Monday, January 14, 2013

Psych: Or Teaching Your Dog that Tooth Brushing is FUN

Kirby is living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Well, a middle-aged dog, anyway. We're proud to say that we taught Kirby to "sit up" at the age of six. Not bad. And he does it extremely well with an artistic flair, a little cock of the head and off-kilter holding of the paws that makes him calendar-worthy. Seriously. It rivals the best "sit up" I've ever seen. But that's not what I'm most proud of...that would have to be the tooth brushing.

You see, we didn't start brushing Kirby's teeth on a daily basis until he was nearly six years old (detailed confessions below).  But now, I'm very proud to say, Kirby LOVES to have his teeth brushed. For us it had to be every day or it wouldn't happen. There's something about a daily routine that helps both the humans and the canines to get into the groove.

The thing that made all the difference was the combination of the psych factor and the poultry-flavored toothpaste: poultry-flavored toothpaste is a TREAT. Really, it is. It is a treat that is delivered via a long, plastic handle with bristles on the end, and it is lovingly distributed all around the mouth via the teeth. It is a TREAT that is lovingly given each night after the last trip to the yard. It is something to look forward to.

It took a few nights of letting Kirby just lick the toothpaste off a finger-brush to get the idea. Pretty soon we were working our way around the mouth (outsides of teeth only...I do value my fingers and the vet tells me the enzymes in the toothpaste still work their way around to the insides of the teeth, even if I can't get to them).  Now, each and every night, without interruption, Kirby runs inside and waits by the kitchen counter for his "brushy-brushy" treat.

On our recent visit to the veterinarian in December he exclaimed how clean Kirby's teeth were. I felt proud. Kirby couldn't have cared less, but he wagged his tail anyway. I think he was just angling for the vet to give him a treat. And yes, he did sit up, extraordinarily well.

Remy's first tooth brushing at 9 weeks... Now he sits upright for it.
We've started Remy out on the same protocol... and, at least as far as tooth-brushing is concerned, the model-rival teaching method is working LIKE A CHARM. Even though we know Remy's baby teeth will fall out in the next few months, we want Remy to believe that tooth-brushing is a TREAT. At the moment, anything Kirby considers a treat, Remy considers a treat, and he will protest until he gets some of whatever Kirby is getting. So each night, starting the week we brought him home, we have tortured poor Remy by making him watch (enthusiasm held in check by my husband holding a leash) as Kirby gets his "brushy brushy." Now Remy can't wait to have his little milk teeth brushed. I still can't use a regular toothbrush (he thinks it's a chew toy) but he loves having his gums massaged by the finger brush. For a soon-to-be-teething puppy, I think it's actually kind of a nice feeling.

Confession time. It wasn't always this way with the happy tooth-brushing in our household. I'm rather embarrassed to say that we didn't start brushing either Baxter's or Kirby's teeth when they were puppies. Despite advice from our veterinarian to "brush regularly," we waited too long and too loosely interpreted the word "regularly." By the time Baxter had his adult teeth, the entire process of tooth-brushing was so gut-wrenching, so fraught with drama and pathos (if you've ever seen a Griff looking both defiant and pathetic at the same time, you know exactly what I'm talking about...) we didn't have the heart or physical stamina to subject him to tooth brushing very often.

As Baxter aged and started getting more plaque build-up, we started brushing more often, but every attempt was a battle, so we didn't get very far. Kirby, taking his cue from big brother, resisted as well. Baxter never really did embrace the idea with any enthusiasm, and I'm sad to say that he left this world never having enjoyed a good tooth-brushing. Even with the poultry-flavored toothpaste.

After Kirby became the only dog, at age five-and-a-half, things changed....but not until we got our wake-up call. Kirby had had his teeth professionally cleaned a few years before, yet he had developed a lot of plaque in the following years, far more than Baxter ever had, and at a much faster rate. This summer, a few months after Baxter passed away, we took Kirby in for a recommended professional cleaning. They discovered that he had had two slab fractures on a couple of his upper molars -- vertical fractures that went all the way to the root. Apparently the fractures had been rather hidden by the plaque and the severity wasn't noted until after the teeth were clean. Kirby had been acting slow and sad, but we thought it was just part of his grieving over the loss of Baxter (and I'm sure some of it was). Because the teeth were so damaged, and likely painful for Kirby as well, our veterinarian recommended we have the teeth pulled.

Poor Kirby. We're not sure exactly how or when the fractures happened, but we think it was from chewing on some tasty sterilized cow bones that friends had given him. Kirby definitely had more anxiety than usual after Baxter passed away and he probably took some of it out on the bones...and his teeth. But how could we not have known?  In any case, two dog molars -- and a doggie dental bill that rivals the same procedure for a human -- later, we decided that doggie dental care would become a priority.

Today, Kirby is living testament that it's never too late to start brushing your dog's long as you apply some patience, psychology and poultry flavoring. And now, thanks to Kirby's trail-blazing, we're starting Remy off right for a life of pearly white teeth.

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