Head to Tail Examination

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The daily exam accomplishes several important things all at once.  First, if something on your dog changes, you catch it very quickly, including lumps, injuries, flea/tick infestations, hotspots, and even internal parasites.  Second, the dog gets very used to being handled all over.  When the vet wants to examine an injured paw or check stitches, the dog isn’t frightened or stressed about being examined.  Grooming is much easier, too.  Third, it builds an important part of the human/dog relationship:  mutual trust and respect.  I do daily exam with my dogs on their backs, lying between my legs (head closest to me).  This is a very vulnerable position for the dog to be in.  But it also gives me maximum control and access to all parts of the body.  So, over time, the dog learns both to submit to my will (to allow me to examine him/her) but also, and more importantly, to trust that my intentions are good and honorable and that I will not harm or torment them even when they are defenseless.  Finally, daily exam teaches the handler what is “normal” for their dog.

Start practicing daily exam with puppies eight weeks or older, or with an adult dog of any age, here’s the procedure:

1.         Flip the dog on their back.  This might be accomplished by putting the dog on a down and rolling them onto their back, by reaching across the back and grasping the elbow on the opposite side for a wrestling-type flip, or with the assistance of a second handler to flip the hindquarters.

2.         Position the dog, on his/her back either on your lap (for a small dog) or on the floor and bolstered by your legs on either side.  Do not raise the shoulders higher than the dog’s hips.  The dog’s head must be lower than yours.  If the dog squirms (and many do, at first), grasp an elbow in each hand and “steer” the dog so he remains on his back.  It is very important *not* to allow him to wriggle free.  Do not release the dog until they stop wriggling, then praise and release quickly before they can start wriggling again.  Never release a dog while he is wriggling.

3.         Slowly build up the time you hold the dog in daily exam position.  When the dog lies quietly, speak softly and affectionately and massage his tummy or wherever else he enjoys being petted or rubbed.  When he wriggles or fusses do not rub or coo at the dog.  Either be silent and ignore it, or give a “wrong” marker (“wrong” or “pfui”) or verbal correction (“no”) in a neutral tone of voice.

4.         When the dog lies quietly consistently for a minute or so begin the exam.  Develop a pattern so that you do the exam the same each time.  This way, you won’t accidentally skip over a part.

5.         Start at the shoulders and feel along the scapula from the withers to the point of the shoulder and then on to the elbow.  Follow the spine of the scapula and feel the muscles which attach there to the scapula.  Check for tenderness, heat (which may indicate injury), external parasites, crusty areas in the skin, bald patches, and any deformity in the bone.  The scapula is usually rotated about 45 degrees from the dog’s spine, pointed from the withers toward the front of the dog’s chest.  At the point of the shoulder (a joint), the humerus attaches at about a 90 degree angle to the scapula.  The humerus should be well muscled.  Follow it to the elbow, still checking for signs of injury, crusties, or parasites.

6.         While at the elbow, gently glide it forward and feel the movement in the shoulder joint (point of the shoulder).  It is important *not* to move the elbow out away from the body or to twist it, but only move it in the direction the dog would move it himself when taking a step forward.

7.         Next, check the elbow joint by gently straightening and flexing it.  If the dog is very relaxed, when you straighten his elbow joint, his pastern (carpus or wrist) joint will automatically straighten simultaneously. Follow the radio-ulna (forearm) down to the wrist.  On the forearm there is less muscle and more tendons as compared to the shoulder and humerus.  Only tendons run along the front of the forearm, but there are muscles and tendons along the back of the forearm.

8.         Near the pastern pad, there may be a large dimple where the skin folds in between tendon and bone.  Check the pastern pad for cuts, cracks, and tenderness.  Flex the pastern joint.  From the pastern joint, the leg starts to split off into five digits:  four toes and a dewclaw.  Some dogs have a functional dewclaw, which they use sort of like a thumb to grasp things while chewing.  In others, the dewclaw hangs loosely and may be prone to injury.  In some dogs, the dewclaw may be surgically removed.  Check each pad in the paw the same as the pastern pad.  Check between the pads for cuts, thorns, burrs and ticks.  Feel along each toe.  The bones in dog toes go in unexpected directions, kind of like a “Z”.  Make sure you know what normal feels like so the next time you step on your dog’s paw you won’t assume his toes are broken because the bones feel so crooked.  Check that none of the toenails are split, cracked, sharp, overgrown, or worn into the quick.

9.         Feel down the length of the dog from the withers to the hips, checking the bones of the spine and the muscle and skin along the way.  Feel along from the throat to the genitals, checking the bones of the rib cage and the muscle and skin along the way.  The abdomen is a good place to really check for fleas because the hair is usually thinner there so the fleas (or flea “dirt”) are easier to see there and because the skin is slightly warmer there, fleas are attracted to this area.  Swelling and/or hardness in the abdomen, especially in deep chested dogs (such as GSDs), may indicate “bloat”, a very serious, life-threatening condition which requires *immediate* veterinary care as death may occur in less than 24 hours.

10.       If you have an intact male, you should gently feel the testicles for lumps and make sure both are descended.  When male dogs are shown in conformation, the judge will feel the testicles to make sure both are descended and that they are real because undescended or missing testicles are grounds for disqualification.  For both males and females, feel the breast tissue, checking for lumps.  Feel down both sides, again checking the ribs, the musculature, and the skin.

11.       If, at any point, you cannot run your fingers through your dog’s fur to the skin, it’s time for a good brushing or combing out.  You should be able to reach your fingers to the skin even on dogs which are supposed to have dredlocks.

12.       As you check the dog, use all of your senses.  Is the smell normal or strong and foul?  Untreated injuries start to stink as they become infected.  Breath odor or ear odor can also indicate conditions which require treatment.

13.       Check the hindquarters and tail as you did with the forequarters, except be extra gentle when flexing the joints of the hind leg.  They usually don’t move as far as the front legs.  Never force the leg (front or back) to flex or straighten.  Always use the very gentlest pressure and do not force the dog if he resists moving a limb, as this may cause injury.

14.       Moving on to the head.  Check the corneas of the eyes.  They should be crystal clear, smooth and shiny.  Cloudiness may indicate cataracts or injury.  Gently pull down the lower lid and look at the mucous membrane lining the surface of the lid which rests against the eye.  It should be moist and pale pink.  Grayness may indicate anemia, possibly as a result of internal parasites.  Redness may indicate irritation of the eye or illness.

15.       Check the ears.  On the outer edge of the pinna (the external part of of the ear, as opposed to the ear canal), there is a section with a small flap on it.  Be sure to check it for ticks, especially seed ticks.  Check for tears in the edges and puncture holes (possibly from playing with other dogs or cats).  Look inside the ear to see if it needs cleaning or if there might by an infection.  Prick eared dogs (ears which stick up, like a cat) are somewhat less prone to ear infections than are drop eared dogs (like Snoopy).  Dogs with drop ears, in particular, and sometimes those with prick ears, who swim or play around water a lot may require regular use of ear drops from the veterinarian to prevent infections.

16.       Now turn to the mouth.  Peel back the lips and examine the gums.  These should be pale pink (at least wherever they don’t have black pigment).  Find a pink area and gently press on it with your finger.  Release the pressure and observe the white finger print left on the gum.  If it takes longer than one second for the gum to turn pink again, there may be a circulation problem.  Check that none of the teeth are loose.  Check the edge of each tooth where it enters the gum.  Yellow or brown accumulations indicate tartar buildup which can lead to gingivitis.  This is a good time to brush the teeth with an appropriately sized, soft toothbrush and canine toothpaste (don’t use human toothpaste).  Swelling or redness of the gums may indicate gingivitis, which left untreated can threaten the life of the dog.  Check the “bite” of the dog by gently closing the jaws together to see how the teeth meet.  Make sure the teeth are not injuring the inside of the lips or cheeks.  Check the lips for injury, infected follicles, zits and warts.  Balding areas, especially around the mouth and eyes (but possibly other places) may indicate dermodex (a form of mange) which may require medication from your veterinarian.

17.       Once a week pick a day and trim toenails.  You may also apply pad toughener or Musher’s Secret to the pads, depending on whether it’s needed that particular day.  Also dab a little antibiotic ointment on cat scratches.  Then give a release and go play something really fun (i.e. fetch) with your dog.

For more information please visit, ACMECANINE.COM

Or contact, Acme Canine 1385 Franklin Street, Suite K9 Lewis Center OH 43035 (740) 548-1717 dogs@acmecanine.com

Reprinted with permission from  Kirsten Richards 2004