Sometimes, even when you do everything to prevent it, your dog will develop a phobia. Or possibly an adult dog came to you with a phobia already well established. Counterconditioning and desensitization are invaluable for getting past these fears, but what if they’re not enough? That’s where medication can drastically improve the quality of life for you and your dog, and human shame about mental illness tends to get in the way.
As someone who needs mediation to control my own anxiety, I know firsthand how big of a difference medication can make when your fears are irrational and out of control. I’ve never needed to use medication for my dog’s anxiety until very recently. Biscotti, my two-year-old Border Collie/Lab/Who Knows mix was the least likely candidate for a phobia in our house, he’s incredibly confident and he loves everything and everyone. But, shit happens, and a couple of weeks ago he was apparently outside when lightning struck a tree right outside our fence. When we left he was completely unconcerned about thunderstorms, and when we came home he was a shivering, drooling, pathetic, mess. He went from choosing to lay around outside in the rain to being afraid of half of our yard, cloud cover, rain and completely terrified of thunder.
Unfortunately, this happened at the beginning of a week of daily scattered thunderstorms. Just like any other behavior, the more opportunity a dog has to practice a fear the more entrenched it becomes. He barely had time to calm down from one thunderstorm before another one was rolling in. He was so fearful of cloud cover that he wasn’t able to enjoy his normal exercise even when it wasn’t storming, and since exercise is an important component of dealing with anxiety, it was further damaging my ability to help him through this.
First, I tried pheromone spray and an anxiety wrap, and while those helped with mild storms, they weren’t enough to get him through more intense thunder. He was too fearful to eat or engage with us, and after only a few days he was getting worse. I decided medication was in necessary. My vet prescribed a temporary course of Xanax and his relief was almost immediate. Without prompting, he went outside and ran around under cloud cover, and while he’s still uncomfortable during storms, it’s possible to distract him with music and food and chews.
Many people feel that this is taking the “easy” way out, but that’s silly. My dog was suffering. Safe, effective medication is readily available to alleviate that suffering. It’s no different from giving him medication to prevent heartworms or fleas. His anxiety was so intense that counter-conditioning and desensitization were not possible because frequent and intense thunderstorms were ruining all of our progress. In my opinion, it’s irresponsible not to give my dog the medication he needs to get back to enjoying his life as quickly as possible.
I’m still working on counter-conditioning, both by giving him very valuable treats, chews, toys, cuddles, and anything else that I can think of to make real storms a positive experience, and by pairing positive experiences such as car rides with recordings of thunder played at a very low volume. Eventually, I’ll slowly begin to increase the volume and intensity of the recordings. The medication is what makes this possible, because without it he would be so afraid every time it stormed that the counter-conditioning would be completely overshadowed.
In Biscotti’s case, the medication is temporary. There is every reason to believe that he’ll eventually be comfortable during storms again, but with some dogs that’s not the case. Poor early handling, genetics, or other mystery factors can result in a dog that just has an anxious temperament. Separation anxiety is one phobia that almost always requires medication to treat, and frequently requires extended or even lifelong anxiety medication. It is not necessary for the dog or the owner to suffer through this, but the stigma of mental illness even applies to dogs. Owners actually feel guilty for considering medicating their dogs instead of feeling good about getting their dogs the medication they need to have the best possible quality of life. Some vets will prescribe sedatives instead of anti-anxiety medications, and that’s unsatisfactory to their owners and can actually make the problems worse. Sedatives are scary when you don’t understand that you’ve taken a pill that makes your body not work, and when paired with something you’re already afraid of, they’re terrifying. Owners with anxious or phobic dogs have to be proactive about finding a vet who’s skilled and experienced in treating anxiety and willing to find a solution that works for their dog. It may take a few different medications to find one that works, but that doesn’t mean that medication isn’t effective.
So many dogs are afraid of things they absolutely can’t avoid and they suffer because of it. Some dogs even hurt themselves by forcing themselves out of crates, or swallowing unsafe items, or engaging other dangerous coping mechanisms. Because overwhelming anxiety makes it incredibly difficult to learn a different behavior it’s often impossible to train without medicating your dog and everyone suffers when that doesn’t happen.
If you’ve been working with your anxious or fearful dog and they’re just not making progress, medication can be a big game changer. Their quality of life and the relationship you have with your dog can only benefit from doing what’s necessary to get past anxious fearful behavior and often that’s medication. Don’t feel guilty for taking care of your dog.