The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.
- Colleen Pelar
The question is not whether the dog will bite, but whether the dog and person are both enjoying the interaction.
- Colleen Pelar
I’ve written about medicating anxious dogs before, and it’s such an important topic that I want to touch on it again. There are so many misconceptions surrounding this subject.The idea that anxiety medication should only be used after everything else has been tried is so sad and harmful, and is a myth I encounter on a regular basis. Let’s clear up some of the fog surrounding this common misconception.
Before we get any further, please remember that I am not a veterinarian and I don’t play one on the internet. The information contained in this blog is not meant to diagnose or prescribe, and is only provided for your information. I’m drawing from my experience as a certified veterinary technician, canine behavior consultant, and the owner of an anxious dog to educate you, but your best resource is always going to be a licensed veterinarian.
So, let’s start with what we know. Advances in neuroscience and imaging technology have shown us that anxious or depressed people and animals often display significant physical changes to certain areas of their brain, such as the prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and executing activities) and hippocampus (responsible for memory). We know that fear and anxiety are processed in the same part of the brain as physical pain, and that emotional pain actually shares some of the same neural pathways with physical pain. That’s why we talk about profound grief or panic “hurting” – it physically impacts our bodies.
This is huge. We know that panic and worry “hurt.” Why the hell would you not treat this pain? If your dog were bleeding every day, wouldn’t you treat the wound? Would you wait to splint a broken bone because you wanted to “try everything else first”? Would you wait to give a dog pain meds after surgery until you saw that he “really needed it”? The truth is that these medications can provide very real relief for dogs who need them, and doing so can be the greatest kindness you can offer to a dog who’s hurting in a very real way.
Q: But aren’t anxiety medications dangerous?
A: Yes, sometimes. Any meds can have dangerous side effects. However, I think we need to be very honest about the risk here. Anxiety medications can have negative effects, but so can pain medication, herbal supplements, heartworm preventative, flea and tick medications, and the diet you choose to feed your dog. Furthermore, if you are considering anxiety medication for your dog, you have to take into consideration the impact of prolonged, excessive levels of stress hormones on your dog’s body. I can guarantee that if your dog’s issues are such that you’re considering anxiety medication for your dog, your dog is already experiencing physical problems from their anxiety. In many cases, elevated stress hormones could be more harmful to your dog long-term than anxiety medication. This is a case where doing nothing is not necessarily any safer than trying medication for your dog.
Q: I’d prefer to stick to natural remedies…
A: Let’s settle this once and for all: natural does not mean safe. I see a lot of dogs who are on multiple herbs, oils, and other “natural” remedies with no concern for their safety ramifications. We have very little knowledge about toxicity, possible drug interactions (either additive or counteractive), side effects, or species-appropriateness for most of these remedies, and frankly, there is very little oversight regarding their safety for us, much less for non-human animals. Most modern medications have roots in herbal or other natural remedies. While the digitalis from a foxglove plant may be very helpful when used therapeutically for a patient with congestive heart failure, it can be deadly to a small child or dog. Arsenic and cyanide are “natural” compounds as well – that doesn’t make them safe. While melatonin, 5-HTP, or valerian root may help some dogs, the truth is that we don’t know that they’re any safer than a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor or Tri-Cyclic Antidepressant, and any compound can cause issues.
Q: But, can’t training solve this problem?
A: Probably. I want to be very clear: medication alone will not solve most behavioral issues. However, repeated studies have shown that combining medication and training results in the fastest progress, and I would argue that this fact in and of itself is a good reason to consider medication for fearful, anxious, and aggressive dogs. There’s an underlying humane issue here. Medication can improve your dog’s quality of life while training is taking place and can make that training work more quickly and effectively. Just as using appropriate pain medication can decrease the amount of time it takes animals to heal after surgery, anxiety medication promotes emotional healing. This is a pretty big deal.
Q: Does my dog need to stay on meds forever?
A: Maybe, and maybe not. By far the majority of the dogs I work with are on anxiety medication for a short period of time. The medication helps to cut through the static of anxiety so that the dog is in a better place to learn. Once the dog is no longer fearful, anxious, or aggressive in the formerly triggering context, they are weaned off the medication and go on with their lives, happier and more balanced. That said, some dogs have a true neurochemical imbalance that needs to be treated. Just as a dog with hypothyroidism needs to be given thyroid supplementation, these dogs oftentimes need chemical help to regulate and maintain the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, or other neurochemicals in their brain. For these dogs, anxiety medication may be a lifelong need.
Look, I’m not saying that every anxious dog needs medication. I’m not even saying that it should always be the first thing that we reach for or consider. However, it also shouldn’t be the last. After we’ve looked at environment and put together a training plan, we owe it to our best friends to be very honest about their current quality of life. If your dog is suffering, medication could give him some very real and very quick relief. Personally, I don’t want my dogs to be in pain, and I think we need to be aware that it is okay to consider medication as part of a balanced plan right from the start. It should not be the only thing that changes – medication is not a magic potion that will fix all of your dog’s ills. But it can be one important ingredient in your dog’s customized plan, right alongside management and training.
How do you feel about the use of anxiety medication as part of a behavioral plan to improve a dog’s quality of life? Have you ever used medication for a dog, or are you considering it for your current dog? Please share your questions, stories, and experiences in the comments section below!
I want you to imagine that you’re hanging out in your front yard on a pleasant summer day. It’s a lovely day, and you’re feeling pretty content as you lounge on your lawn, relaxing. You notice your neighbor approaching, and as they walk towards your house you smile and get up to greet them, extending your hand to shake theirs. Just as you’re about to meet one another, you’re interrupted by a sharp pinch, like a bee or wasp stinging you. The sensation is unpleasant, and your thoughts of a pleasant interaction with your neighbor are derailed by the mild pain you’re experiencing. Your neighbor continues on their way, and you go back to relaxing.
A few minutes later, a friend walks by your house, and when you attempt to say hello to them the same thing happens. As you move towards them, a sharp sting interrupts you. Over the course of the day, this happens each time you attempt to greet someone.
How would you feel? If I walk by your home at the end of the day, are you likely to act very social towards me?
Even worse, how would you feel if this kept happening all week, month, or year? What would you do if you got stung every time someone approached your property? Would you start warning them away? Avoid them? What emotions would you experience when a stranger approached you in your yard? I know that, personally, I really hate being stung. I would dread visitors, and would feel anxious about what was going to happen when people approached me, even if I didn’t always get stung.
Sadly, this exact situation happens to many dogs every day. I work with dogs who have been living this nightmare every week, and get calls from families of dogs who have been dealing with this on a regular basis.
I’m talking, of course, about dogs who are confined using an Invisible Fence or other electronic containment system. While these systems can provide the benefit of more freedom and a sightline unspoiled by physical fences, they aren’t without risks. Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t think every dog who uses an electronic containment system will demonstrate behavior problems. However, as someone who frequently deals with the fallout when these fences do cause issues, I think we need to be thoughtful about their use. I will not personally ever use an electronic fence for any of my dogs, and strongly encourage my clients not to use them either. Much like getting surgery in a third world country, electronic fences may save you some money – but they’re also much riskier than other options.
So, what can go wrong? Here are the most common issues caused by electronic fences, in order of the frequency with which my clients report them:
If you do plan to use an invisible fence, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk. First of all, if your dog already shows fearful or aggressive behavior in any context, know that these behaviors may be exacerbated by the use of an invisible fence and seriously rethink your plan. Avoid using any sort of electronic containment for young dogs (under three years of age), and have the system introduced to your pet by a professional. Don’t cheap out on the system, either: the last thing you want is a faulty product malfunctioning and burning a hole in your dog’s neck (it’s happened) or shocking your dog every time you pull your car into the driveway over the wire (yes, it’s happened). Finally, if you start to see any of the behaviors detailed above, discontinue use of the fence and call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer immediately. The sooner you contact us, the better the chance that we can reverse or at least minimize the harm.
Sadly, cases caused by electronic containment systems continue to make up a sizeable chunk of my business. While I’m grateful for the income (hey, dog trainers have to eat too, and this isn’t exactly a lucrative profession!), it makes me incredibly sad when people and their dogs have to live with the fallout caused by these tools. It’s absolutely possible for dogs to live their whole lives with these fences and never experience a problem. However, the risk is there, and the use of these containment systems is significantly riskier than simply toileting your dog on leash or putting up a physical fence. Furthermore, it’s impossible to predict how any dog will react to electronic confinement. Your dog may be fine… but do you really want to bet his well-being on it?
[Edited to add: Great minds think alike, and when I saw this wonderful post on Notes from a Dog Walker that was eerily similar to this piece, I almost decided to pull this post lest people think I was copying it (I promise I wasn't, as I write most of the posts you see here several weeks before they actually show up on the blog). If you're still on the fence (ha!) about electronic containment systems, please go read her post as well. Experts agree: electronic containment is oftentimes bad news.]
We’ve discussed what reactivity is and how to manage your reactive dog. Now let’s get to the meat of the problem: what can be accomplished with training? Quite a bit, actually! Consider Layla, who used to lunge and bark at dogs, people, bikes, and even lawn ornaments. She recently earned her ARCHX title in rally obedience, which required her to walk past many unfamiliar dogs and people in a crowded, charged environment, then work off-leash and sometimes at a distance from me with focus and precision. She was able to ignore barking dogs, chattering people, and the judge following us around with a clipboard. Outside of obedience, Layla also works as a neutral dog for shelter dog evaluations and Growl classes.
This transformation didn’t take place overnight, and it required diligent training and management. However, the rewards of watching my formerly anxious and reactive dog handle situations that previously sent her into a frenzy with confidence and aplomb are well worth all the work. Learning to communicate with one another has deepened our relationship and turned our training from a dictatorship to a partnership.
Every reactive dog is different, but the general principles of working with a reactive dog are very similar. Here are some of the key aspects to keep in mind as you work with your dog:
1) Work with a professional. Okay, this may seem a little self-serving coming from a trainer who spends the majority of my time working with reactivity. But in all seriousness, you need to find a kind and experienced trainer who can either work with you in person or remotely (many trainers now offer Skype appointments or telephone consults). Not only will you benefit from having an extra pair of eyes devoted to your training, but working with someone who is not emotionally involved will keep you and your dog on track.
Still not convinced? Consider this: when one of my dogs started to display reactive behaviors, I hired another trainer to work with us even though this is my career. I could reel off the steps to solving a reactive behavior problem such as my dog was experiencing in my sleep, but I knew I was too close to the problem to be objective.
2) Manage stress carefully. Whether your dog becomes anxious or experiences “good stress” from over-the-top joy, stress hormones are hard on the body and may impact your dog’s ability to learn. If you know that chronic stress is influencing your dog’s behavior, consider taking a cortisol vacation.
3) Learn a new language. Dogs have a complex, nuanced vocabulary, but they don’t use verbal language like us. The more we can learn about what their body language is saying, the less frustrated they’ll be and the easier it will become to prevent reactions. Do you know what a wagging tail, lip lick, or turn away mean?
4) Teach impulse control. Most reactive dogs have a very difficult time controlling themselves. Teaching your dog to control himself (as opposed to you physically controlling him) will give him the tools to turn his own emotional thermostat down if he starts running too hot. Games such as “it’s your choice,” off-switch games, doggy zen, and leave it are wonderful ways to increase your dog’s self control.
5) Make relaxation rewarding. Mat work, the Protocol for Relaxation, and bodywork (such as TTouch and other massage) are great for reactive dogs. Think of them as canine biofeedback. Many reactive dogs have a hard time relaxing, so help your dog learn to let go.
6) Change the association. In many cases, reactive dogs have been corrected or punished in some way for their behavior. Even if you haven’t ever scolded your dog for reactivity, this step never hurts. Changing the association deals with emotions by pairing pleasant things with the appearance of the trigger. Done correctly, this quickly results in a dog who turns and looks expectantly and happily at his handler upon spying the person or thing that used to provoke a reactive outburst. The Watch the World game is a great place to start with this.
7) Finally, teach your dog what to do instead. Nature abhors a vacuum. If you don’t want your dog to react like he used to, make sure you teach him some alternate behaviors that he can use in those situations. Whether you use hand targeting, a Whiplash Turn, the Look at That game, Emergency U-Turns, or attentive heeling, having an easy behavior or two that your dog can perform to earn a reward can make the difference between success or failure in a tough situation.
If you live in Minnesota, consider contacting us for private training or signing up for an Agility Unleashed, Focus & Control, or Growl class to address your dog’s reactive behavior. Too far away to work with us? Look for a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area.
If you’ve worked with a reactive dog, which of these principles did you find the most helpful? Is there anything you think I’ve missed? Please share your experiences in the comments below!
While I’ve been active in the shelter and rescue community for over 13 years, I rarely write about this topic. This is quite intentional. Dog rescue is an emotional and controversial topic, and it’s appallingly easy to offend or upset people, which is the last thing I want to do.
There’s been a frightening upsurge in the amount of serious behavior consults I’ve done for recently adopted dogs in the past year. More alarming still, the majority of these cases can be traced to a scant handful of rescues and shelters in Minnesota. What’s going wrong?
Well, something’s definitely breaking down in each of these cases. In spite of the public perceptions that dogs from rescues and shelters are somehow “damaged” or inferior, the vast majority of homeless dogs have simply been unlucky. They’re wonderful dogs just waiting for a chance to shine. They may be victims of foreclosure, divorce, financial hardship, or other life changes. Their owners may have been young or not realized how much work a dog was. Most of the dogs in shelters and rescues have been loved by someone at some point. The idea of an “abused” and broken dog may make for a great story, but is rarely the case.
However, there are cases where something has indeed gone wrong. Perhaps the dog has a genetic predisposition to be reserved and quick to bite, or perhaps he learned early on that snapping was an effective way to convince people not to mess with him. Perhaps past trauma has shaped the dog’s worldview, or more likely a simple lack of any sort of socialization has narrowed that worldview so much that anything new is terrifying. Perhaps mismanagement by a previous owner resulted in the dog biting another person or maybe even injuring or killing a dog, cat, or other animal. Whatever has gone wrong, something has broken down.
Whatever has gone wrong, it’s important to remember that it’s not the dog’s fault. But it’s equally important to remember that placing unsafe dogs is unethical. This is one of the main things that separates responsible rescues and shelters from well-intentioned but irresponsible organizations.
So where are these irresponsible organizations going wrong? None of them are evaluating their dogs. A formal behavior evaluation allows organizations to make more responsible placement decisions, resulting in better matches between dogs and adopters and increased pet retention. This is good for dogs and good for adopters, not to mention how good it is for the shelter or rescue’s PR and bottom line. A couple of the irresponsible organizations are pulling dogs from out of state shelters, transporting them to our area, getting them vet care, and adopting them out without ever getting to know them. Yikes!
Adopting out unsafe dogs feels good as a rescuer. Every adoption feels like a success, and when that dog-, child-, cat-, and male-aggressive Lab mix finally finds a home after a year everyone pats themselves on the back for not giving up on him. He made it! Now he has a family who loves him!
Unfortunately, most rescuers’ involvement in the dog’s life ends there. They don’t see the new owners struggling to live with and love their new pet. They don’t see them crying when the dog bites the neighbor boy in the face or kills their cat. They don’t realize the financial and emotional burden they have placed on these well-meaning people who wanted to adopt a needy animal, not a project. Most of the time, my clients are too embarrassed or upset to contact the shelter or rescue that their dog came from after an incident, in spite of my recommendation that they do so.
There’s a ripple effect that happens after an unsafe animal is placed, and its toxic influence is part of the reason why we still have a homeless dog problem in shelters and rescues. There are enough homes looking for dogs to solve the shelter dog issue today. In fact, if these people all adopted, we wouldn’t have enough dogs in shelters and rescues to meet the need. These homes just aren’t going to shelters and rescues.
They’re not going to shelters or rescues to get their next pet because they’ve seen their friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor struggle with an irresponsibly placed rescue dog. Or maybe they were the ones struggling. Regardless, they’ve seen the potential problems with rescuing a dog, and they’re not having any of it. Instead, they order a puppy online or go to a breeder they found in the newspaper, never realizing that there are responsible and irresponsible breeders just as there are responsible and irresponsible rescues. Every irresponsibly-placed dog drives people away. Lots of people. And all those wonderful dogs that those nice people would have adopted if they’d seen how well adoption worked for others they know? They sit in our shelters and foster homes longer, because their potential adopters took their business elsewhere. Backyard breeders and puppy mills love irresponsible rescues.
Part of the problem with the rescue world is that there are no easy answers. We’re dealing with intelligent animals who feel pain, fear, joy, and love. We’re dealing with relationships between two different social species, each with its own expectations and needs. Things get messy.
That said, one of the best ways to reach for an answer is to talk about the problem, openly and respectfully. Create a dialogue.
Is there more that shelters or rescues should be doing to make sure that they place safe animals, or does the responsibility fall on the adopter to make an informed decision? Have you ever adopted a dog with “issues?” Would you do so again? What’s the best way to tackle the issues discussed here? Please comment below with your thoughts!
Layla was two years old when she was attacked. The other dog, owned by a friend of mine, was safely muzzled but was an impressive 60 pounds larger than little Layla. We were attempting to introduce Layla, who had wonderful social skills, to my friend’s dog, and the introduction went sour. Layla rolled over, exposing her belly, and the other dog muzzle-punched her on her abdomen. Had she not been muzzled, I hesitate to think of what could have happened. Layla screamed, likely a combination of pain and fear, and ran away, triggering the other dog to chase her. We were unable to catch either dog for what felt like forever, but was probably less than a minute.
After the attack, I took Layla home. She crawled under the covers of my bed and trembled. Her abdomen and the insides of her thighs were bruised and sore. After that day, she became very reactive towards other dogs, lunging and barking from even very great distances. She was especially reactive around large dogs and dogs that resembled my friend’s dog.
And I blamed myself.
Every week, I work with clients who are trying to help their reactive dogs. Each one of them has a unique story. There has been some past trauma, or there hasn’t. They know what precipitated the reactivity, or their dog has always been like this, or the issue developed so gradually over time that they didn’t realize what was happening at first. They failed to protect their dog, or someone else failed to protect their dog, or they didn’t know enough to prevent this issue. They didn’t understand how to choose a breeder or a rescue. They didn’t realize that their zoomy dog was actually stressed. They didn’t realize that their anxious dog needed medication to address a real physical problem.
Every story is different, but through each of them runs a unique thread: “this is my fault.” In each case, these owners feel guilty that they didn’t do more or know more or take a different action. In each case, they wonder whether things would be different, if only…
And they blame themselves.
There’s a quote that I have hanging up on my work station by Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I think it is absolutely normal for us to feel guilty about what has happened. Remember that guilt comes from a place of compassion: we love our dog and want the best for them. It’s also okay to let it go. We do the best we can in the moment, and as we learn, we do better.
Our imperfections are part of what make us special, and sometimes scars (whether real or emotional) are simply another way to show the world that we survived adversity. I feel guilty that I didn’t protect Layla that evening when she was attacked. But that incident was one of the many forks in the road that led us on an amazing journey we have taken together.
Had Layla not become reactive, she may not ever have had the chance to teach me how to listen to a dog. The lessons of connection, empathy, respect, humility, and compassion that come from working through these issues were painful and hard-won, but they have since served me in helping hundreds of other dogs and their owners who were just starting down the same path.
Layla had to learn too: she had to learn to trust me, to communicate her needs in a way I could understand, and to control her own impulses and emotions. I can’t ask her (and don’t want to anthropomorphize), but I’m pretty sure she found the journey every bit as rocky and frustrating as I did.
We all wish that we could do better by our dogs. I doubt they wish that they could do better by us. They may wish that we would walk just a little longer, or share our sandwich crust, or back off when they lick their lips and turn away. But their wants and needs are in the moment. We could do well to emulate that.
Do the best you can with your dog. Give him or her the happiest life you can with the tools you have. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and be as kind as possible. But when you’re tired and frustrated, give yourself the benefit of the doubt too. It’s okay to be imperfect. Enjoy your unique journey together, and let the scars of your mistakes become a roadmap to the paths you’ll explore with one another.
Whale eye refers to a body language signal where the dog shows the whites of his eyes. This is a warning signal and is often accompanied by hard eyes, freezing, stiffening up, and/or growling.
Obviously, this is somewhat breed specific. Many brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, such as Pugs and Shih Tzus, will naturally have the whites of their eyes exposed due to the structure of their skull. However, if they begin to show more white than normal or if you notice other warning signals, they are likely displaying whale eyes.
If you see your dog displaying this body language, back off and figure out what prompted it. Was your dog guarding something? Was he uncomfortable with how you were touching or interacting with him? Is he sore or experiencing pain?
Whatever you do, make sure you never punish a dog who is displaying warning signals. Instead, figure out why he is warning you and do something to change his emotional response to whatever was upsetting him so that it no longer bothers him.
What situations has your dog displayed whale eye in? Please share in the comments below!
For some dogs, the world can be an overwhelming place. People, bikes, skateboards, other dogs… there’s a lot out there to take in. Whether your dog is frightened, worried, or just overly excited by these things, the Watch the World game is a wonderful way to help her deal with them.
The Watch the World game teaches dogs to look at their owner when they see someone or something that would usually trigger them. This game is wonderful for any dog who is overly interested in novel stimuli, regardless of the reason for their interest.
In order to play this game, start with especially delectable treats. While I usually use the dog’s food to train him, this is a case where the “wow” value is important. Choose stinky, slimy treats such as roast beef, chicken, peanut butter, or blue cheese. If you use low-value treats for this game, it will take much longer to work or may not be effective at all.
Bring your dog to a quiet area where he will occasionally see the trigger. For example, a dog who is frightened or overly excited by strangers can be taken to a relatively low-traffic parking lot. The goal is for the dog to occasionally see the trigger with breaks in between.
Sit next to your dog in your car, with your dog crated or on a leash. Sit quietly and ignore him or her until your dog sees the trigger. As soon as your dog sees the person, skateboard, dog, etc, start feeding him treats regardless of what he does. Even if he barks or growls, it is important that the appearance of the trigger predicts good things. Continue feeding treats as quickly as your dog can eat them until the trigger is out of sight. Once the trigger is gone, put the treats away and go back to ignoring your dog.
Repeat this game once or twice a week. Within 2-4 weeks, you should see a remarkable shift in your dog’s body language. Instead of reacting negatively when he sees the trigger, he will begin to light up, turning to you for his reward. Now your dog is getting into the game! Once he starts “pointing out” triggers to earn his reward, you’ll know that he’s got it.
This game is so effective because it reframes the appearance of the trigger for the dog. Instead of predicting fear, excitement, or protectiveness, the trigger now predicts wonderful stuff from you. This is known as “classical conditioning” and is a very powerful means of permanently changing behavior.
Once your dog knows the game, begin gradually moving to busier areas. Eventually you can move out of your car with your dog on leash. When you do this, start back in a quieter area. If you move to a busier location and your dog regresses, you may have pushed the envelope too much: just move back to the last location where your dog was successful, and continue to build on that success.
Have you ever played the Watch the World game with your dog? What changes did you see? Did you encounter any problems? Please share your stories in the comments section!