both Sharon and her chair are facing away from the camera. Sharon holds the sides of her tan trench-coat open, as if she is flashing someone in front of her. Sharon’s legs are bare except for four-inch-high patent-leather heels. She has short, black wavy hair and is turning her head toward the camera, so her face is in profile, smiling mischievously. The word “writing” is in white capital letters across the back of the chair. Between the two pictures, in black lowercase, is the word “and.” In the right-side picture, the back of the chair is still to the camera, but Sharon is straddling it backward, with bare legs, shoulders, and arms, the rest hidden by the chair so she appears naked except for her heels. The word “Erotica” is in white capital letters across the back of the chair.

This is quite a contrast to the alt tag for a recent post about my service dog, Barnum, shutting my door. In this case, I assumed that most readers had some familiarity already with what Barnum looks like, and I just wanted to get across the basic action occurring in the image:

Blurry photo of Barnum, a black Bouvier des Flandres, turning behind a wooden door, pushing it shut with his nose.

Barnum shuts the door in a blur of motion

The alt tag for that image is, “Blurry photo of Barnum, a black Bouvier des Flandres, turning behind a wooden door, pushing it shut with his nose.”

How long my alt tag is, or how many pictures or videos I include, is often a factor of how sick and exhausted I am. If I don’t feel well enough to write a lot of descriptions (which I find more difficult than writing the post, itself), I either limit the number of images or I give myself more time to write the post — sometimes it takes me several days longer. For me, it’s worth it to know that all my readers are getting as high a quality post as I can offer.

For videos, too, you want to provide written information about what occurs for people who cannot glean this information by watching the video. In some cases — a speech, for example — a simple transcript of what’s said might be perfect. In other cases — where an action is described (often the case with my dog training videos) — it feels important to me to describe the step-by-step actions taking place. Sometimes it works best to just provide a summary of what takes place in the video. If it’s a short description or summary, I might post that right below the video. If it’s a long transcript, I usually link to a separate page that’s just the transcript.

The other side of the coin in videos is including captions or subtitles for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Some people are able to use Youtube’s captioning or transcription service; I find it confusing so I post the video on Youtube as-is and then subtitle it on another site, such as dotSub or Amara (formerly Universal Subtitles). Since I sometimes use sign language when I’m nonverbal, I need to caption my videos for both hearing and Deaf viewers! Here’s an example of a dotSub video where I used a combination of signing and voicing.

Transcripts, descriptions, or summaries of videos are important because some people will access neither the visual nor the auditory aspects of the video but will still want to know what’s happening in your post! This could include some deafblind people as well as people whose internet connections are too slow for watching video (as is the case for many rural people in the US, for example). Here’s a post where I include the video transcript at the end of the post.

Colors, Contrast, Wallpapers, and Other “Interior Design” Faux-Pas

The second most common access barrier I run into (CAPTCHAs being the first) is a blog with an inaccessible visual design. Of course you want your blog to be aesthetically pleasing and unique, but you also want it to be READABLE, don’t you? I mean, what’s the point of writing for the public if the public can’t read what you’ve written?

Readability includes using a decently large, not-too-silly font of a dark color on a light background or a light font on a dark background. Texture or designs behind text is not going to work for people with neurological or visual issues. Lots of bright colors going in every direction is similarly nightmarish for, for example, me. I will flee a website that’s too visually busy and “loud” because it makes me nauseous and gives me a headache. I’ve written more about blog access dos and don’ts — including design — here.

There’s always more to learn. Fortunately, you don’t have to learn (and implement) it all in one day.

There are a lot of other steps you can take to make your blog more disability friendly, but Rome wasn’t ramped in a day. Also, we’re all human. As a blogger whose own disabilities sometimes make it challenging to post at all, there are trade-offs I sometimes make in terms of what I am willing to do based on my own limitations. While I do the best I can to make my blogs as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, I still hear about glitches from my readers on occasion. The main thing is, when I hear there’s a problem, I thank the person for bringing it to my attention. I try to listen, and then I try to address the problem.

Everyone goofs. But if you put in some pretty basic research and then practice it, you’ll be on your way. And then you can tell people, “I’m trying to make my blog more accessible, so if you have a problem, please let me know.” I’m definitely not suggesting that you rely on reader feedback to identify and fix accessibility problems instead of doing your research and putting in the basic effort first. Relying on reader feedback to alert you to accessibility problems has two major drawbacks:

1. If people cannot read your blog or cannot comment on it, they won’t be able to tell you there’s a problem!

2. It’s not the job of your visitors to be accessibility consultants. Some people like this role and are good at it, but others may just want to get on with their life and not be in teaching/education/awareness mode all the time. They also might know there’s a problem but have no idea how to fix it.

Fortunately, there are lots of lots of people who are devoted to web accessibility. You can find some of them at my “Making your blog disability friendly” page. You can also get tons of great info from the Web Accessibility Initiative.

If someone tells you about an accessibility problem with your blog, they’re giving you a gift because it would probably be much easier for them to just give up on your blog — to not tell you there’s a problem and not come back — than to spend the spoons (and risk potential defensive blowback) involved in telling you something’s not working. The fact that they’re spending their energy on you and your blog means they think you’re worth their effort. So, take that for the constructive compliment it is, thank them, and do your best to fix the problem.

Happy Blogging Against Disablism Day! Here’s to a bevy of accessible BADD blogs! (You can go read ’em here: http://tinyurl.com/BADD2013.)

Call for Posts Extended for Assistance Dog Blog Carnival #ADBC

A few weeks ago the call for submissions for the Eleventh Assistance Dog Blog Carnival was posted by the host for this issue, FridaWrites.

Assistance Dog Blog Carnival graphic. A square graphic, with a lavender background. A leggy purple dog of unidentifiable breed, with floppy ears and a curly tail, in silhouette, is in the center. Words are in dark blue, a font that looks like it's dancing a bit.

The theme is “Resources and Tools,” which I’m excited about as a topic. I’ve known what resources I’ve wanted to write about ever since she posted it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get my post up in time — and I wasn’t the only one. Apparently only four posts came in by the deadline, so FridaWrites and I decided to extend the deadline to May 4, especially because Blogging Against Disablism Day (BADD) is tomorrow.

I hope if you have something to say on this topic that you will write a post. Plus, FridaWrites is offering a couple of nifty dog gear items as a giveaway, inspired by the topic.

For the deadline and other pertinent details, check out the call for entries. If you’re new to this and wondering what the heck an Assistance Dog Blog Carnival is, check out the ADBC home page. I’ll post a notice when the Carnival goes up.

Shutting the Door on Perfect

In the last few weeks I’ve experienced writer’s block for the first time in my life.  Part of my block seems to be related to the difficulty I’m having with the physical act of writing (due to the repetitive strain injury I’ve discussed before) and part of it is the grand expectations I’ve built up around this new blog/website.

I’ve planned this website for years. I’ve worked on it for months. Tons of thought and energy has gone into the appearance and setup of this site while in the back of my mind bubbled all the ideas and goals for the content. Not just ideas for this or that post, but ideas for series of posts on themes I wanted to explore on an ongoing basis. And because I’ve spent so much energy on making the site look as perfect as possible, I convinced myself that the writing has to be perfect, too.

I’ve been telling myself I have to cover Deep and Meaningful Themes in fresh, new, exciting ways that will cause readers to erupt in epiphanies left, right, and center. Readers must swoon over my intellectually and emotionally compelling posts — posts that will be perfectly proofread, too, of course.

No pressure there.

As a result of the combined physical and mental stumbling blocks to writing (more on the former another time) I’ve written the beginnings of a dozen new posts so far. Meanwhile life rolls on. I’ve wanted to share my life on my blog, but it hasn’t been perfect enough.

Instead, here’s an example of the kind of quotidian event that I like to write about:

A few days ago I was on the phone with my mom. It was a warm enough day that I didn’t need the heat on in my room, so my bedroom door was open. This allowed Barnum the freedom to roam about the house. I figured he was watching my personal care assistant (PCA) clean up the kitchen because PCA watching is one of Barnum’s favorite leisure activities.

Later, my PCA poked her head in to say she was leaving. I half-glanced her way and waved goodbye as I listened to the story my mom was telling me.

A couple of minutes later Barnum came into my room. I wouldn’t have noticed except that he went behind my door and began nudging it with his nose. I thought there was probably a piece of kibble behind the door he was trying to get to. But he didn’t snork anything up. Instead, he nudged the door till it closed — almost. It was shut but not latched. He knows the difference because if I cue him to shut the door he doesn’t get a treat till it latches.

This time, too, Barnum knew the door wasn’t truly shut and gave it a very purposeful, firm nudge. When the bolt slid home Barnum straightened up, looking very satisfied.

He turned and gave me a look that said, “All’s right with the world now.” Then he trotted over to his bed to curl up for a nap.

I burst out laughing, interrupting my mother’s story. “Barnum just came in and shut the door after himself!” I told her.

I don’t know why Barnum decided to shut my door without being asked. He didn’t look at me with that, “Where’s my treat?” face that I know so well despite the fact that closing my bedroom door is a job he gets paid for on a pretty regular basis. But since he apparently wasn’t expecting a reward, he did it for some other reason, and he seemed very satisfied with the results without any reward from me.

You might think that because Barnum has such a long reinforcement history of being cued and paid to shut the door that the open door would be an invitation in itself, an environmental cue. But there are other times the door is open — several times since, in fact — and he doesn’t just go and shut it without being asked.

I actually think he wanted some peace and quiet. It had been a full day for him. He’d had a long walk, done some training, and then spent time in the living room watching my PCA work in the kitchen.

I think he wanted to return to the quiet and comfort of our familiar routine: me in bed and him in his crate, napping. Which usually takes place behind closed doors.

For me, that one simple act of his was useful in a different way than when I ask him to, which, when he’s really in the game, looks like this video.

When I ask him to shut the door, I often feel satisfaction and pride at our teamwork and accomplishments. Frequently I feel relieved and grateful that I don’t have to get out of bed to shut the door myself, which can be arduous or at least tedious.

Not that it always goes as smoothly as in that video. Sometimes Barnum is more tentative — he has to do a few nudges instead of one big one. That’s how he learned the skill — getting clicked and treated for touching the door, then nudging once, then nudging twice. It took many, many repetitions of lots of small nudges to get to that one powerful, smooth push-and-slam!

But by shutting the door the other day for his own inscrutable reasons, Barnum helped me in a different way. He did something quirky and funny and unexpected which helped take me out of myself. He made me laugh. I thought, “I have to blog about this,” because it’s the kind of silly-yet-mysterious clicker-dog-thing that I knew many of you would enjoy. And it was so obviously not the stuff of Big, Weighty, Important Posts of Revelation that it let me off the hook. I could just do what I like to do best: tell a story.

This post isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have to be because it’s just a fun little anecdote about my dog. But now I will finally, finally, finally have a post up on this new site. A post that is me — a slice of my life, told in my own way. I can work from here. One little post at a time, I can build from here. I’ll get this new blog going, one nose nudge at a time.

Blurry photo of Barnum, a black Bouvier des Flandres, turning behind a wooden door, pushing it shut with his nose.

Barnum shuts the door in a blur of motion

This Website Is Under Construction

Welcome to what will eventually be my “full-service” website, including my dog blog and my writing blog, among various other things. Meanwhile, you can continue to read new content at

All my blogs also cover, to varying degrees, life with chronic illness because being chronically ill affects my writing and other endeavors. It does not, however, define me.