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By Published On: August 5th, 2009

I am a member of an online group devoted to discussing fearful behavior in dogs and offering support and advice to owners. After reading several messages about a particular dog it sounded as though it would benefit from the use of a behavioral medication. A reply to my suggestion was posted, lamenting the ‘automatic’ response people have about choosing to pop pills for their fearful dogs.

I decided not to be offended by the assertion that my suggestion to someone, or to use medications with my own dog, was based on an impulse to automatically choose ‘pill popping’ over an alternative. But I was compelled to respond.

There are dogs for whom limiting and controlling their environment may be the kindest thing. I was not ready to make that choice for my dog without at least trying as many techniques and tools available to me, including behavioral medications.

drugsAs I sit at my desk to my left is a bottle of DAP spray. To my right, a 6” ace bandage to use as an anxiety wrap along with a partial burned moxa stick (like charcoal) which the acupuncturist recommended I use to heat up Sunny’s heart and kidney regions (that didn’t go over big with him as you might imagine). I’ve used up the Chinese herb mixture I purchased to help his heart energy in between acupuncture session. Also used up is the Composure liquid sold to me by my vet. In the cupboard in the kitchen you’ll find a jar of powdered herbs for calming, Rescue Remedy is in the downstairs bathroom. Upstairs in the bedroom is the melatonin which was the first supplement I tried with Sunny, and lavender oil is by the bed, Sunny never did seem to like it but I take a few whiffs every night to help me fall asleep.

On the bookshelves in my office you’ll find dozens of books about dog training, Ttouch, herbs, raw food diets, dog breeds & behavior. An overflowing file folder on my desk has magazines, articles and handouts about training, medications and behavior. Next to my bed are dozens of research papers, many of which were very interesting but most bored or frustrated me to tears (actually quite good as sleeping aids). One, written by a trainer from the U.K., who shuns the use of medications, documents how he was able to change the fearful response of dogs that were afraid of gunshots and another of hot air balloons, without the use of drugs. Oh that my dog was just afraid of hot air balloons and gunshots.

I believe that the kaleidoscope of emotions dogs experience goes beyond just varying shades of fear, though when we speak of our scared dogs we rarely say more than that. When I looked at my dog, who spent day after day in the corner of our living room I saw not only fear, I saw what I would describe as depression and I’ll take the risk and say, even sadness. It was because of this that I initially allowed my dog to be my ‘wild boy’ spending his days off leash outside, usually perched on the hillside behind the house, coming down to try to steal frisbees or tennis balls from my other dog. He still was wary and afraid of me, but he was active and engaged and the hours it took me to get him back inside many nights apparently seemed worth it to me.

I did not choose to use medications with my dog because I don’t think that all the alternatives available to us are worthless. Indeed I think that they are all probably helpful in some way and should be used with the same care and oversight that one uses drugs. I don’t stick needles in my dog on my own and I don’t experiment with herbs because I believe that if they are powerful enough to help my dog they may also be potent enough to cause problems. I did choose to use medications in part because they are easy and relatively inexpensive. Fault me for that if you like but I have other dogs and other things to do with the hours in my day, and the dollars in my bank account. And since I was never sure if I was doing Ttouch correctly or if I had actually located Sunny’s heart & kidney regions, I didn’t want to waste time, time which as we all know, is all too limited in the lifetime of our dogs.

Medication alone is not enough to help a fearful dog in the long term (though from my dog’s perspective I’d guess that the short term is more important anyway) so along with counter conditioning and desensitization on a daily basis I attend classes with my dog. I don’t do it because I ever plan on competing in obedience or agility, I do it because training classes are one of the few places where I can control the environment. There are other dogs which make Sunny more comfortable and the people in class usually follow my instructions not to talk to or look at my dog. Though the training is important for managing Sunny I attend these classes because I believe that the engagement in non-habitual movements helps his brain.

When I finally made an appointment to meet with a well-respected trainer in our area, several months after Sunny came to live with me, she, after reading the information I provided about Sunny suggested that I contact my vet and put him on a behavioral medication. I might have balked but had been a member of this group and had read the discussions about meds and followed her advice. It’s advice I wished I’d followed sooner after reading about it here. I wish I had given Sunny an anti-anxiety medication before he raced around the house looking for an exit, defecating as he ran. I wish I’d given him a medication before I made him ride in the car, hiding on the floor or jumping out the window when he got the chance, I wish I’d given him something before he spent a month living in a corner. This list could go on.

As for my decision to use medications being automatic- I don’t think so.

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