In a startling string of confessions, I came out of the trainer’s closet and admitted the well-bred dog I raised from puppyhood has grown into a reactive adolescent. Witch hunt line, form to the left and talk amongst yourselves. Everyone else, join me for a good listen.
I knew my dog wasn’t normal. Why the hell did I wait so long to get him the help he needed? What were some factors that helped me identify the fact that he would likely benefit from medical interventions? One question at a time, please. Today’s question is…
DEAR CASEY: ARE YOU AN IDIOT? WHY DID YOU WAIT SO LONG?
Good question, grasshopper. In fact, there is an imprint in the form of this question on my rear end right now, I’ve kicked it into my own butt so much. I think there are a few reasons, some of which include:
- History – my last Saint Bernard, a rescue, was extremely reactive also. After much debate and discussion, my veterinarian and I decided to try fluoxetine (prozac) with him. It was a game changer in terms of our training progress. However, because I’d chosen to use medical treatment in conjunction with appropriate training for my last Saint, I felt embarrassed to talk to my vet (who is both a friend and trusted colleague) about getting it for Cuba. With Monte, I felt like I had reasons – he was rescued, I didn’t create this problem, etc. I’ve brought three dogs to this vet since she opened her practice. Two of them have required meds for behavior problems. I felt like this made me a crappy trainer, but the fact is, I had two dogs with brains that didn’t work normally. Thank God they found me, and Thank God I was able to relinquish my ego and get them the help they needed.
- Stigma – what you may not know is that I also have mental illnesses for which I’ve received both medical treatment and therapy. The truth is, society at large just doesn’t “get” the mentally ill. From naming sufferers “witches” and burning them at the stake, to isolation, chaining, and beating, historical treatments have been grim. Even today, victims of mental illness are administered electric shock, frequently and severely, because their brains are different than yours. Language also muddies the boundaries, because many will say “I am so depressed” when they’re sad, it’s easy to assume that those of us with clinical depression are just “Debbie Downers” who should pull themselves out of it. My own experience tells me that my mental illnesses have been best treated with a combination of pharmaceutical and interpersonal therapy, administered by mental health and medical professionals. Why would it be different for dogs? It’s not easy to talk about things like depression and anxiety disorder, and can be a bit embarrassing, but it won’t get any better until the dialogue opens. I’m definitely pocketing a blog about dealing with a reactive dog when you are not naturally “calm and assertive” for the future!
- We tend to see meds as a last resort, something to be used only “when all else fails.” Dietary modification, dietary and/or herbal supplements, a variety of holistic treatments (like essential oils, Dog Appeasing Pheremone or DAP, acupuncture, etc.) are all often recommended in conjunction with behavior modification before meds are treated. While I have historically been a fan of this approach, the more I’ve seen dogs benefit from the thoughtful use of behavior modification medications under the guidance and supervision of a qualified medical professional, the more I suspect the delay in issuing these meds may in fact prolong the treatment of those who are suffering – the dogs. While there are certainly good uses for other calmative aids and interventions, I think that sometimes overreliance on these helps prevent dogs from getting timely and much-needed interventions – I am guilty as charged when it comes to doing this with Cuba.
I’ve been out of town attending the Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s annual conference (and Board of Trustees) meeting in Cincinnati. Jim had been continuing with Cuba’s fluoxetine dose while I was out of town. Dr. B started Cuba on a very low dose for a dog his size (20 mg) with the instruction to try at that dose for two weeks and then, if improvement was not seen, consider doubling to 40 mg, still a conservative dose. Last Friday would have been two weeks, but since I was out of town, Jim wanted to wait until I got home and laid eyes on his progress before making dosage adjustments.
So far, Cuba’s appetite has been good and no changes in energy levels have been noted. He does seem to sleep a little heavier, and not be so jumpy about following me around the house as I move from one room or floor to the other. While he is usually very responsive to me in the back yard, he is more responsive to Jim, which is a very good thing. I’ve already noticed some small improvement in his reaction to one of our triggers (fast moving, suddenly appearing tractor trailers) and am noting slight improvements in focus – not sure if this is directly med-related since I have made other changes recently (more exercise and mental stimulation, additional fish oil in the diet, and I’ve switched to twice a day feedings. I know it’s hard to judge the effect of a single variable when you’ve changed multiples, so I think for now I’ll keep him at the 20 mg dose and reassess progress next week. He does seem to be happy about getting breakfast, unsurprisingly.
Also, I just wanted to thank everyone for your amazing feedback on the first posts. Even at APDT Conference, quite a few members came up to me and thanked me for writing the post, having experienced similar things with their own dogs. I’m encouraged that so many of you shared your stories in the comments last time also. Keep them coming – let’s share our successes and help each other through the inevitable valleys in the learning process!