I’m having one of those synergistic moments where I keep bumping into the same topic everywhere around the intertubez–even on blogs and pages that aren’t immediately related to the topic. That topic being the use of medication, specifically for dogs, specifically for anxiety, specifically-specifically about how they should be an absolute last resort after years of training has proven ineffective. As the steward of Calvin, the medicated Beagle-ish seen above relaxing through thanks to the wonders of Trazodone, I have feels about this. And with the disclaimer that I am not a veterinary or behavioral professional (although I am besties with a vet tech and I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express a time or two, just saying) my feels are as follows:
If you have allergies, you take an antihistamine. Yes?
Or if you have acid reflux, an ulcer, or the like, you take a Proton Pump Inhibitor or an H2 suppressor. Right?
And if you’re one of the 20% of Americans (as of 2010) reportedly taking medication for an anxiety or behavioral disorder, you take your meds and probably expect Judgy McJudgerson’s to shut their fat faces about the fact that you take medication for a medical condition. Correct?
But you expect your dog to manage a medical condition without medication because somebody told you it wasn’t a medical condition so much as the fact that your sweet little puppy is actually a brutal dictator who keeps a copy of Mein Kampf stashed beneath his pup-r-pedic bed and if you just showed him who’s boss and took him for longer walks he would be normal. In other words, you have a chronically stressed out dog? It’s your fault and you’re doing it wrong and your dog is LAUGHING AT YOU every time you turn your back, and he’s calling all his puppy friends and telling them what a sucker you are because he totally rules this roost, he says, as he kicks back on your couch and puts his feet up on the coffee table.
No seriously. I had a trainer once tell me that that was basically what Karmann was doing when she barked at squirrels. Kicking her feet up. Owning me. That’s another story, though.
Ok, so look. The above makes a few assumptions, chief among them being that you have a chronically anxious dog and you’ve worked with him and you meet his physical needs and he’s been to the vet and you’re at the point where everyone is sort of scratching their heads and making up back stories for why your dog is so awfully awful and averse to learning and normalcy. It assumes you’re at the point where maybe a vet that you trust has thrown down the M word for your consideration and you’re like, “Yeaaaaahhhhhhh ummmmm . . . anti-depressants are an absolute last resort for my dog, because he’s a dog and, like, I mean, HE’S A DOG and that seems weird and, like, my family is going to laugh at me and buy me a Cesar Milan book if I tell them the dog is taking an anti-depressant.”
And if you’re at that point, can I just say, no shame. Seriously. I have been there, and a teensy little part of me still fights going back there. It is counter-fucking-intuitive in our culture–that condemns human beings for taking human medication to help with anxiety and other mental health problems–to accept that not even your dog can pull himself up by his bootstraps.
But here’s the thing. Stuffy nose? Decongestant. Infection? Antibiotic.
Anxiety disorder? Anxiety medication.
Some people can’t deal on their own–they need help to get them to a place where they can learn and adopt better approaches to various situations. Why is it so hard for us to extrapolate that such a condition can occur for some dogs? And further, that when such a condition occurs in a dog, why is then so difficult to make the leap and medicate for it? Karmann has Addison’s Disease, I don’t refuse to give her prednisone and cross my fingers that more rigorous training and better exercise will somehow force her adrenals to do their job, so why would I apply the same logic to Cal’s anxiety issue and wait tentatively for his brain chemistry to correct itself just because we walked three miles today, instead of two?
The most common undercurrent that my spidey-sense picks up in all these medication-as-last-resort discussions is not the long-term effects of medicating a dog (and hey, that’s legit no matter the species), it’s the weird insinuation that medicating a chronically anxious dog would somehow be cheating. To which I have only one response, ever, and that is: you know that’s not how it works at all, right?
I didn’t just chuck a Prozac down Cal’s throat and *WHAM!* instanormal.
I don’t give him a Trazodone before a particularly stressful event and then proceed to bring the pain.
Administering behavioral meds will never allow you to abdicate your exercise/training/need-meeting responsibilities to your dog. Giving her a valium doesn’t instantly turn her into a bored housewife who eats two martinis for lunch, and it won’t make the Rolling Stones write a song about her, either.
It allows them to learn.
That is all. The right med or cocktail of meds doesn’t turn your dog into slug, or suck their energetic joy. It allows them to learn new behaviors where they would otherwise whip themselves into such a frenzy of fear and anxiety that they would be incapable of learning those coping behaviors.
Yesterday I took Cal to the vet. I gave him a full dose of Trazodone before we went, knowing that the vet is a horrifying place for him. Just about a year ago I did the same thing–took Cal to the vet–without the Trazodone.
Last year, he couldn’t be examined without a muzzle. He barked, and freaked out, and was, as he has always been since his arrival, seriously under weight.
This year, he’s gained 7lbs and is finally at a healthy weight, and although he was clearly nervous, he remembered to look to me for help navigating the situation. No muzzle was needed, and he willingly approached both the vet and the tech, before AND after the exam, and took cookies from them.
Six months ago, a full dose of Trazodone would have bought us enough time to remove ourselves from a situation he couldn’t handle. Yesterday, Cal powered through a 1/2 hour vet appointment. The amount of meds didn’t change; the meds cannot in any way be held singularly responsible for the difference between six months ago and yesterday. What made the difference is their ongoing deployment in a (positive, non-putative) training routine to help him learn how to deal with stressors. The meds helped him learn.
They helped him learn.
They helped him learn.
For me, overcoming the, “What do you mean, my dog needs Prozac?” issue was a struggle since I, myself, don’t like taking meds for anything. I would prefer–and wouldn’t we all?–to have a perfectly healthy dog who doesn’t need any sort of pharmacological intervention. But I don’t have that. I have a dog who needed more help than any sort of training, alone, could provide, and I had to decide between giving him that help, or doing nothing and hoping that his truly awful interaction with the world around him would just magically disappear and, more importantly, not cause him continued pain and stress. In my mind, failure was not admitting that he needed that extra help. Failure would have been to refuse that help and continue allowing him to lead an uncomfortable, perhaps even psychologically harmful, life. When you look at it like that, the choice shouldn’t be a difficult one.
Your dogs comfort and safety shouldn’t be an inverse moral judgement on your choices as a dog steward. And if somebody tries to make it that, tell them to fuck off to the shrink and get their own prescription, because they’re clearly a miserable soul.
I hear Trazodone works wonders.