Yesterday, I came out of the training closet. I have a reactive dog that I raised since puppyhood. I chose the best breeders I can find, and his littermates are behaviorally normal. Cuba is an anomaly in many ways, but he’s my anomaly and damnit, I love him!
At two years old, we’ve trained together a lot. Every single day. His puppy socialization diaries are on the blog. The methods I used are sound – I have friends who train service dogs who have used much the same protocol with great success.
Because I thought I did an excellent job socializing him, I turned to excuses as his reactivity worsened in adolescence. “He will grow out of this.” “This is just a phase.” Somehow, I convinced myself things that I knew to be untrue were true – I know that dogs rarely grow out of, and almost always grow into, behavior problems. Despite the fact that his behavior was unlike any I’d previously encountered in the many dogs I see with behavior problems, my own proximity to the situation (this is a dog that I own and love deeply) prevented me from rational observation of the escalating problem.
While I often see (and help rehabilitate) dogs in my practice with significant behavioral challenges, there are times when I need to refer out to someone with more or different experience. On a couple of occasions, I’ve referred clients to world-renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. Recently, one of these clients returned and reported to me that her dog had been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). As soon as the words left her mouth, something in my brain clicked – that sounds like Cuba!
Research, commence. I did a google search, and the first result returned was from my friend Crystal Thompson, author of one of my very favorite-st blogs, Reactive Champion. Her dog Maisy, a cross between a dog and a muppet, showed remarkably similar symptoms. I contacted Crystal – she confirmed Maisy was diagnosed via a veterinary behaviorist and had received medical treatment (prescription medication) which, in conjunction with appropriate behavior modification, dramatically changed the quality of life she and Maisy shared. Maisy now competes in various dog events and attends seminars. She has a relatively normal dog life. Crystal said that the meds put Maisy in a place more conducive to learning.
MEDS FOR BEHAVIOR PROBLEMS
Behavior medications for dogs (and people!) are often over, under, and inappropriately prescribed. What do I mean by that?
Over-prescribed: Sammy was a purebred Lab, 18 months old. She was crated for nine hours a day when her busy owners were at work. At night, they were busy raising the human children in the family, so Sammy was lucky to get a twenty minute walk a few times a week. Sammy started chewing the carpet when her dogs were home. Her general care vet prescribed valium as treatment for “separation anxiety.” The problem is, separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis, and Sammy manifested none of the signs (a topic for another blog, but there was no mutilation to self or property, absence-induced anorexia, excessive vocalization, inappropriate elimination, etc.). Sammy didn’t have separation anxiety – she was a bored, under-trained, under-exercised, under-stimulated Lab. Labs, believe it or not, love putting their mouth on stuff – it is what they were bred to do. She didn’t need valium, she needed a chance to be an adolescent dog. This truly is a situation where you try to “dope the dog up,” to cure a behavior problem that is not organically based and is, in this trainer’s opinion, unethical.
Under-prescribed: Here’s where my confession comes in – last night at the vet’s office, I got Cuba a prescription for prozac. Starting out with a very low dose, reserving the right to increase as necessary or change strategies. Why? Why not just train him? Because I’ve been doing that. I have trained enough “problem dogs” to have confidence that the techniques I use are effective. Why would an individual dog not respond well in the hands of a well-trained, patient owner who understands the learning process? Because something larger is happening. We’ll get into this much more in subsequent blog entries, so stick with me.
Inappropriately prescribed: vets prescribing behavior meds should never be “one trick ponies.” They should understand both about behavior and about WHICH drugs are appropriate for SPECIFIC TYPES of behavior problems. What works for one dog may not work well for another. Sometimes prozac is the right choice, sometimes valium. Some general care practitioners are knowledgeable enough (many of them work directly with behavior consultants) to know the difference. Not only that, but in this trainer’s personal opinion, a veterinarian who prescribes a medication as a “cure” for a behavior problem is inherently unethical. Why?
BEHAVIOR MEDS ARE LIKE INSULIN
How are behavior meds like insulin?
- Some diabetics may live happy, long, and healthy lives through dietary and lifestyle modification alone. Similarly, some dogs may respond well enough to training without medication that they are able to live happy and reformed lives with their human partners.
- Some don’t – some diabetics need insulin to survive. Giving a diabetic insulin is not “doping her up,” it is correcting a chemical imbalance in her body. Much like diabetics receiving insulin treatment ALSO need to change their lifestyle in terms of diet and activity, behavior meds are never effective in a training vacuum. All the training in the world cannot fix a behavior problem which finds its roots in wonky brain chemistry or hormones. Similarly, medication alone will not fix these issues. Much like our diabetic friends need to change both their life and take medications, training and medication for behavior mod must go hand-in-hand. One without the other is a lot like chili with no cornbread – it misses the point.
- Neither is doping up the treatment-receiver. While I want to write more on this soon, the truth is that many pet owners are afraid of behavior medications changing the fundamental nature of their best canine friends. As a person who has received treatment for mental illness myself, I know this is not true. I have taken a variety of meds in the last 14 years for issues ranging from severe depression to PTSD following my dad’s murder. None of them changed who I was, but they sure did change my ability to cope with a world I could not understand or function well in.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk more about what was covered at Cuba’s vet visit this week and about the stigma related to using meds to help those suffering with mental illnesses. Until then, happy training, and thanks for listening!