Answers From Experts 03/99

This month: Holistic help for megaesophagus, and gentle training methods to teach dogs to stop jumping up.


Relief for Megaesophagus
Do you know of any holistic cures or remedies for megaesophogus? I’ve been through everything known to help alleviate the horrible effects of this dreaded condition and now I’d like to try a holistic approach.

-Name withheld
New Jersey

We directed this question to Carolyn Blakey, DVM, of the Westside Animal Clinic in Richmond, Indiana. Dr. Blakey has been practicing veterinary medicine for 32 years, the last four in an all-holistic practice. She especially enjoys serving as a holistic veterinary consultant to clients all over the country.

Megaesophagus truly is a horrible condition, both for the dog, who really suffers, and for the dog’s owner, who can’t do very much to help. However, there are a couple of holistic healing methods that I’ve seen help dogs with megaesophagus.

I use a lot of homeopathy in my practice, so of course, my first suggestion is to use homeopathy, which is entirely dependent on the body’s ability to respond. Homeopathy is “energy medicine;” the purpose is to present the energy picture of a specific problem to the body so the body will raise a defense, a response to that trigger at both the physical and the energy level. When you give the correct remedy to a dog whose vital force is still able to respond, you’ll see improvement.

I would suggest having a veterinary homeopath conduct a complete homeopathic intake. To prescribe the correct homeopathic remedy for any given individual, you have to know what’s behind the condition – in this case, the megaesophagus – and what’s behind that. Every individual is different, so every prescription will be different.

That said, there are several homeopathic remedies that are indicated for megaesophagus, including Kali Carbonicum, and Lyssen, the rabies nosode (which makes sense, because a rabid dog can’t swallow, either). However, in order to know which remedy is best for your dog, the practitioner has to hear the whole history and put all the dog’s total symptoms together.

The other approach I would try for relieving megaesophagus is acupuncture, which would be great for stimulating whatever tonal ability the dog may have. With megaesophagus, the whole problem is a lack of innervation (sufficient supply and activity of the nerves). The messages are just not getting through to the esophagus to constrict and move food down; it gets all flaccid. But acupuncture can get those neurotransmitters working, or at least, get them working better than before.

In some cases of megaesophagus, the “cardiac sphincter” (which controls the opening to the stomach) spasms shut, so the food just can’t go in. Over time, with that spasm occurring again and again, the esophagus begins to stretch.

Acupuncture is especially helpful with these cases, because it can relieve the spasms and relax the sphincter, letting the food flow into the stomach. So I would definitely take the dog to a veterinary acupuncturist and ask if she would use these points:

Conception Vessel 23
Large Intestine 4 and 11
Stomach 36 and 45
Bladder 21
Pericardium 6 and 9

You could also help the dog with acupressure on these points, and with massage, to help condition and tonify the muscles. (For help finding the points mentioned above, ask your veterinary acupuncturist. You can learn the acupuncture meridians and points by consulting Dr. Cheryl Schwartz’ well-known book on Traditional Chinese Medicine for use on animals, “Four Paws, Five Directions,” or her “Circadian Clock and Meridians” poster.) I always encourage my owners to do acupressure, because it always helps. It may not be strong enough to cure a dog with megaesophagus, but it’s always helpful.

The practical, home-care things are very important, too. Feeding the dog with his food at head level, using gravity to help the food slide into his stomach, will be helpful. People have tried different diets on these dogs, including super smooth foods that would slide on into the stomach. But the current theory is to use high fiber diets, including brown rice, for instance, to try to stimulate whatever is still able to be stimulated in the esophagus, and I’ve had some success with this approach.

Most of these dogs have trouble their whole lives if you can’t get the condition under control. They have trouble maintaining weight, and they usually have other health problems because they can’t get the nutrients they need. I’d definitely recommend giving this dog a good-quality, daily multi-vitamin, mineral, and digestive enzyme supplement.

Jump Back, Jack!
My dog is a leaper and a jumper, displayed most predominantly when my husband comes home from work. She also does this to guests when they first come in the door. I have tried using a 10-foot lead on her collar and yanking down on it when she jumps, but she does not respond to this or scolding. Any suggestions?

-Frustrated in OH
Maggie Kallerud-Jurist

Sergeant Tibs, my four-year-old, neutered Collie/German Shepherd mix, is a wonderful dog, but he has a few behavior problems. His worst habit is jumping. He gets so wildly excited when someone comes he’s uncontrollable and doesn’t listen at all. I’ve never seen a dog get more wound-up when someone comes then he does. He jumps all over them almost knocking them over.

I’ve tried a “No Jump Harness” but that didn’t work. I’ve also used a “Pet Agree Ultrasonic Pet Training Aid,” which worked for awhile until he discovered when he ignored it, nothing happened.

I’ve heard of the techniques “knee in the chest” and “step on his hind feet.” But I know they are cruel and dangerous, so I haven’t used them. I prefer very gentle training techniques.

Sergeant gets a lot of attention, so it’s not as if he’s home alone a lot and lonely. He gets a lot more attention than the average dog, because I’m home almost 24 hours a day. He also gets plenty of exercise.

-Chavvah Frick
Cass Lake, MN

We gave these questions to Pat Miller, WDJ’s regular gentle training expert. Miller, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, pens her monthly contributions to WDJ from her home in Salinas, CA, where she offers private and group dog training classes.

Dogs must think we are the rudest creatures on earth. They greet each other by sniffing noses. But when they try to give us a polite greeting by jumping up to sniff a human face, they are met with bizarre behaviors. We yell. We bump them in the chest with a knee. We smack them on the nose. We grab their front paws and won’t let go. We squirt lemon juice in their mouths. We stomp on their hind feet . . . and these are just some of the coercive methods that have been used over the years to teach dogs not to jump on humans.

Too bad that we resort to violence when the solution is really a simple one. As in all positive-based training, all we need to do is to “reward the behavior we do want, and ignore the behavior we don’t want.”

The problem with jumping up is that a lot of it gets rewarded. When puppies are small we pick them up and cuddle them, teaching them that “up” is a very rewarding place to be. When they do jump up, someone often pets them or pays attention to them, rewarding the very behavior we want to extinguish. Dogs that get rewarded for jumping up keep doing it. For some dogs, even the coercive techniques meant to punish are perceived as rewarding – plenty of active Labradors view a knee in the chest as an invitation to a great game of body slam!

How do you ignore jumping up? You can’t just stand still, because the dog will reward himself by slamming his paws on your chest. But there are other effective exercises and management tools that can teach Aero that four-on-the-floor is far more rewarding than aerial maneuvers.

For starters, consistency is important. You must never reward jumping up, and you must convince your friends and family members to react appropriately to Aero’s antics as well. Behaviors that are rewarded randomly can become very strong, because Aero discovers that if he tries often enough, sooner or later a jump gets rewarded. While he may inevitably succeed in jumping on you occasionally, avoid having anyone actually encourage jumping by hugging or petting him when he does.

By the way, if you start doing these exercises with a young puppy, he will never learn that jumping up is a rewarding behavior, and you will never have to deal with an adult dog that is leaping and jumping.

Exercise #1
The on-leash jump

Start with Aero on leash next to you. Have your helper approach and stop just out of leash-range, holding a tasty treat high against her chest. Hold the leash tightly, and stand still. Now you wait. Aero will eventually get frustrated that he can’t jump on the helper, and he will sit to figure it out. The instant he sits, have your helper say “Yes!” and pop the treat in his mouth.

Repeat this exercise often. It usually takes a half-dozen or fewer repetitions for Aero to start sitting as the helper approaches. Now if he tries to leap up to get the treat when it is offered, have the helper whisk it out of reach and say in a cheerful voice, “Too bad, Aero!” When he sits again, say “Yes!” and offer the treat again. He will soon learn to sit tight in order to get the treat, instead of jumping for it.

In a variation of this exercise, you can say “Yes!” and pop the treat in his mouth when he sits. This way, he will start looking at you and sitting when people approach, instead of looking at the other people.

Repeat this exercise with as many different people as possible. When you are out walking and a stranger admires Aero and asks if she can pet him, toss her a treat and have her do the exercise. You will be amazed by how quickly Aero will start sitting as he sees people approach him.

Exercise #2
The off-leash jump

You come home from work, walk in the front door and see Aero flying over the back of the sofa. You know a brutal greeting is coming. What should you do? Turn your back on him! Watch him out of the corner of your eye, and continue to turn away and step away as he tries to jump on you.

Again, in a surprisingly short period of time Aero will sit in frustration to figure out why he’s not getting his ration of attention. The instant he sits, say “Yes!” in a happy voice, turn and feed him a treat. (Yes, you have to have a treat with you when you walk in the door. I suggest keeping a jar on the front stoop. Or have cookies in your pockets all the time!) If he starts to jump up again after he eats the treat, turn away and step away. Keep repeating this until he realizes that “Sit!” gets the attention, not “Jump!”

Exercise #3
Incompatible behavior

This works if your dog responds really well to the verbal cue for sit or down. When Aero approaches, ask for a sit or a down before he has a chance to jump up, and reward that behavior with a “Yes!” and a treat. With enough repetitions, he will learn that the sit or down gets rewarded, and he will start to offer them voluntarily.

Exercise #4
Putting the jump on cue

I recommend this only when someone in the family finds Aero’s aerobics endearing and wants to be able to invite him to jump up. In this case, you teach Aero to jump up on a particular cue such as the word “Hugs!” (not by patting your chest, as too many well-meaning strangers and children will likely invite the behavior), and teach him that the only time he can jump up is when someone gives the cue.

Tie down time-out
A “tie-down” is a 4- to 6-foot plastic-coated cable with snaps on both ends. One end can be secured around a heavy piece of furniture, or attached to a strategically placed eye-bolt. You will want to put a comfortable rug or bed at the tie-down locations. When Aero is out-of-control and jumping on the company (or you!), he gets a cheerful, “Too bad, Aero, time-out!” and a few minutes on his tie-down.

If you know in advance that he’s going to maul Aunt Maude the instant she walks in the door, clip him to the tie-down before you open the door, and release him once he settles down. If you release him and he revs up again, you can always do another “Too bad, Aero, time-out!” Remember, despite your frustration over his behavior, this should be a cheerful interlude, not a forceful punishment. He will learn to control his own behavior in order to avoid time-outs, and you won’t need to yell at him.

Jumping up is a normal, natural dog behavior. Like so many other normal dog behaviors that are unacceptable in human society, it is up to us to communicate to our dogs that jumping up isn’t rewarded, and to help them become more welcome members of our human pack by rewarding acceptable behaviors that can take the place of jumping. It’s easier than you think!