One Shelton puppy whose life was at risk due to a sudden illness was recently crowned as the top dog in a national competition that tested its level of obedience.
Two years ago, Shelton resident and dog lover Leigh Sylvester received terrible news about her then 2-year-old Shiloh Shepherd puppy named Kingston.
After becoming concerned about changes in Kingston’s behavior, Sylvester took him to the vet, where he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis and megaesophagus.
“I gave Kingston a topical flea medication and within 24 hours he was slowly going downhill,” said Sylvester. “He started to look almost as if he was drunk, he started pacing, he began salivating heavily, and then just completely collapsed.”
Myasthenia gravis is a disorder that affects an animal’s signal transmission between the nerves and muscles. It is characterized by muscular weakness and excessive fatigue. Megaesophagus takes place when the normal contraction and relaxation of muscles in the throat which propagate food/liquid down the esophagus no longer occurs. The lack of contraction in the animal’s throat can result in what’s called “regurging,” where whatever was previously ingested will be ejected.
Two years after the diagnosis
Now 4 years old, Kingston has made a remarkable recovery from once being able to barely use his back legs to now rising to the top of a competition that features a dog-like version of parkour or intense obstacle courses.
Sylvester explained that Kingston’s journey to recovery has been anything but quick or easy.
“He was up, he was down, he was healthy, then he wasn’t healthy,” said Sylvester. “He had aspiration pneumonia three times and then once we got the meds right and he became stronger, it became easier to manage, but I remain conscious that any day his health could change.”
Aspiration pneumonia is a lung infection that is developed after the ingestion of food, liquid or vomit into the lungs, according to medlineplus.gov.
“My first thought was, ‘Is he going to make it?’ I kept thinking about whether I was going to have to make the decision to let my dog go out of his best interest or see it through. The second thought I had was to pray that he would take to the meds.”
Sylvester said she vividly remembers the day she took Kingston to the Veterinary Referral and Emergency Center in Shelton before he was diagnosed.
“He went into VCA with a 105 fever weighing 126 pounds,” said Sylvester. “He was released five days later, having lost 33 pounds and unable to really use his back legs or stand on his own. He couldn’t even hold water down without regurgitating as a result of the would-be megaesophagus, said Sylvester. “It was terrible to see my dog in that condition.”
Living with both diseases has been tough not only for Kingston but for Sylvester as well. Kingston has been stable for a little over a year, but Sylvester said she monitors his health very closely, as it can change at any time.
“Everything he eats or drinks has to come from pretty much a vertical angle; he’s on medication because every now and then he will show signs of an acid reflux. Thankfully, he hasn’t regurgitated in almost 10 months, knock on wood,” she said.
From a death bed to the winner’s circle
Once Sylvester had committed to helping Kingston regain his health, she knew she had to help him gain his strength back by working not only hard but, more importantly, smart.
She said that, surprisingly, Facebook played a big part in Kingston’s recovery. Apparently, Sylvester would frequently check in and bounce questions off veterinary technicians and doctors who were part of a Facebook group she stumbled upon. She said she was constantly receiving moral support and information from people who have dogs with the same disease.
For four and a half months after his diagnosis, when Kingston needed to go outside Sylvester would put his back legs in a sling and walk with him. After that long period of struggling, she decided that in order to help Kingston become stronger they would begin to train his legs again.
She did this by gradually creating courses that required Kingston to maneuver through them by using more and more of his leg strength.
“I thought it was a great, fun way to help him get stronger,” said Sylvester.
In February 2016, after months of training, Kingston and Sylvester entered the World Cynosport Rally League competition, which features obstacle courses similar to those used in Kingston’s rehab to determine a dog’s level of obedience.
The yearlong competition consists of weekly smaller events in which scores are gathered by a dog’s performance on various courses. Sylvester said the duo competed in nearly 15 of the competitions in 2016, and each one consisted of four to six “trials.”
Sylvester said each rally trial consists of three levels. The first requires that the dog be on a leash, while the last two are off-leash challenges that gradually increase in difficulty.
According to Sylvester, each course consists of about 18 to 20 different signs that require an increasing level in obedience.
“Sometimes he’ll compete in 12 trials in a weekend and the last one can have two or three jumps, so making sure he’s mentally and physically strong enough and has enough stamina is key,” said Leigh. “The harder levels get, the more they incorporate distance, jumps, obstacles, some covered food bowls.”
Entering this competition with a pup who was very sick not too long before was difficult for the duo and required much dedication, according to Sylvester. Each day of training would begin at 5:45 a.m. and start with Kingston working on some attention games.
Sylvester said she’s found success in doing more short training sessions versus fewer long sessions in a day.
“Four short sessions are what we typically aim for in a day of training. We’ve just found that it works better than two 30- or 45-minute sessions in a day,” said Sylvester. “We work on healing or staying, platforms or jump activities, and then distance training, too.”
On Wednesdays and Thursdays Kingston goes to work with Sylvester at her job, Paws and Effects K-9 training center in Hamden, where she uses him as a demo dog and gets a chance to practice there.
“I want him to understand that what we do is fun and he’s what’s important. Not all ribbons or awards, it’s about our relationship,” said Sylvester. “I hadn’t been aware of how important stress management is to dogs, and engagement with your dog is. I can always ask Kingston to work, but I’d much rather he ask me to work, and when I learned that, it was a huge turnaround.”
But Sylvester also said that Kingston had been looked at as an “underdog” even before he became sick.
“Kingston is not an American Kennel Club breed, so often at competitions, people will look down on him,” she said.
When Kingston was just a puppy, Sylvester said, a woman made a comment to her alluding that he would never be able to compete successfully.
“She said that if I wanted to be successful in obedience not to get a Shiloh Shepherd but to get a Border Collie or an Aussie. I’ll never forget her telling me, ‘I hope you’re not disappointed when you’re unsuccessful in obedience. I wish I could track her down now.”
Little did that woman know that Kingston would be crowned the No. 1 Award of Rally Champion level dog in the United States for 2016 in February of this year.
Sylvester said when she received the news she was at work, so she tried to maintain her composure, but she immediately began crying when she got into her car.
“I was just overwhelmed thinking about all of our hard work and how Kingston couldn’t even walk and there were times that I didn’t know if he would live through the night. Then I think about all of the research I did and all of the nights I stayed up. I still get teary-eyed when I talk about it. I’m so proud.”
The duo’s goal is to continue their success in 2017. Kingston is one title away from being highest titled Shiloh Shepherd ever.
Champions have fun, too.
When he’s not training or helping Sylvester with demonstrations at work, Kingston loves to take hikes, dig up the yard, and curl up on their couch.
“We used to love to run, but now we hike instead to protect him from effects of megaesophagus,” said Sylvester.