We’re Both Kind of a Work in Progress…

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…



Human Shaming

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!

We’re a team in progress

10 comments on “We’re Both Kind of a Work in Progress…
  1. Kim Campbell says:

    Good lord he is a huge adorable monster!! Great picture, looking forward to reading his progress.

  2. admin says:

    LOL, Kim, this was taken over a year ago! He’s still filling out, the crazy thing.

  3. Paula Shimko says:

    Great Post Casey. I will follow your progress with Monte and keep the fingers and paws crossed here. Poor guy I hope the meds help him feel a bit safer in his world.

  4. Tammy B says:

    Casey, Thank you so much for sharing this. To our family, you have been such a blessing, and have literally saved our Bella. Hearing what you have gone through personally, and with your own fur babies just reinforces how genuine you are when you are training us to train our dogs. Luckily both of your St. Bernards found you..someone who would not give up on them and who would do anything and everything to help them live happy lives by whatever method it would take 🙂 Dealing with the medication stuff just makes you that much more knowledgeable. Think of all of the misunderstood dogs that will benefit from it.
    Cuba is a lucky boy, and it sounds like you gave him ample time to overcome some of his issues, NOT that you waited too long.

  5. admin says:

    Hey, Tammy! I will have to introduce you to Cuba sometime, especially now that you are so well-versed in dealing with a spooky dog yourself. I do try to be honest with my clients – hey, my dogs aren’t perfect either and are a continuous work in progress (Mokie is about as close to perfect as a dog can get, but…). I am really learning a lot from him, and some of the techniques we’ve used with Bella are ones that my colleagues have recommended I use with him. I am REALLY lucky to have Dr. B to work with – I find that meds are too often over, under, or inappropriately prescribed. I don’t like meds prescribed in a training vacuum, and Dr. B doesn’t do that. She is a really awesome vet, and I like the new lady Dr. Tripp too!

    Bella has grown leaps and bounds in her training and is coming along beautifully. I am super proud of both of you for your commitment to the process – I know you had seen a few trainers before me and am so thankful that you didn’t give up on her until you found something that worked for your family.

    Also, I want to see Emily’s Halloween costume!

  6. admin says:

    Hi Paula,

    It is really hard to see him walk out the door and immediately start scanning the environment for something to panic about. We’re getting better, and I will definitely keep blogging about our work together. If you’re in town again, I’ll introduce the two of you – he can always use more well-trained human friends!

    If you get the chance, search my blog for his “puppy socialization diaries” to see what we worked on together during critical development periods.

  7. Chelsea says:

    As an owner of a reactive dog who is on fluoxetine, your blog has been a refreshing and reaffirming read. Our Meg came from animal control and it was pretty obvious that she didn’t come from a great situation before that. We started out fostering her, but ended up keeping her after a year of fostering. My husband and I are not dog trainers so we were at a complete loss with how to handle this incredibly sweet little pittie who was so anxious when she saw another dog that she turned into a growling, snarling mess and whose separation anxiety caused her to have a meltdown even when one of us took one of our other dogs outside to do their business.

    We found a great local trainer to work with and even she wasn’t sure we would be able to make much progress with Meg, but she suggested anti-anxiety meds to aid our training. With a pinch collar, fluoxetine, a lot of training and pack walks, our sweet little pittie is able to show everyone her true personality. I think we are getting to the point where we can start lowering her dosage and use of the pinch collar in certain situations. I don’t believe we would ever have been able to get her to this point without the help of medications.

  8. Michelle says:

    I came across your blog through a link on a DINOS post, and am so thankful that you are sharing your journey. I wish more people were accepting of dogs like him, and my girl Kacie, instead of placing blame on the family. Kacie is now on Clomicalm, along with adrenal support, spirit essences, L- theanine, reiki treatments, and our favorite, K9 Nose Work, but I have learned to accept the dog she is and manage her anxiety as much as we can. I was really looking forward to raising a puppy and applying all I’ve learned toward her having a daydream life, and have to deal with so many leading questions like “but, you’ve had her since she was a puppy, right?”. Thanks for your openness, I look forward to reading more.

  9. Trei says:

    Please post more. As a non trainer with two dogs on medication, on of whom is fear reactive, the other a little high strung and anxious, I loved your previous posts. Thanks.

  10. Sue says:

    I have a 2 year old Saint Bernard who came to me at 14 weeks froma less than ideal situation…he has colitis and is extremely reactive in new situations–he is very timid with the unfamiliar even though he HAS been socialized the same way as my other dogs since I got him..he is just DIFFERENT. I work as a vet tech, and have heard from one colleague over and over that I have not socialized my dog properly, or that I have not trained him properly, etc. I just decided top use prozac on him based on a vet recommendation..I am hopeful that the meds will make him more receptive to training and desensitization! I have been made to feel like a “failure” as far as my dog’s socialization, but I look at him as a different guy with different challenges than the avaerage dog! He needs some extra help and if prozac is what it takes, I am more than willing!

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