Thursday, October 28, 2010

Medication Update: 2 Weeks

Maisy has been on paroxetine for two weeks now. She took a half dose for the first week, and has been on the full dose (8mg) for a week now. Since the prescribing information I received from the compounding pharmacy said that we may see results as early as 2 weeks, I thought it would be interesting to do a quick evaluation of how it’s going so far.

The most important thing is that Maisy has tolerated the paroxetine well. She hasn’t had any significant side effects, and at this point, it is unlikely that she will. She has had slightly harder, dryer stools, but nothing that’s worth worrying about. It may or may not even be related to the paroxetine, but either way, I’ve been supplementing her breakfast with canned pumpkin to help her out.

I do think the paroxetine is helping. The veterinary behaviorist told us not to expect improvement until Maisy’s been on the medication for 4 to 6 weeks, with full effectiveness at 8 weeks, but even so, I’ve noticed some small changes that give me glimmers of hope.

The first thing I noticed happened after Maisy’s fourth (half) dose, when she actually took a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Not only that, but she actually slept for the entire time, and didn’t startle awake a single time! It used to be that if I touched her while she was lying next to me, she would jump. Now when I pet her (or even just accidentally bump her), she might simply lift her head, but often she just opens her eyes to look at me instead.

The restlessness seems to have reduced as well. For example, about a month ago, Maisy and I were hanging out together while I watched television. Maisy was lying down, and over the course of 45 minutes, I counted 11 times that she lifted her head for two to three minutes to scan the environment. Yesterday, we did the same thing, and although the count came out the same, it seemed like she was actually resting. Each time she lifted her head, it only lasted five to ten seconds, and several times, it seemed that she was actually shifting to get more comfortable. She went from curled up in a ball next to me, to lying flat on her side, to lying sprawled on her back!

I think this is part of an overall trend of lower intensity reactions, especially when something startles her. For example, the other day Maisy was lying next to me quietly when I heard a noise outside. Maisy heard it too, and I thought she was going to jump up like she used to. Instead, she jerked her head slightly, but only lifted it about an inch off the couch! I’m not sure if she interrupted her response on purpose or not, but it was amazing to see.

The vocalizations around the house are happening less often, too. When I did the behavior logs prior to her appointment, I learned that Maisy would jump up and growl, bark or “wuff” at subtle or undetectable stimuli an average of 3.375 times a day. In an effort to get some objective data, I’ve been keeping a behavior log for the last 48 hours. During this time, she’s only displayed the behavior four times, for an average of twice a day.

As for her leash reactivity, well, it’s too soon to say for sure. She did growl a little bit at a chocolate lab that we saw in our local pet store the other day. She even lunged at him, but by the time she reached the end of the leash, the growl had dissolved into this pathetic whine. Later, as we were standing in the check-out line, the same dog rushed up to Maisy, and although she briefly stiffened up, she quickly relaxed.

Yesterday, as we were walking past an elementary school, a group of half a dozen older kids suddenly burst out of the school, chattering loudly. I could see Maisy tensing up as if she was going to lunge and bark. However, instead of having a hair-trigger reaction, it almost seemed like she was thinking about whether or not she should react. This slight hesitation (it was really only an extra half a second) was just enough time for me to interrupt her response, and we played a quick round of Look at That instead!

For all of these changes, Maisy is still the same dog. She’s still energetic, playful, and eager to train and work. Her personality hasn’t changed at all. She doesn’t seem drugged up or different in any way, she just seems more comfortable. We should see this increase as the medication becomes fully effective, and while it’s possible that she might need a second med to help her completely, I’m thrilled with what I’ve seen so far.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Encounters of the Couch Kind: How Video Can Help Our Dogs

Maisy has always been cautious of new objects, especially those that suddenly appear where they shouldn’t. I recently got a great example of this on video:

I recorded this on one of our daily walks a few weeks ago. Although I didn’t set it up this way, I got lucky that the day I was taking video to prepare for Maisy’s appointment with the veterinary behaviorist was the same day that someone decided to put a couch out on their curb.

I really like this video because it clearly demonstrates just how nervous it makes Maisy to encounter something unexpected; she startles several times throughout the video. This is a long-standing trait of hers. She’d lived with me for less than three weeks when she first expressed her displeasure at something changing. In that case, she barked with all of her puppy might at a soda can that I had carelessly left sitting out. Since then, she’s grown up, and more importantly, she’s grown braver. A lot of this is because we’ve worked hard on dealing with environmental changes, so I’m very proud that she was brave enough to investigate an object she clearly felt unsure about.

I also like this video because it’s a nice example of what I’ve previously called the conflicted nature of reactivity. Even though Maisy’s not lunging, barking or growling here, you can clearly see the conflicted feelings that often lead up to such reactivity. (And, in fact, later in this walk, she did lunge at a biker- a trigger that she has largely overcome. You can see that video here.)

But what I really find fascinating about this video is the way she startles. Although it initially seems more like a double-take, later on, her jumpiness coincides with road noise from cars, something that doesn’t normally provoke a response from her. This suggests to me that relatively benign changes have the effect of increasing her environmental vigilance. In turn, this increased vigilance probably contributed to her reactivity towards the biker.

Beyond the insight I gained into Maisy’s behavior, this video also showed me that there is a clear advantage to studying a recording over assessing a dog live. Being able to watch the same event several times allowed me to see more nuance to Maisy’s behavior. It allowed me fully concentrate on what she was doing without needing to worry about what was going on around us, or trying to manage the situation. And good video always helps me see ways I can improve the way I interact with my dog.

Of course, this last bit can be difficult- no one likes seeing what they do wrong. For example, my handling skills are not great in this video. I should have offered Maisy treats as she first began to interact with the couch in order to reinforce bravery. Instead, she didn’t get a treat until after she moved away from the couch, which was, at best, ineffective counter-conditioning, and at worst, reinforcing the retreat rather than the approach.

I don’t like to make excuses for my mistakes- I prefer to learn from them. However, in this case, the excuse actually offers a really good lesson. You see, I thought that it would be better if the veterinary behaviorist saw videos of Maisy “how she really is,” so I didn’t offer her as much guidance as I normally do. Unfortunately, my hands-off approach meant that vet behaviorist had less to work with when advising me. Considering how valuable I found her suggestions, I wish she could have seen more of how I normally interact with Maisy.

Still, I found that taking videos of Maisy in everyday situations was incredibly enlightening. Although I’ve been recording formal training sessions for a long time, I never realized before how much I could learn by watching videos of my dog outside of training. Doing so has allowed me to see new pieces to the puzzle that is Maisy- pieces that, when put together, have allowed me to see just how anxious my poor dog is… and it makes me feel confident that my decision to put her on medication was the correct one.

But enough about me. I’m curious to know how you guys use video. When do you take it? And if you haven’t, why not? Have you learned anything interesting about your dog? About yourself? How have you adjusted your training strategies as a result? I can’t wait to hear about your experiences.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Protecting Our Dogs, Part 2: Practice Makes Perfect

As we discussed in my last post, there are a number of different ways to protect our dogs. I’ve chosen to use citronella spray in order to protect Maisy from off-leash and out-of-control dogs. Today, I’d like to tell you about what I did to prepare both Maisy and myself before I had to use it for the first time.

The first time I bought citronella spray, I bought two cans. One was for protection. The other was for practice. No matter what method you choose to protect your dog, it seems wise to figure out the mechanics of how it works. In the case of the spray, I needed to learn how to quickly disengage the safety lock so that I wasn’t fumbling around with it in the heat of the moment. Once I was able to do that smoothly, I practiced using it so that I understood the range and how to accurately hit what I was aiming for.

After I felt comfortable using the spray alone, I brought Maisy into the picture. Part of the reason citronella spray works is because it has a strong scent that dogs typically want to avoid. Since I didn’t want to add to the stress of being rushed by a strange dog, I conditioned Maisy to associate the smell of the spray with good things. I started by squirting a small amount away from Maisy and giving her a high value treat. As she became comfortable with this, I slowly sprayed it closer and closer to her, until I was aiming directly over her head. (Full disclosure: I got the idea to do this from the amazing Sara.)

This worked well, and the first time I had to use the spray, I felt comfortable with it. While Maisy was upset by the incident, I knew that I had done everything I could to minimize the impact of the spray as a stressor. (Incidentally, after every use of the spray in the real world, I wait for a week or so, and then repeat the conditioning exercise with whatever is left in the can.) However, I found that I wasn’t sure how to both use the can and manage Maisy at the same time.

The solution was to teach her to hide behind me. We’re still working on this, because a behavior has to be incredibly strong to even have a chance of working when a dog is stressed or over-threshold. Still, Maisy is learning that when I step forward, move in front of her, and use the arm closest to her to sweep back towards her, it means that she should go behind me. I’ve been telling her to “get back,” but I also think “go home” would be a nice cue, because that’s what I say to the other dog. When I teach the cue, I try to use a louder, sterner voice than I usually do with her so that when I yell at the other dog, it doesn’t surprise her as much.

These two simple steps have prepared Maisy and I for the vast majority of the encounters we have had with off-leash and out-of-control dogs. I really wish that I didn't need to spend so much time and energy worrying about such encounters, but the truth is, they really set Maisy back in her training. The residual stress impacts her for at least a week, if not longer. Plus, there is the very real risk of physical injury. Thankfully, having prepared both of us for potential encounters makes them less stressful when they do happen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Protecting Our Dogs, Part 1: Making Decisions

Because she shouldn't have to say hi unless she wants to.

Writing about our awesome new place to walk earlier this week must have jinxed us, because Maisy and I encountered two loose dogs there the day after I posted about it. Thankfully, these were friendly dogs out on a romp, not the frustrated, aggressive ones we’ve encountered in our own neighborhood.

Even so, I found this upsetting, because there is no reason for Maisy to have to put up with rude dogs simply because they “want to say hi,” and there is no reason for me to require her to do so, even if the other dog’s owner says he’s friendly. Suzanne Clothier has written a wonderful article about this. Although I agree that Maisy would be within her rights to defend herself against rude dogs, I have come to believe that it is my job to protect Maisy from having to do so.

This means that I have developed some strategies for protecting her. I thought it might be helpful for others to read about what I do, and I know it will be helpful for me to read about what you guys do. That said, this topic is bigger than I can adequately cover in one post, so today, I’d like to discuss the decisions that need to be made before taking action. Although I’m primarily writing this from the perspective of protecting Maisy from other dogs, I will mention other situations where applicable.

The first step is to figure out how much protection your dog needs. If you have one of those mythical “normal” dogs, he might be able to emotionally withstand rude greetings. My dog, however, cannot. She’s been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and has fear issues. Beyond that, though, she is small and physically vulnerable due to her long back and poor structure. Larger dogs- even if they are friendly- could easily hurt her during an overly-exuberant greeting.

As a result, I have a no-tolerance policy with loose or out-of-control dogs: I spray first, and ask questions later. This has not made me popular with their owners, and I have been yelled at. Frankly, I think I’d feel the same way if our roles were reversed, so I carefully consider the risks involved if I choose to let Maisy off-leash in a place where it is not permitted. (I never take her to designated off-leash areas.) I also try to communicate with other owners whenever possible, and always ask them to keep their dog away from mine.

I absolutely love the owners who extend me the same courtesy by asking me if their dogs can greet mine. I usually say no, explain why, and thank them for asking. I only say yes if Maisy seems especially interested and the other dog is either small or extremely calm. This is definitely something you need to think about in advance, though, because it is easy to feel pressured and agree without fully considering the matter.

As a side note, I no longer allow children I don’t know to interact with Maisy at all. Most kids will scream “puppy!” and start chasing after her. I have found that it is easy to stop them by stepping in between them and Maisy, holding up my hand like a traffic cop, and loudly and firmly saying “Stop!” I also decline when children ask if they can pet her. I used to try to coach them on how to interact with her, but found that they rarely listened to me, and that even when they did, Maisy seemed stressed.

Anyway, once you’ve decided which situations require an intervention, you need to decide how you will do it. The first time Maisy got jumped by another dog, I kicked it. I felt awful about it even though I knew I needed to do it to prevent her from getting hurt. Besides, relying on my feet as a defensive maneuver requires that the other dog get far closer to us than I am comfortable with, and leaves me open to the possibility of being bitten myself.

For awhile, I tried putting myself between my dog and the other dog. When I did this, I would draw myself up to my full height, lean forward towards the other dog, and very sternly tell it to go home. This was effective on some dogs, but not that many. It was also difficult because Maisy, being reactive, had a tendency to rush forward and tell off the other dog. Not very effective.

I’ve heard of people interrupting an approaching dog by flinging a handful of treats at their face. Although I always carry treats with me, I’ve chosen not to do this. Personally, I find it difficult to get in my jeans pockets, grab a handful, and then aim accurately under pressure. Maisy also has a tendency to resource guard, and I worry that she might provoke a fight because the other dog is not only approaching rudely but also eating her treats!

Ultimately, I settled on using citronella spray. I chose it because it is effective at stopping low to medium level aggression, yet is not painful. This means I don’t have to worry about Maisy being hurt if she was accidentally sprayed or if the wind blew the spray back towards her. I also really like it because it has a range of ten feet, which means I can keep approaching dogs well away from Maisy.

So far, I’ve used the citronella spray a number of times, including on the two loose dogs at our new park. It has worked every time, including an incident with a dog that terrified me, although I have learned that some methods of administration are more effective than others. I still don’t like doing it, but it’s the best method I’ve found so far.

I’ll share more about how I use it in the future, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you guys. How much protection does your dog need? When would you feel the need to intervene, and when do you think your dog can handle himself? Have you ever needed to protect your dog in some way? What did you do, and how effective was it? I’m sure you guys have some great ideas I haven’t thought of, and I can’t wait to hear them!

PS- I know the picture in this entry isn't that great, but I decided to use it anyway. For one thing, I don't have any other pictures of Maisy with a strange dog. Plus, I just have to brag about how well she did- even though the dog in the background barked his fool head off at us, Maisy just sat there looking at me with that big, goofy grin! Also, I love those people- their dog was on a leash, and they didn't allow it to approach us.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Training Tuesday: Moving to Day Zero

In my last update, I commented that I wasn’t getting the results I wanted from the Relaxation Protocol, and as a result, wasn’t sure what to do next. Since I knew that we had an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist, I decided to hold off on the protocol until I could consult with her. We decided that I should start over with the protocol.

So I did. But I’m still not happy with how Maisy’s doing. Here’s a video of Maisy and I doing Day 1:

Although Maisy did much better this time than when we started the protocol at the end of August, she still isn’t really relaxing. In the video, you’ll notice that while she remains in a down, she’s in more of an alert down, crouched and ready for action. She maintains eye contact for the majority of the time. Her chin never touches the floor.

That said, there are a few moments where she relaxes: she shifts on to her hip at 2:45, and towards the end, her gaze isn’t as focused on me. Unfortunately, I missed those rewardable moments because I was so focused on what I was supposed to be doing (I guess I’m not so good at multi-tasking). I suppose this is the beauty of video, though; it’s really helped me see where I could do a better job with the protocol.

As a result, I’ve decided that we’re going to move back to “Day Zero.” Every night, I’ll just sit next to Maisy on her mat for 3 to 5 minutes, and reward for increased relaxation. I won’t miss things like rolling on her hip or reduced eye contact because all I will be doing is sitting there. I’ll use Dr. Duxbury’s suggestions to slow down and feed in position.

Since we do mat work like this in my reactive dog class, this should be familiar to Maisy, and I expect that she’ll assume the “flat dog” position pretty quickly. Once she can remain flat on her side for the entire time, I should be able to stretch out the amount of time between treats fairly easily.

The next step is for me to move from a sitting position to a standing one. This will completely change the picture for her- I’ve always sat next to her while doing mat work, and I’m usually on the floor, at that. In addition to increasing my rate of reinforcement, I’ll make the transition to standing a fairly gradual one: first, I’ll sit in a chair, then I’ll kneel in front of her, and then I’ll try standing.

Maisy’s medication should be kicking in by then, too, so I think that I’ll begin to see some true relaxation instead of “operant relaxation.” Speaking of medication... Maisy has taken six half-doses of her paroxetine so far. Although it is probably too early for the medication to be doing much, she does seem slightly calmer around the house. Yesterday she actually took a nap! It's possible this is a side-effect (lethargy is a common side-effect of paroxetine), but it's encouraging either way.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Marydale Park

I think I’ve discovered one of the greatest ironies in owning a reactive dog: the daily walk.

The exercise inherent in a walk seems to reduce anxiety, which means that walking is a vital part of helping my dog feel better. I certainly noticed a correlation between exercise (or the lack of it) and subsequent behavior in my behavior logs. At the same time, walks can really set a cautious or fearful dog back. After all, you can’t control what you encounter, like loose dogs. In fact, I’ve found that when such unpredictable events happen, Maisy needs at least a week to recover, and even then, I think the effects are longer lasting.

This became a point of conversation at Maisy’s recent appointment with her veterinary behaviorist. Since April, we have encountered many loose dogs while walking in our neighborhood, and we’ve had several close encounters. Three required the use of citronella spray, two were reported to animal control, and all left me feeling panicky. As a result, I began to seek out alternative places to walk, but had little success. The best option I’d found was walking at Como Lake, a beautiful but popular destination that was just too busy to be relaxing.

This week, on a whim, I stopped off at a small park, with an even smaller lake, halfway between Como and my house. I’ve driven past it dozens of time without a second thought, both because of its size and its proximity to its more popular cousin. As it turns out, though, this makes it perfect for us. We rarely encounter any one else at this park, and so far, we’ve never seen another dog, on-leash or otherwise. Better yet, the probability that we will encounter a loose dog seems quite low; only two of the four streets surrounding the park are residential, and those have a minimum of 50 feet between the path and the road.

Although the lake is small, the walking path around it is just over half a mile in length. This really is ideal, because it means that on the nights I’m in a hurry/tired/lazy/the weather sucks, we can bang out a quick walk in almost no time. Or, we can loop the lake two or three times and have a respectable walk. Hopefully, this repetition will not get boring, but hey- I’ll take boring and safe over interesting and unpredictable any day.

I’m pretty excited by this find, naturally, and I hope that it really is as amazing as it seems. In case it isn’t, though… where do the rest of you with reactive dogs take them for walks? Are you fortunate enough to live in a quieter area? Do you drive your dog somewhere so you can take her for a walk? Do you do something else entirely for exercise? I’d love to hear how others handle this daily challenge.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Small Changes Yield Big Results

She might have her chin down, but she's sure not relaxed!

I’ve known for a long time that Maisy is very sensitive to my moods. At her appointment with the veterinary behaviorist on Monday, Dr. Duxbury saw that, too. She said in her report that during the appointment, “Maisy was exquisitely responsive to [me] but most of her 'relaxed behaviors' (e.g. resting her head on floor, laying on one hip) appeared to be highly reinforced operant responses vs. truly relaxed.”

She went on to acknowledge that this is a tricky area in which to work; while you need to start somewhere, it’s easy to fall into the trap of operantly relaxed, where it’s clear that Maisy is “on” and working, and not actually relaxing. With that in mind, Dr. Duxbury made some suggestions on how I can tweak my current handling in order to promote real relaxation as the medication begins to work.

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Duxbury said that because Maisy takes so many cues from me, I need to be make sure I’m relaxed. She advised me to make a conscious effort to breathe and relax my neck and shoulders. This is much easier said than done!

Slow down
Dr. Duxbury told me that I need to slow down both my physical and verbal interactions with Maisy. She highly recommended that I don’t use a marker with Maisy because it “keeps the response very operant,” and “interrupts and… ends the behavior.” I quit using a clicker for behavior modification long ago, but I think I will reduce my use of a verbal marker, too. I will still praise Maisy occasionally, but Dr. Duxbury cautioned me thatI need to slow down and speak softly so that I’m not so exciting that it encourages Maisy to get up.

Likewise, I need to be mindful of how I deliver food rewards. She said I need to be much slower in my hand movements, because I have a tendency to be “so quick with [my] food rewards that [I] encourage quickness in her response.” A lot of my quickness has developed because I want to get the treat to Maisy while she’s still performing the behavior. Dr. Duxbury acknowledged that I’m right to be concerned about this timing, but recommended using negative punishment- that is, the removal of the food treat if Maisy tries to leave her relaxed position- to help ensure I’m rewarding the position I want.

I tried this out in my reactive dog class on Tuesday, and it worked fabulously. I put Maisy in her crate, and when she moved into a more relaxed position, such as lying her chin on the floor, I very softly said “gooooooood giiiiiiirl.” I then offered her a treat, using slow, fluid motions. Predictably, she would lift her head or even jump up. When she did, I (slowly) moved my hand away. When she put her chin down, I again moved (slowly, fluidly) to give her the treat. Initially, I allowed very small movements to get the treat, but by the end of class, Maisy was able to lie much quieter as she took the treat. Incidentally, she also rolled over flat on her side, and was possibly the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her at class- even her legs (which usually stick straight out without touching the ground) were becoming soft and loose.

Dr. Duxbury said that while it has previously been necessary for me to manage Maisy by providing her with a lot of stimulation (such as through training or playing ball), I need to be careful that this doesn’t prevent her from resting. I will need to reduce the amount of management I do, especially the number of treats I give, and I will need to start allowing her to entertain herself.

To that end, while I should continue the relaxation protocol, I need to do it both in her crate and outside of her crate/on a mat. She said these should be considered two completely separate exercises. Further, she recommended routinely encouraging Maisy to rest quietly on her mat for 20-30 minutes a day instead of trying to keep her engaged in an activity. As the medication begins to take effect, I will hopefully see Maisy shift over into actual resting instead of operant relaxation. When I see this, she advised me not to interrupt her because “rest is also its own reward, and [I] can just allow it to happen.”

Finally, I need to remain attentive to Maisy’s needs. If there is a lot going on in the environment, I may need to switch back to management temporarily. As she wrote, “it is appropriate for [me] to move her away [from the situation] and fire treats at her as rapidly as necessary to reward her for mentally staying with [me].”

I really appreciated that Dr. Duxbury took quite a bit of time during our appointment to help me practice these steps. I learn best by doing, so even though all of this is stuff I’ve been told to do before, having her coach me on how and when to give treats was very helpful.

I am very encouraged by the success we had at class this week, and so I think I’m going to start over with the relaxation protocol. Maisy’s response has been very operant, and that is not at all what I want with it. Instead of following the program so rigidly by treating at the completion of each exercise, I will try to treat only for relaxed responses. I’ll continue with the slow, fluid treat delivery, too. I’m very excited to see how this goes!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why, yes, she does.

Recently, I wondered if Maisy might have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. As a result, I scheduled an appointment with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist to find out. The short answer is yes. But the long answer is probably more interesting…

So, Maisy had her appointment with Dr. Duxbury yesterday. Before I go any further, let me just say that I really enjoyed working with Dr. Duxbury. Since she has so much education and experience, I was nervous that she might be one of those ego-driven specialists you run into from time to time, but nothing could be further from the truth! I really felt that Dr. Duxbury took the time to listen to what I was saying, and she was very respectful of me and the work I’ve done with Maisy. If anyone in the Twin Cities metro area needs a veterinary behaviorist, I would highly recommend her. It was an expensive appointment, but it was worth it.

The actual appointment was about 90 minutes long. Dr. Duxbury complimented me on the pre-appointment questionnaire I had sent in advance; I gave enough details that she had a really good picture of who Maisy is. This ended up saving a lot of time because she didn’t need to take much history from me. In fact, apparently I described things so well that she didn’t even review our behavior logs! Instead, we jumped right into watching videos.

I had about an hour’s worth of video that I had taken at home, in class, while on walks, and even at trials. I really enjoyed watching the videos with her, mostly because she found them so interesting. In fact, she ended up copying all of the videos I brought in so she can use them with her advanced students. She said Maisy is an excellent example of a “complicated case,” and that it will be very helpful for her students to see the video.

I think the video she liked best was the one below. It’s long- 10 minutes- but this is a very typical snapshot of Maisy “relaxing” at home. (The action starts around two minutes in.) Dr. Duxbury was especially interested in the interactions with the cats you see towards the end of the video, especially the stereotypic tail chasing.

Dr. Duxbury’s assessment of Maisy, after viewing the videos, and interacting with her in person, is that she is “functionally anxious.” Dr. Duxbury complimented me on the work I’ve done with her, and said that Maisy might not have been functional at all had circumstances been different for her. Here’s what she wrote in her report:
You have done a wonderful job trying to help Maisy learn to relax and to not react to other dogs and other environmental stimuli. Her continued reactivity and vigilance even in her 'safest' environments (e.g. at your home) suggests that she is generally anxious. This is likely related to her very limited early environment.

I also appreciated that Dr. Duxbury saw Maisy’s good qualities. Most people are quite charmed by Maisy when they meet her- she’s cute, of course, but she has a personality that just doesn’t stop. In fact, it is sometimes hard for people to see that she has issues because she is so functional. Dr. Duxbury described her as “outgoing and social and very eager to play and to work on training, but at the same time she seems overly attentive to subtle stimuli in her environment and reacts… to other dogs.”

Ultimately, Dr. Duxbury diagnosed Maisy as follows:
  • Fear related aggression (lunging, barking, growling only -- no bites) to unfamiliar dogs and certain unfamiliar people.
  • Resource guarding - directed towards the cats.
  • Generalized anxiety - increased sensitivity to environmental stimuli, exaggerated startle response, hypervigilance, long recovery after arousing events.
The main component of the treatment plan was, as I’d hoped, medication. Dr. Duxbury prescribed paroxetine (also known as Paxil). She said she’s had really good results with paroxetine for dogs like Maisy, and felt that it would be the best choice for her given her particular set of issues. The only downside to paroxetine is the dosage- Maisy will be taking 8mg a day, and it generally comes in 10mg tabs. Since that would be very difficult to split accurately, it will need be ordered from a compounding pharmacy, which increases the cost. (Of course, the upside to that is that it will be salmon flavored, which will make it much easier for us to give!)

Dr. Duxbury didn’t have any further suggestions for types of behavior modification. She said that about the only thing I haven’t tried is BAT, which she didn’t feel would be helpful for Maisy (although she didn’t rule it out for the future). She said that I should continue to do what I’m doing, including my classes with my current trainer, Robin Sallie.

She did have some suggestions on how I carry out the behavior modification. These suggestions are relatively small changes to how I do things, and probably things Robin has told me to do a million times before (in fact, I actually asked her if she’d talked to Robin in advance, it sounded so much like her!). Despite being fairly minor revisions to our training, I suspect that they will, in conjunction with the medication, make a huge impact on Maisy. Because of that, I’ll dedicate a separate post to the topic.

Anyway, Maisy will start her medication as soon as it arrives from the pharmacy. We probably won’t see any changes in her behavior until she’s been on it for 4-6 weeks, so she’ll have a recheck with Dr. Duxbury in about 8 weeks. At that appointment, we’ll discuss the medication, the dosage, and whether or not we want to add a second med to the mix (something which Dr. Duxbury said may be needed for Maisy). While I don't believe Maisy will ever be "normal," I am pretty excited to see how this will help.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Behavior Logs

When you schedule an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist at the U of M, you’re asked to do a number of things. First, there’s a 12 page history form, which I found both frustrating (I don’t do well with rating things according a numerical scale), and perplexing (Is Maisy my best friend? Does she understand me better than anyone else in the world? What are they hoping to learn about us by asking these things?). You also have to get video of the problem behaviors, and while I thought this would be the hard, but ended up with nearly an hour of footage within two days. But the most difficult task, at least for me, is completing a behavior log.

The idea seemed simple in theory: every time Maisy showed a problematic behavior, I was to note the date, the circumstances, who was around, where we were, what she did, and what I thought caused the behavior. Since I love charts and checklists, I mocked up handy chart in Excel and printed it out.

Filling out the chart was difficult, though. I knew which behaviors I wanted to track, but underestimated how tricky it is to categorize some of the things Maisy does. For example, where’s the line between being startled by something reasonable and overreacting? How large must the reaction be, or how often must you see it, before you can write down that she was jumpy?

I also didn’t realize just how often she engaged in weird and potentially troublesome behaviors- I quickly ran out of room on the chart I’d printed up and had to revise it. Besides, should I list each individual jump, or is it better to capture the number of instances in a set amount of time? And of course, what exactly is “normal” quirky and what is “bad” quirky? Which things are worth writing down, and which are inconsequential?

I ended up with a lot of data, and even then, I know I didn’t capture everything. I don’t mean the fact that I couldn’t write down what I didn’t see, while I was at work or while I was asleep. I found that I’m so used to Maisy’s odd habits that I took them for granted. I saw things that I’d never really noticed before. And even then, things still slipped past me; it wasn’t until the last day of charting that I realized, hey, maybe carrying around a stuffed bunny head and whining every night for five minutes isn’t the most normal behavior.

Despite the difficulties, the behavior logs revealed some very interesting things about a dog who I thought I knew very well. After reviewing my logs, I’ve refined the way I describe her, I’ve learned things I didn’t know before, and I’ve begun to see patterns in her behavior. This is just an overview of what I learned:

Maisy is better described as “restless” than “jumpy.”
A lot of what I had previously described as fear was less about being startled by something and more about being unable to relax. For example, during a 45 minute nap one day, there were 11 times that Maisy lifted her head and looked around for up to two minutes following a soft noise. The longest I saw her remain resting during the week was 15 minutes. Maisy just can’t tune out environmental stimuli the way normal dogs can. Yes, she does have moments where she’s startled by something (legitimately or not), but more often, she’s just having trouble tuning out normal things.

Maisy wakes up frequently during the night.
I kept the log on my bedside stand, which is a good thing, because in the mornings, I’d look at it, read my barely legible notes, and think to myself, “I do not remember that happening.” But indeed, she woke me up growling or barking multiple times a night. Considering the fact that she’s so restless during low-key times of the day, this really isn’t that surprising. Still, I’m amazed that I didn’t remember it in the mornings. And hey- now I understand why I feel so tired all the time.

Maisy’s relationship with our cats is far more complicated than I realized.
I was even more surprised that she has so many cat issues. I knew that she does some resource guarding towards them, but I never thought much about it. Those cats are relentless in their quest for food, so I wasn’t surprised that Maisy needed to fend them off from time to time. But I didn’t realize that this behavior has carried over to “disciplining” the cats when they’re naughty. I have no idea if that’s what she’s actually doing, but that’s sure what it looks like. She will rush at the cats and nip them if they do something wrong, by which I mean, stuff that we’ve yelled at them for in the past like scratching furniture and jumping on the counter.

Maisy’s leash reactivity tends to happen when the other dog is already retreating.
I was surprised by how often Maisy’s reactivity happens after the fact- eight out of eleven documented instances happened after the person/dog was leaving, not as they were approaching. (I was surprised that she had so many instances of reactivity, too, but then I realized almost half were deliberate set ups in class so that we could capture video. Still- there were a number of small reactions that I probably wouldn’t have thought much about if it weren’t for the fact that I’m paying such close attention.)

Those first two things really confirmed that this appointment is the right thing to do. Maisy is clearly on edge much of the time. If the veterinary behaviorist recommends medication, I will have no objections to giving it. Given her restlessness, and given the fact that I documented 43 instances of barking or growling over very minor or undetectable stimuli, it almost seems inhumane not to give her some chemical support.

The behavior logs also helped me see some training opportunities. For example, there is a lot I can do to promote a more harmonious relationship between Maisy and our cats now that I know it’s a problem. The logs have also given me a nice baseline. I wish I had them from a year ago, back when we were first starting the hardcore behavior mod work. I’m glad I’ll have some basis for comparison in the future.

All in all, keeping a behavior log, though challenging, was incredibly eye-opening, and I highly, highly recommend that any of you with “quirky” dogs keep a log for a week or so, too.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? (And Does Maisy Have It?)

This is what puppy-hood was like. Endlessly.

Maisy has never been a “normal” dog. Most of my pictures of her as a puppy have motion blur, and not just because I have a cheap point-and-shoot. She just never slept. At three months, she became overly upset at the appearance of a soda can in the bathroom. And when she took her CGC test at eight months, the evaluator wrote on the form, “seems a little nervous.”

“Little” was an understatement. Although Maisy is generally a very outgoing and curious dog, she is also very cautious and worried about new experiences. I know this sounds contradictory, but to a certain degree, I think this is normal for many reactive dogs- they feel conflicted about what’s going on around them, and react accordingly. But Maisy sometimes seems even more conflicted about things. For a long time, I simply thought she was “quirky,” but when a friend shared a handout on Generalized Anxiety Disorder with me, I began to think differently.

So, what is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)? It is when a dog consistently overreacts to things, is more active than would be seen in a normal dog, and is excessively vigilant to its surroundings. The key here is the extreme nature of the dog’s reactions; these reactions will be seen even when there isn’t a “truly provocative stimulus.” Further, there is rarely a pattern to the things that cause this overreaction. For example, if a dog overreacts only to thunderstorms, it may still be anxious, but it would not be diagnosed with GAD.

Dogs with GAD are typically wary of things or startle at things in a way that seems out of proportion with the actual stimulus. Even when a reaction seems to be justified, the reaction is still more intense than what would be expected. They are often very light sleepers who awaken easily. They may be destructive, but there’s no true pattern to their destructiveness. They might have some general reactivity to unfamiliar people or places. Physically, they may demonstrate regular vomiting, diarrhea, itchiness or rashes.

Does Maisy have GAD? Well… it sure sounds like her. Incredibly active? Check. Overreacts to things? Check. Vigilant about her environment? Check. She is definitely a light sleeper, and she certainly startles often. She had some of the physical symptoms as a puppy. But other things don’t fit the diagnosis. For example, she’s never been destructive. While Maisy has always demonstrated a lot of caution with new objects, she’s actually pretty friendly and interested in meeting most new dogs and people.

I don’t know if she actually meets the diagnostic criteria for GAD. GAD is considered a diagnosis of “last resort”- most anxiety can be categorized in some other way, such as separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia. Still, she is anxious in general, so in order to resolve this mystery, Maisy has an appointment next week with Dr. Duxbury, one of only 51 board-certified veterinary behaviorists in the US and Canada.

I am both excited and nervous about this appointment. Dogs with GAD do not easily learn to ignore the things that upset them, and as a result, medication is often needed. I don’t know if Maisy needs medication, but I’ll be honest: I think I am approaching the limits of my abilities. Maisy has improved incredibly in the year-and-a-half that I’ve been doing behavior modification with her, but she still seems so uncomfortable in her own skin sometimes. So, even though I’m not crazy about the idea of medications- I trend more holistic most of the time, after all- I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t the kindest thing I can do for her.

(Note: the handout, and this post, is based on Dr. Karen Overall’s Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals, 2nd Ed..)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Training Tuesday

I want to play the relaxation game, Mom!
If you won't set up the crate, I'll figure out how to get in myself!

Relaxation Protocol
Maisy and I continue to work on the Relaxation Protocol. Although I haven’t been quite as consistent about it as before, we’re still doing it several times a week. Our progress has slowed down a lot, though: we’re still on Day 5. This is a hard one, especially the task where the dog remains calm while you walk to an entrance and touch the door knob. For the first three days, Maisy stood on her hind legs to peek out the top of the crate when I touched it. I celebrated mightily the day she finally remained lying down.

Despite the fact that she’s remaining lying down for the duration of the day’s protocol, she still doesn’t seem relaxed. Well, to be fair, she never really seems relaxed, but she isn’t even faking it right now, either: she’s not lying her chin on the ground, she’s not rolling onto her hip, and she’s not taking the treats gently. My big question right now is whether we should continue on the tasks of Day 5, or if we should work on an easier, earlier day for a bit… any thoughts from those experienced with the protocol?

Crate Duration
The lack of relaxation during the protocol seems to be carrying over to the crate duration exercises. While we had been making rapid progress for awhile, we’ve currently stalled out. I do want relaxed behavior, not just patience. Currently, we’re working on 15 minutes’ duration, with a treat at every three minutes, but I think I need to either cut back on the duration, or increase the treats. Or both.

Well, Maisy definitely understands the poke behavior, but it’s coming out sideways and backwards. I should have seen that coming, I guess.

Last week, we were in the waiting room of the vet clinic when two large dogs suddenly came through the doorway. This surprise caused Maisy to lunge at them, growling and barking for a good 10 to 15 seconds. Although it’s rare that she actually goes over threshold, she did this day. Anyway, during the middle of this reactive episode, she suddenly rushed back over to me, poked me very hard, and then rushed back to bark once or twice more.

I guess that’s progress?

The other main thing we’ve been working on for the last couple of weeks is Treibball, which is a relatively new sport in which the dog herds large balls into a goal. Since Maisy’s heritage includes a herding breed, I was excited when I learned of a way she could use her natural instincts despite my lack of livestock. Even better, I’m taking a Sunday morning class with someone interested in Treibball, too!

This week, we’ve been working on the first step: sending Maisy to a target, where she automatically lies down. It’s going well so far, and she’s figured out what I want her to do. Now I need to start adding in distance. I’d like to be able to send her to a target 10-20 feet away in the next two weeks, but I’m not sure I have that kind of space in my house.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happy 4th Birthday, Maisy!

From this:
Picture taken one day after her three-month birthday.

To this:
Picture taken today at Afton State Park.

Friday, October 1, 2010

2010 Goals: Third Quarter Update!

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I just love it.

Goal: Complete the relaxation protocol.
Progress: As you already know, Maisy and I are rocking the relaxation protocol. We don’t do it every day, but we probably work on it at least three out of every four days.
Looking Forward: We will definitely continue to work on the relaxation protocol for the remainder of the year. It’s not so bad once you make it a habit.

Goal: Increase Maisy’s physical exercise.
Progress: We continue to take regular walks, although we still only hit about half the days (we walked 60% of all days this period), which is pretty pathetic. There have been some legitimate reasons- I was in a car accident at the end of June, neither of us can tolerate the heat, we had to take a week off following that run-in with the loose dog a few weeks back- but they feel like excuses. Still, it’s a huge improvement over a year ago.
Looking Forward: It will be hard to complete this for the year, because we are now entering into the Cold Season. On one hand, I’m looking forward to winter (fewer loose dogs and children), but it does make it harder to get up the motivation to go for a walk.

Goal: Develop novice obedience stays.
Progress: Oh, oops. We haven’t worked on this at all.
Looking Forward: And, I’m not sure that we will accomplish this next quarter, either.

Goal: Improve heeling so we can perform a novice obedience heeling pattern.
Progress: Last quarter, I noticed a tendency for her to go wide, so I’ve been working on reinforcing her when she comes in closer to my leg. I’ve been working a lot on right-side heeling, and she’s done really well with this.
Looking Forward: I need to work about turns and the figure eight since she still lags on that. I’d like to get “switch” (the cue to move to the right side) down a bit better, too.

Goal: From heel position, hit proper front position on the first try.
Progress: We haven’t worked on this much, if at all.
Looking Forward: Probably won’t, either.

Goal: Develop jumping skills for a recall over high jump and directed jumping.
Progress: I’ve done a bit of jump work here and there, and I’m pleased that in a new class last week, she was able to do a recall over high quite well.
Looking Forward: I anticipate on working on this some more in class.

Goal: Reduce ring nerves.
Progress: Definite progress here. I was surprisingly relaxed at the MMBC trial at the end of July.
Looking Forward: I probably won’t go to any trials for the rest of the year, so I won’t have any opportunities to work on this.

Goal: Complete ARCH.
Progress: Not much, although we did get 15 points in Level 2B.
Looking Forward: There definitely aren’t any opportunities to work on this any more this year.

Goal: Get one leg towards a CD (any venue).
Progress: None. Maisy and I did go to a CDSP run-through in July. We wouldn’t have qualified, but it was a good experience anyway.
Looking Forward: Again, we probably won’t have the opportunity to complete this goal this year, and I’m okay with that.