Sunday, December 7, 2014

Napoleon Updates: Class and Meds

Napi and I have now gone to three sessions of our "class" (actually just a couple friends and I renting a training space and each doing our own thing). Napi and my thing is to sit and eat treats while other people and dogs are in the same building. I'm really pleased with how he's doing, actually. The first time we did something like this, he wouldn't eat at all.

Here's a 3 minute video showing how Napi is doing. We are sitting right next to a half-height door, so he cannot see - but can hear - what's happening in the next room (my friend and her boxer working on personal play). About ten feet away to the left, there's a closed door to another room, where another friend and her two dogs were.

 Overall, I'm quite please with Napi so far. Obviously, we have tons of work left to do, but he's making nice progress.

On the medication front, since I cannot afford to take Napi to see Maisy's old veterinary behaviorist, I had our primary vet, Dr. Jessy, consult with Dr. Duxbury on the phone. This is an awesome (free) service. The result was a nice discussion of our options. The first thing we are going to do is increase Napi's Prozac dose. If that does not work, we are going to switch to either Paxil (Maisy's drug of choice) or possibly amitryptiline (which I know basically nothing about and am possibly spelling wrong; I think it's a tricyclic?). And depending on how that goes, we will experiment some more with trazodone, clonidine, and/or Xanax.

I really just want my poor boy to be more comfortable around the house. As it is, the noises that my other three dogs ignore (even Maisy, who used to bark at basically nothing) set him off in spasms of barking. It's annoying to listen to and undoubtedly painful for him to live like that.

I must have a thing for reactive dogs, because I'm just in love with this dog. He's so sweet, affectionate, and funny. If we can just get his anxiety under control, he'll be perfect.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

There Are No Magic Pills... But There Might Be Magic Thundershirts?

After my most recent post on Napoleon, my vet and I have been experimenting with as-needed, short-acting drugs to see if we could find something to help him calm down and relax around the house. We've experimented with different drugs and different doses and different frequencies and... well, let's just say that the amount of trazodone that will knock me out does nothing to him.

I tend forget about deep pressure type wraps since the time we tried a Thundershirt on Maisy was an epic disaster. As in, she got even more anxious. Still, Maisy dislikes being touched and Napi loves it, so yeah. Then I tried an anxiety wrap on him (ie, an ace bandage because I'm cheap and it was handy) and... OMG. He just curls up and goes to sleep. Oh, he still notices when our upstairs neighbor comes and goes, but the barking lasts for a shorter amount of time, and it's less intense. The hyper-vigilance is reduced, and it's just basically... well, magical.

But the magicalness of the pressure wrap really came home to me when I signed up to share the rental cost of a local training building with a few friends. I'm not really sure what they worked on, but Napi and I worked on not freaking out around other dogs and people. We started out in the lobby, behind barriers and slowly worked up to being in the same room with the others. Okay, they were mostly sitting still, and we were a good 40 feet away, but HE WAS LYING DOWN AND QUIET. Relaxed? No. Eating treats? Yes, which is better than the last time we tried to do something similar.

We're renting the training building for the next couple weeks, and while I was initially planning on taking a different dog each week, now I'm thinking it will be Napi-only. We have the potential to make a ton of progress, and I'm really excited to see how he does.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Review: Natural Balance Delectable Delights Tender Cuts from

Okay gang, so when I do reviews, I say that we like the treats. Because, you know, we do. But I have dogs who will eat just about anything. Actually, Pyg really will eat anything. So the fact that we like the treats isn't saying much.

But these treats? The Natural Balance Delectable Delights? We loooooooove these. Well, the dogs think they are delicious, of course, and I think these are some of the nicest damn training treats of all time.

Okay, so these treats: in the middle, you can see how the treats are made. On the bottom, I have torn one of those pieces apart by hand. On the top, I cut them using a knife. And they are basically the same size. Those little pieces? About the size of half a Zukes. So- they're awesome for training small dogs. And they're a great consistency. They are this nice, dense, sticky treat that breaks apart with no crumbs. Seriously, none. They remind me a lot of the Natural Balance Food Rolls, actually, except they're easier to break up.

Also: USA made, good ingredients, etc. These are great treats. I will actually buy these. They are that awesome.

I received these treats for free, but I wasn't otherwise compensated for my review. My opinions are totally mine and real and stuff.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Canine PTSD: What Makes a Bad Experience Traumatic?

I’m currently reading the book The Body Keeps the Score: Body, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk. It is a fascinating, enlightening, and incredibly accessible book, so if you have any interest in the topic, I highly recommend it. The book is about humans, not dogs, but as most things do, the book makes me think of things canine-related. So, while my speculations are just that – and not fact – because dogs and humans have very similar brains in terms of structure, chemical reactions, and neuroplasticity, I feel comfortable trying to make some analogies.

Not a reactive dog. This blog just doesn't have enough Lola.

So, I’ve already posted about the idea that reactivity seems similar to PTSD in some ways, how treatment of PTSD tends to take a multi-pronged approach, and how that might inform our training strategies. But what makes something traumatic?

The truth is, we cannot save ourselves or our dogs from bad experiences. Bad things just happen, and they happen to everyone. What’s more, not all bad things have the same consequences. But why is that? Why are some people (and dogs) traumatized, while others bounce back just fine? The answer is undoubtedly multifactorial, and one of the most important predictors in whether or not a bad thing rises to the level of trauma is how the person/dog was able to physically react.

Brain science time: When we face a stressful event, our brain and body secretes stress hormones (like adrenaline) that serve to “fuel resistance or escape.” Your basic fight-or-flight response. Our bodies are basically pre-programmed to stop thinking and to run for safety; once there, those hormones can dissipate. After that happens, the fight-or-flight response turns off, and our rational brain turns back on, allowing us to understand that the threat is over.

Dr. van der Kolk argues that the ability to move, to do something is critical. Immobilization keeps the body in a “state of inescapable shock and learned helplessness.” The brain and body keep secreting hormones, and as a result, continues to react as though that threat is still present, even long after the situation has ended. Dr. van der Kolk says this is why, for example, 90% of sexual abuse survivors will develop PTSD – because they cannot escape the situation, and thus the fight-or-flight response continues to be activated.

Now, let’s think about our dogs’ lives. Part of responsible pet ownership in the United States includes leash laws, use of crates or x-pens, and other forms of restraint. And for the most part, I think these are good things. Heaven knows I don’t want an off-leash dog rushing my dogs! Of course, the problem is that when we do get rushed, my dogs can’t escape the danger. They’re immobilized, unable to recover, and PTSD can develop. (Well, assuming that the dog interpreted the oncoming dog as danger, of course. Half my dogs would welcome the playmate, and therefore not be traumatized!)

Because we humans control almost every single aspect of our dogs’ lives, the likelihood of PTSD/reactivity seems pretty high to me. Think about it: they have a reduced capacity to escape dogs or people during neighborhood walks. They can be aggravated by someone on the other side of their yard’s fence. They are unable to escape being poked and prodded at the vets. They can’t escape children poking their fingers through their crates. The more confined the dog feels, and the more dangerous/threatening the perceive the situation to be, the more likely it is that PTSD/reactivity will develop.

So. What can we do about it?

First and foremost, learn to read your dog’s body language. There are lots of great videos and books on the topic (I really like Sarah Kalnajs’ The Language of Dogs DVD). Learn what’s typical for dogs, and then learn what’s typical for your dog. Although most dogs will display similar body language, there are subtleties from dog to dog… and then there are the weirdos like my Napi, who eschews the play bow and does this weird “butt bump” thing instead.

Just as important, respond to your dog’s body language. It does no good to say, “Oh, yes, I see that Rex is scared,” but then force him into the situation anyway. Look, I get it, sometimes you really want to take him to the dog park or got to a training class or compete at that trial. But does he want to be there? And what are you risking by making him do it anyway?

Finally, offer your dog choices as often as you can. I’m not saying that he should rule the world – household rules and structure are necessary components to having a healthy and happy dog – but he shouldn’t be drug across that shiny tile floor or shoved down the stairs or pushed onto a wobble board. And in those situations where he simply must do something, take it slow, give him breaks, and make it worth his while. Better yet, for things like vet visits and medical procedures where you know he won’t have much control, prepare him in advance with husbandry training.

This won’t prevent PTSD/reactivity – like I said earlier, there are a lot of factors in determining whether a person or dog develops it – but it is something you can do to reduce the possibility, and a really nice way to respond if he’s already reactive.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Most Beautiful Thing I've Ever Seen

The two great loves of my life.
Maisy has never been a dog who likes to be touched, although she will tolerate it. She especially hates having her head touched; any time I've reached over to give her a pat, only for her to duck away - or at least flinch. I've gotten used to this, and try to limit my primate-hands-on instincts.

But these rules don't seem to apply to my fiance. She loves him. Indeed, her affection for him was a major driver in our getting together in the first place, but even so, I didn't really understand how much she loves him until Monday night.

Maisy is curled up on a pillow sleeping as Cesar is getting ready to leave for work. He leans over to say goodbye and kisses her on the top of her head; she lifts her head up, looks him in the eye, and then gives one deliberate lick to his face.

I swear to god, she kissed him back, and it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Napoleon Update

I’ve been wanting to update everyone on Napoleon’s progress, but it’s been hard to know what to say. I think that, overall, he’s doing better… but he’s still got a long way to go. I doubt he will ever make the progress that Maisy has, if only because there is no way I have the time or energy to do that again. I wrote recently about the time and money costs that went into her training, but that doesn’t even begin to touch the emotional costs. No doubt about it, rehabbing a reactive dog is exhausting and occasionally discouraging work.

Then again, living with a reactive dog is too.

Napi has a very small world. He almost never leaves the property. We are lucky to have a relatively large privacy fenced yard, and even luckier that he actually uses it to exercise. He may not get daily walks, but I’d be willing to bet that with the amount of zooming around he does -chasing and being chased - he actually gets better cardio.

It’s sad, though. I enjoy going to the dog park with my dogs; we have a large, wooded park with great paths and huge open spaces. While dog parks definitely have their own challenges, it’s my only legal place to walk my dogs off leash, so we go. Or, we used to. We don’t go much anymore since we feel sad leaving Napi behind.

His behavior makes it hard to travel; we took the crew camping a month or so back, and Napi really struggled. He ended up getting quite a bit of trazodone as a result. It’s also hard to have people over, since he gets pretty worked up when folks first arrive. While the other dogs will calm down quickly, it takes him much longer.

WHY does this picture have to be blurry??
Still… he’s doing better. We had some friends over the other day – two adults, and two children (4 and 7) – and he was eventually able to calm down and visit with everyone. We still haven’t quite figured out the best way to introduce him to new people and dogs. Restraining him makes things worse, but he’s an absolute ass for ten minutes or so (barking and nipping and dogs, barking and humping people). This time we tried crating with a bully stick for awhile first. It worked okay.

Our biggest area of struggle is just everyday living. He will bark and growl and trot around the house when he hears noises. Unfortunately, we live in a duplex, so there are often noises from upstairs. Nothing big – sounds of footsteps, mostly – but while the other dogs have gotten used to them, he just can’t. Maisy was like this at one point too, but medication really did fix that for her. Unfortunately, Napi is like this even though he’s already on meds. My vet and I are doing some drug experimentations, but so far, I’m not thrilled with what we’ve tried.

What I really need to do is suck it up and do the relaxation protocol. To start working on exposure. Find some time to get him into another reactive dog class. There’s no reason I can’t do this, other than what I said back in the beginning – I just don’t have the energy. Still, we’ll all be a lot happier if I do this, so I guess it’s time to work up a plan.

I’ve decided to start small with one small training session a day. Since his anxiety seems pretty generalized, the relaxation protocol seems like the best place to start. I suspect we’ll get the most bang for our buck, and it really doesn’t take much brain power. It’s mostly just boring. Right now I’m working on teaching him to go to a mat. I’ll spend a few days on this, then move on to a modified version of Day 1 of the protocol. I’ll keep you guys updated as we go.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Holding On and Letting Go: In Memory of Shanoa

What happens when you’ve done everything possible for your reactive dog and it isn’t enough? How do you decide when it’s time to let go? And how do you cope with the feelings of guilt?

These are terrible questions, and as glad as I am that I have not had to deal with them personally, I am devastated that one of my best friends does. On Friday, my friend Nicky made an incredibly courageous and compassionate choice for her reactive, anxious dog Shanoa, and it breaks my heart. I want to find a miracle cure for her dog, and I can’t. I want to wrap her up in love and take away all her pain, and I can’t. Instead, I sit with the knowledge that Nicky has lost her friend. And it sucks.

I met Nicky and Shanoa in 2010, when they joined the reactive dog class that Maisy and I were in. Shanoa was a beautiful Doberman from a not-so-great breeder who failed to socialize her and then sold her as an older puppy. The deck was stacked against Shanoa right from the start. The double whammy of poor genetics and no socialization is an awful combination; it’s like a house of cards built on a table with one too-short leg.

Nicky worked hard to keep the table balanced, the cards stable. And at first, it looked as though she might succeed. Shanoa was never the explosive dog in class; that was always left for Maisy. It was Maisy who would bark and lunge at everyone else. Both dogs started medication, and while Maisy showed improvements, they were subtle and gradual. Shanoa, though? She showed drastic and almost immediate improvement. I remember looking at her enviously as she slept through class in her crate, bored with the unstimulating environment, while Maisy continued to react at things. Shanoa did so well, in fact, that she became a certified therapy dog. She visited hospice patients, bringing joy and comfort.

But slowly, the positive effects of the medication wore off. Maybe her body got used to them; I don’t know. They saw the veterinary behaviorist, switched things up, and all was well again. Nicky decided to pursue nosework instead of therapy work because Shanoa enjoyed it more, and again she excelled… until the effects of the new meds wore off. And so began a years-long cycle of trying new meds, having them work initially, and then failing. There is literally not a behavior drug out there that they have not tried: multiple different SSRIs, short-acting drugs, even benzos. All showed early promise and then petered out.

When the last-ditch-effort drugs lowered Shanoa’s inhibitions, my friend recognized that they were in an untenable position. Shanoa continued to be anxious, unable to function even in her own home, let alone out of it. Even her safe places – like her crate – no longer soothed her. Meanwhile, her lowered inhibitions resulted in behaviors that required heroic management to keep everyone safe.

It must be noted that at no point was Shanoa a “bad dog.” She was a suffering dog. She had a debilitating medical condition that made life miserable for her. And at no point did Nicky fail her. She tried everything. She did the same types and quantities of training that I did with Maisy. She did drugs. She did management. She found safe outlets for Shanoa. And so she did the only thing she could.

She let her go.

I am in awe of my friend. You see, I believe that love is not about being together 24/7. Love is about sacrifice. Love is about selflessness. Love is a balance of holding on and letting go. Nicky could have held on longer. Life was difficult with Shanoa, but she could have made it work. I know that if Shanoa was difficult-but-happy, Nicky would have done whatever it took without complaint. But Shanoa was not happy, and holding on would not have been living. It takes a great deal of courage to do this - to voluntarily subject yourself to pain to save a loved one from it, to open yourself up to judgment and criticism from others. To let go.

I don’t know how to end this post, except to say, Nicky: I love you. Thank you for embodying compassion, courage, and love. I know it hurts, and I’m so sorry.