On the Fence- When is Behavioral Medication Right for Your Primitive Dog?
Anxiety is complicated. My own dog suffers from separation anxiety. She has always been sensitive to being alone, but after we moved across the country it became unbearable for her to cope. She would be considered a moderate class (which makes me really feel for those who have severe dogs). Her anxiety starts before we leave with pacing and following us around the house as we get ready. With each step, the anxiety increases. She recognizes over a dozen actions as an indication that we are leaving. Tying shoes, putting on a coat, walking around the house quickly, turning the TV on, and grabbing the keys are just a handful of the many things that set her off. As I walk out the door, the intense barking, whining, howling (which I didn't know she could do...) starts, and it ends whenever I come back in.
Luckily, she doesn’t need to be left often due to our work schedules. When we aren’t around, there is a pet sitter at our house. Since I’m a trainer with a passion for behavior, I was immediately concerned. Right away, I started behavior modification and created a list of the things that alerted her of our departure. We found out that there were a ton of things that she was cueing off. So, desensitization and counter-conditioning started. For every single thing that she cues off of, I need to make that action or object meaningless. So, throughout the day, I pick up my keys and put them down, open the front door and shut it, put my coat on and take it off. She gets a food puzzle toy and TV on with soothing music as well.
Separation anxiety is exhausting. Behavior modification is time consuming. But, it needs to happen for change to happen. Having a dog with separation anxiety limits you. It becomes stressful every time you need or want to go somewhere without the dog. Anxiety runs your life.
After a couple months of behavior modification and allowing her to settle into our new surroundings, things started to improve. Slightly. With the help of dog appeasing pheromone, I was able to leave her with a food puzzle toy and come home with her sleeping on the couch (normal for her). We were ecstatic. Progress. Then, my boyfriend went on a business trip. I had to go to work. Pet sitters unavailable. The neighbors wrote a note and put it on our door saying that our dog was barking the entire time I was gone and at the bottom of the note it said, “Do you care?” I cried the whole night. I was heartbroken. If the person who wrote the note only knew how much work that we put in. All the progress that we had made? Gone. We started over, but she would start whining at any indication of us leaving.
It was time for medication. She started on trazodone, but it wasn’t enough. Now a few months later, she is on trazodone and fluoxetine. She is comfortable with us leaving and acts the same way she did before the medication minus the anxiety. Now our vet has discussed reducing her medication and seeing if she maintains success. Behavioral medication is feared by many owners because of various reasons. For me, I didn’t want my dog on medication for an extended period. But after learning about the process and talking to my vet, I was reassured.
There is a stigma against mental health in humans, and this carries onto dogs as well. It is not uncommon to be met with quick remarks when discussing behavioral help for dogs, “dogs don’t need shrinks,” “stop babying them,” “they’re just dogs,” or “they’ll get over it.”
The truth is, that anxiety and fear are very likely to increase in intensity over time unless there is intervention. The first thing to do if you suspect that your dog is fearful or anxious is to find a trainer who is knowledgeable in behavior or a veterinary behaviorist to evaluate the dog. Depending on the severity of the dog’s anxiety, they will create a behavior modification plan for you and your dog to follow to try to alleviate the anxiety and potentially recommend that the dog goes on medication in addition to the plan.
One without the other...
It is important to know that the medication is not an end all quick fix to your dog’s behavior problems. Medications can take weeks to months to become functional in your pet’s system. Medication is used so that you can break through the barrier of your pet’s anxiety or fear and are able to get progress with behavior modification. Medication does not replace behavior modification.
Changing behavior takes time. The same is true in humans, chances are you aren’t going to be a completely different person next week if you start taking medication tomorrow. Working through anxiety and fear with desensitization and counter-conditioning triggers takes time. The process requires everyone living with the dog to consistently follow the protocol set by the professional. If the guardians of the dog don’t practice frequently and consistently then change will not happen.
Behavioral medication is largely misunderstood, even among trainers. Let’s debunk some of the common myths associated with them.
It will turn your dog into a zombie
With guidance from a veterinarian or a veterinary behaviorist, the correct dosage will be achieved for your pet where they will act “normal” minus the anxiety. They may experience some lethargy for the first few days as the medication is entering their system but is soon stabilized and allows the dog to maintain its personality and energy.
Dogs don’t need a “shrink”
Dogs can experience fear and anxiety. The behaviors associated with anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways, including inappropriate elimination, destructive behaviors, anorexia, and frequent vocalizations. These behaviors will persist and worsen over time. Eventually, the dog’s anxiety will lessen their quality of life and probably yours as well by their undesirable behaviors. It is best to work on the behaviors before they become so severe that medication is needed.
Medication is expensive
Price depends on the weight of the dog and severity of the behavioral issues, but behavior medication is fairly inexpensive. Pharmacies will usually give discounts to canine patients as well or allow them to be a part of the rewards program which also reduces the cost.
There are several types of behavioral medication. One type is used on an “as needed” basis. These medications are given when a known trigger is going to be present. For example, if the dog has a noise phobia to fireworks, the medication will be given on holidays that are known for fireworks. Dogs that experience widespread anxiety to multiple triggers are given medications daily. The goal of the use of daily medications is that through behavior modification plans, the dog will eventually be weaned off the medications. Again, medication must be accompanied by consistent behavior modification plans to achieve success.
The level and root of the anxiety will determine which medication is needed. Sometimes a combination of two types of medication are used if one does not suffice. Common medications for anxiety are trazodone, fluoxetine, and clomipramine. Your veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist will assist you in determining which medication is right for your dog.
A note about Acepromazine: Avoid putting your pet on this medication. Acepromazine is sometimes given to pets for noise phobias or anxiety. The problem with this medication is that it physically sedates the animal without reducing the anxiety in the mind. Therefore, it works because the animal is physically unable to destroy something in the house, but is still panicking internally. This experience can be extremely distressing to an animal and can in turn increase their anxiety.
If your dog is inappropriately eliminating in the house, being destructive to the home or themselves, or excessively vocalizing, let’s chat about it!