(Living and Working with Hip Dysplasia)

This is an article about the realities of a dog living with hip dysplasia. I wrote it in 1992, well before the wonderful arthritis pain medications we have today were dreamed of and when some of the sophisticated surgeries widely available today were still experimental or rare. The basic message is that dysplastic dogs can live a very fulfilling life.


(Living and Working with Hip Dysplasia)

by Pam Green (copyright 1992)

About 5 years ago I promised myself (and afterwards promised Phyllis Jones) that I would write this article someday. Initially it was too painful, then later on it didn't seem immediately urgent and there was always something else that needed to be written right away. So I didn't get around to it. But now the time seems right, and indeed I have a reason for delaying no further.

To "come out of the closet" generally means to reveal a secret about oneself. In this case the "secret" is about my beloved Chelsea, and since a lot of our friends already know it , it probably is not that much of a secret.

The "secret" is that Chelsea has severely dysplastic hips.

She had not been radiographed as she ought to have have been at 2 year old , because by that time she had already been spayed due to an acute episode of pyometria a few months prior to her 2nd birthday. Moreover her gait was large and flowing and her jumping abilities were so glorious as to cause the Open Obedience judges mouths to drop open in awe. In tracking, she pulled with the power of a John Deere in lowest gear. In herding, she displayed the quick and agile turns of a good cutting horse. Her thigh muscles would have been the envy of Arnold Schwartznegger. So there was every reason to assume that her hips were perfect ­­­ or so it seemed to me in my innocent ignorance.

Thus during these years of innocent bliss, she accumulated unto herself an impressive array of obedience and working titles : CD, CDX, TD, Can TD, AD, VB, WH, FH, HIC, STD-s. She had completed in numerous Bouvier Working Trials, placing 3rd overall at the 1985 & 1986 North American and Trial Champion at the 1986 American. She was 5 years old and just attaining her prime competitive years. My ambitions knew few or no bounds for further working titles and achievements.

Then one fine summer day she snuffed a foxtail up her nose, right before my very eyes. So off to the vets. Since the removal would require a brief anesthetization, I had the brilliant inspiration to suggest that this was a good opportunity to grab a hip X-ray so we could add "OFA" to the string of letters after her name. Tiresias did not appear to whisper to me "This is a question that you might be happier not to ask." And so it was done, and so to my horror it was revealed that my beloved partner's hips were quite quite far from being perfect. Her gait and athleticism were still marvelous, but the underlying structure rated OFA's "severe", with findings of subluxation and shallow acetabula, with resulting remodeling of the femoral head, acetabular rim/edge changes, and osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease.

For a while there , I felt devastated. Chels of course was blithely unaware and eager to be about business as usual. My own vets said that it was OK for her to do "anything that she wants to do" ; but, realizing that they had no idea of the demands of tracking , herding , and protection work, I sought further for information and advice from those with more extensive experience with dysplastic dogs, including a phone call to Fred Lanting. The eventual concensus was to allow moderate exercises, avoiding frequent or repetitive demanding jumping, climbing, pulling, or anything else that demanded a lot of thrust from the hips or that put twisting or torquing force on the hips. Swimming was to be encouraged. Otherwise let Chelsea set her own pace and limits. Keep her lean (which I already did) and feed good quality food , supplemented with vitamin C and E. Postpone any consideration of surgery until her hips deteriorated past the point where simple analgesics ("Ascriptin" = aspirin with antacid) could keep her comfortable within her own chosen activity level.

Thus began modification of her working life and preparation for a gradual progression into retirement as Chelsea would indicate. I made the commitment that whatever "treadlife" remained on her hips belonged to Chelsea and not to me and thus was to be conserved for her use and comfort in her years of semi-retirement and retirement. I began to observe her carefully and to let her set limits on her work. In some cases I set much more conservative limits than she herself set. In all of this I was helped by the beneficent fortune that had sent that ugly and unwanted puppy, Bones, into our lives and into our family some months earlier. It's easier to accept having to prematurely retire your well trained competition dog when you have a puppy to educate.

In our Obedience work, I dropped all plans for a UD. Although she knew the exercises moderately well and liked the jumping well enough that repetitative practice would not be needed (and occasional jumping would not hurt her), neither of us really enjoyed formal obedience training and trials enough to want to continue. Big sigh of relief from both of us. From that point on , I occasionally let her do something simple, like a retrieve or signal exercise, whenever she indicated that she felt left out when I was training the puppy. Of course when the Canine Good Citizen test came along, I dragged her out to the first test in our area; and , although her expression of disgust at hearing the word "heel" was marvelous to behold, she deigned to trudge through with dignity to satisfy the requirements.

Carting and Agility were activities she knew well enough by now that no regular practice was needed, merely one or two brief rehearsals just before a trial. So we still competed on rare occasions, such as major Bouvier Working Trials.

In Protection, I switched her from arm bites to leg bites, reasoning that these involved far less work for the hips, and started treating it as a recreation rather than as a "must get it" title ambition. Rather than working for improvement, I simply poured forth my delight and praise whenever she bit well. This proved a revelation, as Chels actually responded more freely and became a happier and more confident biter. She earned her Ring "Brêvet de Chien de Défense" about a year later, shortly before her 7th birthday, despite the fact that she was beginning to show occasional impairment of use of her hips, eg entering the truck by climbing onto the floor and from there to the seat rather than leaping onto the seat from the ground. She and the several other Bouvs who earned their Brevets at the same trial were the first to do so in North America. From this point on , for the next year or two , she sat in the car while I worked Bones, and because she showed the desire to join in, occasionally I let her have an easy leg bite provided that the decoy was someone whom I could trust to avoid any motions that torqued her hips.

In tracking, I tried gradually learning to read her through lighter and lighter line tension, thus encouraging her to apply less tension from her end of the line, thus less pulling effort on her hips. Eventually we evolved into working on a very light tension, using a thin line and bare hands. This did leave me far more vulnerable to handler errors and miss-reads, but it allowed us to continue and try for a TDX. She was still quite enthused about tracking. I was hopeful that this mild pulling exercise would help maintain muscle tone in her thigh and hip muscles thus preserve the health of the joint and retard deterioration. (Guide Dogs in San Rafael had found that the exercise of pulling into a Guide harness was beneficial for dysplastic Guide dogs, allowing them to remain more functional than comparably dysplastic dogs who lacked such exercise.) Chels ultimately earned her TDX in the spring of 1989 at the age of 7 1/2, thereby becoming the first Bouv ever to earn both the FH and the TDX. During the next year or two , I tracked her on occasional short and simple tracks, because she still enjoyed it very obviously. Often she would run these without harness or line, so she had all the enjoyment without any extra load on her hips.

In herding , she was still highly enthused. Although I knew that this activity inevitably included some sharp turns and accelerations that probably stressed her hips, her enjoyment of herding continued to be so great that I felt it was worth it to her to expend an hour's worth of sedentary "treadlife" on ten minutes of immensely pleasurable herding. Somewhere along the way she figured out for herself the easiest way to do an outrun : instead of a very big outrun at the gallop, she began to do a moderately large outrun at a slow "dog-tired" looking jog trot, during which she appeared to pay so little attention to the sheep that they ignored her until she arrived behind them (at the fetch balance point) and changed her attitude to one of interest. So she probably wound up with a much better outrun than she would ever have had otherwise. Certainly it served her well in the confined spaces of the areas in which most ASCA trials were held. After she finished her STD-cattle, just before her 7th birthday, I stopped working her on cattle for fear that the diminished agility of her hips would expose her to greater risk of injury from a kick. I also noticed that she was becoming less self-confident and bold in working cattle than she used to be; so probably she too felt more vulnerable. But she continued to work sheep with enthusiasm. She earned her OTD-sheep a few days before her 8th birthday with the best runs we'd ever made to date. To continue onward for her ATD-sheep would have required much emphasis on driving, a herding mode which Chelsea, being a consummately instinctual fetching dog, considered unnatural and ungratifying. The AKC tests did not at that time yet exist, and the Border Collie trials still had me intimidated and were mostly too physically demanding for Chelsea's diminished athleticism. Chels had been the first Bouv ever to earn the STD-s , the STD-c, and the OTD-s. So she was entitled to rest on her laurels and have fun. By this time Bones was trialing, had earned his STD-ducks, sheep, cattle, and thus became my primary herding dog. I continued to work Chels lightly when she indicated her desire, but I made no attempt to advance her level of skills. These runs were simply for her enjoyment. Eventually, she mostly sat around and watched Bones do it. Only occasionally did she let me know that she was in the mood, and then I contrived some very easy task, such as escorting the sheep back to their pasture, to which they went most willingly at the end of the working day.

Her final public appearance as a working dog occurred a few months after her 10th birthday. It was intended to be merely a "walk-on" to enable one of my herding buddies to satisfy AKC's requirements for entry numbers in the "Pre-Trial" class at a Sanctioned "B" Herding Test Match, thus qualifying the club to hold licensed events thereafter. I fully expected to merely appear in the class, ask Chels to gather the sheep, have her say "let Bones do it" , and then tell the judge that I was "calling time on myself" (ie ending our performance honorably ­­­ an option always available to the herding handler), thus fulfilling the club's need for an entry. However, when Chels spotted these very long-fleeced and delightfully lively sheep, she became inspired and for the next several minutes she herded as if momentarily rejuvenated, giving us all a glimpse of the talented and trained excellence that once was hers. A very beautiful last bow.

In summary , despite her handicap, Chelsea earned most of the working titles then available for Bouviers. Without dysplasia , she could have continued to herd competitively for probably two years longer, and that is the main area where I feel that the pre-mature aging of her hips seriously prevented her from fulfilling her potential. (However, I freely confess that my own ignorance of the finer points of stockdog training and handling was far more of a handicap to her than was dysplasia !) From the age of 8 onwards, she worked only lightly and for her own pleasure. From the age of 9 onwards, she preferred to rest on her laurels and on the top of my bed. She still enjoyed the less strenuous pleasures of life and still adored eating and going for rides in the truck. As a companion, she has been more and more affectionate and more and more adored with the passage of the years.

So I now arrive at the end of our story and very nearly at the end of Chelsea's life. For the reason that now is the right time to tell this tale of one Bouvie is that last week I learned that my beloved Chelsea has cancer, badly metastasized, and that the time when I must provide her that final gift of love and compassion is likely to be fairly soon.


Why tell the story at all ? Is there a moral?

Yes, of course.

For breeders, the moral (of course) is to take hip dysplasia, and indeed all matters of health and structural soundness, extremely seriously in making breeding decisions. To do otherwise would be totally irresponsible. Only temperament is of greater importance. Breeders, you owe every puppy you bring into the world a birthright of healthy mind and body so that that puppy can take pleasure in her/his own existence and live a normal lifespan free of affliction. Secondarily , you owe it to whomsoever buys and takes guardianship of that puppy, so that her/his companionship with that puppy can proceed with pleasure over a normal lifespan without affliction.

For those about to buy and adopt a puppy, the moral (of course) is to make sure to ask the breeder for the OFA numbers and ratings of parents and grandparents (aunts and uncles would also be quite relevant) ­­­ and run, don't walk, away if these are not forthcoming. While dysplasia may affect your dog's quality of life in mid-life and old age either mildly or severely, worrying about it will definitely affect your peace of mind adversely. If you have practical or competitive working ambitions for your puppy, then definitely you should minimize the genetic risks. It is those years after the dog is finally really well trained and thus should be at peak working capability that are most likely to be impaired, abbreviated, or forfeited by deteriorating dysplastic hips. For working prospects, prudence would suggest a preliminary X-ray at one year and/or an OFA submission X-ray at 2 years. Then, if indicated, the career plans can be modified towards work less stressful to the hips and less dependant on their perfect functioning. A sound temperamented dog always has a choice of more than one type of work.

For all whose dog has been or will be diagnosed as dysplastic, the moral (not so obvious) is that it is very possible for radiographically "severely" dysplastic dog to live a life that is still full of pleasure and achievement. Some suffer very mildly and can further minimize their discomfort by "gearing down" to live within their limits. Although you may worry that such a dog will eventually become painfully arthritic to an extent that precludes quality of life, it is far more likely that deteriorating heart, failing kidneys, or cancer will intervene before the deteriorating hips cause you to contemplate "the final gift."

Please, please, please, I beg of you , NEVER put a dog down today simply because you might have to do so several (or many) years in the future! Please let your dog live the one and only life she/he will ever have a chance to live, and resolve to make it the best life within your power.

"Handicapped" dogs, like "handicapped" people, can live lives of great pleasure and gratifying achievement. They can love and be beloved deeply and share a companionship of profound depth and richness.


Chelsea has been my precious and cherished companion. There will never be another one like her. May her legacy to the Bouvier world be one of inspiration. May she inspire you to educate your dogs and to live with them in compassionate and loving companionship.



Note : Chelsea asked for and received that "final gift" and so passed away peacefully in my arms a few weeks after this was written. She was 11 years, 2 months.

In the dozen years since this was written, a variety of sophisticated surgeries for hip dysplasia have been developed, many of which can result in near-perfect hip function. A number of wonderful drugs have been developed (Rimadyl, Etogesic, and recently Duramax) that can vastly relieve even severe arthritic pain. Accupunture is able to help many dysplastic dogs. So the quality of life of a dysplastic dog today is generally very good.


site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 10/1992 posted 8/17/03
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