Category Archives: Anxiety

Pickles’ Story

Pickles was found as a stray. His owner never claimed him.

He came to live with us, and we loved him so much. He was such a good little dog. Socially motivated and eager to connect, he gave hugs and adored snuggling. He was great with other dogs and gentle with children. He ran happily next to my bike and was always up for an adventure.

11108669_854477374008_2523793485783927225_n

The first time we left Pickles alone for a short time, we came home to a scene that hit me in the guts like a punch out of nowhere. Pickles had panicked at being left, shredding the thick plastic pan of his crate and injuring himself in the process. The carpet was soaked with his blood, and his paws and mouth were sore. He crawled out of his crate, eyes wide and tail tucked to his belly button, and froze in fear. For nearly ten minutes, little Pickles was practically catatonic, unable to walk and unresponsive to touch or verbal reassurance.

Some level of isolation distress is not uncommon in dogs who have just come from the pound, but this was extreme. Pickles was immediately started on the best behavioral modification plan and pharmaceutical help we could give him.

1533789_10155920544715001_6928477487998629509_nMore demons appeared, however. As I went to leash him the next day, my hand moving quickly towards him caused him to flinch and hit the ground in terror, screaming, then lunge upwards and bite my arms before running into his crate to hide. The word “no” made him likewise hit the ground, eyes wide and face tight, then hackle up and bark furiously. Our roommate’s raised voice (in excitement, not anger) or direct eye contact provoked similar defensive barking, and when my fiancé picked up a stick-like toy to engage Pickles in play, the little dog ran away and hid behind my legs.

Pickles was in a safe environment and he was loved. He also posed a significant safety risk: to himself, to his adopters, and to the community. In a committed home with good management and training, dogs with similar issues to Pickles may be kept successfully. But Pickles wasn’t in a long-term situation. He was in rescue.

11406867_10155908555200001_8288304583931748049_nI’ve written about it before, but putting a face to the dilemma is so much harder. Rehabilitating Pickles would be a long-term project. During the time that it would take to help him, twenty other needy dogs in our community could be saved. Just because those dogs weren’t in front of me, just because they didn’t have eyes I could look into and soft, warm fur under my hands, did that make them any less deserving than Pickles? Furthermore, even with the very best training, Pickles had shown that he was willing to use his teeth when frightened, and therefore presented a very real liability to place.

10426261_10155935367615001_6559377376748309072_nAnd what about Pickles himself? His separation issues had nothing to do with the crate – he was perfectly comfortable in it when someone was nearby, but freaked out when left gated in the kitchen with food toys (which went untouched) or loose with another dog for company. The fact that he panicked so badly as to injure himself was heartbreaking. I couldn’t imagine the sheer level of terror I would have to feel to rip off fingernails or claw at something until my fingers bled. How much trauma would I have to endure before a simple word or action caused me to reflexively respond with violence and fright?

11210494_10155941478805001_6305870399186990288_n

Waiting for a bacon cheeseburger outside Five Guys Burgers & Fries.

Pickles had the best time we could give him. He played with dogs at the park and rolled in mud puddles like a little piggy, making sure to flop side-to-side to coat himself evenly with sticky slime. He ran and ran. He jumped baby gates and went over and under our backyard fence, wiggling with pride at his vertical accomplishments as I laughed and thanked the stars for leashes. He ate all the best things – bacon cheeseburgers, ice cream, roast beef, cream cheese, pepperoni. He discovered the joys of squeaky toys and raw meat in Kongs and real bones from the butcher and sleeping in bed (under the covers, of course). He was told that he was a good, good boy, the best, and that he was loved and safe.

And then the vet came, and Pickles left the world safe and loved, in arms that held him close, with a voice whispering all the kind things he needed to know. And it sucked, and I cried for days.

During Pickles’ time with us, I’ve been honest about him on Facebook and with my students, both the good and the bad. I’ve shared how he snarled over bully sticks and how he was respectful of kitties. I’ve shared how, while he didn’t even know the word “sit,” he definitely knew about the joys of car rides.

11224275_10155936020350001_4210835767903269239_n

Ice cream!

And I get that this topic is awful. It is. It’s horrible, and it hurts so badly that a bright, funny, sensitive little dog had to die. It hurts that people have sent me messages telling me how very wrong this decision was, and how love alone could have saved Pickles if I’d only cared enough (or worse yet, how I should send him to Cesar Milan). It hurts to know that whomever had Pickles may at this very minute have a new puppy, one who doesn’t bite them when they say “no” or destroy their house when they leave him… yet.

The truth is that this is the reality of our world right now. There are not enough resources available to save every dog, and it’s not in every dog’s best interest to be kept alive. Sometimes letting go is the kindest thing.

But it’s fixable, readers, and that’s why I’ve been honest about Pickles’ story even though the hate mail tears me up a little more each time and the days with him shredded my emotions. The answer is education. It’s catching Pickles’ family when he was still a baby, and teaching them about separation training and socialization and the dangers of physical punishment. Did you know that my blog posts about socialization, puppy care, and management only reach about 1/10 of the people (if that) that the blog posts about aggression reach? Puppy stuff may not be as sexy as discussions about biting dogs, but if we could get the word out about the former the latter would become much less necessary. It really is that simple, and that difficult.

1521329_10155928194045001_1043679662547956399_nPickles isn’t my first compassion hold, and I suspect he won’t be my last (although I hope otherwise). In fostering over one hundred dogs, this is the third time a dog has come into my life and my heart with hopes of a bright future, only to show me that they can’t be safe or happy. (Many others have come into my home during their last days, as creaky old fifteen-year-old dogs who need a soft place to lay their heads for a few days or weeks or months, but we all know that it’s not the same to euthanize an old, sick dog as it is to say goodbye to a young dog like Pickles.)

Please know that Pickles’ story happens, more often than you may think. And please, help me to prevent it from happening to other dogs.

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Four: Training

Last week I discussed the management techniques I used to keep Trout and Layla safe and separate after their recent fight and resulting injuries. I cannot emphasize how very important management was in our success – without it, I doubt we would have ever been able to get the two girls back together. That said, there was still some work to be done. Today, I’ll cover the training and behavior modification exercises that we employed to reintroduce the two dogs to one another.

IMG_2015

Starting right away, we began to do short sessions with the dogs on opposite sides of their gates or ex-pens. We would take the blankets off the gates so that the dogs could see one another, walk them within sight of each other, then feed them lots of treats. After 10-20 seconds of treating, we would walk one of the dogs out of sight and immediately quit feeding both dogs. The premise was simple – good stuff only happened when the other dog was present.

When we first started these exercises, the dogs were noticeably worried. Trout frequently stared at Layla and sometimes growled, her posture stiff and upright. Layla avoided confrontations, looking away and licking her lips, clearly frightened. This behavior on Layla’s part was quite surprising to me. In the past, she’s always been eager to engage if another dog started something, but I suspect that with her increasing age (she’s nine years old) and injured leg she just wasn’t feeling up to another confrontation. When Trout growled or postured, her handler instantly stopped treating or paying attention to her and walked her away, while Layla’s handler praised and treated her for avoiding conflict while also moving her further away. We never allowed growling or posturing to continue for more than a second before intervening. Remember, practice makes perfect – and we certainly didn’t want Trout to get better at these behaviors!

Within a couple days, these positive conditioning sessions began to show real results. Trout’s posturing became less intense and Layla’s appeasement signals likewise lessened. Both dogs began to visibly brighten when they spied their housemate on the other side of the gate or ex-pen, looking for their treats. They also began to signal in friendly ways towards one another, sniffing from a distance and returning calming signals. We praised them enthusiastically for any pro-social behaviors, and Trout especially seemed to really need this extra reassurance that she was doing well.

As she became less insecure around Layla, Trout’s posturing and growling melted away. This is an important point. Frequently, owners think that their dogs are growling because they’re pushy, mean, or status-seeking. However, much like Trout, these behaviors are often an indicator of a problem with insecurity. Imagine, then, the damage that can be done by punishing a dog for growling or otherwise displaying their discomfort. Not only would punishment have potentially suppressed growling and other very useful indicators of Trout’s comfort level, but it also would have completely reinforced her belief that she was correct to worry when Layla was around. By pairing Layla’s presence with good things (treats! praise! neck rubs!) and viewing any growling as information that the dogs were too close, we were able to quickly change Trout’s reaction to Layla for the better.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and other signs of tension. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and close her mouth – both major warning signs. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

At this point, we began taking short walks multiple times a day – just halfway to the corner at first, then all the way to the corner. We started by walking the dogs across the street from one another, moving them in the same direction but allowing for plenty of parallel distance between them. Both dogs were given treats for looking at the other dog in a soft manner, as well as receiving frequent rewards for walking nicely. If either dog began to look tense or nervous, we immediately veered further away from one another, giving them even greater distance. When they were both soft and relaxed, we moved slightly closer, lessening the distance between the two.

Within a week, the two dogs were able to walk side-by-side in a relaxed manner. They began sniffing each other as they walked, and following one another to especially enticing smells. They started to urine mark over special smells together. While they were still kept completely separate inside, their outdoor walks allowed them to start interacting as a team once again.

Inside, we continued to experience problems with guarding. Both dogs guard resources (food, toys, special resting places), so we had to be very aware of potential triggers. If either dog growled or stared at the other, the offender was immediately but calmly escorted to a crate or room for some alone time, while the dog who had been growled at was rewarded liberally with treats and praise for not responding. In just a few days, Layla began to run to the treat cupboard and wait for a reward during the rare moments when Trout happened to growl, and both dogs began to posture and threaten the other less frequently.

To begin working on reintegrating the dogs indoors, I returned to one of my favorite tools for behavior modification – the Protocol for Relaxation. This step-by-step protocol teaches dogs to relax while stuff happens around them, and both Layla and Trout were already quite familiar with it. I started running through the protocol once or twice a day, at first with the dogs lying on mats on opposite sides of a baby gate, and later with them side-by-side but with Trout tethered. After a week of successful protocol repetitions, when both dogs were looking soft and relaxed on their mats, I untethered Trout. Outside of training sessions the dogs continued to be kept separate, but while we were actively working on the protocol they were able to be loose together, relaxed on their individual mats.

These three main exercises – positive associations on opposite sides of the gate, parallel walks, and the Protocol for Relaxation – set the stage for a successful reintroduction. Within a week, we began allowing the dogs to pass by one another off-leash without interacting when switching them into different areas of the house, and later began to allow short (2-5 minute) periods of time when they were loose together but heavily supervised. We continued to keep them apart for the majority of the time, but built up the amount of time they could be around one another gradually.

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together!

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together and all healed up!

Reintroduction after a serious fight is a slow process, but it was worthwhile in the end. After a month of gradual reintroductions, we were able to take the ex-pens and baby gates down completely. The dogs continue to be separated if left unsupervised (something we’d done prior to this incident as a matter of course), but are otherwise peacefully coexisting once again. Three weeks into this process, the two began playing together once again, at first with frequent breaks and exaggerated body language, and then with more relaxed signals as they once again became comfortable with one another. Today their interactions have returned to the pre-fight levels of peace and playfulness.

While I’ve coached many, many clients on reintroductions such as this, I’ve never before experienced inter-dog issues with my own pets at such a serious level. I can empathize with the stress and anxiety of dealing with dogs who don’t get along. My mantra for clients in similar situations has always been that “slow is fast,” and Layla and Trout were proof that this is indeed the case. Anytime we tried to rush through exercises or pushed the dogs, things fell apart. Allowing both girls time to heal, physically and emotionally, and setting them up for success with one another, gave them the tools to progress at their own paces and eventually to rebuild their relationship. We’ll continue to be vigilant in avoiding situations that could trigger a repeat of their fight, however I feel confident in saying that the dogs are better equipped to avoid conflict in the future due to the hard work we put into helping them succeed during this time.

If you’ve ever experienced inter-dog aggression in your own household, I hope your experiences at reintroduction were every bit as successful as ours. Remember, slow is fast, and it’s important to work at your dogs’ own paces. Feel free to share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments section below.

 

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Three: Management

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve discussed the recent issues between my two dogs, Layla and Trout. After the fight, both dogs had injuries that needed time to heal. They also needed some time to heal emotionally, though, as both were frightened and on edge.

Management during these weeks was critical. By keeping the two dogs separate from one another, we avoided further confrontations and were able to set them up for success. As the days passed, both dogs were able to relax and began to show interest in interacting with one another again.

IMG_1968

The first week was spent in total separation. We divided our house up into separate areas using baby gates with blankets over them to prevent the dogs from making visual contact (Trout did a lot of hard staring at first), exercise pens, and closed doors to keep the dogs apart. Our kitchen became one zone, the upstairs another, the living room and den two more. Because our house has such an open floor plan, it took some creativity to divide it in this manner. While it was an inconvenience to navigate the various gates and ex-pen panels, I really believe that the complete separation was the best thing we did for both dogs.

Remember, it takes 72 hours on average for stress hormones to return to baseline after a big event like the fight. The physical stress on both dogs’ bodies from their injuries, as well as the stress of wearing e-collars (the “cone of shame,” not remote collars), also contributed to keep their overall stress levels high. Trying to reintroduce the two dogs right away would have been like throwing a match onto a puddle of rocket fuel. They were already keyed up and on edge, and we needed to give them the time and resources to decompress.

Knowing this, we immediately plugged in our DAP diffuser on the main floor of the house. We made sure both dogs got lots of individual attention and that we were switching them out of various areas in the house regularly. We provided the best pain control possible to make sure their injuries weren’t preventing them from resting comfortably. Once Layla’s leg was able to hold her weight, we began walking the dogs on short jaunts multiple times a day, letting them stop and sniff frequently to unwind. Our goal was an atmosphere of support and calm.

We used additional management tools, such as tethers and crates, loosely as needed. For the most part, we were able to confine the dogs in rooms rather than in crates. However, there were definitely times when tethering the dogs on opposite sides of the room, such as when I was working in my office, was helpful in keeping them safe while still allowing them to both be near me, where they wanted to spend time. I managed this by attaching short 4′ leashes to each dog’s collar, then placing the handle of a leash on the doorknob opposite the side of the door we were on and closing the door on the leash. I also attached leashes to sturdy furniture, such as my large desk.

We also revisited muzzle training. Layla was already 100% comfortable wearing a basket muzzle prior to this incident, but Trout has always been a bit more skeptical about any sort of equipment, even balking at her regular collar and harness. At least once an hour when I was home, I worked with Trout and the muzzle, until eventually she was comfortable and happy taking treats out of the basket and having it fastened around her neck. Muzzling the dogs prior to interactions served two purposes. It obviously kept everyone safe, but it also allowed the humans involved to relax since we knew that nothing too horrible could happen. Since dogs pick up on emotional cues easily, setting everyone up for success by keeping the interactions relaxed and positive was especially important.

With management in place and both dogs comfortable with the routine, we were ready to begin the training process. Next week I’ll discuss what we did to help the dogs coexist peacefully once again. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! How do you manage your dogs to set them up for success? Please post your tips and tricks in the comments section below.

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

10897114_10155260904120001_3473064013619175190_n

When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

At what cost?

As a professional trainer, I hear a lot of disturbing stories. One local trainer routinely advises owners of reactive dogs to briefly hang their dogs from prong collars when the dogs lunge and bark. The same facility told one of my clients to pull her nervous dog’s ear or pinch his flank if he stopped paying attention. Another recent client was advised by one of her friends on Facebook to step in front of her aggressive dog whenever the dog began growling at anyone and then to stare the dog down (which, not surprisingly, resulted in a pretty severe bite to her leg).

Photo by Marie Carter

Photo by Marie Carter

With all of these disturbing stories, a common thread runs through. The owners really love their dogs, and were simply following the advice that had been given to them. In many cases, these people were desperate to fix a serious problem. These weren’t acts of abuse – they were honest attempts to fix a problem by people who cared enough about their dogs to try something instead of just getting rid of their pet.

The world is rife with dog training advice. Everybody’s an expert! When an old acquaintance of mine asked her Facebook friends how to solve puppy nipping, she received lots of replies almost instantly. Flick the puppy’s nose. Use Tabasco sauce. Use a squirt bottle. Hold the puppy’s mouth shut if she nips. The more I read, the more I cringed. It’s really true that you get what you pay for, and free advice from your friends, coworkers, and neighbors could do more harm than good.

But what do you do if your trainer tells you to do something that doesn’t feel right? How can you decide which advice to follow and which could do more harm than good?

On the first week of any Beginning training class I teach, I tell my students two things. They are the experts on their dogs. And their dogs are counting on them to protect them.

Remember this. You are the expert on your dog. Not your trainer, or your vet, or your groomer. Not me. You. And your dog is counting on you to look out for him.

If someone tells you to do something to your dog that makes you uncomfortable, you are always within your rights to say no. I love it when my students tell me that they’d like to modify an exercise! It lets me know that the student is committed to doing what’s right for the dog in front of them at that moment, and that’s a beautiful thing.

When determining what’s right for your dog, a little critical reasoning can go a long way. If the trainer at your dog’s daycare tells you to use a shaker can (a soda can full of pennies) anytime your dog lunges or barks on leash, don’t just accept that advice on blind faith. Instead, think through the behavioral contingencies. In the best case scenario, what will my dog learn (that lunging and barking makes something unpleasant happen so she should be quiet instead)? In the worst case scenario, what will my dog learn (that the appearance of triggers which already make her upset cause her owner to do something very unpleasant – thus making her more sensitive to the appearance of those triggers in the future)? Ask yourself whether you’re comfortable with the risks posed by the training advice. If your dog becomes more frantic and reactive at the appearance of triggers after you use the shaker can, are you prepared to put in the extra time solving the problem you made worse? If you’re not willing to accept the worse-case scenario, is there a different training option you might try instead?

The bottom line is that the world is full of people who will give you free advice on how to live with, handle, manage, and train your dog. Just remember that you get what you pay for. There are lots of people out there who do truly horrible things to dogs in the name of training, and because dogs largely put up with it these methods are touted as effective without thought to the potential fallout, including physical damage and the very real strain that aversive techniques put on your relationship with your dog. Sure, free advice might solve your dog’s behavioral problem. But at what cost?

More Than Meets the Eye

I have an autonomic disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – POTS for short. It’s a mouthful that means that I have issues with low blood pressure, a fast heart rate on standing, and chronic nausea, among other things.

Having a chronic health condition like this impacts my life, but with lifestyle changes such as keeping hydrated, avoiding standing for long periods of time, wearing support stockings, and eating a diet high in salt, I’m able to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that my heart, blood pressure, and nausea meds help to manage symptoms.

What does this have to do with dog training? Well, quite a bit. You see, my dog Layla has a chronic health condition too. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder – GAD for short – in 2008. This disorder causes her to be hypervigilant, hyperalert, and to have difficulty resting.

Having a chronic health condition like Layla’s impacts her life, but lifestyle changes such as keeping to a set routine, managing her auditory environment, providing plenty of physical and mental exercise, and avoiding anxiety-producing situations help her to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that Layla’s daily sertraline and situational trazodone and alprazolam help to manage her symptoms.

IMG_0988

My POTS was not easy to diagnose, but after extensive testing and a definitive tilt table test, it became very clear what my disorder was. Before diagnosis, I often fainted multiple times a day upon standing, and was too lightheaded to work or carry out daily life tasks. Now that I have a diagnosis, my condition can be managed with regular blood pressure and heart rate readings. I simply monitor these numbers from supine, sitting, and standing positions to get a better idea of what’s going on with my body at any point in time.

Layla’s condition was not easy to diagnose either, but after extensive training and behavioral modification it became clear that she needed further help. She simply wasn’t making the progress that a “normal” dog would be expected to make. I kept records on her behaviors and took representative video of her life, which were reviewed by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Based on her symptoms, the behaviorist diagnosed Layla with GAD.

Unlike POTS, GAD doesn’t have handy numbers we can look at. We can’t measure the level of available serotonin in Layla’s brain to see whether she’s lacking. We don’t know whether the early trauma she experienced caused her hippocampus to shrink or her amygdala to become larger than normal. We can’t even begin to test the levels of the complex stew of neurochemicals in her brain.

We can’t measure anxiety-related issues as easily as we can measure heart-related issues. That doesn’t mean that they’re not every bit as much of a physical problem, though. My POTS is not my fault, and I can’t just “get over it” with lifestyle changes and a positive attitude. Layla’s anxiety is not her fault either, and she can no more “get over it” on her own than I can suddenly have an autonomic system that functions normally. Her brain doesn’t function normally, but it works much more normally now that she’s on medications. In fact, that’s a big part of how she was diagnosed. When we tried anxiety medications for her, they made such a huge difference in her ability to function that it was clear that they were correcting a true chemical imbalance. The dog whom I’d never seen sleeping was suddenly able to take naps. She was less twitchy, less explosive, and suddenly all the training we’d done together started to show. Her personality didn’t change, but it was like the static of the anxiety was turned down enough for her to access the skills we’d been working so hard on for the past three years. Before her diagnosis, Layla was frantic the majority of her waking time, and awake much more than most dogs. With medication and a diagnosis, Layla’s condition can be monitored with regular attention paid to her sleep cycle and reactivity.

Invisible disabilities come in many forms. People don’t know that I have a chronic health condition from looking at or talking to me. They also can’t tell that Layla has a chronic health condition from watching her work or play. I look like any other person, and Layla looks like any other dog. However, the physical abnormalities in the way our systems work are very real.

One of my greatest hopes is that someday we’ll be able to measure anxiety, to point to a definitive test and say, “yes, your dog has a neurochemical imbalance that needs to be addressed with medication” in much the same way we currently address thyroid or heart issues. How many dogs like Layla are currently suffering without treatment for lack of a diagnosis or their owner’s misunderstanding of the very real chemical basis of anxiety?

One hundred years ago, my fainting issues would have been seen as “female hysterics” and dismissed out of hand. Today, we look back on that attitude with horror and sympathy for the people who lived with very real autonomic issues.

My hope is that one hundred years from now, we look back on the current treatment of mental health issues like Layla’s GAD with much the same horror and sympathy. When we know better, we do better. I’m so grateful that I was able to do better by Layla. Her life, and mine, are all the richer for it.

Myth: Peeing on Your Dog

Since I’ve worked as a professional trainer for years, I’ve heard it all. Most myths about dog behavior are silly and relatively harmless. That said, there’s one myth that’s resurfaced in the past couple months which has me shaking my head in bewilderment. Multiple clients have admitted to spitting in their dog’s food, peeing on their dog’s head, or otherwise using their own or their children’s bodily fluids with the intent of putting their dog in his or her place (which is implied to be “below” the human in a rigid hierarchy).

Spit-free kibble. Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

Spit-free kibble (we hope). Photo by BuzzFarmers on flickr.

It can be hard to separate scientific fact from fiction for someone for whom dog behavior is a mystery, and I can empathize with my clients’ confusion. In each case, a trusted friend, family member, or even pet professional had recommended this course of action. In each case, my client was at a loss as to how to deal with his or her dog’s problematic behavior. While I wish that these clients had contacted me first, rather than after they had tried this technique (and in most cases, other recommendations from coworkers or neighbors as well), their hope was that following this advice would save them the cost of a private consultation with a trained professional.

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” springs to mind here. Free advice can be helpful, but for serious behavioral problems where the risk of failure could mean that a person gets bitten or your dog winds up homeless or dead, the stakes are just too high. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the longer a dog has the opportunity to practice the problem behavior, the worse the prognosis becomes. My clients and I have the most success when I can begin working with them at the first sign of a problem, rather than after months or even years of them attempting to solve the problem on their own.

So, why isn’t it a good idea to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head to “show him who’s boss?”

The core idea behind this advice is to elevate the owner’s status, based on the belief that dogs adhere to a rigid dominance hierarchy. However, this myth has been disproven over and over again. Wolves do have hierarchies, but they’re based on family arrangements with the mother and father leading the pack of children. Based on this knowledge, it only makes sense to spit in your dog’s food or pee on his head if that’s what you would do to your [human] toddler when he misbehaves. Good parents – and good dog owners! – know that parenting is all about providing a safe environment for growth, with lots of patience, clear rules, and love.

Knowing that wolves form family packs greatly impacts our view of their communication and dominance hierarchies. However, drawing conclusions about dog behavior based on the behavior of their closely related cousins can be as erroneous as studying human behavior by observing chimps or bonobos. Yes, we share similarities. However, we’re not the same species. Dogs and wolves evolved from the same ancestor, but it’s likely that wolves have changed greatly from what they were tens of thousands of years ago. Studies of dogs in their native environment (village dumps) show that while wolves form close family packs, dogs do not. Mothers and puppies stick together, and dogs will develop friendships with other dogs, but the close-knit pack structure is just not there. This means that even if wolves did develop rigid pack structures that required forceful dominance displays, it would be inappropriate to extrapolate those behaviors to their cousins.

Even if all of this weren’t true, there’s still a major flaw in the idea of using bodily fluids to assert one’s dominance. Sure, it grosses us out to think about someone peeing on our head or spitting in our food. But does it really have the same impact on our dogs? Frankly, dogs love bodily fluids! When Layla lifts her leg and pees on another dog’s head (which she does on a fairly regular basis), the other dog never acts grossed out. Dogs lick one another’s mouths and eat vomit on a regular basis. They use their tongues to clean their genitals and lick at other dog’s urine. Some even eat poop (and many experts believe that human fecal matter may have been the main source of nutrition for early village dogs). We may think body fluids are gross, but dogs think they’re pretty fascinating.

The bottom line is that peeing on your dog, dumping the contents of your child’s dirty diaper on your dog, or spitting in her food is unlikely to create the behavior change you want. In the best case scenario, your dog’s behavior may be slightly suppressed due to her confusion. Worst case, you could scare your dog, damaging your relationship further, or unintentionally reward her problem behavior by providing her with something she finds fascinating or delicious. Either way, true behavioral change is unlikely, and you’re far better off consulting with a trained professional. As an added bonus, just think of how much money you’ll save on dog shampoo!