Adoptee Arrives With “Baggage”
A family’s struggle to rehabilitate an anxious, aggressive dog pays off.
There is absolutely no doubt in our minds that gentle training and holistic care (plus lots of love) works better than conventional care. Sassafras, one of our Golden Retrievers, proves this again and again.
In December 1998, my husband, Lane, and I adopted an eight-month-old Golden who had been abused and was about 20 pounds underweight. We weren’t really looking for another dog at the time – we already had four! – but she needed a home and once we met her, we had to take her home. She was one of the sweetest Goldens we had ever met, and we are big fans of the breed. We named her Sassafras, which we shortened to Sassy – and you’ll see why!
At first, Sassy got along fine with the rest of our pack, which included an elderly Vizsla; an even older Weimaraner; Daisy, a six-year-old Golden Retriever-Labrador cross; and Jasmine, a Golden Retriever who, at one year old, was closest to Sassy in size and age. All of the dogs are spayed females.
However, it didn’t take long for our newcomer to begin displaying some extreme symptoms of separation anxiety. We couldn’t understand this, considering Sassy had so many playmates, and such a large, dog-friendly environment. We spent a small fortune replacing all the things she chewed through while we were at work – new drywall and carpeting in the house, and even new siding on the outside of the house.
I had read about medications used to treat separation anxiety, and asked my local veterinarian if he would prescribe Clomicalm, which was advertised as being just the thing for this troublesome behavior. The vet was unfamiliar with the drug, but agreed that it sounded like just the thing to help Sassy until she was settled into our household.
Clomicalm (clomipramine hydro-chloride) is made by Novartis Animal Health. Its mode of action is not sedative; as a “tricyclic antidepressant,” it works by helping two neurotransmitters work more effectively in the brain. In humans, the underactivity of these chemicals has been implicated in depression and other disorders.
At the time, we weren’t aware that Clomicalm is not suggested as a sole treatment for separation anxiety, but is intended as only one aspect of a treatment program that includes training and behavior modification.
The Clomicalm did reduce Sassy’s separation anxiety; however, it also seemed to make her lethargic and decreased her appetite. We weren’t happy with these changes, but we thought she would improve with time.
Anxiety turns to aggression
Unfortunately, things got worse. Sassy got along with our other dogs just fine, but began having more scuffles with Jasmine, and the fights got progressively worse. One night in August 1999, Sassy tore up Jasmine badly; our veterinarian had to stitch up some ugly wounds.
The veterinarian suggested that we try another medication, Elavil. It, too, has side effects, but we thought we owed it to Jasmine to give it a try. Unfortunately, the Elavil only aggravated Sassy’s symptoms of lethargy and decreased appetite.
Loyal to our other dogs, some of our friends suggested that we get rid of Sassy. That might have been an option for some people, but we loved Sassy and were committed to finding a solution that we could all live with in peace and safety. Finding out that Sassy had been rejected by another adoptive family firmed our resolve.
Trying to buy time, Lane and I decided to fence off a part of the yard just for Sassy, so the dogs would be separated when we were gone.
We also contacted the veterinary school at the University of California at Davis, looking for a behaviorist who might be able to help us. (We live in Elko, a very small town in a remote part of Nevada; there aren’t any animal behaviorists around here!) They instructed us to videotape our dogs in all sorts of situations: playing with us in the yard, at the groomers, feeding time, etc.
After we sent the tape away, I scoured a catalog of dog books, looking for books and videotapes about canine behavior problems. I bought several that I had seen mentioned in Whole Dog Journal, including books by Dr. Ian Dunbar, Dr. Nick Dodman, and Dr. William Campbell. There are lots of opinions, but all of the books were helpful in some ways. Dr. Dunbar’s videotapes on biting and fighting to be especially helpful.
Then we received an answer from Dr. Melissa Bain, the behaviorist from UC Davis. She had seen quite a bit more in our videotape than we imagined! For example, we taped (and saw) the dogs playing; Dr. Bain saw Sassy struggling to assert her dominance on the rest of the pack (especially Jasmine) with little effect.
Also, Dr. Bain noticed that my husband and I failed to impose much in the way of “pack” rules on our dogs. She suggested that we start asking for our dogs to follow a lot of rules, all of which would help establish us at the top of the pack hierarchy, and Sassy as next “top dog.” We had always treated the dogs as equals – and we had bent over backward to be as undemanding as possible toward Sassy, because we felt sorry for her. At Dr. Bain’s suggestion, we began setting more limits on the dogs’ behavior, and began actively supporting Sassy’s status as top dog. Sassy was the first dog to be fed, petted, given a treat, let out the door, and so on. Because getting up on our bed had always been something to fight over, we banned the bed for both Sassy and Jasmine, establishing safe spots for them on either side of the bed; they were compelled to stay on their own cozy beds with a six-foot leash fastened to an eyebolt in the wall.
Dr. Bain also suggested that we use muzzles on both Jasmine and Sassy when they were together. She recommended basket-type muzzles, but neither dog tolerated them very well, so we tried soft fabric muzzles. Jasmine continued to show a lot of distress wearing a muzzle, but surprisingly, Sassy seemed perfectly comfortable wearing her fabric muzzle, which enabled her to eat grass, drink water, and even carry a toy around – but she couldn’t bite Jasmine. We found that as long as Sassy couldn’t bite, Jasmine wouldn’t bite, so we stopped using the muzzle on Jasmine, and all was well.
We also used the head halter made by Gentle Leader on both Jasmine and Sassy. The halters enabled us to control the dogs without a struggle while increasing their exposure to each other. We would walk the dogs back and forth past each other, rewarding them for calm behavior, and increasing the distance between them when one started to get stressed out.
In case of emergency, if another big fight did break out, Dr. Bain recommended that we use a product called Direct Stop, a citronella spray that comes in a pressurized can. We keep a can handy at all times, and have used it several times to break up a fight (and once when a stray dog attacked Sassy when we were walking). It has worked every time – without anyone getting bitten.
These things all contributed to making an immediate difference in reducing conflicts between the dogs. Because things were going so much better, we stopped giving Sassy the Elavil; she had lost so much weight. However, she immediately became more aggressive again. One step forward and two steps back!
It was about this time that I remembered an article about flower essences that I had read months before in WDJ. I went through my back issues and found an article about flower essences (March 1999), and a “case history” that mentioned an aggressive dog who had become more calm when given a flower essence remedy.
I called Chamisa Ridge, a company that sells flower essence remedies and other herbal preparations for pets, and asked for a catalog. They carried an herbal preparation that sounded like just the thing for Sassy. “Temperamend” is a valerian mixture made by an English company, Hilton Herbs, and it has proved to be a lifesaver for Sassy. She really responded to the herbal mixture, and unlike when we were giving her sedatives, she didn’t seem lethargic, just relaxed.
Around the same time that we were experimenting with the Temperamend, I decided to call Rafaela Pope, a telepathic animal communicator mentioned in another article in WDJ. Our consultation was interesting, but the most useful part was that Pope mixed up a custom blend of flower essences for Sassy – and this mixture had an immediate positive influence on the dog. We later ordered a custom blend for Jasmine, which seemed to help even more.
Today, neither dog seems to need the flower essences, but Sassy still gets the Temperamend; we had stopped it for a period of time, but she had a fight not long after. It’s worth it to us to keep her on it. We recently had a complete exam and blood panel tested to make certain that the herbs were not having any ill effect; she is gloriously healthy.
Hard work pays off
It’s been a year since the big fight when Jasmine was hurt. I’m happy to report that things are just about normal around here. Recently, for the first time in a year, we have begun to take the muzzle off when the dogs are playing with us outside. We carefully supervise their activities, and so far, there haven’t been any steps backward.
It’s taken a lot to get to this point, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. No single product or training method has worked all by itself; we’ve had to use a little bit of this and a little bit of that to get where we are today. This has been a tough year, but we think it’s been worth all the trouble.
-By Tina Diedrichsen
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