UPDATE November 2011
Since the “What is Early Takeoff Syndrome?” (ETS ) article appeared in Clean Run it has become widely accepted that early takeoffs are indeed due to a vision problem (see note below). Now that there is increased awareness, it is apparent that more than one vision problem may result in early takeoffs and not all dogs have the classic “ETS” presentation (ETS is a specific syndrome in which the dog has a history of normal jumping initially which progressively gets worse; eye exams are all normal; possible genetic factors). Many dogs have early takeoffs from the moment they begin training; some have very late onset of symptoms. Often these dogs will have detectable abnormalities in the eye either on the exam or retinoscopy. These dogs technically don’t have ETS because indeed there is a detectable explanation for the early takeoffs and the history is not consistent with the syndrome. However they certainly do exhibit the early takeoffs when they jump, and thus I’m not sure that it matters what you call it. If a dog demonstrates early takeoffs in his jumping, he most likely has vision problem . One way or the other, I still contend that dogs with early takeoffs should not be bred, whatever the cause. In this update article, the term “ETS” will refer to any dog with early takeoffs and “classic ETS” refers to those with the specific syndrome.
All dogs that demonstrate early takeoffs should have a thorough eye exam and cerf performed by a Board Certified veterinary ophthalmologist. Occasionally a visible lesion of the eye(s) is detectable and possibly treatable. (Note: A cerf exam does not test vision thus a normal cerf does not mean normal vision). It is recommended by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) that retinoscopy also be performed on all dogs that jump with early takeoffs. Retinoscopy can detect selected vision problems that cause early takeoffs. If so, some of these are treatable with contact lenses. There have been numerous “cases” that have improved with contact lenses. Unfortunately, there are STILL many dogs that have early takeoffs that are apparently vision related for which there is no explanation (ie normal eye exam and cerf, plus normal retinoscopy and other tests).
There has been vast improvement in awareness and understanding of ETS since the article was published in Clean Run. Although most veterinarians still don’t realize that ETS exists, many veterinarians, when presented with a dog with poor jumping performance, are now proactively evaluating the dog’s vision. Some are even going the extra mile asking human optometrists for consultations. According to ACVO, only about 10% of veterinary ophthalmologists in the USA are qualified to perform retinoscopy, so it is still difficult for the average owner to get a thorough eye evaluation done on his dog with early takeoffs. Prior to the Clean Run article, many veterinarians would perform a cerf exam and declare it to be “normal”, erroneously leading the owner to believe that the vision was normal and thus not the cause of the early takeoffs. Now the owners are more informed and are asking for more thorough vision testing including retinoscopy.
Thankfully people are realizing this is a vision problem, not a training problem, and that all the jump grids in the world are not going to make it go away. And yes, these problems may also affect dogs in every day life (as noted in the article).
If you have a dog with early takeoffs that was originally found to be “normal” on its eye exam and retinoscopy when early takeoffs first started occurring, I would urge you to have follow up exams once a year to see if this changes over time. It may be that some dogs start to show early takeoffs before changes in the eye are detectable. It may not be possible to help these dogs, but the information may help lead to earlier detection in the future. [This is my personal recommendation at this time.]
Unless the dog has a detectable and treatable cause for his vision problem, there is still no known cure for early takeoffs. The best solution for now is prevention. I do not advise breeding dogs or close relatives that show early takeoffs. There are family lines of dogs that have a noticeably higher incidence of ETS than others. Just with any other health concern, do some research when searching for your next performance prospect. This includes asking for referrals from puppies from previous litters of related dogs (keeping in mind ETS may not be apparent until the puppy is at least 3 yrs or not at all if the puppy does not participate in any endeavor that requires jumping). [This is my personal recommendation at this time.]
(Note: Some dogs stutter step due to pain or lack of confidence and may look similar to an “ETS” dog. However, most of these dogs are adding a stride in an effort to take off closer to the jump, not farther back. But it is still prudent to have a complete exam to rule out physical reasons for any abnormal jumping.