Monday, February 25, 2013

Why Punishing Anxiety Doesn't Work

I have asthma. This causes my airway to swell and narrow, making it more difficult for oxygen to reach my lungs. In turn, I become short of breath, my chest feels tight, and I often wheeze or gasp for breath. It’s an awful feeling.

I have a friend with a heart condition. She has poor circulation and sometimes her heart rate increases and her blood pressure drops. The end result is light-headedness and occasional fainting spells.

I have worked with people who have diabetes. You’re probably familiar with this disease in which the body doesn’t regulate insulin well. Sometimes, the body will either have too much or too little blood sugar, and the person can be rendered confused, disoriented, or even unconscious.

My dog has an anxiety disorder. Her brain chemistry is not balanced, and the neural pathways of her brain are abnormal as a result. When something happens to overload those pathways, she may become hypervigilant, pace, or growl and snap at people.

What do all of these things have in common? They are medical conditions that are the result of a physical problem in the body. What’s more, these conditions manifest themselves in behavioral terms. Whether it’s gasping for breath, fainting, or becoming aggressive, the behavior is not a conscious decision made by the sufferer.

I want to be clear on this last point: none of us choose to act the way we do as a result of our respective problems. Believe me, I hate having an asthma attack, and when one is imminent, there is little I can do to prevent it. I definitely do not choose to have trouble breathing- it just happens. Likewise, my dog is not weighing out her options when she encounters a situation too stressful for her to handle. Her brain releases a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters which causes her to react in a certain way.

This is one of the many reasons I prefer to avoid the use punishment when dealing with dogs with behavioral problems. Just as we wouldn’t hit people in diabetic comas in order to stop them from having low blood sugar episodes, we can’t stop a dog from having a panic attack by using a collar correction. While it’s true that some behavior problems are just that- behaviors- others can be traced back to a medical problem like imbalanced brain chemistry, pain, or some other disease process. It is exceedingly difficult to know the cause of so-called misbehavior in the heat of the moment.

I’m not saying that we should just shrug our shoulders and allow things to continue as they are. If we do, there is a risk of death. Left untreated, I could stop breathing because of my asthma. My friend could go into cardiac arrest. And my dog could be euthanized if she bit someone.

Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to prevent those behaviors. I take inhaled steroids twice a day and avoid chemical scents. My friend takes beta blockers and avoids activities proven to cause problems. Diabetics often take insulin and monitor their blood levels. And my dog takes medication, receives ongoing behavioral training, and I help her avoid stressful situations.

What’s more, each of us have things that we can do when exposure to triggers are unavoidable. Whether that’s following a carefully thought out exercise regime, a well-balanced diet, or a behavior modification protocol, there is a lot we can do to cope with an unpredictable world.

If something happens to push our dogs over the edge, we need to step in and help them. Trying to train through the situation is foolish; it’s like lecturing a diabetic on the importance of a proper diet when their blood sugar drops. It’s too late for that. Glucose for a diabetic or a rescue inhaler when I have an asthma attack is not a viable long-term strategy, nor is it prevention. It’s a response to an emergency situation. When our dogs growl, bark and lunge, or otherwise “misbehave,” that’s an emergency, too. Get them to safety.

We owe it to our dogs to help them deal with stress. Seek out a professional, whether it’s a medical appointment with their vet or a behavioral evaluation with a qualified trainer. Come up with strategies that will prevent problem behaviors from occurring. Equip them with the tools that will help them in the moment. Know how to respond in a behavioral emergency.

And above all- remember that you can’t shock a diabetic’s pancreas into working. So why would you do it to your dog?


Juniper said...

Very nicely written. May I print this out to distribute to clients?

Tegan said...

Excellent post, great parallels. Welcome back!

Crystal (Thompson) Barrera said...

Joanna, email me to discuss this, okay?

Anonymous said...

Great post! I missed your blog & am happy to see you back. :)