Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Choosing To Use Medications For Fearful Dogs

Does My Dog Need Prozac? is the title of the second book I am working on. It is a collection of posts culled from the early years of this blog. The answer to the book’s title, in the case of my dog Sunny, is yes, yes my dog does need Prozac or in his case another anti-depressant and anxiolytic administered twice a day. Coming to the decision to give him meds was not made quickly or recklessly. I regret that I didn’t make the decision to use them sooner. Here are some things to consider as you make decisions for your dog’s mental health.

Quality Of Life

Most of us are fortunate in that we have rarely, if ever, experienced the amount or level of distress many of our dogs are living with 24/7 or 14/6 or 8/3. How many hours and how many days a week is ok with you for a dog to experience fear or anxiety? How many do you think is ok with them? A dog who is routinely frightened by things is not only experiencing that fear, they are living with the anticipation of it occurring again, and again.

What limitations does a dog’s fearfulness put on their life. A dog who has to leave the room when the vacuum comes out is probably not missing out on the finer things of life, but what about a dog who can’t walk down the sidewalk, or get into a car, or greet another dog happily? What about a dog who startles when a piece of paper falls off a desk, scurries out of the kitchen when the stove opens or the microwave chimes? How about a dog who has to leave the room when your husband or teenage son walks in, or sees a shadow on the wall? That we may not know what it feels like to be that scared does not negate or lessen what they are going through. Nor does it lessen the negative impact chronic stress has on a dog’s health.

Seek Out Professional Help

Talk to a veterinarian or a veterinarian behaviorist and follow the protocols outlined for the dosage and timing of any medications you give your dog. Be aware of possible side-effects and how they are commonly addressed. Some side-effects are expected and go away as a dog’s body and brain adjust to the medications, others may indicate the need to change quantity or the type of med being used. Let your vet know you may be contacting them as you start using medications. Don’t rely on a blogger, or your cousin who makes herbal lip balm, or a dog trainer who took a massage class, to give you advice about what is best for your dog.

Medications Don’t Fix Fearfulness

Don’t expect a dog who is afraid of strangers to stop being afraid of strangers just because they are on drugs. What you can expect to see are changes, often quite subtle, in their behavior. A dog may be willing to come into a room they never entered before, sniff something they previously avoided. Be prepared to reinforce these behaviors, and make sure you aren’t punishing the dog by overwhelming them when they do display a willingness to engage with something.

Keep Track

Make notes about your dog’s behavior. Look for patterns and trends. Have they done something 2 or 3 times they never did before? Was it something you liked or something you didn’t?

Small World

People often describe negative behaviors they observed in their dog which they blame on the medications, and stop using them or recommend that others don’t use them. Medications change brains. We can’t know how they make a dog feel or how they change a dog’s perception of the world, or their tolerance for stress as they begin to experience the effects of the meds. Rather than trying to test the effectiveness of a drug make your dog’s world smaller for several weeks while their bodies and brains adjust to the medications. Don’t put them into situations in which a decrease of inhibition can get them into trouble.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Forever

Trying medications for several months and discovering that they are helping is better than not trying them and not knowing if you are doing everything you can for your dog. In some cases the improvements while on medications are significant enough that the dog no longer needs them. For other dogs, not being on medication decreases their quality of life.

It’s In Our Hands

It’s up to us to educate ourselves about the use of behavioral medications for dogs suffering with fear, phobias and anxiety. We are the ones who are responsible for creating a life worth living for our dogs.


Project Home Life

2 golden retrievers running

Photo by DVGRR

I love this. Flat out love it. At the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue in Pennsylvania adult survivors of puppy mills are provided with skills to make the transition to being pets. Not only does DVGRR accept mill survivors they actively seek them out and make relinquishing these dogs easy. Their no questions asked acceptance policy means that more dogs will find their way to them for help.

It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to have spent every day or your 5 or 6 years of life in a cage. Understanding the challenge of leaving that cage and being confronted with the stimulation of the world outside the mill is important for handlers. As well-meaning as many of the people involved in rescue and foster care might be, the implications of early deprivation are often not fully appreciated or acknowledged. In the rush to give a dog new life dogs are frequently overwhelmed and frightened.

Project Home Life provides mill survivors with the opportunity to learn about houses and the things in them. Several times during the day trainers and volunteers bring dogs into an apartment set up specifically for this purpose. Common household sounds can be scary to dog who has never heard them. A refrigerator door opening can be startling, as can chairs moving, doorbells ringing, and footsteps on stairwells. Assuming that a dog will somehow get used to these and the myriad other new objects and events they will be exposed to, is naive. Pet owners or foster care givers, as committed as they might be to a dog, may not have the skills for effectively desensitizing and counter conditioning to home life and the complete immersion may be too much for a dog regardless of their handler’s skills. Some dogs will adapt but many others will spend their first days or months cowering in a back room. Project Home Life minimizes the likelihood of the latter occurring.

I wish I had known about this program when Sunny first came to live with us. I might have been more sensitive to his needs and his early life with us might have been easier. Even if you are unable to recreate Project Home Life exactly, given your access to resources, understanding why this step is important may help you create new protocols for special needs dogs.



Take Me To Your Provider Of Consequences

Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.

Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dog

This toddler doesn’t need to know anything about being a pack leader in order to get these dogs to behave in certain ways

Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.

A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.

Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.

The Recipe for Red Zone Dogs

Don’t Touch my CookieThe term ‘red zone’ dog has come into vogue to describe aggressive dogs. There is the connotation that these dogs are different in some fundamental way from other dogs. The term is often used to justify the use of severe punishment in order to train them. It’s as though, unlike every other dog on the planet, they are only able to learn if punishment is used.

Creating ‘red zone’ dogs is a fairly straight forward process. Take a dog, preferably one who is fearful, and force them to deal with things that upset them. Add one or more humans who are either arrogant, uneducated, ignorant, mentally ill, or some combination of the aforementioned. Do not allow the dog the freedom to get away, and maintain constant pressure on them in the form of punishment or threats of it. Any resistance on the dog’s part should be addressed with physical punishment, almost anything will do, a collar yank, a slap, kick or alpha roll. Yelling at the dog can suffice in some cases. The goal is to remind the dog that they are completely out of control of what happens to them, and that humans will make sure it stays that way.

The domestication process gave us dogs who are not likely to behave aggressively toward humans. Unfortunately some glitch has created people who are all too willing to behave aggressively toward dogs. And like a self-fulfilling prophesy, create the problem that allows them the excuse to continue to do so.

Get Back Here You Brat

One of the most cited reasons for the use of a shock collar is to get reliable recalls from a dog. It can be very challenging to come up with an alternative for a dog which is as, or more reinforcing, than doing whatever it is the dog is choosing to do rather than return when called. So people quickly choose to use other options for changing behavior and those are using punishment or negative reinforcement. If you’re not a trainer, don’t worry about all the training lingo. It’s helpful to understand it, but I think it’s enough to keep in mind that dogs will repeat behaviors they are rewarded for and will get better at behaviors they repeat.

Nibbles came to live with us just over a year ago. He spent a few months too afraid for us handle him. He’s over that now and is one of the most affectionate and engaging dogs in the house. But Nibs like to chase things. He likes to chase things he can see and things he can only smell the track they have left behind. When we went for our daily walk in the woods as soon as I unclipped the leash it was his cue to bolt. His body vibrated in anticipation of being able to run off and my calling him seemed to mean nothing.

On our walks it’s not that big of an issue. I like my dogs to have the opportunity to run in the woods and most of the time they either stick with me, or check in regularly. But Nibs also likes to chase joggers and bikers going by in front of our house. I knew that if I was going to stand a chance of getting him to come when I called him when he had a bike to chase, I’d need to get him to come to me when there wasn’t. He knows what to do when I say come and wait. He can perform both when there’s nothing else of interest around. I know that before we decide to use punishment with a dog we need to be sure that the dog knows and can perform the behavior we are asking of them*. I worked on ways to make it more likely that Nibbles would come when I called him at the start of our walks, where he was more likely not to come when called.

I used two leashes so that the sound and feel of a leash being unclipped ceased to be the cue for being able to race off. Haha Nibs, that’s when my bigger brain comes in handy! Well, except for the time I dropped the second leash and he took off dragging it along with him. That’s what fast reflexes will get a dog. I started going for walks before breakfast and using super good food treats along the way. When Nibbles didn’t come when I called him I took all the dogs and turned around and walked away from him. Running in the woods is fun and all, but it’s better with company. As a matter of course I give dogs treats when leashes come off. This keeps them sticking around for that, though in Nib’s case was not enough to counter the allure of the possibilities awaiting in the woods.

Here’s a video of where we are with his recall now.

Once I packed the camera up we joined Nibs and Sunny on the trail. They were running back down the trail to find us.

*When you are working with a dog with fear based behavior challenges you MUST factor in that a dog is not coming to you because they are afraid to do so. Don’t even consider punishing a dog for this.

Freedom To Try

Dogs who come from puppy mills or who have lived on chains or confined with limited opportunity to interact with a varied environment, are lacking in many skills. I’m not sure if ‘trying’ is considered a skill or not, but it’s not unusual for a dog who suffered deprivation in their early life, to ‘give up’ easily. When faced with a challenge, a partially closed door, a ball under a chair, a treat out of reach, instead of trying to remedy the situation, they do nothing. In some cases they may be afraid of what happens when they try, the chair moves, startling them. Or they don’t appear to be inclined to try at all.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that a dog is stupid when they behave this way, and it’s not a fair assessment of them or their potential. We need to be prepared to provide the dog with numerous opportunities to learn to be successful when faced with a challenge. When we talk about building a dog’s confidence, this is how we can do it. You can help by making sure that the solutions to problems are simple.

Instead of giving a dog a frozen stuffed food dispensing toy like a Kong, put a few bits of meat into it and spread some canned food on the rim. Make it easy for them to get a taste of the food and then let them discover how by manipulating the toy more food can be had. Hide toys and treats in easy to locate, accessible, places where they feel safe. Put food under towels or pieces of paper or cardboard if their range is limited.

Following is a video you may be see circulating on the web. It’s not just a cute puppy playing with a stick, though it is that. It’s a sophisticated animal trying to solve a problem and through her efforts, discovers a solution. Even if Maddie never tries to bring a big stick through the door again she has learned an important lesson- her behavior matters and sometimes it pays not to give up. Maybe it’s a good lesson for the rest of us as well.