Dog Dreams, The Main Thing, and Portion Control A Miscellany of Episodes on Reading Your Dog

By Ben McClelland

I began writing this article on routine dog care. I typed out a litany of tips: do’s and don’ts, including vaccines; vet visits; extra hydration in hot, humid days; no table scraps; effective skunk spray remedies; and much, much more. As I read over what I had typed, my eyes glazed over. And I figured many of you readers might have the same response. After all, the folks at Wildrose (i.e., Mike Stewart and Lanette Drewrey) give great health advice in the puppy picking talk. The Facebook page carries lots of helpful advice, as well. And readers can always “Google” any topic on which they need instant information.

I started casting about for another article topic.

Dog Dreams

At that moment I glanced over at Mac, who was asleep, curled up on his bed, lying on his side, and he began an afternoon dream. As I watched and listened to Mac dreaming, I became totally engrossed in his antics.

Bingo! There’s the article topic, I thought: canine body language. What can we learn by reading our dogs’ bodies, waking and sleeping? Have you ever wondered what your dog dreamed about and why? Alexandra Horowitz described her dog, Pumpernickel’s, dream:

This morning I heard her barking in her sleep—the muffled, jowl-puffing bark of dreaming. Oh, does she dream. I love her dream-barks, falsely severe, often accompanied by twitching feet or lips curled into a teeth-baring growl. Watch long enough and I’ll see her eyes dancing, the periodic clenches of her jaw, hear her tiny whimpers. The best dreams inspire tail wags—huge thumps of delight that wake herself and me (Inside of a Dog, 213).

Those are the same as Mac’s dream antics, except that he does not wake himself with tail thumps, but usually moves into a quieter sleep mode. Horowitz reviews some of the theories about the dreams’ meaning, similar to those for humans, such as replaying physical feats or rehearsing social engagement with others.

What is not observable from his body language is why Mac can snooze all afternoon and wake up just in time for his late afternoon walk, which is followed by his regular feeding time. As it turns out, without any outside stimulus, a dog will sleep until it senses—by an internal clock—that it’s time to wake up. Horowitz explains that a “pacemaker” in the dog’s brain follows Circadian rhythms throughout the day, including “feeding-related cycles,” regulating the dog’s activities (212-214). So, at the appointed hour Mac wakes according to his internal clock, leaves his bed, and hovers around me impatiently until I lead him out for his walk in a local park, after which we return to the house for his daily feeding.

0.Mac (McClelland) copy

For as much as I read Mac’s body language when he’s around the house, I should’ve been more observant one day in the field last fall.

Make the Main Thing the Main Thing

Because Mac is a healthy, high-drive, five-year-old, I greet him for our morning exercise time, checking the weather, but simply expecting him to be physically AOK. On this cool fall day in 2015 we worked several water retrieves (memories and marks) at Wildrose. Mac worked eagerly and vigorously for over a half hour, launching into the water for each retrieve and swimming a good distance for some long ones. We returned to the truck, I loaded him onto the tailgate (his usual resting place), and I went to the flight pen to take some pictures for an article on the kennel’s bird program. Then I returned to the truck to fetch Mac to make some shots with him at the pigeon recall house. When I approached him, I noticed that he had thrown up fluid on the tailgate and he did not lift his head when I came up to him.

This is the point at which I should have been reading his body language carefully. But, no, my mind was focused on the wrong thing: I was in a hurry to take pictures. I mistakenly thought that he was just tired. Standing next to him, I called Mac down, told him to heel, and I began walking briskly down the road toward the recall house. Mac, however, was lagging behind, his head low. I urged him to come to heel and he obeyed slowly. After a few more yards, he became very woozy—ataxic—and collapsed. His eyes rolled back in his head and his gums turned white. He was out and appeared down for the count.

Fortunately for me and Mac, Blake Henderson and Lanette Drewrey were there to assist in a rescue. With unconscious Mac loaded in her truck, Lanette went into Nascar-driving mode and rushed Mac to the vet, who revived him. After some saline drips Mac appeared normal, unfazed. Meanwhile, I recriminated myself repeatedly for being so heedless of the early signs of Mac’s obvious distress.

(As I was driving my truck to the vet, trying unsuccessfully to keep up with Lanette, I wept, certain that I had lost my dog. And it was all on me. I had raised Mac from seven weeks, worked with him through the Gentleman’s Gundog training regimen, and hunted with him through two seasons.)

That day and over the next several weeks vets in Oxford and at Mississippi State University’s college of veterinary medicine completed a full medical workup on Mac, taking x-rays, EKGs, and running batteries of tests on everything. Mac wore a portable heart monitor for twenty-four hours and the reading was sent off to a clinic in New York that specializes in canine cardiology.

Because Mac became ataxic and collapsed without any apparent reason, the vets suspected EIC (exercise-induced-collapse) syndrome. (Ataxia is an inability to coordinate voluntary muscular movements, symptomatic of some central nervous system disorders, not due to muscle weakness [Merriam-Webster]). Therefore, a blood sample was sent to a clinic in the Midwest that specializes in EIC. (For more information on EIC refer to Hoskins’ article, listed below in Works Cited.)

All of the tests reported no sign of any physical or neurological disorder and no indication of EIC whatsoever. Duck-hunting season was upon us. I was very concerned about what to do with Mac. Should I take him hunting or retire him from the field? Reviewing all of the data and various written reports with me, Mac’s vet (himself a hunter and an owner of Labrador retrievers) said, “Considering the thoroughness of these results, if I were you, I’d take the risk. He’ll probably be just fine. And if he drops dead on a hunt, at least he will have died happy.” We both had a good laugh, but as I left the office, I still worried about Mac.

1.2013-01-04 MacScansSky(4.5x6)Eventually, I decided that I would take Mac hunting. On opening day I was a nervous wreck, watching his every move. On his stand while decoys were set out, he looked up into the dark sky and whimpered, a sure sign that ducks were already circling. I tapped him on the head to settle him. And soon the action began. He performed just as he always had, retrieving with enthusiasm throughout a morning with three shooters.

On the truck ride home, I put him in the backseat of the truck, not in his truck-bed box. I wanted to keep a watchful eye on him. After napping on the ride home, he was fine, same playful Mac as he always had been. And he went on happily working throughout duck season. I say “happily” because he perks up every morning when he sees the waders and hunting gear loaded in the truck. Talk about reading body language, I swear he smiles on the ride to the blind, as he peers around the bottom from the ATV. The episode of collapse was a fluke, and a preventable one, had I read Mac’s body carefully.

Portion Control

As most of you have probably experienced with your Lab, they are voracious eaters. A Kane and [Bl.] Molly offspring, Mac stands tall and has a long body. And he is always hungry. If he puts on an extra couple of pounds, it’s not very noticeable on his big frame until he sits, and then the thin part of his hourglass figure thickens a bit. After he was neutered and added a couple more years of age, his metabolism appeared to slow a bit, so I have had to keep an eye on his weight, especially in the off-season.

Dr. Brian Zanghi, a Ph.D. research scientist at the Nestle Research Center, visited Wildrose and gave excellent advice on nutrition when he made a presentation to the staff. Three articles on his nutrition research appear in the Wildrose Blog archives (May, September, and November of 2014) for any readers who wish to review his findings. I found very useful his suggestions on how to determine a dog’s body condition:

Three key things to observe for are

1) the “hourglass” shape of the body when viewed from above, with a narrowing at the abdomen;

2) a tuck in the belly when viewed from the side; and

3) the ability to slightly feel the individual ribs, possibly without being able to see them. Of course the relative thickness of a dog’s coat will affect this observation.” (“Wildrose and Purina Partner on Nutrition,” Wildrose Blog, May 17, 2014).

Reading your dog’s body daily is the key to a keeping him at a proper weight. Food portion control and regular exercise go hand in hand in managing a dog’s weight, just as they are with our bodies. (I just wish I could be as disciplined in food portion control for myself as I am with Mac!!)

Now I’m off to look up some related article topics: What about dogs eating grass and dried earthworms?

Works Cited

Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog. New York: Scribner, 2009.

Hoskins, Johnny D. “Exercise-induced collapse in Labrador Retrievers,”

McClelland, Ben. “Wildrose and Purina Partner on

Nutrition,” Wildrose Blog, May 17, 2014.

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One Response to Dog Dreams, The Main Thing, and Portion Control A Miscellany of Episodes on Reading Your Dog

  1. Bryan Taylor says:

    just a perfect example of a day in the life a dog owner and how we can experience not only incredible highs but unbelievable lows some our doing and others just out of our controll. I’m so glad that this was one of those–whew moments that ended well. Good luck going forward with Mac .

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