Sunday, August 17, 2014

Project Gratitude: The Rabies Challenge Fund

In September 2013, Maisy became suddenly and critically ill. Our blog readers rallied around us, providing us with the emotional and financial support needed to get through a very stressful time. Although I will never be able to pay you all back, I can pay it forward through Project Gratitude. Please email me at reactivechampion (at) gmail (dot) com if you have an individual or cause that you would like me to consider donating to.

For Project Gratitude this month... er, *coughlastmonthcough*... I donated to the Rabies Challenge Fund. This project is dedicated to determining the length of immunity the rabies vaccine provides. I love vaccines - LOVE THEM - but that doesn't mean I want to give them more often than I need to. The Rabies Challenge Fund is trying to extend the current rabies booster interval from a maximum of 3 years to 5 years and eventually 7 years. It would also determine an actual rabies titer standard, allowing titer exemptions to be written into law. 

The Rabies Challenge Fund is at a critical juncture; they have recently gotten a commitment from a USDA-approved facility to complete the challenge tests, but they need money to do this. PLUS, they currently have a dollar-for-dollar match available, which means that I donated like twice as much money! Awesome.

If you are interested in minimal vaccine protocols, want to be part of science, or if you have a dog like mine with a wacky immune system that makes future vaccinations a bit scary, please consider donating! :)

Friday, August 15, 2014

This is why we can't have nice things (Or, Napi goes to the ER)

Yesterday around noon, my fiance texted me: Napi had some hives along his sides. I told him to give some benadryl, which cleared up the hives. Napi was fine for the rest of the afternoon. I left around 6pm to do a private training consult, and when I got home again around 830pm, the hives were back, and worse, he was acting uncomfortably itchy.

I gave another dose of benadryl and the itching subsided, but the hives didn't. I figured we were in for a vet visit, but wanted to avoid the emergency vet because of Napi's stress/reactivity/aggression/whatever you want to call them issues. I know and trust our regular vet (Lake Harriet in Minneapolis- they are AWESOME for stressy dogs), but emergency vets are always a crapshoot.

But middle of the night, Napi woke me up by rubbing all over me, breathing heavy and fast, and looking like this:

Swollen and miserable.
Yup. We went to the emergency vet. He got a shot of benadryl and steroids, and sent home with a week's worth of steroids too. (Actually, I'm just using Maisy's leftover pred... the vet was a bit confused by the well-stocked pharmacy I have, lol.)

He was surprisingly not awful. He did need a muzzle, and he did growl and lunge at the techs/vet initially, but by the end, he was... well not loud and not bitey or even wearing a muzzle! Which is impressive for him!

We don't know what he reacted to, but the hives, swelling, and itching are gone tonight, and I'm very happy for that. I'll admit that before Cesar and I moved in together, I secretly wished he didn't have Napi, but now? I wouldn't give him up for anything. I love him so so so much, and I am so glad he's okay.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It's Not Your Fault: Why the Problem Might be Your Reactive Dog's Brain

Insane in the membrane. Insane in the brain.
So often, I talk with dedicated dog owners who have tried to do everything right, but have ended up with a reactive (or anxious, or aggressive, or other behavior-problem-label of your choice) dog anyway. Heck, it’s happened to me twice. Unfortunately, many of these people blame themselves. They think they must have done something wrong, because why else would their dog have so many problems? While there are certainly things that humans can and do to create issues in their dogs, the fact that most dogs are so incredibly well-adjusted despite everything is a testament to the fact that dogs are pretty resilient creatures… and that the occasional mistake is nothing to fret about.

But still, some dogs just aren’t right. From reactivity to anxiety to aggression, there are dogs who just don’t function well despite training classes and socialization and good intentions. Sometimes this is because the dog’s brain just isn’t wired right. Now, I’m no neuroscientist, but I do play one on the internet. And today, I want to share how stress can affect a developing brain, and why doing everything right may not matter if your dog came from a less-than-ideal background.

Science is pretty clear that stress in young mammals influences both brain development and physical growth. Stress can come in many forms. In children, there’s the obvious abuse and neglect, but then there’s the less obvious: poverty, housing instability, witnessing violence, growing up in bad neighborhoods, malnutrition, and so on. These chronic adverse events that the child and/or his caretakers have no control over changes the way the brain grows.

For dogs, such toxic stress during the early developmental period can happen in a number of ways. Puppy mills – and other deprived environments – are an obvious example of a stressful environment, but growing up in a shelter or a rescue can disrupt the growing brain, too. Sudden separations from human or canine caretakers, frequent change, environments characterized by sensory overload, and long periods of confinement are stressful. And even dogs from good breeders can be subjected to stress in the wrong circumstances: too much handling by a child, being harassed by another resident animal, or chronic medical problems on the part of the pup or the mother.

This does not mean that every dog from a puppy mill or rescue is going to have behavior problems. Indeed, if that were the case, people would stop getting dogs from these places. Some dogs have genes that are “turned on” by stressful events more readily than other dogs, making them more susceptible to the effects of stress. We see this in human children too; for some, stress creates a resilient brain, while in others, it creates a brain vulnerable to a host of behavioral problems.

So, just how does stress affect the developing brain?

First, it’s important to understand that stress is a normal part of functioning, and that overcoming a challenge creates a stronger brain and a sense of mastery. It is therefore important that children and dogs experience occasional frustration in doses they can overcome so that they develop the neuronal connections needed for a healthy brain. Not only is it impossible to shield your young mammal from stress, it’s inadvisable.

When a mammal experiences stress, the brain releases chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. These prime the brain to be able to respond to potential danger. Once the stressful event is over, the chemicals dissipate, and the brain returns to its normal state of functioning. However, when stress is either prolonged or recurrent, the brain never fully gets rid of the stress hormones. This changes the way the brain develops.

Recent research has shown that there are notable differences in the amounts of gray matter vs. white matter in the brains of overly stressed children as opposed to those who experience normal amounts of stress. Basically, gray matter is responsible for higher functions like thinking and decision-making, while white matter is what connects the various brain structures. Chronic stress seems to create more white matter, which naturally results in less gray matter. In turn, this reduces the volume of brain structures that allow for rational thought in the face of potentially threatening events. At the same time, that increased white matter basically creates a short circuit in the brain. Even when there isn’t a stressor present, the brain may continue to respond as if there is. This tends to cause overreactions to things that aren’t actually dangerous.

Not only are the connections stronger between the lower brain structures that control emotional responses, but some brain structures become overdeveloped. The amygdala and other associated limbic system structures – which are associated with stress responses – are often enlarged, while the hippocampus and other higher brain structures – responsible for problem solving and rational thought – are smaller.

The end result is a brain that idles on high. It is more easily hijacked by stress, and will respond with more frequency and intensity to smaller stressors. The circuitry activates longer, and the recovery time takes longer.

In other words: your reactive dog’s brain? Is not like your normal dog’s brain. And as a result, his ability to process things that happen to him and respond to the world around him is going to be impaired. It’s not only unfair to expect him deal with the world without additional support, it’s probably impossible.

That’s not to say that your dog can’t improve. Science has shown that the brain is incredibly plastic – it can rewire itself and become more functional – but this takes a lot of time and effort. And even with the best interventions, we don’t know yet if all the scars left on the brain by stress can be erased. Sometimes adjusting the expectations we have for our reactive dogs is the kindest thing we can do.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mental Illness IS Physical Illness

I think it would be helpful to stop referring to depression and other mood disorders as “mental illness” because, although technically correct, that term has been stigmatized and it makes non-sufferers assume either that people suffering from mental illness are beyond help or that they just need to cheer up and/or try harder. Depression is a neurological disorder.

People who have depression do not just experience disordered emotional responses, they experience disordered perceptions and engage in disordered thinking. This is because their  brain processes are not functioning properly. Their neurons are not as they should be. Their hypothalamus, pituitary glands, and adrenal glands are being continuously triggered and their cortisol is not being inhibited; their amygdala (fear processing and fearful memory consolidation) may be enlarged as a result and their hippocampus (learning and memory) may be reduced in size. Their sleep patterns are abnormal and resemble that of someone who’s worked their entire lives 9-5 and now they’re being forced to work 3rd shift; their REM sleep comes on too soon and too often, they don’t experience deeper sleep stages as often as they should. Ongoing stress and sudden trauma trigger their symptoms, even after long periods of having recovered.

This is not about being weak or failing to be strong. This is not about “feeling sad.”

I think we need to put this to the fore every time this subject comes up. Depression is a disorder of the brain and body, not a psychological set-back or character flaw. Please be compassionate of others’ or your own suffering because it is real and deserves to be legitimized and treated. 
-          Colleen A. Falconer

I’ve posted this quote for two reasons.

First, because this is an excellent description of just how depression (and many other mood disorders) is truly a biological illness, not something that’s “all in the head.” There are true physical differences in the brain, and these differences need to be medically treated. Because this description is so clear, it needs to be shared as widely. This platform is the best one I have to get the message out to as many people as possible, regardless of whether or not it is on topic.

And second, because it IS on topic. We humans are not unique or somehow special in suffering from the brain-based neurological disorders that we currently call “mental illness.” While it is true that diagnosing mood disorders in animals is tricky at best because animals can’t tell us what’s going on in their heads (which is why I prefer to use a veterinary behaviorist whenever possible), we can observe behaviors that suggest conditions like anxiety, compulsions, stress disorders, etc. In addition, there is no reason to believe that other mammals, whose brains look so very much like our own, couldn’t have abnormal neurons or brain structures associated with these diseases.

I’m not advocating for the over-medication of society, human or animal. I am advocating for appropriate treatment. Just as other medical problems can be treated with a multi-pronged approach (for example, diabetes often requires changes in diet and exercise in addition to medication), human “mental illness” can be treated through a variety of approaches, as can “behavior problems” in animals. But appropriate treatment can and does include medication, and just because it has been inappropriately prescribed in some cases does not mean that it’s inappropriate in all cases.

Mental illnesses are physical illnesses, and having one can be painful and affect one’s quality of life. These illnesses are often chronic conditions that require lifelong monitoring and maintenance; they aren’t something one just “gets over.” Maybe someday we will find a cure, but in the meantime, we are fortunate to live in a time when these illnesses can be treated. Please, do not allow yourself or your loved one to suffer needlessly. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happy 4th birthday, Lola!

I have never felt any particular attraction to basset hounds... but when I look at this face, my heart is full of love. Happy birthday, Lolita.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

First Level 3 Leg (WCRL)

I really haven't done any training with Maisy in a year. First she got so sick, then I got Pyg, then I moved in with two more dogs, and... well, yeah. Despite that, I decided to enter her in Level 3 at the WCRL trial hosted by my breed club this weekend.

We've never done Level 3 before, and I was just tickled pink by her performance:

She scored 200 (we didn't get any bonus points because hey, you can't retry a bonus exercise- I had no idea!- and in looking at the video, the reason we failed was a lack of clarity on my part... which training would have helped) and got 1st place!

I wanted to try for her title, but then she threw up all over, so we went home again. Very happy with my little muppet dog. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Scaredy Cat, Part 3: From Fear to Friend

My fiance's dog Lola is scared of cats. I have a cat. This presented a problem when we decided to move in together, especially when you consider that we live in a relatively small space with few places for either of them to escape. The relationship needed to be fixed.

We've already talked about the need for management. Management is an ongoing thing that really can't stop. This is especially true when you have a large, powerful, or tenacious dog. Dogs can and do kill cats. As you read today's post about changing emotions, keep in mind that management needs to continue happening alongside this training.

The way we change emotions in non-human animals is through classical conditioning. I've written about classical conditioning before (see here), and you can also click on the "classical conditioning" tab at the bottom of this post and in the side bar to the right. The TL;DR version: we are going to teach our dogs that cats are awesome creatures who bring delicious foodstuffs like chicken and bacon and potato chips. We do this by letting the dog see/smell/hear the cat, and then giving her something super delicious.

Before I go any further, this post is about dogs who are AFRAID of cats. Some dogs don't get along with cats due to predatory behavior. If this is the case with your dog, strict management and a consultation with a professional trainer is in order. And then more strict management, likely for as long as they are both alive.

Doing behavior work with cats can be difficult because cats aren't crazy about being restrained. Most cats are not leash trained or crate trained, cutting out two major ways we tend to restrain pets. But, even for those who are, I don't think it's fair to restrain the cat. Not only has my kitty lived with me longer than the dog has even been alive, kitty knows that he is smaller, and therefore more vulnerable, than the dog. I don't ever want my cat to feel unsafe. Not only does that create acrimony, but it also predisposes the cat to go on the defensive and attack the dog... kind of defeating the purpose.

Rule 1: The cat must always feel safe.
Rule 2: The cat must always have a choice about whether or not to participate.
Rule 3: Management always happens in parallel to training.

Thankfully, we have a very easy way to start the classical conditioning process without stressing the cat out: through smell. The first thing I did with Lola was to rub a cloth all over my cat to get his scent on it. Later on, when the cat wasn't around (because we weren't all living together yet, but also because management, remember?), I presented the cat-cloth to Lola to investigate. After about five seconds, I put the cloth behind my back, gave her an amazing treat, and then brought the cloth back out for her to smell again. I repeated this process until Lola was no longer interested in the smell and was instead demanding cookies.

I repeated this sequence several times, and each time we did the exercise, Lola was less interested in the cloth. At this point, you may want to use a new/different object to hold the cat's scent so that you are actually conditioning your dog to the smell, and not the cloth. I didn't do this, but wish I had.

The next step happened when we all moved in together. We created a "safe room" for our kitty. This room had his litterbox, a water dish, his food bowl, a comfy bed, and some cat nip. I always do this when I move with a cat; it seems easiest for them to adjust if they only need to see one room at a time. However, this gave us the bonus of allowing Lola to be able to smell and hear the cat - but not see him. This is important because it helps keep the dog under threshold by limiting the amount of cat stimuli she's exposed to. Then we just fed them on the other side of the door from each other to help create good feelings.

You'll note that I said that both animals were being fed during this process. Classical conditioning should be done for both animals whenever possible. For our kitty, being barked at was pretty unpleasant, and we wanted to minimize any stress or grumpiness on his part.

Rule 4: Condition both animals to reduce stress on the cat.

The next step was to allow the animals to be in the same room together, feeding and praising them both for calm interactions. For the safety of the cat, the dog should be wearing a leash. If you aren't holding the leash, you should be able to reach it quickly in order to intervene. If you're at all worried that the dog will grab the cat and you'll need to break up a fight (or worse), you're moving too fast. Slow down, take a step back, and then come back to this step when you don't think your dog will eat your cat.

Rule 6: Don't take chances. Cats are small and vulnerable to a physical attack. Move slowly. 

You can gradually increase the amount of time the two spend together, keeping in mind that good management should be going on when you aren't present either physically or mentally. You should continue to tell both animals how amazing they are (and back that up with deliciousness whenever possible) for a long time. Classical conditioning needs to happen for a long time in order to solidify a strong positive emotion.

At some point, though, you will want to begin introducing some operant elements- some purposeful commands that you can give (the dog; cats are trainable, but it's such a pain to do it) that will help direct the dog on what to do. This can be used to get out of some tight spots, or when mistakes happen (and they will). I'll talk about that in my next post.