Now in New York City at Instinct Dog Behavior and Training

When Medication May Be The Right Choice

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Sarah Fulcher, CDBC

I recently began working with a very lovely little dog named Lily, a female mixed breed dog who weighs about 25 lbs. She is very affectionate, intelligent and cute, however, she had a very rough start in life. Before she came to her new owners she spent most of her crucial developmental periods in isolation. She received little to no socialization and was kept inside a room in a house with another dog who repeatedly aggressed towards her.

Surprisingly, Lily is a very friendly and trusting dog towards humans. She is mostly a pleasant dog to live with. However, I was called in to assist with Lily’s intense reactivity. She is not aggressive towards dogs or people, but she was extremely reactive on lead at the sight or sound of another dog. In fact, just walking out the front door was enough to send her into a barking frenzy, and she was constantly hyper vigilant and explosive while outdoors. Inside, she could be fairly calm but would erupt into seemingly randomly triggered spouts of intense barking and was difficult to redirect or settle.

After doing two sessions with Lily and her owner I recommended that they speak to the veterinarian about behavioural medications for Lily. This is something that I am extremely infrequent to recommend, simply because I think most dogs with behaviour problems do not need it, and most behaviour problems can be tackled through behaviour modification and training. However, there are several reasons why I thought this would be a good choice for Lily:

  1. Her reaction was extremely intense, difficult to interrupt, and she had a very poor recovery from stress.
  2. Her threshold was extremely high, simply being outside was incredibly stressful for her and sent her over the top into over stimulation and frenzy.
  3. Her triggers were multiple and often it was impossible to determine exactly what it was that was setting her off.
  4. The behaviour was severely impacting Lily’s quality of life as well as her owner’s.
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Lack of early stimulation can effect brain development, which in turn can influence behaviour.

Sometimes, when dogs do not get enough stimulation in the early parts of their life and through critical development periods they can have problems tolerating stressors as well as a normally functioning dog. This can also occur if the mother is sick or stressed while the puppies are in utero. I thought that the complete isolation Lily lived the beginning of her life in could definitely have caused abnormal brain development, and she simply maybe was having a physiologically different response to stress. This type of thing is out of the realm of a behaviour consultant, so I suggested that Lily’s owners consult with the veterinarian and also told them about the option of doing a phone consult with a Veterinary Behaviourist via their vet since we do not have that specialist option locally. One of the prices we pay to live in the gorgeous mountains.

The last time I saw Lily was just over 7 weeks ago and her owners took her to the vet very shortly after our last appointment. Provided with the behaviour history as well as my assessment and notes, the vet and Lily’s owner decided to try putting Lily on Prozac. We wanted to wait in between sessions to give the medication some time to take effect in Lily’s system, but her owners continued to work on some of the foundation skills we had started on such as go to mat and conditioning her to a head collar.

I just saw Lily today and I was blown away by the positive difference in her. The previous times I would arrive at the home, Lily would erupt into constant, high volume barking. She was difficult for the owners to redirect and gain control of her. She would rush down the stairs, barking the entire time and run up to me barking. She would not settle until I got up the stairs. This session, I knocked on the door and heard her bark lightly 4 times, and then the owner sent her to her mat, came down and answered the door and Lily remained calm. Once released off her mat, Lily barked lightly two more times on her way over to me where she greeted me happily and politely. She settled immediately and enjoyed some affection with me once we were upstairs.

The previous times I visited Lily, multiple times per session she would also begin barking for no apparent reason (there was no visual or auditory stimuli we could detect) and took a while to settle. This session, there was not so much as a peep out of her. She was notably more relaxed and calm, but did not at all seemed sedated and was her normal lovely self.

Not Lily, but similarly cute.

Not Lily, but similarly cute.

Taking Lily outdoors was where I noticed and extreme difference. Previously Lily would explode the moment we crossed the threshold, even when she had been calm second before. She was barking almost constantly, hyper vigilant, couldn’t focus, and pulled constantly at the leash. She would suddenly begin to bark and violently lunge if she so much as heard a dog, and sometimes when we could not hear anything at all.

At this latest session, she walked outside happy, confidently and calmly. She didn’t bark once! Last time we tired to work her outdoors, we barely made it a quarter of the way down their driveway. Today she cheerfully trotted down the entire driveway without a hitch. When I brought my dog out there was an outburst at the initial site of him, but Lily was very quick to redirect and settled shortly. With a bit of work we were then able to walk her calmly up to my dog within a few moments, and she promptly greeted him very politely and appropriately. When I brought out my second dog she was very interested, but did not bark at all. She was able to nicely walk right past him, and then was able to meet him and even tried to play. With my third dog she again did not bark at all, and while interested, was able to ignore her easily.

I was incredibly pleased with the difference in Lily with the addition of behavioural medication to her treatment plan. To be honest the results were better than I could have imagined! Lily is able to be outside without being stressed constantly and is able to go on walks with her owner on a regular basis without it being an unpleasant experience for both of them. I’m happy to say Lily will be joining us in our outdoor group classes next week.

While I do feel that behavioural medications may sometimes not be the best choice, and are certainly not a replacement for training, this was a case where the dog really needed it and this decision will improve the quality of life for Lily and her human family. Sometimes we are dealing with dogs whose poor start in life has actually led them to have abnormal brain development, and in these cases it might be time to consider some extra help beyond behaviour modification and training.

Our outdoor group class which Lily will no be able to join.

Our outdoor group class which Lily will no be able to join.

Some signs that it might be appropriate to consider medication as part of a treatment plan can be: when the behaviour is is provoked by routine occurrences or the triggers are multiple and difficult to predict; if the dogs reaction to provoking stimuli is very intense and disproportionate; if the dog’s recovery to stress is poor meaning that their reaction may last a while or they take a long time to return to baseline.

If you think a dog you are working with (or your personal dog) may benefit from medication, it may be time to consider speaking with your vet or a veterinary behaviourist. Veterinary behaviourists are not geographically available to all of us, but some of them, like (Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland) can offer phone consultants to your client’s veterinarian.

Veterinary behaviourists may also have some insight into important medical tests to run before placing a dog on medication, as they did with our corgi Kalani. It was recommended we test for proper liver functioning in her due to her symptoms and it turned out she has some form of liver disease like a shunt. Lani has been placed on a prescription diet and her behaviour problems are improving. My general vet is not a specialist in the health links to behaviour problems and didn’t pick up the behavioural symptoms of liver disease.

Behavioural medications should not be viewed as a quick fix – they are best used in conjunction with a training and behaviour modification program with a qualified professional. Sometimes it may be necessary for the dog to remain on them their entire life, but other times it can be a short term solution to help behaviour training take hold. I look forward to working more with Lily and her family, and am excited for what the future holds for them. I am thrilled that the medication has already helped Lily as much as it has, and I see a bright prognosis for her with her owners being dedicated to continuing training with her.