My dog Baxter died last week. At fifteen years and nine months old, he had reached the end of his time. He was the canine equivalent of a human nonagenarian. But, still.
No matter how expected, the loss of a loved one always delivers a sucker punch to the gut. It knocks the wind out of you and leaves a cavernous hole. When I come home to the empty mat by the garage door where Baxter always waited for my return, I feel his absence. When I’m doling out food for one dog instead of two, I feel it. When I’m chopping cucumbers for a salad and, out of habit, drop the ends on the floor for Baxter (whose longevity quite possibly was related to his voracious consumption of vegetables), I feel it. And when I see his unoccupied bed in the corner when I wake up in the morning, I feel it.
My nine-year-old Aussie Freddie also feels it. Herding dogs need jobs, and his was to shepherd Baxter around our property to make sure nothing untoward happened. Baxter once killed a bunny, and instead of partaking in the hasenpfeffer feast, Freddie circled the carnage barking while Baxter gleefully eviscerated his prey. Whenever I let them out, Freddie body blocked Baxter to control his access to the yard . Now he stands on the deck looking back, waiting.
I’ve heard some people say they would never have a pet because they couldn’t bear the pain of losing it. But protecting yourself from strong emotions, like sadness, only sets you up for more problems in the long run because experiential avoidance prevents you from learning you can withstand the inevitable pain and difficulty of living. And, by too carefully protecting yourself from feeling bad, you also risk limiting the full range of human emotional experiences–like joy and love–that makes life worthwhile.
So I’m embracing my sadness. I’ve made Baxter’s picture the lock screen 0n my phone so I can remember him when I text or send an email. The lump in my throat comes up every time. I welcome it.
I discuss this question so often in my practice—and have so frequently considered blogging about it—I had to scroll through my archives to see if I’d already written a post on the topic. But, apparently, it only existed in my mind.
I’m prompted finally to address the issue of medication because I attended an interesting discussion the other day about a book titled Does My Dog Need Prozac? Everyone in the group, including me, has a fearful dog (my Australian Shepherd Freddie, as I’ve mentioned before, is tightly wound and “reactive” to other dogs, people unknown to him, and the television). We talked about how to help our sensitive pets be more comfortable in the world while at the same time learning to accept them as they are rather than being disappointed when they don’t behave like TV dogs. Come to think of it, this attitude of acceptance would make it a lot easier to be content with children, spouses, friends, and colleagues who don’t quite meet our expectations, either.
Given the title of the book, the conversation eventually turned to the use of medication to help ease reactive animals’ fears. According to the animal behaviorist who moderated the discussion, people are as reluctant to medicate their anxious canines as they are to consider pharmacological treatments for themselves—although she encounters, as I do, less resistance to so-called “natural” remedies, such as herbal compounds and vitamin supplements. (I’m always puzzled when someone who is adamant about not taking medication will ingest an uncontrolled, unregulated substance, however natural it may be. After all, poisonous mushrooms and hemlock are natural, too. But lethal.)
My position on medication is flexible. I’m more than happy to try a course of CBT sans meds if someone comes to me with that preference. The research suggests that CBT alone can be as effective as a combination of medication and CBT together in treating anxiety. and I’ve certainly seen many people benefit from CBT interventions without the help of a prescription. Medication alone, on the other hand, is not as effective. It may lessen discomfort, but it won’t resolve the patterns of avoidance people develop—and often become consumed by– to cope with their distress.
Here’s the rub. If anxiety is off the charts, a person (or dog) won’t be able to think clearly enough or stay in a triggering situation long enough for tolerance and habituation to take place. So medication can be very helpful in dialing down the arousal enough to facilitate the behavioral practice crucial for success.
I doubt animals feel stigmatized if they need to take Prozac (though their owners certainly might). But many humans I’ve worked with are ashamed, or see themselves as weak, if they can’t white-knuckle it through without the aid of a pill. Despite advances in modern neuroscience, culturally we’re still stuck in the last century when it comes to psychiatry, seeing mental disorders as failures of will or character flaws rather than disturbances of brain chemistry.
I personally have nothing to gain from recommending a course of medication. I can’t even prescribe it. But I believe in doing what works best—for people and for pets. And sometimes that means using all the tools we have at our disposal, including pharmacology, to make the process of coping more manageable.
[For the record, we did try Prozac with my late Golden Retriever Calvin, who suffered from separation anxiety and compulsive licking. Freddie hasn’t been on any medication because we’ve taken great pains to work with him behaviorally, and he’s responded to the training. In the interest of full disclosure, I confess to having been one of those owners who gravitated towards holistic remedies, such as DAP (dog-appeasing pheromone) and lavender spray. Sadly, none of them worked, so we’re back to plain old desensitization. And lots of dog treats.]
Entertaining can be stressful for me—not because I worry about cooking an excellent meal or making the house look spotless but because our Australian Shepherd Freddie is a handful when strangers are on his turf. And to him, everyone except the very immediate family is a stranger with dubious intentions.
Recently our neighbors were over for dinner. As usual, Freddie barked. A lot. I gave him a bone to chew and sent him to his crate to quiet him. After awhile, he’d settled enough for me to let him out to lie by my feet at the table.
Dogs are very put off by direct eye contact. They find it threatening, especially if they’re fearful, like Freddie. So I always instruct visitors not to look at him.
But telling someone not to do something often has a paradoxical effect. Just think about the last time you told yourself not to eat dessert, or not to check your email, or not to send a text to someone you desperately want to hear from.
So of course as soon as I told my neighbor, “Don’t look at him!” he immediately turned and locked eyes with Freddie.
After the frenzied barking had subsided and Freddie had gone back to his bone, I was able to think clearly enough to realize my approach had been all wrong. Instead of saying, “Don’t look at Freddie” I should have said, “Look out the window” or even, “Close your eyes!”
The idea of replacing one action with another is a behaviorial strategy used to break habits. Substituting an undesired behavior (such as nail-biting, smoking, hair-pulling, or skin-picking) with a benign one is using a competing response to short-circuit the habit.
An effective competing response should be: 1) readily available, 2) inconspicuous, and 3) incompatible with the undesired behavior. For example, someone with trichotillomania (hair-pulling) might keep a fidget toy on the desk to use while working at the computer at home but might prefer to clench her fists to ride out the urge to pull at work. Or a smoker trying to quit might chew gum instead.
Trainers use competing behaviors all the time to stop dogs from barking and jumping up. When Freddie and I are out for a walk and see another dog across the street, I tell him to “Heel” and “Watch me” to divert his attention and keep him from going into overdrive. When he and Baxter greet me on my return from a day at the office, I throw toys for them to fetch so they won’t get muddy paw prints on my work clothes.
Come to think of it, I should try the “Watch me” command the next time we have company for dinner. Unaware I’m talking to the dog, the guests will look at me instead of making eye contact with Freddie. Problem solved.
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