At a recent social event, an acquaintance who knows I have something to do with dogs said a bunch of very wrong things to me about her own dog. “My dog is a psycho!” she said. “She’s scared of her own shadow! I have to drag her out of the house to go for a walk sometimes! What should I do about that?”
I hate to hear anyone denigrate their own dog – especially when it’s based on the dog being fearful, of all things. Since I don’t really know this person, and couldn’t yet gauge whether she was serious about getting help for her dog, I initially responded with a vague, “Poor sweetie! She needs some help! How long has this been going on?”
The woman, not yet knowing whether I might have any concrete advice, probed a bit further. “She’s been getting worse and worse for months – it’s been maybe a year since it first started,” she said. “So, what do you think? A different kind of collar? A trainer?”
Since she had persisted to this point, I addressed her a bit more directly. “I would definitely recommend looking for a trainer who uses force-free training methods and is experienced with behavior modification,” I told her. “But you should also make an appointment with your vet, because there may well be a physical problem that’s leading to your dog’s reluctance to leave the house – and even if there is not a physical problem, you may need a veterinarian or even a veterinary behaviorist to prescribe a medication to help your dog.”
“Medication?” the woman asked, frowning. “Like what?”
“It depends,” I told her. “There are several different classes of medication that can affect behavior and each class has different indications. There are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs…. If your vet doesn’t know a lot about these medications, she can give you a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. Fear-based behaviors tend to improve fastest when addressed with both medication and behavior modification.”
Unfortunately, my conversation partner had heard enough. “Are you talking about stuff like Prozac?” she asked. When I nodded, she went on dismissively, “People have gone way overboard with all these drugs. Prozac for dogs? Ridiculous!”
“Actually, I’ve seen some incredibly dramatic transformations when dogs were medicated for their chronic fear or anxiety,” I said – but I could tell she was done with the conversation. “Well, thanks,” she said, “but I’m not going to drug my dog. She’s just being a diva!”
It was on the tip of my tongue to retort, “But it’s okay to drag your dog, instead?” But I didn’t. Keeping that poor, scared dog in mind, I smiled and got a business card out of my wallet. I handed it to her and said, “If you need help finding a trainer in your area, let me know; I probably know someone who could recommend someone good. Just keep in mind that dogs who behave as if they are afraid most likely really are afraid. You’ve likely heard the expression, ‘They are not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time?’ It’s wonderful that you have noticed she’s having a hard time, and want to get her some help! Just make sure that the help is kind, and takes her fear seriously…”
Medications that can help relieve a dog’s fear or anxiety enough so that they can learn and progress past their fears are so valuable, so capable of helping a dog make a major behavioral breakthrough – I have no idea why their mention is so frequently met with skepticism or hostility. I can only guess that it’s a holdover from similar attitudes about their need by humans. But as someone from a family with members who suffer from bipolar disorder, major bouts of depression, chronic anxiety, and eating disorders, I have a difficult time thinking of behavior-altering medications as anything but literally life-saving. If a dog’s daily Prozac keeps his anxiety level low enough to allow him to be leashed and picked up without biting his owner every single time, yes, it’s a life-saving drug for that dog. If another dog’s Xanax means the difference between living peacefully with the family’s other dogs and cat instead of constantly exhibiting aggressive behavior in an attempt to increase her personal space, then yes, it’s a life-saving drug for that dog (and possibly the other family pets, too).
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll ask one of our veterinary contributors to write a new article about the use and value of these life-saving drugs. And in the meantime, if you are curious, here are some past articles where we’ve discussed them before.