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Individual Daily Exam

The individual 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. 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. I can tell you that Cole has a small lump on his left wrist (a permanent scar from impact with a tree rather than a new injury), and that Ruby has a closed umbilical hernia from being picked up by her cord by an over eager dam. I've spotted new lumps and even slightly tender spots which I was able to get treatment for very quickly because they were noticed within 24 hours of eruption.

With a pup eight weeks or older, or with an adult dog of any age, here's the procedure:

Turn the dog on his back. This might be accomplished by putting the dog on a down and rolling him onto his 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 turn the hindquarters. Position the dog, on his back either on your lap (for a small dog) or on the floor and bolstered by your legs on either side of the dog. 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 he stops wriggling, then praise and release quickly before he can start wriggling again. Never release a dog while he is wriggling as this will reinforce the wriggling, which is not what you want.

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 ("ah-ah") in a neutral tone of voice.

When the dog is consistently able to lie relaxed for a minute or so at a time, start practicing the actual exam. Develop a pattern so that you do the exam the same each time. This way, you won't accidentally skip over a part.

I start at the shoulders and feel along the scapula from the withers to the point of the shoulder and then on to the elbow. I follow the spine of the scapula and feel the muscles which attach there to the scapula. I check for tenderness, heat (which may indicate injury), change in muscle tone, 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 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. I follow it to the elbow, still checking for signs of injury, crusties, or parasites. When I reach the elbow, I 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.

Next, I 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. Next follow the radio-ulna (forearm) down to the wrist. On the forearm there is less muscle and more tendon, 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. Near the pastern pad, there may be a large dimple where the skin folds in between tendon and bone. Check this for ticks and crusties. 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 and a dewclaw (optional on some dogs). Some dogs have a functional dewclaw, which they use 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 make sudden changes in direction, forming a letter "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.

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 thiner 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. Fleas are also attracted to the neck area. Swelling and/or hardness in the abdomen, especially in deep chested dogs (such as German Shepherdss), may indicate "bloat", a very serious, life-threatening condition which requires immediate veterinary care if the dog is to survive. Know what feels normal for your dog's abdomen so you will recognize bloat if it occurs.

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, such as Pulis.

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.

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.

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, dry eye, or illness.

Check the ears. On the outer edge of the pinna (the external part of of the ear), 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 (dogs with ears that 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.

Now, we 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 as swallowing it can make a dog ill. Swelling or redness of the gums may indicate gingivitis, which left untreated can threaten the life of the dog through a systemic infection. 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 demodex (a form of mange) which may require medication from your veterinarian.

At this point, if it's Friday, I trim toenails. I may also apply pad toughener or Musher's Secret to the pads, depending on whether it's needed that particular day. I dab a little antibiotic ointment on cat scratches. Then give a release and go play something really fun (ie fetch) with my dog.

Well, that's it. That's my daily exam. All of my dogs are quite used to it now and just flop into my lap when I call them over. Of course, each did fuss a lot, like it was a major inconvenience to them, when I first started doing it. But I persisted, they got used to it, and now it's just part of the daily routine. Vets and groomers absolutely love working with animals that are this used to being handled all over.